Friday, August 11, 2006

Mother Jones & Evangelical Christian Sex

"The Way of All Flesh," an interesting post on evangelical Christians, appeared in Mother Jones recently... and I have to say that regarding marriage the MJ folks really don't get it.

Sure, The Marriage Bed (a website for Christian wives and husbands discussing sex) is a uh, well, wild ride for the uninitiated. All sorts of sexual practices are openly discussed and argued over, from what methods of birth control (if any) are biblical to what positions / practices in bed are moral / immoral. No doubt, it is an eyeful. I for one would say it is more constructive than not, though just where instruction ends and titillation begins is an issue each soul must work out for her / him self. (There are attempts to control how far conversations go, but some of even bluechristian's readers may be a bit, er, startled by TMB's content.)

But Mother Jones, a magazine one would think might find The Marriage Bed to be an example of enlightenment, really disappointed me. They focus on the alleged narrowness of Christian sex, even the (to my taste) overly liberated at times version reflected on TMB:

The Reverends Paul and Lori Byerly of Austin, Texas, established The Marriage Bed to rescue sex from the porn industry and the shame-mongers of their own faith. Although distinguished by its kaleidoscopic approach to people’s desires to express desire just so, theirs is a ministry shared by a vast array of Christian sex counselors, radio talk show hosts, authors, webmasters, itinerant healers, and entrepreneurs across the country. Like so many before, they have remade their God in their own image, to suit their own needs. Himself a voyeur of sorts, present in the bedchamber, seeing whether His creation is good, or not, this sex-friendly God has given an Eleventh Commandment: Christians, have more fun.

I guess belittling Christians for, well, being Christians sells magazines. I do not know the Byerlys, and would likely disagree with them on more than one issue. But the game of reducing their (and their posters') faith to "remaking God in their own image, to suit their own needs" is an act of reductionism reducing JoAnn Wypijewski, the MJ writer, more than subjects/targets. It also seems the writer has a small grasp on biblical texts. Whatever else one says about TMB, their so-called "voyeur" God is in fact the God of Song of Songs, the Pauline passages on marriage and sexual mutuality, the romantic story of Ruth and Boaz, and more. It is frustrating to read someone intent on reducing belief in order to mock it.

Is it true that discussions of marital sex would be enhanced by discussion on couples serving the poor, fighting for the dispossessed, witnessing to their faith and against the current darkness which seems to have our subculture in its grasp? Undeniably. But by saying the TMB folk are in effect creating their own deity, Ms. Wypijewski proves she, too, has a god.

In the end I was left wondering what Mother Jones' own agenda was in their coverage. And it didn't take long to find out:

In their embrace of oral and anal thrills, in their rejection of shame, they assume a vocabulary of desire that owes everything to gay liberation’s unlocking of sex even as they slam the door on the notion that gays and lesbians have any right to sexuality.

Ah. There it is. In short, the Byerlys and virtually all their posters believe that sexuality's proper sphere of fullest expression is in marriage, marriage defined biblically as being between one man and one woman. This offends the writer, who's accusation ("they slam the door on the notion that gays and lesbians have any right to sexuality") is a highly unfortunate oversimplification.

First, almost no thinking Christian would claim that some human beings have no right to sexuality. In fact, even the celebate person is sexual, has sexual feelings that are good and part of being a vital, living human being. The realm of sexuality goes far, far beyond the penis and clitoris, involving the entire human person.

What I suspect Mother Jones really was upset about here is the unwavering Christian response to homosexuality reflected on TMB and in Evangelical, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and many independent denominations. Christians speak with an impressively unified voice (despite anomalies such as the Episcopal Church) that same-sex desires will not bring a person into her or his fullest humanity. The classic definition of sin is that which "misses the mark." And same-sex desire is not part of the Christian picture of marriage. When acted upon, it is sin. When struggled with, it is temptation just as heterosexual desires sans marriage can be temptation.

