Rachel Held Evans, author of the New York Times Bestseller, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, offered a collection of blog posts today on virginity and asks whether Christians idolize virginity. The ensuing comments (nearly 300 as of the writing of this blog) expose the complexity of this issue as well as the shame, pain, and other unintended consequences of messages that equate purity with virginity.
Our tendency to equate purity to virginity as simply a physical reality is reminiscent of the Pharisees and their focus on the external purity rituals while neglecting the heart. Jesus corrects this attitude in many ways including his teaching on lust (Matthew 5:28) – that a lustful attitude is a form of adultery, which was mostly considered a physical act, as well as a violation of property rights. But, the opposite error of imagining purity as only a state of mind is also a problem as it imagines that what we do in our body is of little consequence to our spirit and soul. Certainly, we see many who are victims of rape or sexual abuse needing to make a disconnection between their body and their mind/soul/spirit for survival, but this is not healthy, true to our human nature nor what God intends for humans who are created to image their creator.
Both of these positions assume that purity is something we can possess within ourselves, or out of our own resources. Recently I’ve been reading Christ the Key by Theologian Kathryn Tanner who notes, “Like angels, humans can acquire the virtues that perfect them only by participating in what is other than themselves, the Word that in its simplicity is itself those things without acquiring them.” (Tanner, Christ the Key, Kindle Location 498) We are misguided to think of any human (even a newborn?) as pure in any sense apart from the pure light of Christ illuminating the whole person. Even in the Garden, God was the source of all purity and goodness, as Tanner quotes Gregory of Nyssa from “On Virginity,” that in the Garden we were “to enjoy the good in its purity . . . and to enjoy that, is in my judgment nothing else than ever to be with God, and to feel ceaselessly and continually this delight, unalloyed by anything that could tear us away from it.” (Tanner, Kindle Location 604 – I would like to read Gregory of Nyssa source on this topic!)
When we equate purity with virginity, we create a system in which we imagine we can somehow be pure apart from God. When we reject purity as virginity, and imagine purity as a state of mind, we create a system in which what we do with our bodies doesn’t matter but still seek to be pure apart from God. God is the only source of purity for us and we must be careful to teach our children well to look to God as the source of all of the goodness in their lives. By looking to Christ as our source, and allowing Christ to transform us, can we acquire the virtue of purity? To what degree can we “be pure”? Tanner notes, “when our minds are therefore formed according to the divine image, so are our bodies.” (Tanner, Kindle Location 983) Is this a unidirectional interface – the image of Christ affects our mind which then affects our bodies? If purity is something outside of ourselves, how then do we talk about, think about sexual ethics and what it means to be joined to another human being in such an intimate way?
These discussions about purity and virginity are complicated and raise many questions about what we believe about God, about living in community, and about what it means to be human. Together, we must work toward a sexual ethic that speaks more about integrity and what it means to be appropriately human than creating an in and out proposition where young people who choose to have sex before marriage are shamed and shunned while young people who wait to have sex until marriage are paralyzed by the “sex is evil” messages that they end up in therapists offices not long after their wedding night!
We must also make room for those who are abused, raped, and sexually trafficked to be welcome in our midst without feeling like lepers. And we must recognize the gender imbalance in these conversations and the implications for both men and women when the evangelical response to over-sexualization is an equally distorted over-sexualization asking for men to protect women’s vaginas! As if women are property again!!
As a young Christian, I heard the “Why Wait?” messages and was deeply shamed by them since I had not waited. Years later, after a period of abstaining from sex until marriage, I struggled deeply with wounds – not just from being shamed for not waiting, but from the pain of abuse by men who mistreated me and claimed to be entitled to possess me for their own pleasure, denying my humanity in the process. While most of my premarital sexual experiences were consensual, as a young teenager I don’t think I realized what I was consenting to. I was looking for love in all the wrong places and instead found many men who viewed women as sexual objects to possess for their own pleasure.
Here’s a reflection I wrote a while ago echoing the pain that only God can heal:
The arrow penetrated and lodged within my heart of hearts, deep under my skin. The wound healed over on the surface it seemed and only a crooked and painted scar remained. I tried to ignore the pain inside that the crooked scar was trying to hide. I told myself the wound was healed, there was no more bleeding – the skin was sealed. Yet deep inside the poisonous arrow remained and when I touched the scar, I winced in pain. The voices in my head said I’m scarred for life, there isn’t a man who would want me as a wife. Your sin has marred you beyond repair, there isn’t a man who will truly care. My heart was shattered as I believed the lies, and I found it impossible to trust most any guy. I thought they all only wanted to gain personal pleasure while giving me pain. I thought I had failed God and that God would deny my desire for intimacy and then I would cry.
