Better Sex, the Subjugation of Women, and Shades of the Real Thing

I’m blushing. I don’t write like this. I don’t like to talk like this in public. But when the public conversation is about a book and a movie that celebrates a kind of sexual expression, it is time to put a certain amount of shyness aside.

Before going further, I want to say that I know how people will view the response of Christians to this movie: Typical! Of course those prudish, old-fashioned nagging Evangelicals don’t like a movie about sex!

But while Christians are often vocal about what to boycott and what to ‘take a stand for’, we haven’t been the best about saying why. And in the few blogs I’ve skimmed from Christians, there is a lot of ‘Please just don’t go see it’ or ‘This is sin!’ talk going on.

So, this is my reluctant attempt to add to the dialogue by highlighting three things Christians affirm about sex, intimacy and our deepest longing:

1. Christians believe that the secret to better sex is not more erotic pleasure but more and truer intimacy. If you think that that the key to better sex is increased erotic pleasure, then any way of increasing erotic pleasure is something we should consider. This, by the way, has been the unstated presupposition of many Christian sex books, which are full of advice on how to spice up the marital bedroom. Christian readers have only paid attention to when to have sex– after you’re married!– and failed to recognize that these Christian sex-experts have the same faulty premise as a secular world: better sex comes from more pleasure.

But the Bible’s premise is actually quite different: better sex comes from more and truer intimacy. Sex is a physical enactment– the embodiment, if you will– of the one-ness between man and wife. (There is, of course, something to be said here about how the covenant of marriage is the only thing strong enough to protect and preserve the deep vulnerability that is necessary to develop intimacy.) As their lives have been made one and are becoming one– the ‘now and not yet’ of marriage– so sex becomes stronger and more meaningful.

2. Christians believe that all intimacy is the result of a mutual yielding, not one-side domination. When real intimacy and not raw erotic pleasure is the goal, you can never end up with abusive sex or sexual violence. The reason we detect contradictory voices in our culture– ‘Stop domestic violence!’ ‘End the subjugation of women’ and yet ‘I love “50 Shades”!’– is that we are thinking through the lens of pleasure and not intimacy.

Before Paul ever says a word about husbands and wives in his letter to the Ephesians, he admonishes us to submit to one another. Intimacy is the result of a mutual yielding. For two people to get close– friends, lovers, or even teammates and colleagues– each must give a little. Each must surrender a part of who they are for the sake of the other. This isn’t to be taken in a cold, contractual sense. It is the essence of self-giving love. The perfect picture of this is the Trinity, where personhood is not diminished but cherished as a result of mutual self-giving. A culture enamored with a picture of ‘love’ that looks like erotic pleasure from dominating or being dominated is one that has lost any sense of self-giving love.

3. Christians believe that sexuality awakens a thirst only spirituality can quench. Many of the Church Fathers linked the erotic language of the Song of Solomon to the church’s worship as the ‘bride of Christ’. (I know: you’re going to have to rethink your opposition to what you’ve dismissed as ‘all that Jesus is my boyfriend stuff’!) They saw baptism as a kind of wedding ceremony and the Eucharist as a kiss from Christ.

All this may sound strange, but they– and many Jewish rabbis before them– knew something we have forgotten: there is a link between sexuality and spirituality.

Actually, our culture is aware of this link as well, they’ve just inverted the relationship. See, for example, the popular song, ‘Take Me To Church’, which uses the language of spirituality to describe the experience of sexuality. It’s like Song of Solomon in reverse.

Here’s the point: sexuality awakens us to a deep thirst– the longing to be fully known and fully loved– which only spirituality can quench. This is why even before talking about mutual yielding, Paul the Apostle spoke of being filled with the Spirit. It is the Spirit of God who fills those who belong to Christ, who communicates to each believer their deep belovedness in Christ, and who reminds us how fully we are known and how deeply we are loved.

There are a whole lot of people whose thirst for intimacy has been awakened. They are more aware of a longing to be known and to be loved this weekend than perhaps at other times. Beyond boycotting a movie, Christians can be the ones who speak loudly and lovingly about the only place where we are fully known and fully loved: in Christ.

Forget Following Your Dreams

Follow your dream. Write your story. Live an epic life.

I’m sorry, but I’m not buying it.

