Warning: This post contains a review and discussion of White’s book Eros Defiled. As such it includes some fairly frank discussion of sexual sin and is inappropriate for some younger audiences. The book itself is much more frank than this post and should be read by the discerning and mature reader. White has no desire to titillate but writes with a medical doctor’s frank honesty and clarity about numerous topics which we frequently keep behind closed doors.
I loved Dr. John White’s classic book on depression entitled the Masks of Melancholy and so when I saw a copy of Eros Defiled in a used bookstore for $.50, I had to buy it. It is a small volume – 169 pages in length – but one that is packed with honesty, controversy, and humble thought and reflection upon the dilemmas of human sexuality and the Christian.
This is one of those books that feels like a surgeon’s knife cutting through the soul. At turns White comforts, exposes, and confronts our deepest beliefs and natures. It is the pain which one both cringes from and at the same time recognizes as the conduit of healing. These are the sort of books I love to read – the ones that challenge me to grow and respond, that tear apart my false beliefs and force me to admit my inability and God’s ability.
White’s book is divided into three parts: “Sin, Sex & You”, “Sexual Sins”, and “The Church & Sexual Sin.” In the following sections I’ll provide a brief overview of each along with some running commentary, but let us begin with a few challenging quotations from White’s introductory materials:
- “Nothing so liberates a man from the grip of sin as the intoxicating discover that he is freely accepted and forgiven. We have an altogether unscriptural fear that easy forgiveness makes a man think lightly of sin. God’s forgiveness is not ‘easy,’ it cost the death of his Son. It costs the sinner the admission of his own guilt and helplessness. Mediated by the Spirit through a helping brother or sister, a grasp, a dawning awareness, of that forgiveness sets a man free to be holy.” – Introduction, pg. 10.
- “Pleasure, as C. S. Lewis once pointed out, is God’s invention, not the devil’s.” – Introduction, pg. 10.
- “We do not marry in order to copulate. If this were so, marriage would indeed be ‘legalized prostitution.’ Marriages founded on physical sex quickly pall. We marry to make an alliance of mutual help and service, as an expression of love. Intimacy in such a context is the seal of commitment.” – Introduction, pg. 12.
Part I: Sin, Sex & You
In Chapter 1: Sex, Science and Morality Dr. White looks at the three lenses through which we can view sexuality: science, society (law), and religion. In general, science is the most general in what it considers normative and acceptable behavior (as it is based upon statistical analysis rather than moral rules), society is generally more restricted, and it is in religion that the strictest confines for appropriate sexual practice are outlined.
In Chapter 2: Your Urges & How You Experience Them Dr. White attempts to separate our physiological urges from sin. That is, he explains physiological urges as being part of God’s natural created order, which can be brought forth at the wrong time due to the presence of sin in the world – but that are yet given of God. He suggests that the physiological should not result in guilt or shame, but the decision to act inappropriately upon these desires.
Part II: Sexual Sins
In Chapter 3: Sex on a Desert Island White tackles the subject of masturbation. He suggests that while masturbation should be avoided that the guilt and shame which have been associated with this behavior is of much graver concern and causes much more severe damage than the behavior itself. White notes the silence of Scripture upon the topic and uses general principles from Scripture to derive his position on masturbation – finding the text itself to be silent on the matter.
In Chapter 4: The Freedom That Enslaves the subject of sexual freedom is discussed – particularly in the context of fornication. White suggests that the creation of rules around premarital sexual behavior have been misguided. That a hand hold can be erotic and thus that one must aim at not creating “rules” demonstrating how far is acceptable behavior but rather addressing the heart intents of the individuals involved in a relationship. White is firmly opposed to premarital sex, yet at the same time expresses a deep concern that the focus on premarital sex is unhealthy – that there needs to be a more general concern for the sexual integrity of individuals in romantic relationships.
Chapter 5: The Scarlet Letter addresses two topics, first that of marital infidelity (adultery) and secondly that of divorce and remarriage. While at times Dr. White’s positions are less strict that those found in evangelical and conservative Christianity, in this case we find his beliefs more strict than those currently held in most areas. To Dr. White remarriage after divorce is never acceptable (though he leaves open that he may be wrong in this matter). White takes time to explain what leads to the infidelity within marriages and also why he believes that remarriage is not an option for the Christian after a divorce.
