You probably know the story. Two sons. One of them asks his father for his share of the inheritance while the father is still alive. He goes and spends this inheritance on a life of partying and delight. And when the money runs out, he goes back to his father who lovingly takes him back, welcoming him into the family with a lavish celebration.
The Good Son seldom gets any attention, and when he does, it’s often negative, focusing on his hard-heartedness, on his lack of ability to forgive and love as his father does. And the attention to the Good Son usually stops there. But there’s so much more.
Because here’s the thing. I don’t think the Good Son’s refusal to welcome his brother back is the worst of his sins. Not by a long shot. That’s the response of someone who has been harboring a much deeper, more profound sin — a sin that seldom gets addressed in church, a sin that has likely festered within him well before his brother went prodigal.
The Good Son’s fundamental sin? Forsaking God’s (and his father’s) gift of life.
It’s obvious that the family was wildly wealthy. The fact that the father could give the Prodigal half the family’s inheritance and still maintain his farm for however long his son was away; the fact that he had hired servants who could take up the work abandoned; the fact that he could afford to throw a party upon the son’s return. All of these point to a household that didn’t have to worry about money, even after giving half of it away.
The Prodigal son recognizes the wealth available and the opportunities latent therein and decides to take a huge fucking bite out of the bounty to see what there is of life out there to be lived.1 Yes, it’s an act of profound selfishness and disregard, but my God, what a life he lived for a while.
Thing is, I think we so often focus on the sin of his acts that we miss the salvation2 aspect.
Picture a boy, raised on a farm, now in the bed of a temple prostitute who has been trained, from a young age, how to pleasure a man. Picture the hard, trembling edge of inexperience enveloped in the soft, warm contours of fleshy bliss — her tenderness dulling the perimeter warmly, precisely, gracefully. She lulls, nudges him playfully towards surrender. And he complies. And it’s a revelation.
Imagine him pursuing the boundaries of human experience, testing the limits of ecstasy, extending each of his senses as far as his substantial fortune can stretch them — a deep study of his God-gifted body and the world through which it moves. And yes, there is much depravity there, but isn’t there also a kind of salvation? Because isn’t part of the allure of decadence the taste of paradise it both teases and fulfills, even if only for a moment?
And yes, his choices eventually lead to ruin, but the experiences — both bliss and desolation — will live in his body forever. When he returns, he is money-poor, but the stories! The sensate memories endure. He is both haunted and enlightened by them. The Prodigal returns with breadth and depth in him. How is that not a kind of salvation?
In those moments, imagine him asking the question that terrifies him most: is there any for me? Because if the answer is no, then what the fuck is he doing here anyway? And if the answer is yes, then where is it?
But the good son resolves; tucks his envy away into hidden, overstuffed pockets of denial. Instead, he stores grains of honor, integrity, and loyalty into his storehouse of virtue — an endless room that never fills, his personal holy of holies.
Imagine night after night, weeks into years, this unwieldy dance of fondled desires and blunting righteousness. Every night, another dour deposit.
And then one day, out in the fields again with the servants and the livestock, the heat and the soil, he hears music. He hears laughter and celebration. He turns his head toward the house and sees smoke, smells meat stewing. He is confused. He looks again at the field before him, at all the work yet to be done. Last year’s harvest was slim and they need to make up for it this year. And yet, what the hell is going on over there?
He begins the long walk back home.
As he nears, he sees someone dancing at the center of the festivities, someone wearing his father’s ornate, ceremonial robe.
And then a jolt of recognition, a terrible epiphany. His brother is a thief yet again. His storehouse of virtue, his holy of holies has been ransacked. Consciously or not, he had been hoping to one day leverage his surplus of faithfulness for a concrete sign of his father’s love. But there, right there in front of him, his bastard brother: laughing, dancing, showered by the very attention and affection that should have been his.
Blood and betrayal reigns.
But while the good son is still a long way off, his father spots him, waves him over.
The son stands still. The father intuitively understands the weight of this (non)response and runs over to him, begs him to join the party.
But he answered his father, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”
He was never given a meal or a celebration.