Thank you, Rachel Held Evans, Elizabeth Esther, Sarah Bessey, Carolyn Custis James, and Dianna Anderson, for asking hard questions, telling real stories, and working to mitigate the unintended consequences of the purity=virginity message. As a mother of four daughters, ages 14-20, I am deeply concerned about these messages. Hopefully together we can write a new message that leads to life, health and human flourishing for women and men alike.
“Sit still and be quiet!” Perhaps I should have used all caps when writing that, as it was not the calm and quiet instruction offered a four year old with a soft touch on the shoulder. No, it was the forceful command of a violent and rageful man – my father. I often heard that command barked out at me when I was young. But the most tangible memory is of hearing it around the dining room table. The dining room was off limits except when we ate there together as a family or with guests. The table was larger than life and the chairs were a deep, dark wood with gold embroidered upholstery. The fear of spilling something on the upholstery was almost as overwhelming as the fear aroused when sharply reminded to “sit still and be quiet!”
I loved my father (he passed away in 2006) but I also feared him. My mother tried to hide the black eyes and bruises, but we knew. And when we crossed the line (Dad’s line), we didn’t just get swats to correct our behavior. No, we received a whipping with his leather belt. I learned quickly from my sister, I didn’t ever want to see that belt taken off. So, I invented many ways of hiding. But, there were times when my “motor-mouth” got the best of me. And I would hear those words, loud and clear, “SIT STILL AND BE QUIET!” I can almost hear them even now as I write, and my heart is tempted to race. It’s almost an instinctual response – the kind that puts you into “fight or flight” mode. I always prefered flight over fight. Snuggling up to my mom’s legs and hiding under her skirt was a common safe haven when I was four.
This wound from my childhood has taken on a life of it’s own at times. It’s kind of like a poisoned arrow was shot into my heart. The arrow may have been removed, but the poisoned tip was left behind. The wound has scarred over, but the pain remains beneath the surface and the poison seeps into my whole body and colors my interpretations of present events.
For instance, when I was checking out Student Ministries in my local church to see if it was where God wanted me to serve during this season, I visited for a few weeks and chatted with a few of the leaders. One Sunday, I shared with the Student Ministries Pastor some things I had experienced. He asked me if I was considering serving with the students and almost instantly my heart started to race. I didn’t realize it, but sometimes just talking with authority figures activates the poison from my past. I have learned enough to recognize the symptoms and didn’t run away and hide this time. Instead, I calmly responded and told him I would set a time to come in and talk to him about it. It didn’t take long for the fearful messages to start flooding my head – “He’s going to tell you that you talk too much and he only wants leaders who just listen and do what he says.” Now, it was obvious to others that that’s not the way this pastor works. He welcomes thoughtful and creative leaders and values what they have to say. But, my past experiences were coloring my present imagination and I could almost hear the words, “Sit still and be quiet.”
My sense of God leading me to work with Student Ministries was strong enough to inspire me to keep going, but at that moment I was very tempted to run and hide. Every fiber of my being wanted to escape the fear and just find some safe place to hide. Unfortunately, I’m too big to hide under my mom’s skirt anymore – and she rarely wears skirts or dresses anyway. Fortunately, God had other plans for me, plans for further healing and deliverance from the fear and from the lies that too frequently flooded my imagination. I scheduled an appointment with the Student Ministries Pastor, but knew I needed to speak with my prayer counselor first. As I met with my prayer counselor, she helped me make the connections between my heart-racing response to the pastor and the terror I experienced when I was young. During our time of prayer, the Holy Spirit helped me find that poisoned-arrow tip and with laser-like skill, God removed the poisoned tip and through the healing power of Christ in me, the poison was removed.
Here are some of the steps I took to experience healing from this poison within me:
- I recognized the root source of the fear – the terror of being raised in a home filled with violence and verbal abuse.
- I found a tangible memory that embodied that fear.
- I thought about what I wanted to say to my Dad in that situation, but couldn’t.