This has long been the fodder of daytime talk shows and popular self-help books, but when did Christians start talking like this? When did we create conferences, ministries and enterprises out of teaching people to discover their dreams and craft their lives in the pursuit of them?

This was not how the people of God used to make sense of their lives and of their purpose.

Nehemiah sat and wept when he heard the condition of Jerusalem.
Jeremiah said the word of the Lord was like fire shut up in his bones.
Jesus was moved by compassion.
Paul was constrained by the love of Christ.

Not one of these were peering into their heart, tapping into their dreams and longings, and then projecting them outward into a plan for action.

Was Augustine following his dream when he gave up his career for a life in service of the church? What soul-searching, script-writing technique was Francis engaging in when he renounced his wealth and devoted himself to rebuild the church? Was Cranmer pursuing his passion when he refused to recant his convictions before being executed? Whose dream was Hudson Taylor chasing when he sailed to China?

‘Dream’, of course, can be a slippery word. What do we mean by ‘dream’?

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream…but if you listen to the content of that dream— and pay attention to his life as a whole— it was more like a prophetic imagination, a vision of a world not yet visible, of a Kingdom still arriving. It didn’t arise out of a restless boredom from spending too many hours in a cubicle. His ‘dream’ was not anything like the thing to which our use of the word refers. I can’t help but wonder if the ‘dream’ rhetoric in our day isn’t just overly self-conscious and semi-public angst-filled musings.

Vision’ is not much better. Hijacked by a corporate culture fixated on maximizing every opportunity, ‘vision’ can be overly goal-oriented and results-driven.

Passion’ gets closer, mostly because its roots are in the notion of suffering, particularly suffering for the sake of another. After all, whenever we begin with ourselves, we are off on the wrong foot. Purpose is often discovered in service of another.

A word that is missing in our day, a word that brings to bear a whole set of virtues largely absent from the ‘dream’ rhetoric, is burden. Burden implies a weight, a weight that someone else placed upon you. Burden is not what you asked for but what is being asked of you. Burden is not thought up or dreamed up. Burden burns.

The rhetoric of dreams has helped us find the courage to take risks. That’s a good thing. But risk-taking in itself is not a virtue. No one, from Aristotle to Aquinas, would have seen it as one. Taking a risk is implicated in virtue if the telos— the goal— of that risk was virtuous. If one joined a battle to defend a vulnerable village and it involved taking a risk, the goal was virtuous, therefore the act was virtuous. But to make risk-taking in itself a virtue is lunacy.

So while the rhetoric of dreams may have led us to find our courage, there are other virtues we need. We need to recover the virtues of faithfulness— even in the mundane; we need the virtue of selflessness, so that we can sacrifice and serve. These virtues help us not only to create but also to preserve, not only to start but also to stay. Such virtues do not arise from the current rhetoric of dreams; they are the result of surrendering to a burden.

My prayer for you is not that you will have big dreams; it is not even that you will take the risk to follow your dreams; and it is certainly not that all your dreams will come true.

My prayer for you is that you will be gripped by a holy burden, that there will be a fire of the Spirit raging within your bones, that you will be moved by compassion. Dreams can make fools who rush into action; burdens make prophets who weep and fast and pray.

My prayer is that you will not make heroes out of dreamers, but that you will contemplate the saints who lived and died under the weight of a holy burden.

May you never set out to find your life; may you always be led to lose it.

My Favorite Reads of 2014

As 2014 comes to a close, I’m thinking about the books that inspired me, enlightened me, challenged me, and fired my imagination this year. I must add the qualifier, though, that these are not necessarily books that were released in 2014; this was simply the year I read them.

Faith and Culture
“How (Not) To Be Secular” by James K. A. Smith

Eminent Oxford chair of philosophy, Charles Taylor, wrote a tome (900 pages!) on how we got to be the ‘secular age’ that we are (in the West), and what it means for people of faith. It’s said to be a landmark work but remains largely inaccessible to the average person. Enter, Jamie Smith, philosophy prof at Calvin College. In a tenth of the length (90 pages or so!), Smith gives us the basic overview of, and a critical engagement with Taylor’s work. The result is that pastors can now understand a bit more about the world in which we are trying to be faithful witnesses to the Gospel.

Favorite snippet: The ‘secular age’ is like a playing field above which the dome has been closed, but everyone is so consumed with the game on the field that no one even asks about the stars. (In other words, we aren’t preaching to people who already feel a “God-shaped” void.)