And while it’s not explicit in the text, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that he never asked for one. Life, joy, food, festivities were all there to be had in abundance, but they had to be pursued, requested, the want made plain.
So if the Prodigal was guilty of asking too much, the Good Son was guilty of not asking at all. Both sins, and yet, only one son finds forgiveness and salvation.
And it’s important to remember that the father granted the Prodigal’s wish, probably with a good idea of what he intended to do with it.
And yet, scripture does not record any pushback or plea. The text moves from the Prodigal’s request to the division of the family’s fortune. And if the father personifies God in this parable, is it too much of a stretch to say that God allows us, even empowers us, to go out and experience all of what there is in the world? Is that too scandalous an interpretation? 3
In contrast, the Good Son lives a life of jealousy and resentment — refined by his brother’s departure, weaponized upon his return. His is a joyless, spiteful, trivial life, an insult to the boundless gift that life can be. This is his sin.
Now what am I saying — that the Prodigal Son’s debauchery is salvation? That the Good Son’s “good” life was a life of sin?
Yeah, kind of.
More on this in part 2.
Sigh. You know, I really did intend to wrap this series with this post, but here’s the thing about my writing process. I may have a clear idea in my own head about what I want to say, but when it comes to putting what’s in my brain into words, sometimes it takes far more words than I thought it would. All that to say, it may take a few more posts to fully lay out my ideas regarding how the church talks about sex outside of marriage.
And yeah, I’m altering the name of the series. Explanation in the postscript.
In my previous post, I made the point that the church has never clearly defined what they’re referring to when they talk about “sex.” So let me be clear about what I’m saying. I don’t have a problem with engaging in the full range of sexual intimacy that I and another person consensually agree to, up to and including penis in vagina intercourse.3 At the same time, it’s important to note that this doesn’t mean that the Bible has nothing to say about who I have sex with and when in the course of a relationship that takes place — it certainly does and I’ll have more to say about this in a future post.
As for how I justify this stance, let’s start by looking at scripture. The passage that comes closest to specifically prohibiting sex outside of marriage is found in 1 Corinthians 6:13b-7:2. This bit begins with Paul talking about why it’s not cool for Christians to be having sex with prostitutes
The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! (NRSV)
Fornication — sex with someone you’re not married to — is generally thought to be distinct from adultery (moicheuo) — sex with someone else’s spouse.6 The Bible talks a lot about adultery, but next to nothing about fornication, and there’s a good reason for this. In the time of the Bible (and for most of history, really) women typically got married in their early teens (and the men whom they were married to7 might be similar in age or up to a decade older). And marriage was the cultural norm of the biblical world — everyone was expected to get/be married. In other words, there really weren’t very many unmarried people around who would have been able to have sex before they were married. Thus the ubiquity of adultery (rather than fornication) language in the Bible.8
[END SIDEBAR]So from 6:13b-20, it’s clear that Paul is referring to having sex with a prostitute when he uses the word that gets translated “fornicate.” But when Christian pastors/teachers talk about sex before marriage, they usually look at 1 Corinthians 7:1-2:
Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.” But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. (NRSV)
See that word pair, “sexual immorality?” In the Greek, it’s the exact same word that got translated as “fornication” at the end of 1 Corinthians 6 (pornea). So it’s possible that Paul is still referring to sex with prostitutes in 7:2, and not sex before marriage. However, things aren’t that clear cut. Paul begins chapter 7 with the phrase, “Now considering the matters about which you wrote…” suggesting that Paul is making a break from his previous train of thought and is now talking about something new. So it might be the case that Paul is indeed talking about prohibiting sex before (or outside of) marriage.
But we can’t be sure. And even if someone can make a strong case for the idea that Paul is no longer talking about sex with prostitutes here, it’s not at all clear what specifically Paul is referring to. Paul is obviously addressing something the church in Corinth wrote him about in a previous letter regarding sex, but we don’t know what that letter said — what specific question Paul was answering. That bit of information is lost to history so (barring the miraculous discovery of that lost letter) we can never know for sure.
