October 15, 2007
A new novel explores sex and abstinence in the evangelical subculture.
They shall know we are Christians by our love, or in some cases by our sex. Evangelicals are not only marked by conservative political views, anti-evolutionist beliefs and Ten Commandment fights. We are getting a reputation for sexiness. (Visit our past post "Making Sunday Sexy," for another example.)
The most recent witness of our sexiness is Tom Perrotta, a novelist whose newest book, according the New York Times, is not just about sex, but about evangelicals and sex.
With his latest novel, "The Abstinence Teacher," out Tuesday from St. Martin's Press, Mr. Perrotta returns to the anxious and striving contemporary suburban landscape that he has made his literary home, this time tackling the evangelical movement, which has produced chastity events like the one in Wayne.
But why is he interested in the evangelical movement on abstinence? Surprisingly, it is not primarily because he wants to mock the Christian mantra, "Save sex for marriage!" (though there could be some of that). Rather, he seems to be irresistibly intrigued with the evangelical glorification of sex.
Raised Roman Catholic (he has since lapsed), he was exposed to the self-abnegating form of religion that the evangelicals, he said, had turned on its head, particularly in regard to sex. "Catholic theology is that sex should be for procreation," he said. "But this evangelical culture really embraces orgasms and pleasure. I was really interested in that strain of Christianity that didn't want to fight American culture and that's a vibrant, prosperous and actually kind of sexy culture."
How he came to discover this sexy culture is even more interesting, and even more indicative of the growing presence of evangelicalism in the public's eye.
Mr. Perrotta said the idea for the novel emerged from the 2004 presidential election, when evangelical voters were widely credited with swinging the result for George W. Bush.
"I was surrounded by people who kept saying, ?Who are these people?'" recalled Mr. Perrotta, who has lived in Belmont, Mass., for the past eight years with his wife and two children. "I did feel somewhat inadequate as a novelist, just like I'd missed something huge happening in the country. I really did set out to kind of investigate that world."
[Perrotta] said he had no idea how an evangelical Christian audience would respond to the book. One character in particular, the aggressively pious Pastor Dennis, seems in some respects to fit a typical liberal perception of an evangelical preacher. But Mr. Perrotta said he actually admired the character's integrity and authentic caring for Tim. Above all Pastor Dennis is not a hypocrite, Mr. Perrotta said. "Like a lot of secular Americans after that first wave of evangelical televangelists crashed and burned, like Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Faye, there was this sense of, ?I know who those people are, they're just a bunch of hypocrites,'" he said. "It took me a long time to understand that a lot of them were completely genuine.
What is especially curious about Perrotta's observations is that it appears that our biblical glorification of sex might prove to be an unexpected entrance point for engaging a sex-obsessed culture.