By: Michael Aquilina
One day you find yourself holding a newborn. The next day you find yourself responsible for teenagers, and suddenly the questions of dating and courtship – questions that, increasingly, are setting serious Christians apart from the rest of parenting society – become more than academic. This year, my wife and I found ourselves parents of two teens, one boy and one girl. Terri and I knew where we stood on the boy-girl questions. But we also knew that we needed to prepare for the inevitable “why” questions. So we started reading. I’ll discuss the three books we found most helpful.
T. G. Morrow’s Christian Courtship in an Oversexed World (Our Sunday Visitor) is remarkable: It’s a popular treatment, conversational like a magazine column that is at the same time a very thorough and even systematic discussion of sexual morality. In fact, it is somewhat like a Summa. The author engages all the major “relationship” books and fads of the last decade or so (Venus and Mars, etc.) on their own terms, sifts out the good, trashes the bad, and brings every discussion to the best Christian conclusion.
But Morrow writes so well that you hardly notice you’re doing theology. He draws stories from his own dating experience and from his extensive pastoral work as a chaplain for several Christian singles groups. The narratives carry the argument better than any proof ever could. On the question of boy-girl affection, Morrow is a moderate. He seeks to restore affection “to its proper place, to purify it of its sexual connotations.” He rejects the idea that all affection between unmarried men and women is totally depraved. He argues, that affection is normal and good and “it fulfills a human need” created in us by God.
Building on C. S. Lewis, he explains that God gave us attraction to impel us toward true Christian love, which is a complete, lifelong and sacrificial giving of oneself. God gave us human desires so that they might be divinized. Morrow is big on the Song of Songs. Discipline is key. Morrow explains the traditional Christian position, that any extramarital act performed for the sake of sexual arousal is seriously sinful, even if the desire is not consummated. Why? He cites Jesus’ words in Mark 7:21 and Matthew 5:28, which state the case most starkly and simply. He also brings out the natural law argument that consummation is the very satisfaction for which arousal was created.
The difficulty for singles, of course, is that they live in a culture that urges them to satisfy every desire immediately by supersizing their indulgence: “if it’s pleasant, I must gorge myself on it. If we like tennis, we become ‘tennis addicts.’ If we enjoy kissing, we’ll love sleeping together.” Morrow gives very practical guidelines for living in that culture. He even gives singles step-by-step instruction (and very astute cautions) in matters as simple as handholding and cheek-kissing. Morrow’s advice is rooted in real-world experience. A priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., he entered the seminary relatively late in life, after working as an engineer and dating in the usual American way. He experienced first hand the problems, for example, of sharing workspace with the opposite sex, of mismatched expectations on first dates, of discerning “how far to go,” of finding someone (anyone, please) who shares one’s moral sense.
His special focus is on the cultivation of friendship between a man and a woman – friendship that may or may not develop into marriage. He offers insights for each sex on how the other thinks and communicates. He offers ways around the conversational impasses that sometimes stall friendship. He helps both men and women to love the differences that they can’t live with or live without. In fact, parents who are reading Morrow’s book for the sake of their children might find their own marriages improving as a result. Indeed, the concluding chapters are on marriage and how to make it work and make it holy.
Christian Courtship in an Oversexed World covers a wide range of issues, from modesty in dress to the ethics of personal ads. Most helpful are his sections on situational apologetics: the things to say to the uncomprehending. Most necessary is his chapter on “Past Sins and New Beginnings,” because many of his readers will have already been infected by the toxic culture to some degree. He demonstrates that it’s never too late to begin again.
A BACK AND FORTH
John R. Waiss covers much of the same territory as Morrow, but in a radically different format. While Morrow’s book is conversational, Waiss’s is a conversation. While Morrow has written a pop-Summa, Waiss gives us a pop-Socratic dialogue. Couples in Love (Crossroad) is a book-length back-and-forth between a young couple in their twenties, Sam and Margie, and a young priest, Father J. P. As Sam and Margie’s relationship grows more intense, they must confront a number of differences. Sam is Jewish, but his observance peaked and ceased with his bar mitzvah. Sam’s impression of Christian morality is that it’s “negative and strict . . . No sex before marriage. No extramarital affairs. No passionate caressing and kissing outside of marriage.” Margie is an average clueless Catholic who has rebounded to the faith after some years of lapse. She knows premarital sex is wrong, but can’t say why. So Sam proposes that they talk to her minister.
