To put it mildly, modern Western culture is obsessed with sexuality. Evidence of this obsession can be easily found in the saturation of sexualized images and messages seen at every turn. Many things may divide Americans, but marketers and advertisers have learned that sexualized images are tolerated across divides: “sex sells.” Sex appeal is used to sell everything from cars to chewing gum. Sexuality is pervasive in entertainment, explicitly described in song, prominently displayed on television and in movies, and fueling a disproportionate amount of Internet traffic in the form of pornography.
Unfortunately, this obsession should not surprise us. In fact, it is the very thing which God knew would happen in our current cultural circumstances; none of this is really new. It is simply the most recent manifestation of a continual trend in humanity toward turning sexuality into a god: “sexolatry,” if you will.
Paul aptly described this tendency in Romans 1:18-32. He set forth the path by which the pagans of his day had reached their current level of depravity. The path began with the denial of God as the One True Creator God: they should have perceived His power and divine nature in the creation, but refused, becoming vain in their reasoning, having darkened minds and hearts, believing that they had found divinity in the things which God had made (Romans 1:18-23). In this way the pagans were giving the glory and honor due to the Creator to creatures. As a result, God gave them over to the lusts of their hearts to commit all kinds of forms of sexually deviant behavior (Romans 1:24-27).
We can see this tendency manifest in the historical record as well. Statuettes have been discovered of women with exaggerated sexual characteristics; they may provide evidence of early belief in fertility goddesses. Early farmers made connections between the generative and procreative power of human sexuality with the generative power in agricultural fecundity; to this end, ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman cultures maintained prominent fertility gods and goddesses and often ritual sexual behavior in an endeavor to obtain the favor of the gods for a good harvest. For these reasons Judah thought that Tamar was really a cult prostitute (Genesis 38:21); Israel was strictly warned against having male and female cult prostitutes (Deuteronomy 23:17-18); Ezekiel was shown Israel’s depravity by seeing Israelites participating in the fertility rituals of Mesopotamia with Ishtar and Tammuz (Ezekiel 8:14). Temples devoted to Aphrodite/Venus, the Greco-Roman goddess of love, were infamous for the sexual behavior which took place therein.
This takes place on account of an understandable pattern of logic. Humans do not cease being made in God’s image because they no longer honor God as their Creator; people are searching for something greater than themselves and for relational unity. Yet they do not wish to honor God appropriately and look among the things that have been made. And what, above all behaviors, most closely represents relational unity than sexual intimacy? And so it happens: the physical shadow which God has given mankind to enjoy and which points to the full spiritual intimacy which man is to enjoy with his God and with each other in Christ is instead given divine honors (Genesis 1:26-27, 2:24, Matthew 19:3-6, Ephesians 5:31-32). The good is thus made absolute, the definition of idolatry (Galatians 5:19).
In a world which would deny its Creator, at least some of the good things which He has made will be held up as the absolute purpose and end in life. Denying God as God almost invariably leads to sexolatry, and while sexuality is good and appropriate in its proper place, it proves a harsh master whom can never be satisfied and who never truly satisfies as hoped when made into a god. We do well to honor God as God, and enjoy human sexuality in the covenant of a man and his wife as He intended, and by all means seek to avoid sexolatry!
Ethan R. Longhenry