One of the core principles regarding Christian teaching is the idea that you don’t base Christian doctrine on ambiguous scriptural passages. And I think it’s evident that this passage in 1 Corinthians is clearly ambiguous. There very well may have been a bunch of people in the Corinthian church having sex before marriage, and that might be what Paul was addressing here, but the inescapable reality is that we don’t/can’t know for sure. And if that’s the case, then the church shouldn’t be preaching the no sex before/outside marriage as definitively as it does. Rather, they should be honest about and and acknowledge this ambiguity.9The bottom line is, the Bible has nothing specific or definitive to say about sex before marriage, at least not as we think of it today (and this bit of nuance desperately needs to be unpacked, but that will have to wait for the next post). The Bible does specifically prohibit sex with prostitutes and sex with someone else’s wife/husband, but has nothing specific to say about sex outside of marriage as it’s practiced today.
In this post, I talked about scriptural translation/interpretation. In my next post, I’ll talk about the radical (understatement) cultural/historical shifts that have taken place in the past two or three centuries regarding how we think about relationships and marriage today compared to just about any other time in recorded (Western) history.
As for why I’m changing the name of the series from “a qualified coming out” to “an open, honest admission,” it’s because equating my disclosure as a sex-positive Christian to that of coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, or queer is frankly offensive. So I’m not going to do it and I apologize to anyone who was hurt by my irresponsible co-opting of the phrase.
In my previous post, I (sort of) came out about being asexual — a sexual orientation broadly defined as “someone who does not experience sexual attraction.” In that post, I said that I also wanted to state, in writing and in public, that as a Christian who has studied the Bible,1 attends church regularly, and strives to live a life pleasing and honoring to God, I don’t have a problem with engaging in sex before I’m married. I was hoping to unpack how I justify this stance in this post, but while writing it, I realized I needed to set a bit more background/context first. So the explanation will have to wait until part 3.
Sorry about that.
A bit of fair warning: I get pretty sexually explicit in this post, and it’s not just to be provocative or to titillate. On the contrary, this specificity is necessary because I believe that it’s this very lack of precision around talking about sex in the church that’s at the root of many of the problems the church has when it comes to talking/teaching about sex.
All that to say, if you choose to read on, be prepared for some pretty sexually graphic language.
I’ve done a lot of writing, about the problems of purity culture and how that’s affected my own life. In this post, I want to suggest that a lot of those problems (both for me and so many others) stems from one grossly neglected, yet vitally important question: how does the church define sex? To be more specific, in the common Christian phrase, “don’t have sex outside of marriage,” what exactly does that word, “sex” signify?
I want to propose that in today’s church, there have been two ways of answering this question, both of which are inadequate at best. I’ll also try to show how this inadequacy leads to harmful effects in the lives of far too many Christians today.
The first answer is actually more of an assumption. While it’s never stated explicitly, it’s generally assumed that sex is what occurs when a woman allows man’s penis to enter her vagina. And at first, that seems like a reasonable definition for sex, but what about sexually intimate acts that don’t include vaginal penetration? For example,
In other words, defining sex as the specific act of a penis in a vagina is incomplete and utterly inadequate. Because if that’s the church’s definition of sex, then a Christian couple engaging in all manner of sexually intimate behaviors is not violating the maxim, “don’t have sex outside of marriage,” as long as a penis doesn’t pass through the threshold of a vagina (which would probably qualify as the biggest doctrinal loophole ever). And again, this narrow definition means that Christian lesbian and gay couples will never, technically, be in sin since the church’s Venn diagram of sex never overlaps for them.
In my experience, when posed with specific questions about what Christian leaders mean when they use the word “sex,” they tend to punt to the second answer which is basically, “instead of trying to figure out where the line between sex and not-sex is, why not just stay as far away from the line as possible?” Which, again, sounds good in the abstract, but when subjected to concrete application and real-world scenarios, it just doesn’t stand up. Because if the location of the line between sex and not-sex is never defined, how can anyone know if they’re staying away from it?
The logic behind the stay-away-from-the-line idea is this: because (they believe) Jesus taught that even thinking lustful thoughts is equivalent to the sin of adultery, any act that could potentially lead to one or both people in a relationship to feel lust is flirting with sin. But then where’s the line between lust and interest/attraction and what acts potentially lead to a breach of that line?
