Review: “Sex & Money”
Sex & Money: Pleasures That Leave You Empty and Grace That Satisfies
Paul David Tripp
Crossway, 2013, 224pp., cloth, $22.99
With its cover [I refer to the US edition, but the British one is equally garish] boasting a barcode adorned with the hot pink print of lips (the marketing guys were clearly given fairly free rein on its promotional video as well) and its opening salvo of gripping and occasionally graphic vignettes of obsessions with aspects of our sexuality and solvency, Tripp’s new book certainly sets out to grab the attention. Indeed, so vivid and suggestive is the cover design that – because I was reading it while travelling internationally – I felt constrained to provide my own blank cover. I was slightly concerned that introducing myself as a pastor and then pulling out the volume in question might have caused fellow-travellers to make snap judgements and cause my good (in attempting to review the book) be spoken of as evil (presumed indulgence in the vices condemned). Of course, that conundrum also demonstrates the perpetually pressing nature of these topics.
The core thesis of the book is that our hearts are prone to a moral insanity centred in sex and money – these are the heart-idols celebrated in our own culture (and others) and effectively entertained and even sometimes worshipped by too many Christians. Although this contention is rather assumed than proved, I cannot imagine that many believers would be inclined to argue against the circumstantial but overwhelming evidence. Concerned about insanity, addiction and glory, Tripp begins by describing what he calls “the dangerous dichotomy” – the tendency to separate the spiritual and the secular which needs to be countered by “an everything-is-spiritual-because-everything-is-worship view of life” (37). This ‘all-of-life-as-worship’ meme is not one I am comfortable with, not because I wish to restrict our relationship to God to particular hours or environments and then live as if the Lord did not exist at all other times and in all other places, but because I think it tends to devalue the church’s particular and specific acts of worship (after all, one could argue that if all of life is worship then nothing is really worship) and because it tends to collapse the proper and necessary distinction between the sacred and the secular and/or profane. That said, Tripp’s approach is far more nuanced and careful than some of the more crass and dismissive versions that bounce out of too many pulpits and off too many pages, and the point is well taken: all of life must be lived before the eye of God. That means that the heart is the first and vital battleground.
Our author then goes on to deal with sex and with money, in each case seeking to explore, demonstrate and remedy the moral madness that would elevate our physical pleasures and our material gains to the throne of the heart. Sex and money are not, in themselves, evils, but can be readily turned to evil ends. Our sexuality has to do with worship, relationship and obedience, and must not be sacrificed on the altar of lower pleasures. Our wallets and purses must be governed by God and not by our own appetites responding to ever-present enticements that too often dominate our planning and spending.
Toward the conclusion of the book, the two threads begin to twist more closely together once more, as Tripp focuses on the sense of immediacy so characteristic of this world, with its concomitant blindness to eternity. Developing what he catchily calls “practical me-istic presentism” – self-centred living without regard for eternity, my own personal God-complex – he seeks to re-orient the heart toward the King eternal, the immortal, invisible, only-wise God.
Overall, this volume drives effectively at the perennial problem of heart idolatry. The writing is pointed and pastoral, offering a humble transparency on the part of the author as he makes plain that he is with his readers in this fight. As a modern take on the issue, although I might have differed slightly in his analysis of the problem, I was in fundamental sympathy with his diagnosis and prescription. At the same time, I would have appreciated a little more depth and development in that prescription: Tripp shows us strategies for the heart-battle but could, perhaps, have offered more in the way of tactics. Some readers will not appreciate the starkness of some of his examples, though I hope that this would not be because they refuse to acknowledge that the problems are real. There are also some abrupt shifts of tone throughout the volume, as the author moves back and forth between the main flow of his material and the examples so much in vogue among authors who are counsellors; these shifts at one or two points are so violent as to make one wonder if there has been a printer’s error (of which, sadly, there are a good number, unusually for this publisher).
This, then, is a useful book, probably more helpful among those less likely to buck at some of its ripe straightforwardness, or wrestling with these sins in their more aggressive and open forms and so in need of a more definite alert. That said, it is sometimes the more subtle and less apparent forms of these idolatries that entwine about the heart and which need to be thoroughly rooted out, and in that respect the basic lessons of this work need to be well-heeded by all. Potential buyers might be well-served by flicking through it or reading an excerpt first to make sure that they are happy with its pitch and tone and understand its approach and purpose.