elkElk rutting season has just ended in Colorado, and thousands of spectator-filled cars lined the roads of parks and wildlife preserves to watch the show.  I simply had to look out the window: witness this photo I took in my backyard.

Elk are large hoofed mammals—like deer on steroids—that can weigh up to 700 pounds.  For eleven months of the year they hang out in segregated herds of cows and bulls, contentedly munching on grass (as well as the rose bushes in my yard).  In early fall, however, their behavior changes dramatically.  The bulls strut about, stomping their feet in a rumbling display of intimidation, and look for other male elk to challenge.

Through the spring and summer, the bulls have grown spectacular racks of jagged antlers.  Come September, they start jousting with other bulls, at first practicing with head feints and then progressing to serious, antler-clashing combat.  Sound from the collisions echoes through the canyon where I live, punctuated by the bulls’ high-pitched screams known as bugling.

As you might have guessed, the goal of all this activity is mating.  After fighting off younger bulls, the winner takes possession of a harem of fifty to a hundred cows.  Then, for the next two weeks, he exhausts himself in a round-the-clock orgy.

“You and me, baby, ain’t nothin’ but mammals, so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel,” belts out a popular rock band from the 90’s.  The problem with that philosophy—a common view of modern sexuality—is that we humans don’t do it like other mammals.

Elk take no precautions of privacy, acting out their instincts on a municipal golf course or even in my backyard.  Afterward, they don’t give sex another thought for eleven months.  Sex for them is a seasonal, reproductive act and nothing more.  As winter approaches, the bulls lose their antlers, reconvene in herds, and look for more grass to eat.

Humans, like all mammals, experience sex as a powerful force.  But I have yet to meet a hormonal teenager who does it like the elk: fighting for dominance, enjoying scores of conquests in broad daylight, and then setting aside all thoughts of sex for the next eleven months.  Relationship, intimacy, exclusivity, commitment, love—we humans want something more from our sexual experience.

Zoologists puzzle over the oddity of human sexuality, unable to find any evolutionary advantage in sex that does not lead to reproduction.  Like the elk, most mammals confine their sexual activity to a specified time period: once or twice a year, when the female is in heat.  Humans have no such restrictions, and continue to enjoy sex long after their reproductive years have passed.  Why are we so oversexed?  Some scientists conclude that for humans sex represents a huge waste of time—certainly true if fertilization is the only goal.  (The elk demonstrate sex at its most efficient.)

Christians look back to the Book of Genesis, when God presented woman as an answer to man’s deep loneliness.  “They will become one flesh,” says the author, who then adds the telling observation, “The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.”  Sex is God’s great gift.  Yet, somehow, over the centuries Christianity has gained a reputation of being anti-sex.  Outside the church, people think of God as the stern spoilsport of human sexuality, forgetting that God invented sex, in all its strange and exotic varieties across the species.

I mention the church’s attitude toward sex because I believe we Christians bear some responsibility for the counter-reaction so evident in modern society.  Jesus reserved his harshest words for sins such as hypocrisy, pride, greed, injustice, and legalism.  Yet we who follow him use the word “immoral” to signify sexual sins almost exclusively, and reserve church discipline for those who fail sexually.

Perhaps worse, in its prudery the church has silenced a powerful rumor of transcendence that could point to the Creator of human sexuality, who invested in it far more meaning than most modern people can imagine.  We have de-sacralized it, in effect, and along the way our clumsy attempts at repression have helped to empower a substitute sacred, or “false infinite,” in C. S. Lewis’s phrase.  Sexual power lives on, but few see in that power a clue to the One who designed it. 

Ironically, the double-negative in the rock song gets it right: You and me, baby, are not “nothin’ but mammals,” and as a result we don’t do it like others on the Discovery Channel.  Animals do it forcibly, scripted by their genes, at certain times of the year.  Humans cultivate a relationship between consenting parties, best protected in a long-term commitment.  In every aspect, human sexuality encourages relationship.  We get to know, and make love to, not a body but a person.

When sex becomes a mere transaction—as in prostitution, or pornography viewed online—we instinctively recognize the lie.  No amount of immediate pleasure can silence the nagging sense that naked intimacy should involve more than body parts.  Indeed, even our promiscuous society frowns on leaders (former Presidents, current candidates) who, elk-like,  act in predatory ways toward the opposite sex.

G.K. Chesterton said, “Man is not a balloon going up into the sky, nor a mole burrowing merely in the earth; but rather a thing like a tree, whose roots are fed from the earth, while its highest branches seem to rise almost to the stars.”  He was expressing the most basic fact of Christian anthropology.  The gospel calls us to cast off the simple “biology is destiny” formula and to reach farther and higher toward spiritual reality.  In short, we are asked to transcend biological destiny and prove that we are more than animals.