- I recognized and confessed my anger and rage toward my dad and his terrorizing behavior.
- I asked God to give me the gift of forgiveness for my dad and to forgive me for my anger and rage toward my dad.
- God helped me see the lies I believed about myself – like, “Nobody really wants to hear what you have to say.” “You really should just be calm and quiet like all the other Christian girls/women.” Etc. Then I acknowledged them as lies and chose not to believe them.
- I asked God to show me the truth – what does God think about me? Does God want me to “sit still and be quiet”? What is God inviting me to do or be?
It would be nice if that one prayer experience delivered me from all fear for all time, but that’s not the way healing happened for me in this instance. As part of the healing, God showed me a picture of the kind of joyful life I am invited to participate in with Christ and the Holy Spirit. In prayer, I imagined myself as a little girl at that larger-than-life dining room table, but instead of my Dad sitting there at the head of the table, Jesus was standing there holding his hand out and inviting me to climb up over the gold-embroidered upholstery and jump up onto the table and dance. It was a beautiful image – very healing and freeing. But sometimes I still fear those who remind me of my dad in some way or another. I wish the fear was completely gone. Sometimes God heals instantly, but other times it’s a process. Perhaps it’s often a process to remind me to cling to Christ and depend on the Holy Spirit in my life…
One Bible verse the Spirit keeps bringing to mind is 1 John 4:8, “Perfect love casts out fear.” This love that is referenced here is not my love – it’s not, “If you love perfectly you will not be afraid.” It’s not about another human love, like, “If your dad (or pastor or spouse) loves you perfectly, you won’t have to fear.” The only source of perfect love that I know of is God’s love. That’s the love that I cling to whenever I am tempted to fear. And that’s the love that is inviting me not to sit still and be quiet, but to get up and DANCE!
“Save some water for the fishies!” I picked up that expression from my husband who yells it at our girls when he get’s worried that they are about to take a 30 minute shower. I called out my co-worker with that expression when he left the water running in the sink at work for what seemed like an inordinate amount of time. “It’s all gonna burn anyway!” He replied with a smirk. I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not, but that’s not the first time I had heard such sentiments. As a young adult in church, images of the end of the world were not uncommon. From the end-times movie series “A Thief in the Night” of the late 70s to the more recent “Left Behind” series, vivid images of this world going to hell in a handbasket became popular in the late 20th century. While these apocalyptic science-fiction stories are based on a few passages from the Bible, are they merely fiction? Is it really “all gonna burn”? If it’s “all gonna burn” anyway, do we have any responsibility for creation care? And why are we so quick to hold onto the fire and brimstone metaphors anyway?
As we continue in this Advent season, a season of hope, we may be tempted to look around us and lose hope. Surely, there are wars and rumours of wars, famines and earthquakes, the end must be coming soon. Jesus must be ready to return any day now, so we must focus on saving as many souls as possible for an eternal future in heaven with God. “We don’t have time to worry about the environment,” we say. “Earthquakes and hurricanes are signs of the earth groaning for Jesus to return and a judgement on those who are evil and wicked in God’s sight,” we proclaim on our twitter feeds, facebook statuses and personal blogs.
Apocalyptic Metaphors and A Heaven/Earth Dualism
When we think about the end, and whether we admit it or not, most of us do think about the end, how do we imagine the new creation? What images come to mind? Do we envision, like some who have gone before, a catastrophic destruction of planet earth while we wait somewhere as disembodied souls for the creation of the new heavens and the new earth? When we read the passages in the Bible that talk about fire, and judgement, do we eagerly anticipate such destruction – hoping those wicked evildoers will finally get their just rewards? Do we imagine God is like the most amazing player in Call of Duty able to get to the highest level possible and defeat all the Nazi Zombies and save the world? Anne Lamott quotes her priest friend as saying, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Is it the Biblical text that is fueling our penchant for fire and brimstone metaphors for the end of the world or is it our own malformed understanding of justice?
Philosophers and theologians alike agree that what we think about death and life beyond it are relevant to our thinking about anything else. N.T. Wright in Surprised by Hope says our thinking about death, and life beyond, provide one of the main reasons for thinking seriously about anything at all! So, our images and metaphors for the “death” or end of the world as we know it shape and inform much of our thinking about everything else. I’m not sure metaphors and images of destruction and damnation are the most helpful images to focus on for a people of hope. So, let’s look at another, more hopeful metaphor that is appropriate for this time of Advent – the metaphor of birth.