To resolve this ambiguity, some Christian leaders/teachers take the stay-far-away-from-the-line approach to the extreme — forbidding virtually all acts of physical intimacy outside of marriage. Joshua Harris’ infamous book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye takes this approach to its logical conclusion: If any dating scenario leads to the potential for physical intimacy, which could potentially lead to a couple approaching (if not crossing) this undefined “line,” then perhaps it’s best to simply not date at all.
This general lack of specificity in both approaches to defining sex leads to real problems in the lives of real Christian couples, because it forces them to construct their own answers with little to no guidance from the church.3 In other words, couples are left to grope in the dark when it comes to navigating/negotiating intimacy and sex. And this is not some hypothetical scenario, it’s happening all the time in the lives of far too many Christian couples today. And to make things even worse, a lot of the rhetoric around sex in the church is laced with toxic shame, especially for those who stray (intentionally or accidentally) past sex’s fuzzy, undefined lines.
Donna Freitas, author of Sex and the Soul, interviewed students at a number of different college campuses about their sexual experiences. She tells the story of a nineteen-year-old Catholic college student who had committed herself to purity during high school (which at the time she understood to mean not dating until she met her spouse). By the time of her interview, while she had engaged in oral sex with a number of boyfriends, she still considered herself to be a virgin.4
When the only options available to people are unhelpfully vague (“don’t have sex outside marriage”) or as woefully abstract as “stay far away from the edge,” it’s no wonder that the Christian dating landscape is strewn with stories of dead ends, missed opportunities, and damaged hearts.
So what’s to be done? Is there a way of defining and talking about sex in the church that is more useful, practical, and relevant to the lives of Christian couples today? I believe there is, but it requires a rethink as radical as it is overdue.
And that will be the subject of part three. Stay tuned!
2. The church at large (at least in the West) is consistently moving towards the theological assumption that same-sex relationships/marriage are pleasing and acceptable to God. I’m writing from that assumption. If you want to know more about how I justify this position, a good place to start would be Matthew Vine’s book, God and the Gay Christian. ↩︎
3. Which, ironically, is the very place where they should be able to go for practical, real-world guidance. ↩︎
4. Donna Freitas, Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010) p. 83. ↩︎
I don’t always blog these days, but when I do, it’s totally TMI.
As I was writing this, I realized that there are actually two things that I need to be out and open about. One is the focus of this post, and the other is something I mention but don’t go on to explain — the fact that as a Christian who reads the Bible and does his best to live a life pleasing and honoring to God, I have no problem exploring sex before I’m married. And so that will be the focus of part two. (How’s that for a teaser?)
I recently read an article about asexuality. And while the topic is something I’ve casually researched (particularly via these videos and this blog), I think it’s finally time for me to out myself as asexual — an orientation broadly defined as someone with “a lack of ‘sexual attraction’ or ‘lustful inclinations’ towards others…”
A couple of caveats.
First, asexuality is just another point on a spectrum, which is to say, it’s not that there are sexual persons, asexual persons, and people are either one or the other. There are a variety of designations within the ace community and if I am asexual, I’m not sure what sort I am yet.1 And while I can say that I do long for a physically intimate, monogamous, romantic relationship with someone, having actual penetrative sex is not something I’m particularly drawn towards. It’s not something I think or even fantasize about. That said, I do find pleasure in touch and cuddling and making out (and OMG, kissing is the best thing ever!), but I just don’t consider actual intercourse as something mandatory or, speaking for myself, desirable.
That said, I’m totally GGG — good, giving, and game. If PIV intercourse is something my partner wants, I’m totally up for providing it (consensually negotiated), but it’s not something that I’m likely to pursue on my own initiative.
Related to this is the fact that I have a pretty low sex drive.2 That white-hot, almost animalistic hunger for sex is something I just don’t experience in life or in relationships, even after it’s gotten to the point where we’re making out. I do enjoy conversing in the warm, buttery language of touch, but even that isn’t something I feel compelled to pursue. Rather, it’s something that’s nice if it comes along, but I don’t feel the need to go after it. It’s deep conversations — sharing the scarred bits of our lives and reveling in joyous memories — that I truly enjoy about being in a relationship.