We are never more godlike than in the act of sex, as the New Testament passages often read at weddings make clear.  This most human act hints at the nature of spiritual reality.  We make ourselves vulnerable.  We risk.  We give and receive in a simultaneous act.  Quite literally we make one flesh out of two, experiencing for a brief time a unity like no other.  Independent beings offer their inmost selves, in a sign of promised faithfulness, and experience not a loss but a gain.

What about when we fail to meet that lofty ideal?  Jesus set the example of how to respond by showing great tenderness to those who had failed sexually.  Recognizing the depth of their pain, he offered forgiveness and not judgment.

Even the pain that lingers after sexual betrayal stands, oddly enough, as an indirect proof of sexuality’s original design.  Those who test that design, and fail, in the process gain a haunting sense of what we are missing.  As humans, we want desperately to connect, to grow in personal intimacy even as we progress in sexual intimacy.  We want to be fully known and fully loved, and we feel betrayed when sex doesn’t lead there.

Sheltering sex within marriage and fidelity does not guarantee that we’ll realize perfect union with another person.  It may, however, create an environment of safety, intimacy, and trust where the true meaning of sex, the sacramental meaning, at times breaks through.  If only the elk could understand what they’re missing…

(Adapted in part from A Skeptic’s Guide to Faith)




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17 responses to “Sex and the Elk”

  1. Mailén Peralta says:

    Hi! I’m from Argentina and I just finished reading the chapter ” Grace-healed eyes”, of your book “what’s so amazing about grace?”, It left me without words. I felt so Identified, I can belive how it’s so valid now, 20 years later. And now reading this post, I want to thank you for shearing this thougths, feelings, and investigation. I’m not alone thinking like this, and It’s encouraging! Like a psycologist and Christian, this issue is hard to deal with sometimes. Thanks again!

  2. Deb says:

    I had to come back to respond to this one.

    I am not against sexuality.

    My pondering in this area is about our concept of eros. Paul didn’t use the word. He didn’t tell people to find true love. He told people who were getting too sexual to get married and told married couples to keep coming together once they started being sexual, so that they wouldn’t fall into something called “porneo” and THAT is the problem with sexuality outside of a godly marriage in my mind.

    I have wanted to topple eros as a type of love since I was 9 years old. I had an adult “fall in love with me” when I was 5 years old and, by the time I was 9, I was a lawyer trying to explain, “This is not love. Love does not behave like this.”

    The problem was, when I became a Christian, I read the story of Amnon and had to wrestle through whether God really considered it that Amnon loved his sister, even if he had zero concern for her welfare and had zero protective impulses over her and did not want to marry her and didn’t even feel guilty for ruining her life. Was that God’s view of love? I was relieved that Paul didn’t use the word, “eros” and that he didn’t point to the promiscuous “One Night Stand with the King” king as a model for wisdom for a healthy romantic relationship. Thank God that marriages aren’t modeled on Solomon.

    I felt like I couldn’t “topple it” because it was in the Hebrew and it grieved me that God didn’t think of what Amnon did as something other than love. I was grieved that God didn’t think of what Amnon was thinking as porneo and I came to the conclusion that we translate some things wrong, because we have this stupid concept called, “eros” and one stupid English word we use for all expressions of love and not one human being can EVER know what that word actually means, because it is not linked to a standard, like God, it is linked to a false scale standard called “the flesh.”

    I had to go back to Solomon and figure out whether it was even possible that God would have wanted us to think that Jesus loved us as much as Solomon loved his 10,000 wives. He had to marry a woman every other day for most of his life to have that many, especially if he “courted” them for a whole day, negotiated with her father the next day, had a one night stand with them and searched for the next bride the day after. If he did that cycle every 4 days, including Sabbaths it would have taken him over 109 years to marry them all. He must have had the flu once or twice and had to actually run the Kingdom now and then, plus find time to build the temple, buy horses, and worship Molech and show how smart he was to dignitaries, so I am thinking it was a quicker process than that. I am thinking it was literally a see a female across a field and arrange a one night stand with the king, if that.

    I don’t believe the love that is stronger than death has anything to do with eros or Solomon. I think Paul told the truth that it is a prophetic writing about Jesus and agape and that the love that is stronger than death isn’t that we are willing to kill someone or die over eros. The angels were willing to leave their first estate for eros, makes me think God wouldn’t compare eros to agape like that. Wrong fruit. Wrong message. He put couples under Jesus. He didn’t point couples to Solomon and say, spice up your relationships. He pointed to agape and Jesus…. [pyasst]

  3. Grace says:

    Mr.Philip yancey, Thanks for the thoughts hope God opens the hearts of the people and make them undertsand …Im blessed today.

  4. Laura says:

    I appreciate your thoughtful words that God wants more for us. I cannot say that I have been willing to surrender my heart to Jesus even though I was raised in the faith. Your words at least point me toward a loving God who desires to give good things to His creation, especially humans.