And so the dialogue begins – and it continues over several meetings, several months, taking up event of the intervening days and covering a wide range of topics: erotic dreams, passionate kissing, birth control, masturbation, cloning, pornography, male-female differences, divine vocation, and even breast-feeding. The conversations run deep, as the characters struggle with biblical and philosophical principles as well as their consequences for everyday behavior. It sounds heady, but it’s not. The chapters are always believable as conversations, and that’s a credit to the author, who is a Catholic priest of the Opus Dei prelature.
There is a ring of authenticity especially in the couple’s self-justifications, which range from go-for-the-gusto Americanisms to the very purest of Oprahfications, like this one: “Must sexual love only reflect complete commitment? We’re mature enough to determine the level of commitment appropriate for sex for us.” Over the course of the book, Sam and Margie grow in their self-knowledge and their understanding of one another. Both come as well to an appreciation of created nature and the value of tradition. But I won’t spoil the ending.
How to decide between this book and Morrow’s? I suppose it depends on your reading preferences. But the wisest course would be to buy both. They’re shockingly inexpensive.
GIRL & GUY STUFF
Those two books are enough to form parents for their task. But what about the children? There are lots of books out there that aim to help kids face the facts of life. But the book we liked best isn’t even entirely given over to sex and dating. It’s J. Budziszewski’s Ask Me Anything: Provocative Answers for College Students (Think Books). “Girl and Guy Stuff” comprises the first third of the book (seven chapters), but it seeps as well into the other two-thirds: “Faith on Campus Stuff” and “Hot Stuff.”
Ask Me Anything a collection of the author’s syndicated advice columns, written under the pseudonym “Professor Theophilus.” The persona, like the author himself (he teaches philosophy and government at the University of Texas), is a philosophy prof at a big state university. Once again, we’re looking at the same material: mismatched expectations of young males and females, how to deal with jealousy, how to deal with one’s sexual past, how to deal with an out-of-wedlock pregnancy.
Professor Theophilus answers the questions concisely but completely, in frank, hip language. But his answers are deeply and uncompromisingly Christian. Here’s a snippet from his dialogue on dating non-Christians: “Okay, but what’s better — to date only people it would be all right to marry, or to date people it wouldn’t be all right to marry and just hope that you don’t fall in love with them?” Budziszewski’s perspective is different from that of Morrow and Waiss, as the author assumes an Evangelical readership (and was himself an Evangelical at the time he wrote the book). The biblical arguments here are water-tight. Yet they’re grounded as well in the natural law, which the author always presents in a clear, commonsense way. He assumes a certain level of skepticism and even hostility in at least part of his readership.
So his book works well as an apologia for Christian courtship, but also as a training manual for young Christian apologists — and those who give spiritual and moral counsel. One of Budziszewski’s virtuoso moments is a round-up of common self-deceptions – tricks that young Christian couples play on their consciences. Among the gems in those pages: “Here’s how you know you have a commitment: When you’re married, you have one. . . . Feeling married doesn’t make you married; having sex doesn’t make you married. What makes you married is a solemn public promise in front of God and the assembly.” The third trick on his list is “Not telling yourselves the truth about God’s rules. In the Bible, God forbids all sex outside of marriage. You’ve softened this to forbidding ‘promiscuity.’ Limiting your sexual disobedience to a single person doesn’t turn it into obedience. Neither does limiting it to someone whom you think you would like to marry.”
Though the title defines Budziszewski’s audience as college students, the book would work well for mature high-school kids. In fact, they’ll be flattered that their parents are giving them a book that’s pitched older – and they’ll more likely read a book that’s cast in such hip terms as this. This is too good to be true: It’s even cheaper than Morrow and Waiss’s books. So buy all three. Most Christians who can pass an eye test have concluded by now that the American idea of “dating” just doesn’t work. The popular norm has moved from “making out” (heavy kissing) to “hooking up” (routine rutting). This has made the physical problems – STDs, for example – more manifest, but the spiritual and emotional problems have long been with us, in the gradual decline in purity and now complete disappearance of any common sexual ethic.
The good news is that a small but growing number of young people want no part of it, and an even faster-growing segment of parents want to warn their kids away from it. These books are a great place for us parents – and our kids – to start.
Like the advice you found in the article? Looking for a helpful resource to put in the hands of your teen? Check out How To Find True Love by Dr. Greg Popcak.