This article originally appeared at Baptist News Global on April 20, 2023.
When The Gospel Coalition and The Keller Center scapegoated Josh Butler due to his article about sex and the church — an excerpt taken from his Beautiful Union book they previously hailed as “the Protestant magnum opus on sexual ethics we’ve been waiting for” — many people wondered if Butler and his book would go gentle into that good night.
But as it turned out, Butler chose to rage against the dying of the light by doubling down, while others came out of the woodworks to help him rehabilitate his image and his book.
Butler first went on Preston Sprinkle’s “Theology In the Raw” podcast for a discussion with biblical scholar Sandy Richter and speaker Brenna Blain. While Richter explained to Butler how he was misunderstanding ancient Near Eastern scholarship related to the temple and sexuality, Blain admitted her disapproval of the article TGC published, wondered why TGC chose to feature that particular chapter, but ultimately said the chapter was totally taken out of context from the entirety of the book, which she continued to highly recommend. Sprinkle also voiced his continued strong affirmation of Beautiful Union.
During their discussion, Butler shed more light on the editing process his book went through.
“We, the publisher and I, had valued sensitivity in this area,” he said. “We ran the content through a wide variety of perspectives — single people, divorced people, women, people of color, same-sex-attracted people, people with backgrounds of sexual abuse — all gave really valuable input on the manuscript. And when all that was done, the publisher actually hired an outside professional female editor who specialized with sensitivity reviews and a personal story uniquely suited to give sensitive input on the book. And she loved the book, big picture. And we took all her recommendations and tweaks.”
Given the high praise so many evangelical leaders gave the book initially, and given the thoroughness of its editing process, supporters of the book believed perspectives against it could change if we simply heard more from Butler.
Hearing more from Butler
But that naïveté was exposed as the book released, filled with problematic quotes centering semen, and with an article this week by Butler where he theologically processed the ethics of contraception. Butler’s article was written as a discussion with the Catholic theologian Christopher West as a “further exploration of some broader ideas” from his book.
“A condom dams up the ‘river of life,’ preventing its life-giving waters from reaching the opposite shore.”
In part of this week’s article where he offers an argument against contraception, Butler says: “A condom dams up the ‘river of life,’ preventing its life-giving waters from reaching the opposite shore. With a diaphragm, a barrier is placed at the most intimate point of contact, preventing a full reception of the gift within the generative holy space of the womb. Birth control intentionally denies a fruitfulness that points forward to the future hope of the kingdom, in the eschatological abundance of the new creation.”
What is this river? Butler explains in Beautiful Union: “The river does have one more advantage though: It’s liquid. Life moves forward through liquid means. The man’s procreative presence goes forth in intercourse to water the soil of the woman’s womb. Inversely, the woman moistens in the exchange to make way for this aquatic channel between them. They are like two sides of a canal opening, to share this river of life.”