  5. W. Reagan White says:

    Mr. Yancey, I’m a volunteer chaplain at a Fort Worth jail. At one of my visits a prisoner, that was on the phone, called to me as I walked my his cell, hey chaplain, I’m talking to someone I hurt very much can you help me? After a quick silent prayer, I remembered 1 Cor. 13. and started reading at verse four. As I read, he held the phone so she could hear. As I started to leave, he said, she wants to know where you where in the Bible. Ha!
    God has been trying to teach me how to held men in their relationships with ladies. Your blog is really going to help. Thank you for hearing God and writing on sex and love.

  6. Anne Sieversen says:

    Hello Philip,
    I have read almost all your books and you will understand the wonder of reading something that speaks to what you are experiencing at that very moment. I have given What so Amazing about Grace to at least a dozen people and have given other books when I felt they could help a given situation. Disappointment with God came at a time of great need for me as your various speeches and books about struggling with the lack of God’s presence when I want it so much. I have recently learned that I don’t have a lot of life left and that is exciting news to me after almost 80 years of pain. What is amazing about God is that, for some reason, almost daily He has brought me into contact with one of more people who need to hear about the One who can help them and having each one respond with gratitude. I am of the opinion that the end of the Church Age is actually present and am so excited that God is allowing me to share Him so often and so freely as I do fear for those who do not have the assurance of their salvation. You have been given an amazing gift and your books have been the vehicle God gave you to share your weaknesses and victories. Thank you so much for letting Him do that. I will have lots of time in heaven to speak with you about every book and how it met me at the right time.

    • Anne Sieversen says:

      This was not a reply about Elk and I had to laugh when I noticed its location. I have seen Elk in Colorado too and they are quite majestic.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Bless you, Anne. You are showing the rest of us the way–those of us not quite 80 but closing in on it. What wisdom and serenity you show as you face the end of life, something our culture tends to turn away from. You are using your days very well. After all, none of us have a promise of anything beyond today. I’m honored to hear that we were “virtual” friends, and pilgrims together. –Philip

  7. Richard Ellena says:

    Seems that we live in a world that is so confused – sexually.
    You portray the alternative so powerfully and beautifully.
    Thank you.
    You may remember that we met over breakfast in an Auckland airport hotel..
    Warmest regards

  8. Kent Dickerson says:

    Thanks, Philip for bringing up the subject. There is desperate need for the church to address our sexuality in a changing world. Pornography is rampant and “hooking up” is the norm for most young people. Unfortunately the conduct of our people is little different from the world. The church needs to promote the beauty of relationship in having a sexual partner for life in marriage.
    I do my best to help the church, especially men see the damage being done, get in the battle against sin and find the path to victory though relationship with God and our brothers through a seminar and writing ministry.
    May the Lord wake up his church.

  9. Gail Cawley Showalter says:

    Thank you for your insights on a subject every church I’ve been in chooses not to discuss. I recommend your books to others and yet I’ve not read A Skeptics Guide. I’m about to order it now. You are a treasure. Thanks again.

  10. Joseph says:

    I have always found the church’s widespread prudery and sexual repression (at least in our verbiage ) to be an odd phenomenon – most of us find it too much of a taboo subject to talk about with other Christians, especially ones we are loosely associated with; but personally, I enjoy discussing such “faux pas” among other believers. I have never found it to be a subject worth shunning, especially since it has been misused and misconstrued since the dawn of sin and thus is in need of a biblical, spiritual understanding and practice. I volunteered for a short time to be a youth minister while in college for a small group of teenagers. And, one time I wanted to have a study/discussion on God’s design for sex and its following byproducts of true human/godly joy, “two flesh – becoming – oneness,” etc. But, some parents had some issues with this and did not want me discussing such things with the youth group. So, Mr. Yancey, in an age where Christian parents and others are concerned about their teenage children learning about sex – even within the parameters of God’s design for it – how would you give advice to any youth minister or teacher out there who desires to teach students about sex as God intended it to work? Another way to say it is this: how would you go about bringing up and teaching through such a topic to a young audience of teenagers? Would you have to announce to the church that you were going to teach about sex and then ask if there would be any objectors? Do you go ahead and teach it regardless of parents’ opinions/approval? I know I asked many questions, so feel free to nuance your answer (if you want to answer) around any of the questions I asked. I would just like to hear your thoughts. Thanks!

    • Philip Yancey says:

      I have to be careful here, because I’m a freelancer, and haven’t had to work in an institutional structure for some time. Offhand, I’d say you should work at convincing the parents of the need for frank talk about sex. It would be easy to dig up stats on pornography, sexting and easy Internet access; likely, the parents already have fears in this area. What Jesus-followers need to do is make the case that God is no prude, but rather designed the very best plan for our sexual fulfillment. I tried to do that in a chapter in A Skeptic’s Guide to Faith, which was later reprinted as a booklet with InterVarsity Press, titled Designer Sex. My hat’s off to you. I would never volunteer as a youth minister; that’s a unique calling. I’m glad you sense it! –Philip

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