Stan Grenz and others have written about the need for Evangelicals to "welcome but not affirm" homosexuals. If that phrase sounds tortured -- and it probably does -- it is because we increasingly sense the pain, frustration, and (oftentimes) personal abuse heaped upon those struggling with same-sex desires. We need to go out of our way to assure those dealing with homosexuality in their own lives that our churches are not going to be places where they are abused or maligned. It is a thorny, difficult issue for all sides, and one we cannot and must not pretend is not problematic on many levels.

A long quote from Grenz makes this point clearer, perhaps, that I am making it:

“Even if we find such liaisons questionable, we might nevertheless assert that the church ought to minister to, and even provide a spiritual home for, homosexual persons. Regardless of the moral status of homosexual behavior, lesbians and gays are people whom God values, for whom Jesus died, and to whom the gospel must come. Further, the church is composed of sinners — redeemed sinners to be sure — but sinners nonetheless. It consists of people who are seeking to do God’s will in the midst of the brokenness of life. The church can only assist people to overcome sin and live in obedience to God if they receive the ministry of, and perhaps even participate in, the believing community. This is as true for gays and lesbians as for anyone else. . . .

"The church, therefore, ought not only to minister to all but also to welcome all into membership on the same basis. And this basis consists of personal reception of salvation by faith through Jesus Christ together with personal commitment to discipleship. At the same time, participation in the faith community involves a give-and-take. Discipleship demands that each member understand that he or she is accountable to the community in all dimensions of life, including the sexual. As one homosexual believer wrote to Richard Hays, ‘Anyone who joins such a community should know that it is a place of transformation, of discipline, of learning, and not merely a place to be comforted or indulged.’ Because it is a community of discipleship, the church in turn has a responsibility both to nurture and also to admonish and discipline the wayward in its midst, including those who are not living in sexual chastity, whatever the exact nature of the unchaste behavior may be.”

But back to TMB and Mother Jones. Is the assertion that TMB's openness regarding sexual matters is only possible due to "gay liberation"? Fascinating assertion, but it seems to appear as an assumption completely devoid of historical backing.

My own suspicion is that, perhaps due to some of the more... uh... graphic threads on TMB (which deal with various 'sex toys,' anal play, etc.) the MJ folks lept to a satisfying but incorrect conclusion. Sexual freedom or the lack thereof is not rooted in whether or not a couple uses a vibrator or oral sex or some other more exotic avenue of mutual pleasuring. Sexual freedom is not only suggested, but more or less mandated, in both the Old and New Testaments. An entire OT book (Song of Songs) offers abundant, and fairly explicit, guidance. Paul, though celibate himself, refers more than once to becoming one flesh as something beautiful, holy, and even a shadow of Christ's relationship to the Church. (How kinky is that!) Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:

1 Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: "It is well for a man not to touch a woman." 2 But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 This I say by way of concession, not of command. 7 I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind.

What? No other instructions? None. The author of Hebrews (whether Paul or not) does say this in chapter 13:4 "Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers." (This verse, by the way, is the verse that the TMB folks apparently take their name from.)

So while Mother Jones doesn't always get it wrong (this is "blue"christian after all) they do get it wrong this time out. Just as the Pharisees and Saducees didn't understand Jesus' strange blend of absolute freedom and a purity of law beyond their own (see Matthew 5), I don't think many worldlings understand the astonishing grace Christian marriage affords. We are libertines, and should be. We are, if obedient, also keeping the marriage bed pure (free of anyone but that one man and wife). And that is a mystery.

Another bluechristian article mentioning Mother Jones magazine -- in a more positive light -- is in regard to prolific evangelical author Tim LaHaye.


Anonymous said...


I like the evenhanded response. Have you noticed that if a liberal disagrees with one's thoughts or actions they are sometimes "offended" but you don't see this from those who argue from a conservative standpoint. Being offended comes from feelings not logic and this is probably where the difference lies in one's arguments. MJ, like The Nation, express being offended very often instead of "repectfully disagreeing" with another's views.

Jon Trott said...