Theology
“Evil and the Justice of God” by N. T. Wright

I’ve read (just about) every one of Wright’s ‘pop’ level books, which, as it turns out, still require some serious thinking. I’ve also read significant sections of his thick academic books. I have to say, this is pretty darn good summary of some of his best (and least controversial) ideas. Academics will quibble with the sweeping statements and broad brush strokes with which he paints the biblical narrative, but for the layperson, this is just what we needed. The book gives an outline of the ‘new problem of Evil’, a description of what God in the Old Testament did to limit and contain Evil, how Christ took the weight of Evil (its force and its judgment) on Himself, and how Christians live (and forgive!) in light of this reality. Readable and concise, it’s the perfect book to start with for those unfamiliar with Wright.

Biblical Studies
“Reading Backwards” by Richard Hays

How do the Gospel writers use the Old Testament? Do they read ‘scriptures’ as predictive prophecies? As a failed ‘Plan A’? How would a ‘figural reading’ open up new horizons of understanding? Written from a series of lectures given by Hays, the Dean of Duke Divinity School, there are insights on each of the 110+ pages that are enough to fuel a dozen sermons. Hays works through each Gospel, showing how each Gospel-writer’s use of Old Testament language and imagery articulate their belief that in Jesus YHWH has come to Israel at long last. There is some technical (academic) language and a fair amount of Greek, but not so much as to be ignored outside the academy. Trust me: this is a preacher’s treasure trove.

Worship and Liturgy
“Evangelical versus Liturgical? Defying a Dichotomy” by Melanie C. Ross

You wouldn’t expect a professor of liturgy at Yale to give an even-handed defense of ‘free church’ (read: non-denominational) ecclesiology and worship expressions, would you? That’s more or less what Ross does. She refuses the well-worn critiques by academic liturgical snobs (my word, not hers!). Yet, she names the flaws of the free church movement and its worship practices, in part by rightly tracing its roots to the Frontier Revivals. Her inclusion of two chapters based on her in-depth field work with two non-denominational churches (non-mainline denominations) add texture to her argument. The result is a promising bridge that gives us language for conversing across the ‘camps’ and opens the door to mutual learning.

Sociology (ish)
“Watching the English” by Kate Fox

This is just plain fun. I read it (or most of it) for two reasons. One, my sociologist supervisor (I have two supervisors for my doctoral research– a theologian and a sociologist) said it’s a fascinating example of ‘participant observation’, a technique employed by anthropologists and sociologists– and one I’ll need to learn for my field work next year. Secondly, having traveled to England 8 times in the past 16 months, it not only helped me understand my professors and peers, it gave me a good chuckle every time I read it.

Fiction
The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling

OK, this is where you either love me or hate me, or at least get concerned about my salvation. Here’s the deal: I started reading these books this year because I wanted to see if we’d ever want our children to read them. And because I needed something to keep the ‘reading muscle’ in use when the ‘grappling with tough theological concepts’ muscles were tired. I viewed it as a low-weight, high rep workout for my noggin.

What I discovered is an extraordinary work of literature that belongs among the best ‘world-making’ like Tolkien’s books. (Baylor lit prof Alan Jacobs agrees.) Furthermore, the arc of the story bends toward the great themes of sacrificial love and courage, which, of course, reminds me of another Story. (Tim Keller agrees.)

For those concerned about the ‘magic’, a few notes:

Anyway, the fun for me was reading many of these books whilst on a train from King’s Cross station in London up to school in Durham, where many of the scenes from the first few movies were filmed. So, will I let my children read them? Probably. But when they’re a lot older– since they don’t have to wait a year for each book now.

Alright. Those are some of my favorite reads from 2014.

How about you?

The Trouble With Exodus

As the buzz would have it, there is much to find troubling about Ridley Scott‘s Exodus: Gods and Kings. Mainstream reviewers are bemoaning the lack of meaningful dialogue, the strangeness of God-as-an-11-year-old-boy, and even the racism in the casting. One critic, writing for OnFaith, suggested that the value of the movie is in the way it projects our discomfort onto the ancient story, giving voice through Pharaoh to a question we have longed to ask: “Is this your god? Killer of children?”

Yes, Exodus is troubling. And there is no ‘solving’ it. But we can at least locate it in the story the Bible tells. In a sense, the trouble with Exodus is that it is only Episode 1.