The New Testament offers this image as seen in these passages about the new creation as a new birth:
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, “I am the Messiah!” and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumours of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
We see this image of a woman giving birth again in Revelation 12.
I wonder, what would a shift in our focus of God’s good future for creation to an image of new birth do for us in how we care for the earth and care for one another?
As a woman who has given birth to four children, perhaps I can help you imagine how this might change your thinking. When I was pregnant, I was very careful to take better care of myself. With my third child, I even bought a book called “Super-Immunity for Kids” and instead of just taking the prescribed prenatal vitamin, I took a whole cupboard full of vitamins recommended in the book. It was around that time that I had begun going to a naturopathic doctor for my primary care. My husband was suspicious at first, calling him a voodoo doctor, but after seeing the health benefits of his care, he lovingly calls him the vitamin doctor now. I made sure I ate right and exercised regularly. I used those cheesy pregnancy exercise videos right up until the day I went into to labor with my girls. I surrounded myself with a community of care, from health care providers to friends and relatives supporting me and praying for me. It was a lot of work, but as most mothers will testify, the pains of labor pale once the newborn is held in your arms. This image of new birth is a powerful metaphor.
Both Jesus and Paul, as well as John in Revelation use this image of new birth. N.T. Wright suggests that Paul’s use of the metaphor of birth pangs “shows that what he has in mind is not the unmaking of creation or simply its steady development but the drastic and dramatic birth of new creation from the womb of the old.” Why is it so hard for us to imagine the end of the world using metaphors and images of new birth instead of radical destruction and fiery judgement?
Trauma and Fear
Many of us have experienced great evil in this world. Whether through personal trauma – participation in war zones such as Iraq or Afghanistan, childhood abuse, loved ones lost to cancer, violence done to us in our homes or elsewhere, or through observing disease, violence and evil in the world around us – like senseless school shootings where innocent children die, we have seen the face of evil. In times like these, it’s easy for us to fear that things will only get worse. We want the pain and suffering to end and are looking for a way of escape. Many of us have experienced more pain and trauma than any human should have to bear. We long for justice, we want the wrongs done to us and to others made right. We want mercy for ourselves, but we cling to the passages in the Bible that promise God’s wrath upon the wicked evildoers. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man who witnessed and suffered some of the greatest evil in our recent cultural memories in Nazi Germany, writes, “Where we do not recognize God as the merciful Creator, we can know God only as the wrathful judge – that is, only standing in relation to the middle, between the beginning and the end.” When Bonhoeffer talks about this idea of standing in relation to the middle, he is speaking of our limited position apart from Christ. Jesus is the one who enables us to see God as the merciful creator of a good creation. Christ is the one who is both beginning and end, and enables us to see the beginning from the view of the end of all things.
Hope for the Future
It is only through Christ that we can understand the end of all things, for Christ is the end. It is through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus that we have hope and can even glimpse God’s good future. Christ proclaims that he is the first-born of the new creation and we will be the first-fruits. He has already conquered sin and death. We are living in the time of the now and the not yet – we are beginning the see the new birth of God’s Kingdom breaking through and healing all of creation, but it has only just begun. The in-breaking of God’s Kingdom is moving us toward a restoration of all things. We are invited to participate as cooperative friends of Jesus in this restoration project. We are not left on our own, but through the indwelling life of the Spirit, we are inspired and empowered to participate in God’s creative goodness for the sake of others.
This new creation is not an individualistic idea, as we often imagine when we read 2 Corinthians 5:16-21:
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
As some of my favorite preachers have been known to say, “The Greek word for everything means EVERYTHING!” New creation is not limited to our spiritual selves, as if we are bodies containing souls. We are made whole in Christ – body, soul, spirit – an integrated whole person. And we are not isolated from others or the created world around us. God is reconciling us and the whole world to himself! We are interdependent not only with God through the life of Christ and the power of the Spirit, but we are interdependent with one to another, and we are interdependent with all of creation. Life after death is not limited to our souls escaping this wicked and evil world, life after death is about new life, new creation – a new world being birthed out of the world created for our good from the beginning.