I agree that liberals can sometimes use "being offended" as a sort of shortcut. I would have to disagree that conservatives don't do this. In fact, from my experience in talking with conservatives, esp. those within the so-called "Christian" Right, hurt feelings are an absolutely central part of their entire presentation. Usually this takes the form of "The secular media NEVER..." or "The liberal media ALWAYS..." does x, y, or z to the alelgedly set-upon members of the Christian subculture. Sure, in specific cases, the media is thick about Christians. But I humbly would suggest that they aren't half as thick about us as we are about our mostly white, evangelical, and male subculture's very suspect biases on any nummber of subjects. I am not half as upset with Mother Jones in such matters as I am with the Christian Right, as at least MJ isn't claiming to speak for God. The Christian Right, President Bush, Tim LaHaye, and the whole crew so alienates me that if I thought for a second they represented Jesus.... well, I'd become a Nietzsche disciple or something. Hehehehe... hope I haven't disappointed you too badly, but bluechristian exists precisely because I couldn't take the Lord I love being identified with the CR... Sigh...

Lainie Petersen said...

I myself was going to say that I have not found this to be the case: It seems to me that "conservatives" are just as likely as not to claim "offense" of their religious, moral, or aesthetic sensibilties than "liberals".

I'd also say, though, that there is nothing wrong with arguing something on the basis of "feelings". Emotional insight is part of being human and for someone to be disconnected from their emotions is typically a sign of psychopathology. Objecting or approving of something on the basis of one's feelings is often quite as legitimate as so-called "logic" and one ought not automatically be privileged over the other.

Jon Trott said...

Lainie, I agree. I suppose my own reaction to 'anonymous' is rooted in some of the more over-the-top stuff Rush Limbaugh (as one example) riffs on the "liberal media" over. There is this sort of disconnect I sense (speaking from my own emotions now, hehehe) from 'conservative' white males on all sorts of topics. For instance, the amazingly thin skin of those defending "traditional" marriage roles (a.k.a., male dominated ones!) or/and male dominated Church structures, in turn astonishes / angers me... on the "feelings" level that is. On the intellectual level, I am usually in a state of bemusement. Or, as one of the characters in Buckaroo Bonzai says, "It's not my planet, monkeyboy!" That is sometimes how I feel about evangelicalism... until I hear evangelicals such as N. T. Wright, Mimi Haddad, Catherine Clark Kroeger, Gilbert Bilizekian, Bill and Aida Spencer, Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, Steven Bouma-Prediger, and many more...

Man, do I feel better after typing that list. I'm feeling it!!!

Lainie Petersen said...

One thing that also concerns me about the false "feelings vs. logic" dichotomy is that this sort of thing has been used to keep women out of the professions, the pulpit, politics, etc. It is the notion that women are more "emotional" and as such, are less likely to make "logical" (aka "good") decisions. Some mens-rights groups are using this argument to argue against women's voting rights.

It seems to me that people are most likely to squawk about their "felt" needs and desires and any "logic" in their argument will stem from protecting their "feelings" on the matter at hand.

Anonymous said...

I find the Left uses the word "offended" to push policies like "no American flag in a multicultural school in the US because international students would be offended" or "can't call Middle Eastern people who target the innocent "terrorists" or "Islamic fascists" because that might be offensive to some". Conservatives have less of a problem with this because they tend to work on a logical scale with their arguments. Their logic can be wrong at times but it is better than coming to a debate with feelings as your defense because objectivity and truth tend to be nonexistent. Jesus said things that were offensive to many of the leaders of his day and if he walked the earth today many would lable Him "insensitive", "narrowminded", and "judgemental" for having an "opinion" of what is right and wrong. He definitely couldn't get away with saying some are going to hell or there is a "Father" in heaven and not a "mother". Just look how some on the left attack Mother Theresa.

Anonymous said...

The point that women are "emotional" and can't be leaders is a poor argument however many on the Left use the argument for women leaders/priests in the Church or the Church taking a pro abortion or pro homosexualality stance from emotional arguments. I find very few arguing these points from Church teaching, tradition, or using the Bible to back up their arguments, not to say this isn't possible (at least with the issue of women as leaders).

Collin Brendemuehl said...

A good read. Thanks.


(Accompanied by a shameless request for a link)