Second, I just can’t help but wonder if the toxic purity/shame messages that got ingrained into me as a teen and young adult plays a part in my low sex drive and disinterest in penetrative sex. I was 41(!) years old before I got into my first serious relationship, and I’ve done a lot of writing about how it took years of therapy to realize how deeply rooted those teachings had become and how they played a large part in why I found myself sabotaging so many previous almost-relationships.
This post in particular speaks to this pattern. I wrote about how an especially strict Christian leader in my life led to me developing an extreme fear of vulnerability and authenticity. I wrote about how his brutal, relentless shaming techniques (under the guise of discipleship) taught me to put up a front — a surface that looked authentic but was actually masking my deeper, more honest self.3
As for how that affected my dating life, I wrote that…
… the thing about dating relationships is that they’re all about getting beneath the surface. But for me, all I know is how to present my carefully honed, well crafted surface. The me that’s inside is far too terrorized to come out and so as I begin to date someone and sense that they’re getting close, that they want to peer beneath the surface, I get triggered. In my internal world, alarm bells start going off, an all alert gets sounded, and I go into lockdown mode. In the external world, I find some lame excuse to not ever go out with this person again. And they’re always lame excuses, because apart from the terror of my interior world, there are seldom any good reasons for me to break things off.
It’s a totally backwards, dysfunctional dynamic. I’m terrified by the very intimacy I long for and so I sabotage. I shield myself from someone who longs to make my shields unnecessary.
In another section, I made this observation:
Our real selves are supposed to be reserved for our good friends and the really real, unfiltered self is reserved for the ones we love deeply, the ones who love us deeply. In a way, dating is just the process of peeling back these layers. If someone likes our surface and we like theirs, we go a bit deeper, we share more of ourselves, we open up more, and they do the same. This process continues, slowly and carefully, and if it turns out we’re really into this person and this person is really into us, we come to see that we’ve found a safe place where we can reveal more and more of our vulnerabilities – the truly sensitive bits that we normally hide from the world. To put it plainly, we can be naked with them and not feel shame. (And it’s no coincidence that this section can be read on a physical as well as an emotional level).
That last parenthetical is key. As hard as it can be for me to be open and vulnerable, relationally and emotionally, it’s SO much harder to do so bodily — to progress towards being butt neked with someone. Of course not all of this difficulty stems from the church. The experience of exposing all of one’s body to another is awkward and frightening for almost everyone when a relationship reaches that stage. But in my case, the weight of what I was taught in those early Bible studies exponentially compounds that awkwardness and fear.
And I can’t help but wonder how/if all of that relates to my low sex drive and/or asexuality. Is there a causal connection or is it merely coincidental or something else? In other words, am I an ace because of nature or nurture or because I’m just still numb from all of that old, religious shame? I don’t know, but I’m planning on finding a new therapist soon to help me figure that out.
See, this is the thing that the purity message does in so many people’s lives. It teaches people to deny their desires, even the mere thinking them! They give us techniques like bouncing eyes in the hopes of squelching desire well before it even starts. They use shame as a stick and a perfect marriage as the carrot, but there are many who find that even after doing things “right” (saving themselves for marriage), that the smoking, blissful sex and relationship that was promised was a ruse.
It’s my contention that “Christian purity” as it’s commonly defined these days, is not necessarily the same thing as what God wants for us. And yeah, I fully realize what an inflammatory, controversial statement that is, but there it is.
And I’ll have a lot more to say about that in part 2.
1. The designation demisexual is a likely candidate.
2 I actually got testosterone level checked about a year ago to see if this had some physiological basis. And while my (total) testosterone level was a bit low, it wasn’t enough to clinically qualify as being outside the normal range for men my age.
3 In the post I’ve been referencing, I described our Bible studies this way:
Our Bible study meetings were times when we were supposed to confess our sins, all the ways that we had let God down and fallen short of the standards set up for us. It was a really shitty, humiliating time. It was perverse, really. The people who shared the deepest, darkest secrets were, at first, lauded for their openness and honesty, but immediately after, they were lambasted with shame – the group’s and God’s.
In my previous post, I wrote about how I’ve decided to take up the belief that God loves me for Lent and why that’s not as lovely or as easy as it sounds (quite the opposite).