At this time of Advent, let us adopt a posture of hope and learn to care for all of creation, as an expectant mother and her community care for the new life and the body which carries it. It is right and good to care for creation, and because we are a people who embody the virtue of hope, we do the right thing. Just as God planted the seed of Jesus in the womb of Mary, God has planted the seed of Jesus, the new Adam, in the womb of the world.
In this season, amidst the struggle of pain and sorrow, may we not forget the meaning of Advent:
Advent, meaning “the coming,” is a time when we wait expectantly. Christians began to celebrate it as a season during the fourth and fifth centuries. Like Mary, we celebrate the coming of the Christ child, what God has already done. And we wait in expectation of the full coming of God’s reign on earth and for the return of Christ, what God will yet do. But this waiting is not a passive waiting. It is an active waiting. As any expectant mother knows, this waiting also involves preparation, exercise, nutrition, care, prayer, work; and birth involves pain, blood, tears, joy, release, community. It is called labor for a reason. Likewise, we are in a world pregnant with hope, and we live in the expectation of the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. As we wait, we also work, cry, pray, ache; we are the midwives of another world. (from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals)
You can’t put Dan Kimball in a box. He is a true non-conformist. Sure, some might say his pompadour is evidence of some sort of conformity, but they would be wrong. Dan just doesn’t fit into anyone’s box. He loves Rockabilly, but he doesn’t fit the Rockabilly fan stereotype. He’s a Pastor, but he doesn’t fit the Pastor stereotype either! While Dan has wrestled with feeling like a misfit at times, his tendency to nonconformity has been an encouragement and inspiration to many. In his latest book, Adventures in Churchland, Dan recounts his early experiences with the Church, the pressure to conform to a Christian sub-culture that just didn’t fit with what he was reading in the Bible, and his subsequent wrestling over many years with what it means to be the Church Jesus envisions.
In Part One, Dan describes his entry into Churchland and his struggles with feeling like a misfit. He opens Part One describing a scene from a church musical. I’m not sure whether I played a part in that particular Christmas musical, but I do remember playing the part of Mary Magdelene in an Easter production. Dan and I started attending the same church in CA around the same time in the late ‘80s. While Dan was a nonconformist, I was ready to conform my life to the Christian sub-culture and adapted quite well in my early years of following Jesus. But Dan’s questioning inspired me to search the Scriptures and dig deeper in my faith over the years, as Adventures in Churchland will do for any who read it.
Dan gracefully exposes the Christian sub-culture for what it is – a pattern of the world and a terrible mess at times. Romans 12:2 warns us not to be conformed to the patterns of this world – and unfortunately there is a pattern of the Church-world that needs to be avoided. Dan calls it Churchland. Paul encourages the Roman Christians to remember they are called to be conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29), not the patterns of the world. Dan leans into this truth over and over again as he resists conforming to the pressures of Churchland and seeks to be conformed to Christ. The first part of Adventures in Churchland is largely Dan’s personal testimony of how he came to find Jesus in the mess of organized religion.
Part Two of Adventures in Churchland follows up on Dan’s previous work in They Like Jesus But Not The Church as he dives deeper into the issues of the Church being seen as a judgmental, negative, controlling organized religion. He uses some pretty strong words as he employs a technique found in Jesus’ discourses in the gospels. Jesus confronts the religious leaders of the day to adjust their thinking by saying, “You have heard it said…, but I tell you…” Dan adapts this technique by using, “You have heard it said…” to highlight criticisms that outsiders have raised against the Church. He then goes on to offer what Jesus says the Church is/should be like. I understand this technique is useful, Rob Bell has used it and I have even employed it on this blog at times, but it can cause problems as well. The chapters include wonderful words of wisdom from the Bible, but is also mixed with Dan’s opinions and experiences. We must use discernment to make sure we are rightly understanding the words that Jesus says to the Church and the words Dan has to offer. Both are helpful and edifying, and I do believe the Spirit of God speaks through people like Dan, but nevertheless, we must be discerning and search the Scriptures allowing the Spirit to guide us into all truth as we listen to Dan’s advice. After all, that’s what Dan would encourage us to do.
