Archives For Sex

Savage Love

Jason Micheli —  May 10, 2017 — Leave a comment

My friend Scott Jones wrote the following essay on love, sex, marriage, and why is that infidelity is the only sin that forever defines someone as a failure, the sin for which there is never grace.

Scott is a pastor in the Philly area, a Princeton alum like myself, and a (much better than me) podcaster, hosting Give and Take and New Persuasive Words. Check out the conversation he references below here.

All you need is love, love is all you need.

That is so true on face value that it almost needs no unpacking. Its meaning can also be elusive, even opaque. As with all things, context is king. Where and when we read the above sentence will inevitably shape what we make of it. What I’m making of it today is shaped by a conversation I had last Thursday with Dan Savage.

Dan is a world famous sex columnist. He began his column “Savage Love” decades ago as a kind of joke. He thought it would be hilarious as a gay man to give sex advice to straight people with a tone of suppressed “ewwwwwww-ness” that colors the voice of most straight people (mostly straight guys) when they talk about gay people and gay sex. What started as a lark become an incredible success. He became a sort of celebrity, one who scandalized gays and straights alike. My friend Mark Oppenheimer wrote a book about Savage, one he begins with an interesting observation. We’ve had a lot of gay celebrities in late modern American culture, but Dan Savage was the first to start “out”. Elton John, George Michael, Melissa Ethridge…the list goes on, but they all began their public life in the closet. Even if people suspected they were gay there was a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy before the policy enacted to deal with gays in the military that seemed to govern public life, at least where celebrities were concerned. Everything was handled with a wink and a nod.

A Lutheran minister who wrote a think piece on Savage a few years ago claimed that he saved more marriages than a successful pastor at a prominent church could do in decades of faithful work. The same minister summarizes the secret of Savage’s success as follows:

Underlying all of Savages principles, abbreviations, and maxims is a pragmatism that strives for stable, livable, and reasonably happy relationships in a world where the old constraints that were meant to facilitate these ends are gone. Disclosure is necessary, but not beyond reason. Honesty [is] the best policy and all, he advised a guilty boyfriend, but each of us gets to take at least one big secret to the grave. Stuck with a husband whose porn stash has grown beyond what you thought you were signing up for? Put it behind closed doors and try not to think about it. Who knows how many good relationships have been saved and how many disastrous marriages have been averted by heeding a Savage insistence on disclosing the unmet need, tolerating the within-reason quirk, or forgiving the endurable lapse? In ways that his frequent interlocutors on the Christian right wouldn’t expect, Savage has probably done more to uphold conventional families than many counselors who are unwilling to engage so frankly with modern sexual mores. A successful marriage is basically an endless cycle of wrongs committed, apologies offered, and forgiveness granted, he advised one very uptight spouse, all leavened by the occasional orgasm.

As I read those words and reflected on my conversation with Dan a passage from Paul Zahl’s Grace In Practice remained perched in the forefront of my mind:

“Ministers see no evil, and yet they see everything. This is the reality of imputation. Pastoral care is not “proactive,” a big word in our lives today. Pastoral care observes, yet decides not to see. This is the essence of grace in practice. You look out on a group of people on a Sunday morning and observe bickering mothers and daughters, sullen and resentful sons, sexually ually frustrated men and misunderstood wives. You feel the rising infidelities ities and the hurt feelings and the palpable mourning for mothers and fathers thers who are no longer present. You see all this if you have an eye to original sin and total depravity. Yet you speak the word of imputed righteousness: teousness: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). The blanket of condemnation that the discerning eye cannot fail to see is replaced by the “garments of salvation” (Isaiah 61:io)…This means that pastoral response is always the response of listening and passive reception. It is not the response of trying to fix things. Every conversation you ever have in ministry is a piercing conversation from the standpoint of the pastoral listener. He or she has heard it all before, many, many times. Yet it has to come out. It has to be heard with full acceptance, even sorry acquiescence. Grace never tries to fix, but trusts God to do this. Grace listens.”