Funny thing. Wanna know what makes believing in God’s love for me especially difficult?
Other Christians, punching me in the faith.
See, I have what can only be labeled as a calling:1 I believe in unity within the body of Christ. And let me be clear here. When I say “unity,” I don’t mean uniformity. My idea of unity does not include getting all Christians to believe the same things. My idea of unity is simultaneously much broader and more modest than that.
In a broad sense, I believe in a kind of unity that celebrates (or, at the very least, tolerates) a wide variety of theological/doctrinal positions.2 Because of that, my goals are modest. At the very least, my desire is for Christians who disagree on an issue to recognize those on the other side as fellow Christians.3 And even that modest goal is sometimes incredibly difficult.
Now how does going after that goal play out in my life?
Christians who disagree with one another usually only hang out with Christians who agree with them. So the only way to get them to move towards this broad/modest idea of unity is for someone to stand in the space between. And that’s where my calling places me.
To name just one example, the issue of marriage equality is tearing the church apart and I often
find place myself in the gap between those who believe that God affirms and celebrates LGBT persons,4 and those who don’t. And let me tell you, in that gap be dragons, fearsome ones.
And I often get my ass kicked because the thing about gap-standing is that one can’t be too defensive. Defensiveness tends to shut down conversation, and I want people to stay engaged, so I keep my guard down. But holding that sort of openness leaves me vulnerable to attack. And some Christians seem to take a perverse sort of delight in beating the shit out of anyone who doesn’t run or retaliate.
But again, I have modest goals.
I don’t expect to win or to change anyone’s mind.
On the issue of marriage equality and the church, I just want Christians who believe that relationships between couples of the same sex is sinful to acknowledge that Christians on the affirming side (like me) are still Christians.5
Yes, I believe that God fully affirms LGBT persons and that one can hold a high view of the Bible and support same-sex marriage. People can disagree with me on this (or any other) issue. I’m fine with that. I readily acknowledge that I may be wrong. But I can’t tell you how often, in the midst of conversations around the issue of marriage equality, I’ve been accused of not being a Christian.6
And that hurts. Every time.
And yet, I keep entering that gap because I believe the church, at its best, is a place where differences are allowed to thrive. The scandal of the early church was that it transgressed all sorts of boundaries.7 It created a community where people groups, who would normally have nothing to do with one another, gathered around a table to eat and drink, to commune. Priests and prostitutes; mystics and magicians; slaves and slave owners; men, women, and eunuchs; rich and poor; Romans and widows and Jews and Gentiles and on and on… This radically diverse group of people passed the bread and the cup to one another and considered each other family.
It wasn’t easy then, and it certainly isn’t easy today.
I believe that my calling/curse is to model and to live into the unity-amidst-diversity of the early church. But it’s hard, especially when, in living out this calling, my Christianity gets mocked (if not outright rejected) over and over and over again.
It’s a despicable sort of irony. The source of my skepticism regarding God’s love for me turns out to be other people who love God.
Honestly, I’m ready to throw in the towel, but I’ve made a lenten commitment to hold on to belief (despite evidence to the contrary) that God loves me.
Prayers appreciated (I’m gonna need them).
1. A vocational commitment that seems inextricably linked with my core sense of identity and passion. Unfortunately, this calling often feels like a curse.
2. In this way, the church is an expansive place, able to take in the new without jettisoning tradition.
3. Said another way, I want to stop hearing things like, “you can’t be a Christian and agree with Rob Bell.” See also: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/freedhearts/2015/02/16/has-anyone-said-to-you-i-dont-think-youre-really-a-christian/
4. And the full range of relationships they choose to (or choose not to) pursue.
5. And vice versa. But I find that affirming Christians tend to be more charitable towards those on the non-affirming side.
And yes, I know that there are those on the non-affirming side who believe they are being persecuted. Maybe I’ll address this in a future post.
6. Hint: almost every time.
7. The first non-Jewish convert to Christianity was an Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-38). Peter was commanded to eat non-kosher foods Acts 10:9-16). The early church promoted women to positions of leadership. And Jesus himself problematizes the binary nature of gender (Matthew 19:12 And Paul does something similar in Galatians 3:28).