My biggest criticism of Dan’s work is his lack of talk about the role of the Holy Spirit in discerning these truths. Dan talks about his experiences and his learning about the Church and Jesus through the Biblical text and relationship with others, but I imagine the Holy Spirit has played a bigger part in leading Dan in this adventure than he mentions. Dan is a great example of being a cooperative friend of Jesus, living a life of creative goodness in the power of the Holy Spirit for the sake of others, and perhaps Dan just assumes we know the Holy Spirit is active in his process. But, I would prefer to hear a little more about how Dan experiences the leading of the Holy Spirit in his adventures. Perhaps it’s just my charismatic leanings that fuel this yearning for more.
Part Three picks up on Dan’s personal testimony and encourages the reader to venture out of Churchland and into Graceland, not the Elvis Presley Mansion in Memphis, but the place that is “all about including people to experience God’s grace without having to be a part of a nonbiblical manmade subculture. It’s about being in a constant state of grace and appreciation, which results in our living in our culture, not creating a subculture, so we can share this incredible grace with others.” Dan explains his understanding of what the church is and invites us to “be” the church instead of “go” to church. Dan reminds us that messy people make a messy church – it’s unavoidable. And God knows, I’ve contributed my part to the mess!
When Dan and I were co-leaders in a young adult ministry, I was one who was pressuring him to conform the the Christian subculture of preference for morning persons. We were encouraged to do “morning devotions” and “seek God early”, etc. We are both night owls and had many stimulating late night conversations with our young adult group at coffee shops until the wee hours, but for no other reason than “this is what good Christian leaders do,” we agreed to meet early once a week to pray and discuss plans for the young adult ministry. He was frequently late. I tried “exhorting” him using Psalm 5:3: O Lord, in the morning will I direct my prayer. But, he graciously retorted with Psalm 4:8: In peace will I lie down and sleep! I have since learned that one does not have to be an early bird to follow Jesus.
While I have been tempted to conform to the nonbiblical, manmade, Christian subculture over the years, Dan has continually encouraged me to seek to be conformed to Christ. Dan’s quirky way of seeing things and witty way of explaining things invites us to see Jesus in the midst of the messes we make for ourselves as we seek to be the Church Jesus wants us to be. Adventures in Churchland is a fun and engaging read, while challenging us to not give up on the Church or Jesus when we experience wrongs committed in Jesus’ name. After all, Dan reminds us, “for all the wrongs committed in Jesus’ name, there are many more acts of kindness, mercy, grace, and forgiveness that beautifully represent the name and message of Jesus. Often it’s hard to see the beauty when the mess is what is highlighted and gets attention. But it is all around us, if you look for it.” I’m joining Dan in looking for the beauty of God’s creative goodness expressed through the Church as we seek to be cooperative friends of Jesus living lives of creative goodness in community for the sake of others.
In most of my book reviews, I refer to the author by last-name, but not this time. Dan Kimball is one of my oldest friends – I mean, friend I’ve known for a long time – Dan will never get old! While Dan is a true nonconformist where the patterns of the world are concerned, I have seen him change over the years as he’s faithfully followed Jesus. He has chosen to align his life with Christ and has helped me to see Jesus more clearly through his friendship and witness to the inbreaking Kingdom of God. It’s true that we’ve sometimes made a mess of things as we seek to be the Church, but it’s also true that Jesus dwells in the midst of our messiness and invites us to participate in this great adventure in the land of grace where we can experience God’s kingdom here and now as it is in heaven. I encourage you to read Adventures in Churchland and give it to your friends who may be tempted to criticize or avoid Church because of their negative experiences with Churchland. Perhaps they too will find the grace Jesus offers as both Dan and I have.
“It seems that more than ever the compulsion today is to identify, to reduce someone to what is on the label. To identify is to control, to limit. To love is to call by name and so open the wide gates of creativity. But we forget names and turn to labels.” –Madeline L’Engle
LGBTQ is the latest in a long list of labels used to identify people with sexual orientations that differ from the heterosexual norm. I can never quite remember the right order – or even the right list, so I looked it up. LGBTQ is an initialism that represents Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer or Questioning. And questioning is exactly what Jenell Williams Paris does so well in The End of Sexual Identity. As a professor of anthropology, Paris understands culture. As an evangelical who was “carried in utero to Sunday morning worship and Wednesday evening prayer,” Paris understands evangelical Christians. But, she’s not a “nice” Christian. Paris writes, “Nice Christians pretend things are fine when they are not, say one thing and do another, and avoid difficult conversations.” (19) Paris dives into the deep end of the conversations around sexuality and challenges her readers to question the sexual identity framework – the cultural pattern by which people understand their sexuality.