Dan said something early on in the conversation that I am still unpacking. He said that fidelity in the context of monogamy is the only thing that if you fail once at defines you as a failure. You can be a world class tennis player and make a few unforced errors at Wimbledon and you’re still a world class tennis player. You can be the winner of Top Chef and then burn an omelette and your still a chef, and regarded as a good one. In fact we celebrate the failures of someone who has dutifully done their 10,000 hours and become proficient in some skill that we need to make this thing called modern life going. We can even sometimes romanticize failure, but not where infidelity is concerned. Dan is at heart a conservative and a traditionalist and he thinks this glaring inconsistency ruins a lot of salvageable and even salutary relationships, ultimately eroding the quality of our shared public life.

One needn’t agree with everything Dan Savage says about sex or the nature of monogamy to get his point. And I think our celebration of failure often is only when we see it as part of a success story. Past failures get baptized retroactively because they are attached to clearly revealed current success stories. We often praise failures of successful people at the same time derisively scorning the same failures when they confront us attached to stories of people who we’d rather not look at or be around, let alone admire. Perhaps our approach to infidelity actually masks our intolerance for any failure, be it in ourselves or others. If we can just keep this one rule maybe it will be the deeper magic that wipes away the rest of our transgressions. The sensibility of this kind of rationalization is only surpassed by it’s silliness.

Hans Ur Von Balthasar describe the agonizing end ecstatic nature of human love in his masterful little book Love Alone Is Credible:

But though all of this may point the way, it does not accomplish the journey, for there are other equally strong, or stronger, powers that set a limit to love’s movement: the fight for one’s place under the sun; the terrible stifling of the individual by the surrounding relations, the clan, and even by the family; the struggle of natural selection, for which nature itself provides the strength and the arms; the laws of time’s decay: friendships, once thought to be forever, grow cold, people grow apart, views and perspectives and thus hearts too become estranged. Geographic distances create an additional burden, and love must be strong and single-minded in order to withstand it; pledges of love, meant to be eternal, get broken, because the rising wave of eros gave way and another newer love came in between; the beloved’s faults and limitations became unbearable, and perhaps even worsened because the finitude of love seemed to be a contradiction: Why love just one woman when there are thousands that could be loved? Don Juan poses this question as he shakes the cage of finitude, driven by a fundamental intuition no less valid, perhaps, than Faust’s. But if the very meaning of love slips past the don in the surfeit of women, Faust fails to hold onto the eternity he thought he could pin down in the surfeit of “moments”.

Given the fragile, faltering and fallen nature of human love it’s astounding that God chooses marriage as a primary metaphor to tell the sacred story of his journey with his people. A few years ago Ray Ortlund wrote a book called Whoredom: God’s Unfaithful Wife In Biblical Theology. He attempts to bring to the forefront a metaphor which, despite it’s biblical prominence, has gotten short shrift in the church’s preaching and teaching. He concludes the book with the following words:

If we perceive the Rorschach pattern of life as a lonely fight for survival without the consolations of divine succor, so that we barricade ourselves within the apparent safety of the self, we discover too late that the lock on the door operates only from the outside. All we have left is an endless reconfiguring of the autonomous self, and we are incapable of release into the light and freedom of God’s larger conceptual world. But, in the mercy of God, the biblical gospel intrudes its way into our prison as a blessed subversive agent, alerting us that that larger world really is out there and that God is able to break the lock of our self-imposed confinement…

Perhaps our borderline obsessive focus on infidelity as the only sin that merits a permanent scarlet letter thinly veils our own awareness of the infidelities that characterize more of our lives, public and private, than we’d care to admit. But the realization of our own human ineptness and infidelities is always the occasion for God’s invitation to rest in faithfulness that can only be described as divine. God’s love is a savage love, the kind that civilizes and shapes us for an eternal feast, the Wedding Supper of the Lamb that is the City of God.

When the other guys on the podcast posse found out Jason’s guest, Melissa Febos, had written a memoir about her time as a dominatrix in NYC, they all got gun shy.

Their loss. I’m grateful to consider Melissa an (e) friend now.

Not gonna lie- and you can give us your feedback- but I think this conversation with Melissa is the best we’ve had yet on the podcast, ranging from writing, bodies as objects and bodies as sacraments, Woody Allen, grace, shame, mercy, and the eucharist as an erotic act.