There are many ways to paint the arc of the Biblical narrative, but one way of seeing it as with Exodus as the beginning. After setting the backdrop of a good world that God made on purpose and with pleasure, the Bible shows us how everything began to fall apart at the seams. Humankind’s relationship with God began to fray, as did the male-female union. It’s not long before brother is killing brother, and by Noah’s day gangs of tribal violence are having the day. At Babel, society is fragmented. By Genesis 11, it seems that all that God has joined together, humans have torn asunder.

And then, God call Abram. And soon, there is a family—three generations with the call and covenant restated and reinforced. But this family finds themselves in trouble. Brothers once again are turning on one another and soon, they find themselves in Egypt. God meets them there, in this strange land, and for a season, they enjoy prosperity. It isn’t long, however, until Egypt began to oppress the foreigners and exploit them for their own gain. This is where the Exodus story begins.

Episode 1: God comes to save his people and judge their enemies.
This is the central theme of the Exodus: God hears the cry of his people, and God acts to save them and to judge their enemies. The killing of the firstborn male in Egypt is a symbolic act of striking down the strength of the enemy. Furthermore, it is a act that stops evil in its tracks. No offspring will carry this wickedness to another generation. It is God’s mighty “Thus far, and no more” announcement to the embodiment of evil and oppression in that day. As uncomfortable as this might be for post-modern sensibilities, even in our world, we have been confronted with evil so heinous we have no choice but to say, “This must be stopped.” There are people who need to be rescued; and there is evil that needs to be ended.

The Old Testament shows a God who offers little explanation for evil but plenty of action to limit and contain evil. Why this incomplete action? Stay tuned…

Episode 2: The people who need saving also deserve judging.
There were hints of this even with Abraham: his lying and his wife’s unbelief. There were foreshadows of the fracture when Jacob’s sons sold Joseph into slavery. But eventually, the seeds of discord bore the fruit of destruction. After the height of glory during Solomon’s reign, the nation splits in two. The succession of mostly wicked kings in the northern kingdom, Israel, lead to their doom at the hands of Assyria. But the southern kingdom falls some 200 years later at the hands of Babylon. God’s people need judging, and God isn’t afraid to use wicked nations to do it. 

Episode 3: The people who deserve judging also need saving.
The story doesn’t end with the realization that everyone has got it coming from God. After all, hadn’t God promised to use Abraham’s family to bless (i.e., ‘save’) all the families of the earth? Now that Abraham’s family had a share in the wickedness, would God scrap his project of creation and decide not to save anyone and to judge them all instead? The story of Jonah—among others—shows us a God who remains committed to saving all people, even the ones who were clearly ‘the enemy’. Ninevah is representative of all the empires who oppressed God’s people. And yet God sends a prophet to Ninevah.

It is at this point in the Old Testament that we find that things are more complicated then they seem. There aren’t simply ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’; God’s people and pagans. The people who need saving also deserve judging, and the people who deserve judgment also need saving. But how?

These three movements in the Old Testament bring the story to the edge of a cliff. Would God abandon his plan to save his world? Or would God forget his promise to do it through Abraham’s family? How can God judge even those he wants to save and save even those he needs to judge?

Enter, Jesus– the seed of Abraham and the representative of Israel; the everlasting God himself, come in the flesh at long last. In Jesus we see not only the faithfulness of God but also the wisdom of God. Jesus is the surprising, unexpected Episode 4.

In Jesus, YHWH comes to save and to judge. But Jesus accomplishes this in a most unexpected way. Jesus, the Gospel writers find many ways to tell us, is fully human and fully God– and thus he is the one doing the judging and the one receiving the judgment, the one doing the saving and the one being saved from death through resurrection. He is the warrior who conquers by losing, the Savior who rescues by dying. Jesus takes the weight of all that is evil and sinful and wrong in the world upon himself, standing in not simply for ‘Israel’ but also for ‘Rome’—not only the covenant people but also the enemies and outsiders.

Jesus saves and judges by taking the judgment upon himself.

And that is tremendous news.

So, as you watch the movie and read and re-read the Exodus story, it’s quite alright to be troubled. Just keep reading. It’s not the end. That’s the trouble with Exodus– it’s only Episode 1.

“Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me.”– Jesus.