Book Review: What is the Meaning of Sex?

posted in: Being Human, Book Review, LGBT | 2


In reading widely around the topic of sexuality and gender, a subset of my Masters dissertation (and bigger!) interest in the Doctrine of the Image of God and its application for today, I’ve read dozens (scores?) of books on sex, coming from a range of perspectives and a whole host of angles. A list of my reading list, with some links to reviews, can be found here. Yet I’ve not read many books that deal with the key question of the meaning of sex, and very few that cover (even briefly) the broad spectrum of issues that ‘sex’ throws up. With an honourable mention to Kostenberger’s God, Marriage and Family, I think this recent book by Southern Baptist associate Professor of biblical studies, Denny Burk, is a particularly helpful overview of a range of questions, that also engages with the question of meaning.

Burk is probably best known to most folk as a blogger with an ethical interest, and a history of engaging with Rachel Held Evans (whose book on biblical womanhood I’ve reviewed). Whilst I don’t always appreciate Burk’s tone, and occasionally disagree with his conclusions, his blog is well worth reading, and he is a lively and regular user of Twitter. This usage of modern media translates well into the printed page, with Burk having authored a readable and fast paced – though still theologically deep – book on an important topic.

Whilst some can/have (occasionally right!) accused Southern Baptists of being over-strident on these issues, I was encouraged to find that Burk’s book is actually very winsome, sensitive and pastorally minded. It is unlikely to go down well with folk who have wholly bought into the ideas that he is trying to refute, particularly as Burk helpfully notes at the outset that this book “is about the glory of God… this book is a primer… this book is biblical. It is not philosophical. By that I meant that my primary orientation is the text of Scripture, not contemporary debates about natural law or secular ethical theories”. Further, and most importantly, Burk notes that “this book is for sinners”, and Burk includes himself in this, even as he points to Christ and the Gospel.

There is a little bit of dissonance between the chapter titles and their contents. Echoing the acknowledged influence that John Piper has had on him, Burk begins the title of each chapter with ‘Glorify God with Your…’, and discusses ‘Body’, ‘Hermeneutic’, ‘Conjugal Union’, ‘Family Planning’, ‘Gender’, ‘Sexuality’ and ‘Singleness’. Encouragingly, each of these chapters goes deeper and wider into the topic that the slightly simplistic titles imply, with a firm emphasis on the biblical view rather than accommodation of a/the cultural view. I was particularly encouraged to see chapters on body and singleness – topics so often neglected by evangelicals.

Burk writes with passion, and an obviously wide knowledge of his topic. This is particularly evident throughout the chapters on Gender and Sexuality. Having said this, it is worth noting again that Burk does not write in a vacuum – he is clearly and carefully aware of who might read this book, and some miss-steps that Christians have made in speaking of and about (or around!) sex in the past. Nevertheless, he is confident in a Gospel-saturated, winsomely biblical understanding of sex, which is refreshing in an age when authors who identify as evangelical seem confused on the topic.

In conclusion, then, without spoiling the book, I can honestly say that this is one of the most helpful introductory-cover-everything books on the topic I have read yet. It is up to date and thoroughly researched, fiercely Orthodox but also pastorally aware. I would recommend it as a way into the wider discussion of sex that needs to be had in the Church for the sake of the world, as well as a fine exploration – as the title implies – of the meaning and purpose of sex.

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