|The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are by Jenell Williams Paris|
Early on, Paris defines terms, explains culture making, and gives an overview of the gender binary system we currently inhabit. She invites the reader to “imagine a different cultural world, one in which human sexual differences are not understood in binary categories, but as a spectrum.” (33) Paris then goes on to set up the problems she hopes to solve by rejecting sexual identity labels as she lays out the trouble with heterosexuality as well as the trouble with homosexuality in chapters two and three. Paris offers strong words against “the thought of” heterosexuality – even calling it an abomination! (43) I’m sure this has gotten her into quite a bit of trouble with those who are fervent in their efforts to label homosexuality as we know it today as an abomination. In her treatment of the historical ideas of homosexuality, I find Paris a bit lacking, but she makes up for her lack by excelling in her area of expertise – anthropology. Looking at the origins of homosexuality from an anthropological point of view sheds new light on oft-shrouded topic.
After setting up the problem with the sexual identity framework, Paris offers a view of sexual holiness that she hopes will refocus the conversation from labels that limit and control to a view of evaluating sexuality that devotes “proper attention to all the dimensions of human sexuality.” (82) Her focus on holiness is not about morality, as she notes, “When distorted, holiness is used as a synonym for morality, when really it’s about being more and more in love with God and with humanity.” (83) Her view of sexual holiness is generous and borne out of a Wesleyan understanding of holiness. In the last few chapters of the book she applies this ethic of sexual holiness to sexual desire, sexual intercourse, and celibacy. Paris does some good cultural work in these chapters, but she fails to convince me of the importance of sex as she seeks to answer the question implied in the subtitle of the book, “Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are.”
Paris offers some inspiring ideas in her chapter on celibacy, especially in her discussion of plausibility structures. A plausibility structure is “a concept that describes how a group of people come to share a sense of what is believable, or plausible.” (129) Many of the arguments in The End of Sexual Identity look to creation as a basis for understanding human sexuality, but I wonder how our plausibility structures would shift if we looked to the not-yet Kingdom to help us understand human sexuality? Instead of looking to what has been or what is, how will we imagine being human in a world where sex no longer defines us? Paris proposes a tearing down of the sexual identity framework to allow room for creating a culture where sexual identity does not define us – and it’s a good start, but we still have much work to do.
He asked me to give a toast at the wedding. While I wasn’t the one who introduced them, I got to play a big part in their early dating days. After all, they were young adult leaders in a youth ministry I was leading for a year. I got to see their love bloom and grow up close and personal, and I was often asked to give advice in the midst of some of the struggles that are part of parcel of learning to love. I’m excited to celebrate with them at their wedding today.
I haven’t given a toast in a long time and weddings have changed quite a bit since I got married 20 years ago. Everybody wants to do something different. So, I asked a few more questions about what was expected of me. We’ve had our share of conversations about sex, so, I warned, “Maybe I’ll make a toast to your sex life in explicit detail…” He responded, “may we not be limited to the missionary position…” He always knows how to make me laugh.
I couldn’t help thinking about this as I interacted with readers on the Rachel Held Evans blog as Rachel responded to Jared Wilson’s blog which included talk about sex and submission (the original blog post has since been taken down as our friend Scot McKnight and others requested).
Why do we call sexual intercourse with the man on top and the woman on bottom the missionary position?
I’ve done some writing on this blog about the missional church and the shift from a Christendom-conquering-colonizing view of mission to a more relational-incarnational view of mission. I’ve also written on how important our use of language is in effecting cultural change.
One of the most disturbing parts of Jared Wilson’s post quoting Doug Wilson’s Fidelity is the use of the following description of sex as: A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts.
Rachel Held Evans was one of the loudest voices in response. After I read her response, I wondered if my friend Jim Henderson had been talking with her.
One of Jim’s favorite maxims is, “It’s not about sex, it’s about power.” He writes in his latest book, The Resignation of Eve, “People who have power often don’t think about it, but people who don’t have power think about it all the time.” And as we’re told from the media, men think about sex all the time. And they are often the ones with the power. So, we should not be surprised when men post such things and fail to realize how powerful their words are – and how powerfully they may hurt others.
