The 30-something Irish author Sally Rooney has been labelled ‘the voice of her generation’1 and has written three acclaimed novels, two of which have been adapted for television. (The BBC’s Normal People was a 2020 lockdown sensation; this year’s Conversation with Friends has had more mixed reviews.) I’ve read each of her books and watched as many of the TV episodes as I could stomach,2 but it is only her most recent novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, that has made me begin to believe the hype around her tales of millennial sex and relationships.
Why? Well, partly because Christianity gets a look-in in her third novel: one of the characters, Simon, is portrayed as a devout Roman Catholic (although his active pre-marital sex life rather challenges that!). But it was the central character Alice, a bisexual novelist, whose musings about sex and sexuality have most intrigued me. Appropriately for a contemporary novel, many of the chapters take the form of emails, and early in the book, Alice writes one to her friend Eileen which includes these two fascinating reflections:
‘I wish there was a good theory of sexuality out there for me to read. All the existing theories seem to be mostly about gender – but what about sex itself? I mean, what even is it? To me it's normal to meet people and think of them in a sexual way without actually having sex with them – or, more to the point, without even imagining sex with them, without even thinking about imagining it. This suggests that sexuality has some "other" content, which is not about the act of sex. And maybe even most of our sexual experiences are mostly this "other". So what is the other?’3
A few lines later she continues:
‘It seems to me we walk around all the time feeling these absurdly strong impulses and desires, strong enough to make us want to ruin our lives and sabotage our marriage and careers, but nobody is really trying to explain what the desires are, or where they come from. Our ways of thinking and speaking about sexuality seem so limited, compared to the exhausting and debilitating power of sexuality itself as we experience it in our real lives.’4
Alice has an intuition that there is more to sex and sexuality than sexual activity, and that the power of our sexual desires is not adequately accounted for by contemporary, secular narratives.
If I could join in her fictional email conversation, I would want to encourage her in her search for the ‘other’ content, the better story she is looking for. I’d want to let her know that she is not alone in her hunch that there must be something more to help us make sense of sex and sexuality. I’d, perhaps cheekily, certainly immodestly, point out that I have attempted the ‘good theory of sexuality’ she’s asking for.
But, most of all, I’d love to connect her with Saint Augustine of Hippo and his discovery that our creator God is the ‘other’ content that our sexualities are designed to get us thirsting for: that it is his beauty and love for us that make sense of our deepest impulses and desires for beauty and love in his creation. Hear how he talks to his creator:
‘Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace that is yours.’5
Rooney’s fictional characters, and the millennial generation that their words and actions represent, need connecting with previous generations that have been there, done that, and found what they were looking for: not through conversations with friends or relationships with normal people, but in hearing of God’s love for them in Christ, beginning an intimate relationship with their creator God through Jesus. True beauty is not to be found in anything or anyone in our world, but in him who brought into being everything and everyone in our world.
- Lauren Sarazen, ‘At 28, Sally Rooney has been called the voice of her generation. Believe the hype.’, The Washington Post. Accessed 1 July 2022.
- Both series contain multiple sexually explicit scenes; Conversations with Friends was just tedious.
- Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You (Faber & Faber, 2021), p.91.
- Rooney, Beautiful World, p.92.
- Henry Chadwick (Translator), Saint Augustine’s Confessions (Penguin,1991), p.201.