I’ve never been a liturgical sort of person and as such, Lent really hasn’t held much meaning for me. Maybe because of that, I tend to think WAY outside the box when it comes to what I do with this church season.1 This year, I’m going to take up another rather odd lenten practice.
But first, some context.
There’s a kind of bait-and-switch that happens in some forms of evangelical Christianity.2 Prior to salvation, the church promises unconditional love and forgiveness. This is the bait. The switch happens after someone accepts Christ and has been at the church for a while. In the switch, the “forgiveness” bit mysteriously disappears and the “unconditional” bit gets replaced by a severe sort of legalism. Worst of all, “love” takes on a disturbingly dark hue.3
I used to attend such a church.4
I’ve written before that this church
…taught a really strict, particularly moralistic version of Christianity. They taught a view of God where God was an all-seeing deity who was always looking for the tiniest ways that we fell short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23)…
It’s as if God was on a hair-trigger pivot… We could only have a relationship with God when we lived righteously because that was the only time when God was pleased with us. But this hair-trigger God would immediately snap 180 degrees away from us any time we sinned in any way. And the back side of God radiated shame – shame that reminded us that we were weak and disgusting and not worthy of relationship with a holy God.
Our worth only came from God, but only when we lived in a way that didn’t repulse God.
(As an aside, given this view of God, it’s no wonder that I wrote a pair of posts last year talking about how I believed that God was kind of an asshole.)
But you know what?
I’m done believing in that God. Really done.
But now what?
I figure there are a few ways I could go. I could try Peter Rollins’ atheism for Lent project. Or I could disbelieve in God for an entire year, the way this Seventh Day Adventist pastor did.5 Or I could give up belief in God altogether.
And I’ll admit, I was really tempted to take one of these non-belief stances, to join the growing ranks of the nones and dones.
But I’ve chosen an entirely different route:
This year, for Lent, I’m going to believe that God really does love me unconditionally, that God never stopped loving me, and that God never will.
And that may seem like a lovely, simple thing, but given my history with the church, it’s anything but. This is a lenten choice laden with baggage and seeded with landmines.
For me, a part of this lenten discipline will be blogging about the thoughts surrounding this decision, thus the “part one” bit in the title. I don’t know how regularly I’ll be posting for this series, but I’m hoping to get at least one post up per week.
1. For example, two years ago, I tweeted “This year for Lent, I’m going to give up singleness.”
2. Usually on the really conservative end.
3. In a previous post, this is how I described this dark form of “love”
[Sexual] desire outside the context of marriage is dangerous, it’s unpredictable, uncontrollable, and wrong. It’s so dangerous that if you choose to entertain it in any way, shape, or form, it will seriously and permanently screw you up for life. It’s so unpredictable and uncontrollable that you should have nothing to do with it whatsoever because you can’t predict what you can’t control and you can’t control what you can’t predict. And it’s so wrong that we’re going to immediately brandish you with white hot shame if we even suspect you’re dabbling in it in any way whatsoever… because that’s how much we love you.
4. Well, technically, I attended a really conservative para-church organization that taught me these things, but for simplicity’s sake, I’m just going to call it a church.
Also, I’ve since found much healthier Christian community, but (as I’ll outline in future posts in this series) the scars from those early experiences are still with me.
5. At the end of his year, this pastor came to this conclusion: “I have discovered no evidence that a God exists.”
A few years ago, I wrote a series of posts that I titled, “tell me about love,” where I tried to think through what exactly this thing called “love” actually is. However, the more I’ve come to learn about love, the more I realize that love is this huge complex, amalgam that’s made up of all sorts of component parts. And in a way, for me to write a series of posts called “tell me about love…”
I vastly underestimated the task of what I was asking.
The analogy might be like me saying, “tell me about heart surgery” when I don’t know the basics of human anatomy.
I knew what I was asking when I asked about love, but what I didn’t realize was how many of the fundamentals I was missing in even asking the question. I was, in a way, asking a question that was much more advanced than I was ready to answer. And so what I want to do is to take it a bit slower, to try and breakdown love as I have come to understand it, into more of its component parts and deal with or investigate these bits more closely in the hopes of reintegrating it into a larger whole and reclaiming and learning what this larger concept, this huge concept of love, actually is.