I wonder, what if we decided to reform our thinking around sex in the relational-incarnational ways that we are changing our thinking around mission? No more conquering and colonizing. But relating to one another in ways that seek understanding and empower one another to be fully human.
There has been so much violence done in the name of mission and submission over the years when mission was primarily viewed in the conquering and colonizing way. Is it any wonder that when we use such language in relation to sexual intercourse that those being conquered and colonized would feel violated? Jesus rejected the conquering and colonizing structures of his day when he refused to be the King in the way the people wanted him to be king. A Jesus kind of power is not a power over, but a giving up and giving away kind of power.
It’s not about sex. It’s about power.
I hope we can learn together how to better steward our power even in the most intimate of spaces – the marriage bed.
I’m continuing last week’s book offerings for my summer #freebookgiveaway. Sign up to get monthly email updates delivered straight to your inbox and you’ll be entered in the weekly drawing for free books when you confirm.
This week’s choices are:
This week’s choices are:
|The Resignation of Eve: What If Adam’s Rib Is No Longer Willing to Be the Church’s Backbone? by Jim Henderson
|Ruby Slippers: How the Soul of a Woman Brings Her Home by Jonalyn Grace Fincher
The Huffington Post reports, “American Confidence In Organized Religion At All Time Low” today. And I am not surprised. My friends Dan Kimball and David Kinnaman have been writing books about this general topic for a while. They Like Jesus But Not The Church, unChristian, You Lost Me, and Adventures in Churchland all broach this topic – offering helpful criticism of the church from within. I’m about two thirds of the way through Dan Kimball’s latest book and find his insights into the mess of organized religion encouraging. Dan writes:
Some of the negative press about the church is understandable, but what is often missing is reporting that communicates all the good things the church has organized to accomplish for the good of others. And that sometimes gets forgotten when people criticize the church. Without downplaying the wrongs that have been done by the church, we also need to acknowledge the many things that the church has done right.
Dan goes on to note some of the things he’s experienced that the church is doing right.
It’s easy for us to rail on all the things the church has done wrong. In my research on talking to girls about sex, I’m finding more than enough to be critical of. But I don’t want to forget the good that the church has done and is doing. There have been days when I have wanted to give up on organized religion. But like Dan, I continue to be committed to the church. While there are things that I have been concerned with even in my own local church, the good that the church is doing helps to keep me hanging on. My recent trip to Thailand to work to stop sex trafficking is because my local church, Overlake Christian Church (OCC), has been working there for over ten years giving birth to Global Breakthrough – an organization committed to bringing hope, dignity and quality of life to the oppressed of the world. The Student Ministries at OCC has been a great place for my teens to participate in God’s mission and wrestle with honest questions about their faith and sees hundreds of young people serve the world both locally and globally each year. My friends at Vineyard Community Church in Shoreline are actively involved in strengthening at-risk youth and families in the region through their partnership with Turning Point Seattle. I could mention many more, but you get the idea. There’s a lot of good going on even here in one of the least religious states in the country.
We can’t ignore the wrongs that have been done or are being done by the church, but let us not forget the good. And let us participate in the good. We are invited to be cooperative friends of Jesus living lives of creative goodness in the power of the Holy Spirit for the sake of others. What are you and your churches doing for the sake of others?
One of the ways I hope to participate in creative goodness this summer is by giving away books that inspire conversation around the topics of church and sexuality. Sign up to get monthly email updates delivered straight to your inbox and you’ll be entered in the weekly drawing for free books when you confirm. Here’s a list of the books I have offered so far in my summer #freebookgiveaway:
This week’s choices are:
|The Resignation of Eve: What If Adam’s Rib Is No Longer Willing to Be the Church’s Backbone? by Jim Henderson
|Ruby Slippers: How the Soul of a Woman Brings Her Home by Jonalyn Grace Fincher
Last week’s choices were:
|Unladylike: Resisting the Injustice of Inequality in the Church by Pam Hogeweide
|Adventures in Churchland: Finding Jesus in the Mess of Organized Religion by Dan Kimball
The first week’s choices were:
|Love Is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Communityby Andrew Marin
|The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are by Jenell Williams Paris
I’m not giving up on organized religion today. Instead, I’m hoping to help reorganize the religious organizations I participate in to be more in alignment with God’s Kingdom. And I’m praying with the church through the ages, Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.