Chapter 6: Two Halves Do Not Make One Whole contains a fascinating discussion of homosexuality. It is somewhat dated in some areas of terminology and science, but it becomes extremely fascinating b/c of the then-current diagnosis within the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of homosexuality as a mental disorder. White approaches the topic from this orientation. His language is at times cringe-worthy, as the phrases he uses are now generally associated with degrading implication, but it is evident that this is not his intent and that he writes with great compassion for those who have homosexual attractions.
White includes his personal struggle with homosexual feelings and attractions after having been abused as a child/teenager by a Christian mentor and youth leader and in this way brings a deep honesty and integrity to a difficult chapter.
Chapter 7: Deeds Done in the Dark is quite brief but touches on a number of aberrant forms of sexual behavior including exhibitionism, voyeurism, pedophilia, sadism, incest, and necrophilia. He is not interested in providing detailed descriptions of these but instead desires for there to be more compassion within the church towards even those who commit these sins. He concludes the chapter in part by saying, “I have yet a third purpose in mentioning what is so rarely mentioned in Christian books (except the Bible). I want to defend the victims I have been addressing, to defend them from the Christian public. Such people need Christian forgiveness, acceptance, compassion and professional help. We must insist that they get the latter and we must do all in our power to see they get a Christian friend, with whom they can come clean and with whom they can pray, who can be their trusted entree into Christian society. For such men and women, more than any of us, need both the discipline and the support of the church. They need around them people who know them and love them….Christians tend to react altogether inappropriately when they encounter bizarre sexual sin. Their reaction is not to the gravity of the sin. Rather it is that they fear what they cannot understand…Look at the person through the eyes of Christ and not through the filter of sexual behavior that frightens you. The man or woman before you is not a leper. And even if he were, Christ would have you reach out and touch him. This is what Christian love is all about.” (pg. 146)
Part III: The Church & Sexual Sin
This final portion consists of a single chapter entitled “The Discipline That Heals” and discusses the necessity for the church to not only preach truth and provide the sacraments but also to provide godly and loving discipline. Dr. White believes this is an area in which the church is most grievously failing its duties and brings forth the writings of some Anabaptists upon the topic of discipline as exemplary of his own thoughts. It is a challenging and convicting passage of Scripture which convicts us all of our failures to love well – which includes a faithful and loving discipline.
Dr. John White’s book is a bit dated, it was originally published in 1977 which in terms of psychological theory on sexual behavior is ancient. Yet, his sincere searching of the Word, admission of his own faults and struggles, tackling of the then-current science, and honest and heart-felt recommendations make it a book well worth reading. I am not sure I would recommend it as a first read – there are probably more current books on the subject that would be more helpful…but it is a deep read.
It is the sort of book one might want to use in a men’s or women’s group to foster discussion. One does not have to agree with Dr. White’s ideas to be challenged by them to think through one’s own beliefs about human sexuality.
At the same time, Dr. White’s book is certain to upset conservative, progressive, and liberal Christians. Dr. White at turns take positions represent his commitment to personal honesty which will offend all. His controversial comments include on the topic of abortion, appropriate sexual behavior within the marriage covenant, and the origins and drives of sexual behavior.
Dr. John White is a fascinating individual on a personal level. He was a missionary, a psychiatrist, a pastor. He wrote numerous books for InterVarsity Press, a respected and academic Christian publisher. He became associated with the charismatic movement particularly through the Vineyard Churches, something which was a shock and a controversy within his traditional circles. There is an interview, the veracity of which I cannot prove, by Julia Loren available here. As with Eros Defiled, one will find some topics insightful, but there is much which will be deemed strange and somewhat frightening by many evangelicals. I particularly want to highlight that in one section of the interview he repudiates this book – feeling that it was far too much based in psychological theory. I am still researching Dr. White, his works, and his life…I’d like to understand more about the eventual positions he adapted and so on – and whether he did repudiate this volume…I know it is still available from IVP…