All that to say, I’m thinking of staring a new series of posts – a subset of “tell me about love” – and I’m going to call it: Tell me about pleasure.1
Tell me about pleasure. Because I don’t… I don’t know.
And I think one of the reasons why I’m still so ill equipped to identify what brings me pleasure is because of the purity culture I was raised with in the church. In purity culture, not only was I taught to not pay attention to what brought pleasure into my life, I was also taught that pleasure was something to be avoided, something to be afraid of, something to deny, and to run from. And unfortunately, I took up that teaching wholeheartedly.
A key verse that I remember these early church leaders drilling into me was the verse about how Christ calls us to deny ourselves and to take up our cross and follow him. And the part that they definitely emphasized was the denying one’s self bit. They taught that the goal of the Christian life was to deny all of one’s self for the sake of living out the Christian life. And for them, the goal of the Christian life was simply to bring other people to Christ. So anything that got in the way of sharing the gospel3 was what needed to be denied and put away.
As an introvert, the thought of approaching people that I didn’t know (with theology I barely understood) horrified me. But that didn’t matter. Their basic message to me was,
Oh, you’re an introvert? Hey, fuck you! Don’t be an introvert. You need to deny that shit for the sake of taking up the cross and sharing the gospel with other people. Because if you don’t, then they’re going to go to hell, and that’s going to be on you, and you’re an asshole for being so selfish.”4
Their self-denial was meant to hollow me out, to rid me of any sense of self-awareness and/or agency. Basically, they were turning me into a sock puppet – an empty form that they could ram their fist up into and make me say what they wanted me to say. And the really insidious thing is that the more hollow and selfless and compliant I was, the better of a Christian I was in their eyes.
So all that to say, I was never taught to pay attention to my own desires, what brought me any kind of fulfillment or pleasure. I was only taught to listen to what they told me to do and believe and say.
Fast forward to today.
I’ve long since rejected the self-denying theology I was raised with and I’m well aware of the toxic nature of what I was taught. I now have a theology that’s vasty different and I’m not afraid to voice it.5 My theology is much more meaningful to me and closely tied to who I am, and my beliefs are finally my own. It provides some structure and meaning for my life and while I’m grateful for all of that, it’s very much an intellectual endeavor.
To return to the sock puppet metaphor, it’s like I’ve been able to fill my head with new, better ideas and theology, but the rest of me – my body – is still empty. The insensitivity to and the unawareness of myself and what makes me happy, what I want, what makes me feel good – I don’t have that awareness.
And thus this new series of posts.
Tell me about pleasure.
Tell me about what feels sensual and delicious.
Tell me about how to integrate mind and body.6
1 I don’t now exactly, right now, what other components of love that I’m going to be taking on, but for now, I’ll start with pleasure. And while I think desire is another characteristic that I’ll want to look into, I think the notion of pleasure comes before desire. The way I see it, we desire what brings us pleasure and so if we don’t know what brings us pleasure, we won’t know where/how to direct our desires.
2 This is a part of what’s caused so many of my relationship troubles – because it’s difficult for others to be in a relationship with me when I’m not in touch with my needs. Because what does that make me? I’m a phantom. I’m a ghost. And it’s no wonder they sometimes felt alone even when I was right there next to them.
3 Theirs was a very shallow sort of understanding of what it meant to share the gospel. Walk people through the Four Spiritual Laws and get them to pray the Sinner’s Prayer and your job was done.
4 Of course they didn’t use profanity. They used shame. And that’s unfortunate, because their shaming tactics were too subtle and subversive for my young mind to identify. So while shame was explicit, the implicit message was still a hearty, “fuck you – who you are doesn’t matter.”
5 I’m already working on posts that describe my current theology. Stay tuned!
6 And yes, there’s a kind of irony in writing a blog post about moving past thinking towards self/body awareness. But writing? Writing is pleasurable for me. I like the feel of the Mac chiclet keys under my fingers. And writing is what I know. And I don’t know where else to start.