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What is Sexy? Victoria’s Secret and the Glory of God

Dr. Mark Liederbach, associate professor of Christian Ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently gave a provocative and insightful lecture at SEBTS.  Speaking with both skill and precision, Dr. Liederbach attempted to answer the simple, but challenging question, “What is sexy?”

By situating the concept of sexiness within the larger framework of biblical theology, he endeavored to define sexiness in more than simply physical categories.  Man is both body and soul, he urged.  These two dimensions, therefore, must inform our understanding of sexiness.

Now while I certainly applaud his careful inquiry into this delicate subject- which was nothing short of scholarly, and while I certainly agree with the many indictments he leveled against our sexually charged and all too often indecent culture, I nevertheless found myself wondering if he hadn’t stretched the term “sexy” a bit too far.

Now before I explain why I think this is so, let me emphasize again how much I appreciated this lecture.  I’ve been thinking about it for three days now.  Needless to say, it got me thinking.  And for that, I’m extremely grateful.

Now what about the question of sexiness?  For Dr. Liederbach, the physical component cannot be ignored.  To do so would be to flirt with Gnosticism.  So far so good.  However, he seemed to want to “redeem” the term sexy by re-defining it, or infusing it with greater meaning by considering the concept in the light of a fully-orbed Christian worldview.  How would the Scriptures have us think of sexiness?  This led him to argue that since man is both body and soul, made in the image of God, then sexiness should have a spiritual component.  Sexiness can’t (or shouldn’t) be reduced to something like long feminine legs.  Rather it includes such things as wisdom, fruit of the Spirit, male leadership, faithfulness, etc.  Basically, godliness should be sexy, as understood in a more biblically holistic sense.  He would even say, for example, regarding the aged,

“Indeed, even when time or circumstances take their toll and a body is reduced to a wheel chair or a bed of infirm, these inner qualities that are more and more conformed to the image of Christ are rightly perceived as incredibly sexy to the one who understands a biblical view of sexiness.” [This is taken from his paper]

Here’s what I’m thinking.  I think the term sexy is fairly fixed.  It’s, oh, let’s say 60-70% physical in nature with a 20-30% non-physical component.  And regarding the 20-30% non-physical, well, it’s an attribute, or an aggregate of attributes, that typically point back toward the physical somehow.  Somebody like Sean Connery, for example, even well into his older age, has been thought of as a sexy man.  Now it’s true that he’s a good looking man, but the sexiness is also connected with his mystique, his manliness, the way he carries himself.  The same is true with George Clooney.  He’s a very handsome man, but there’s also something about his manner that many, if not most, would call sexy.  But that sexiness isn’t godliness.

Conversely, let’s consider a very godly, 90 year-old woman.  I think we know that the term sexy isn’t fitting here.  In fact, I could refer to this older woman as being godly without fear of reprisal, but what would happen if I referred to her as sexy?

Sexy is the adjectival form of sex.  And sex, or sexiness, is primarily physical in nature, or an attribute that is alluring in nature, or tending to provoke sexual interest, which is, of course, physically oriented.  This is why we talk about someone having a sexy dress, or a sexy blouse.  Lingerie is sexy.  But culottes?  Not as much.  There’s a real discernible difference.  And our normal usage of the term sexy understands such boundaries.

Here we might want to say that a young Christian man who is looking for a wife should find godliness appealing and attractive and of great value, but what he’s going to find sexy is largely physical in nature.  She is, of course, a whole person, but are there not descriptive words that focus on particular aspects of a person?  Quite so.  In the same way that we wouldn’t try to redefine being cool or a jock as being holy (though one could certainly be cool or a jock and be holy), so we should be wary of trying to define the word sexy as, say, altruism.

So at the end of the day, I think we should just leave the term sexy alone.  No need to try to make it mean fruit of the Spirit.  In other words, let’s leave the entry for “sexy” in Roget’s thesaurus alone.  That’s probably best.[1]

But I leave it to you to decide whether and to what extent I’m wrong.

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[1] That being said, here’s a complicating factor.  Should an unmarried Christian man find an attractive and licentious woman sexy?  In one sense, he will recognize that she is sexy.  But in other sense, he should be repulsed by her character and find her quite unattractive.  Here we see how a person’s character plays a pivotal role in the idea of sexiness as a quality associated with attractiveness.  So the question arises: Shouldn’t the unmarried Christian man find a good looking and godly woman attractive or sexy?  Surely so.  But here again I cannot help but think that the word “sexy” is stretched beyond its normal limits, and even leads to troublesome results, when it is too closely linked with the fruit of the Spirit.

Merely consider the closing words of Dr. Liederbach,

“Thus, if there is a higher and better definition of sexy than the one paraded around in our culture, then even if it is at first hard for us to see or accept, we must trust the Maker of all good things, and seek to alter our perspective in light of His. After all He is the One who declares in Psalm 16:11 that in His presence there is fullness of joy and in His right hand there are pleasures forever.  If this verse is true than it must be God’s definition of “what is sexy” that is actually the most tantalizing.  And what God finds sexy, we ought also to find sexy.”

I understand his intentions here, but I’m sorry, the last sentence in that paragraph isn’t helpful.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. My gut reaction is that it is more than a bit outlandish but I didn’t actually listen to the lecture. Perhaps, if you like, a different word might be coined to describe the attraction and the pleasant nature of the kind of attraction that gives us butterflies in the pit of our stomach and makes our hearts race in terms of a Christian world view. But trying to redefine and twist around and torture the word sexy seems silly to me.

    April 9, 2012
  2. timbloedow #

    The starting point is to determine how the word fits into a Biblical worldview. Too many Christians don’t assume that there is a distinct Biblical worldview, so we waste so much time trying to “baptize” non-Christian ideas. I think that’s what’s going on here. We try to baptise words that define non-biblical and even anti-biblical categories such as “adolescent” and we even abandon words we should take back (or at least not use in their current realm), such as “gay.” Even a word like education, we take out of its biblical context which includes discipleship, and character development, then it’s much easier to rationalise as a Christianly acceptable option the age-segregated classroom as normative. The point is that we always have to be asking early on if a word or concept is part of a Biblical paradigm, and if it isn’t, then we should not feel the need to work with it. I think that’s the case with “sexy.” We have Biblical words to define the positive attributes of men and women, and we have Biblical words to describe the negative/sinful attributes, and “sexy” doesn’t doesn’t add clarity to the Biblical terms, but it can obscure the seriousness of negative characteristics.

    April 10, 2012

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