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04/24/2013 12:04 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2013

Adam, Eve and We: The Tensions of Fundamentalist Sexuality

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Two religion professors, Linda S. Schearing and Valarie H. Ziegler, have teamed up for a delightful new book. "Enticed by Eden: How Western Culture Uses, Confuses, (and Sometimes Abuses) Adam and Eve" (Baylor University Press) takes an analytical, often hilarious and occasionally touching, look at the first couple's continuing influence in our culture. What do we learn about ourselves through our appeals to Adam and Eve?

With Kristen E. Kvam, Schearing and Ziegler have already studied how Jews, Christians and Muslims have understood Genesis 2-3. In the interest of full disclosure, I should acknowledge that Ziegler was one of my college professors, a genuine mentor whom I love and admire and the most entertaining classroom teacher I have ever witnessed.

That said, let's talk about fundamentalists and sex. When Schearing and Ziegler look into Adam and Eve jokes, Adam and Eve ads, and the Adam & Eve sex industry, the results are entertaining but perhaps predictable. Low-hanging fruit, one might (shamelessly) say. But when these two scholar-theologians reflect on what Christian people have done to our own sex lives, their insights take a sharper edge, their humor sparkles, and their compassion for real human beings compels. As my all-time favorite rock band Living Colour once put it, "Everybody's fucked up with their sexuality." Indeed.

As a former fundamentalist clinging to the shreds of an evangelical identity, I struggle a bit when Schearing and Ziegler use "evangelical" to describe everything from patriarchal misogyny to online Christian dating to -- I wasn't ready for this -- Christian Domestic Discipine. The authors do recognize debates among evangelicals on matters such as women's duty to obey their husbands and the merits or demerits of anal sex, but perhaps the generalization serves a purpose. It exposes how evangelicals' preoccupation with sexual purity has led to all sorts of unintended side effects.

The book begins with the countless methods some evangelicals employ to establish gender hierarchy among boys and girls, men and women. Naturally, they call attention to bizarre moments, as when superpreacher T. D. Jakes' book on Christian femininity compares men and women to electrical plugs and receptacles: It's just biology, right? We start to laugh when we encounter Princess Bibles for that special little girl. It's hilarious to think that supposedly Bible-based Christians turn to Victorian stereotypes for their cultural clues, images that have nothing to do with biblical values. But then we realize that real girls, just like our daughters, are being told to have tea, do their makeup every day and await a Prince who will redeem their otherwise empty lives. Do we mock or empathize when some authors tell young women to let Daddy fill the role until their Prince Charming really comes, while others describe "deep intimacy with my Prince [Jesus] in my inner sanctuary" (quoted on p. 35)? How did we get from Adam and Eve to "The Little Mermaid" and spiritual pornography?

If dating seems hard, what about Christian dating? Again, Adam and Eve justify everything from abandoning dating in favor of courtship -- as if that were a biblical practice -- to competing visions for online dating. Who won't laugh when a Christian dating expert imagines the chemistry between Adam and Eve as "like nothing you've ever seen" (40)? Schearing and Ziegler investigate the world of Christian online dating, complete with advice columns, diverse business models and divergent approaches to dating ethics. Evangelical preachers encourage men to be the aggressors in relationships. Some castigate unmarried young men for failing to take on adult responsibilities. Meanwhile, Christian women find themselves trapped by the system: preachers insist that submissive women should not take the initiative in dating, but the men won't gather the courage, or the will, to ask them out. What's a good Christian girl to do?

Schearing and Ziegler truly shine in their discussion of Christian Domestic Discipline (CDD). Here I withhold specifics: the book needs to speak for itself. The CDD movement teaches that men need to take charge in the home, and that includes punishing wives who rebel to modest or significant degrees. We're talking spanking here, folks, complete with discussion forums, erotic fiction and special lingerie. The chapter is hilarious -- but Schearing and Ziegler have sat in on the discussion forums, heard the anxieties of real people and identified the sources of pain and redemption in these stories. Just buy the book.

There's much to be said about fundamentalist sexuality and its contradictions -- we'll get there. But fundamentalists don't hold the patent on sexual confusion. This dysfunction runs rampant in our culture. Schearing and Ziegler take a look at the adult entertainment industry, particularly the Adam and Eve empire of Philip D. Harvey that promotes a "sex-positive" outlook. Many Christian readers through the centuries have interpreted Adam and Eve in a sex-positive way, but many others have understood sex as inherently sinful. Harvey himself condemns Christianity for its often negative attitudes about sex. His Adam & Eve network includes adult films, online distribution of sex toys and other products, and brick and mortar stores, and Harvey is deeply devoted to charitable work. Just the same, Schearing and Ziegler pose some tough questions for Harvey and the adult entertainment industry in general. Lots of research suggests that pornography has victims. And despite Harvey's Adam & Eve label, his business reduces the Genesis story to sexuality, as if the story had no relevance for other topics.

Christians should aspire to distinctively faithful sex lives. One look at the magazine rack confirms that we live in a dehumanizing, exploitative sexual culture, and the Gospel has much to say about that. Unfortunately, fundamentalist sexual teaching suffers under the enormous burden of trying to prove its own superiority. As a result, we get the kinds of bizarre sexual behavior documented by Schearing and Ziegler, complete with married pastors publicly bragging about -- and sometimes marketing -- their sex lives. "Save it till marriage," they tell kids, "but when you finally get to it, you should be superior lovers."

I suspect we're asking too much of Adam and Eve -- and too much of the Bible. If we had a time machine, I can promise you one outcome: Modern visitors to the sexual world of biblical cultures would return quickly, expressing both shock and dismay. People in the biblical world didn't "fall in love" and then marry. They bartered for wives, impregnated their slaves and abused their captives. Women's bodies figured into calculations concerning inheritance and male honor, and their sexuality was controlled for that reason. This is why the Bible defines adultery in terms of a women's sexual status and not a man's.

We don't ask the Bible to set up our system of finance or government. We rightly make fun of quacks who market "biblical" diets -- archaeological evidence reveals just how malnourished ancient people were. Why should we turn to Adam and Eve for sex counseling? Instead, the Bible has lots to say about being faithful in all spheres of life, about protecting one another, about mutuality, integrity, service and honesty. Those values endure. We don't need to turn Genesis into a how-to manual.