'What do you think about sex on the telly?'
'Well I don't mind, but my wife keeps knocking the set top box on the floor.'
Would you be happy to tell a joke like that? Are you comfortable reading such a joke in The Baptist Times? (1) I do hope so. Although I must confess that the first time I heard it I was a bit taken aback. The reason it got to me is that it was told from the pulpit by a visiting preacher at my church. Those sitting around me clearly found it funny. Some were equally clearly embarrassed and not at all sure that they should have found it funny. The noise that went round the congregation was half-laugh and half-splutter. But what got under my skin was the fact that I felt uncomfortable. I was annoyed that I felt awkward.
Thinking about it later I was convinced that there was nothing wrong with the joke - it wasn't gratuitous, it fitted in with what the preacher was saying and I could think of no reason why we shouldn't be able to tell such jokes from the pulpit. After all, sex for many (though not all) of us is an important part of life and, let's face it, sex can be really funny. So why not have a laugh about it in church?
I have long been convinced that there needs to be a third way (nearly said position ... snigger) when it comes sex, one that avoids the false alternatives of the voyeuristic obsession which is shot through so much of our culture and the uptight embarrassment which is still far too common in our churches. But we will never be able to find that third way until we learn to talk about sex, and laugh about sex in an open, frank and, yes, far more earthy way. The alternative to prurience and prissiness is not a buttoned-down, matter-of-fact, coldly clinical approach to sex talk. (The last thing that sex should be is cold and clinical.) No, the alternative is being real, being honest, being human. And that, at least in part, means having a laugh.
I suspect that, as with many of our attitudes in church, when we think we are being Christian by avoiding talking and laughing about sex we are in fact conforming to certain middle-class conventions which often have very little to do with holiness. This confusion of the holy with what is 'proper' can leave us with some skewed values. We end up being more concerned if someone swears than if they are greedy; we are more vigilant about dress codes than about the abuse of power; we are offended by the depiction of sex in film and on TV, but we are blasŽ about the portrayal of violence. Odd.
And we also end up being far too tentative about sex being on the agenda of our sermons, our Bible studies, our prayer meetings and our fellowship with Christian friends. Sex is far too potent a force - both to damage and to delight - for us not to be talking about it. The commodification of bodies, the promotion of sex as mere recreation and the sexualisation of children are all serious causes for concern. It is far too important for us not to be modelling a much healthier and holier approach than we often have to date. But that alternative is not conventional middle class morality with a supposedly Christian veneer.
So despite my initial discomfort I'm glad the preacher told the joke. So glad that I've nicked it and told it myself from a couple of carefully chosen pulpits. Not to get a cheap laugh and not for the sake of causing offence, but in the hope breaking what seems to me to be a decidedly unhelpful and unjustified taboo.
(1) My turn to do a month's worth of comment pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. I don't reckon I'm up to both a weekly newspaper article and a weekly blog post so I'm copping out. With the agreement of the editor I'm going double up and post my BT article. This means that the blog will have a slightly different feel. To chek out the Baptist times as a whole click here