Melissa Febos is the author of the acclaimed Whip Smart and the new memoir Abandon Me.

Her work has been widely anthologized and appears in publications including Tin House, Granta, The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Glamour, Guernica, Post Road, Salon, The New York Times, Hunger Mountain, Portland Review, Dissent, The Chronicle of Higher Education Review, Bitch Magazine, Poets & Writers, The Rumpus, Drunken Boat, and Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York.

She has been featured on NPR’s Fresh Air, CNN, Anderson Cooper Live, and elsewhere. Her essays have twice received special mention from the Best American Essays anthology and have won prizes from Prairie Schooner, Story Quarterly, and The Center for Women Writers. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, The Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and The MacDowell Colony.

The recipient of an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, she is currently Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Monmouth University.

Next week – Scot McKnight talks to us about angels. Week after – Martin Doblmeier of Journey Films. Followed by Robert Jenson and Rod Dreher of Benedict Option fame. Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our website.

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the link. 

lightstock_48159_xsmall_user_2741517

This post was up on the blog for about 30 seconds before I got hacked by the Islamic Cyber Force Team and other amusingly self-titled Muslim cyber terrorists.

The hack was provoked by a sermon whose text I can’t recover- thanks to the aforementioned cyber terrorists- but you can listen to it here.

I thought I’d repost this reflection while I try to piece the blog back together (pain in the ass).

Thanks to all of you who’ve emailed encouragement, wondering where the posts are and/or projecting upon me all sorts of ‘front line of freedom’ altruism.

For you e-subscribers out there, sorry for the repost. I’m trying to figure out how I can restore the blog without pushing out old content to all of you.

——————————————————————————–

Dear Son,

It occurred to me recently that, as a preacher’s kid (PK), you hear me give guidance to others more often than I do for you.

As a result, I thought I’d write you this ‘FYI’ even though it may be a bit premature. In the event I’m ever iced by an angry church member you’ll at least have these 2 cents on record.

You’re still at the age when the word ‘selfie’ probably strikes you as a good name for a Marvel villain, and the mere mention of GIRLS makes you blush and wrinkle your nose in contemptuous embarrassment.

This may be premature, but perhaps not. After all, you’ve been learning about ‘the puberty’ at school but, even more so, it seems appropriate because- no matter your age:

Who you will be always begins right now, with who your Mom and me are helping you to become.

That’s a parent’s baptismal promise, to shape you so that your character is grounded in the character of Jesus. God, I hope your Mom does a good job of it.

What it means to have the character of Jesus, who was the perfect image of God, is to regard others as the exact image of God.

That means, son, to see people as holy, as sacraments, and sacraments- as you’ve learned in church- are examples of a whole lot more than what’s visible to the eye.

That means, son, to treat people as (God’s) people. And never as objects.

It means you never see only a person’s physical beauty, or notice only their lack of it- which I also hope you’ll learn is a terribly unbeautiful way to live.

Brass tacks time, son:

If you see a pretty girl, in real life or on Instagram, and from that point on that’s all you can see in them or that’s all you can think of them…that’s YOUR fault son NOT the girl’s fault.

I hold you responsible and I’m damn sure your Mother will too.

Sure, said girl made her choice when she dressed said way.

But you make your choices too.

You can choose to objectify others or you can choose to treat your neighbors as your self.

In truth, if you do grow up to objectify girls, son, it’s our fault too, your Mom and me, for letting you be shaped by a culture that sexualizes everything for a $ and only sounding the alarm years later when we don’t like what its done to you.

But I don’t think that will happen to you.

Some parents excuse their boys’ demeaning girls by demeaning boys, by saying ‘boys will be boys.’

I think I’ll give you more credit, son, which also means I’m giving you responsibility.

You can treat girls as they should be treated.

But let’s be realistic, sometimes you won’t. You’ll have impulses, thoughts, desires…and THAT’S OKAY. It’s natural. It’s part of being human. It’s not any girl’s fault and it’s not yours either. It’s not dirty or bad or unholy.

Jesus (God) was human, don’t forget, so there’s nothing that can run through your head that didn’t run through his. And so there’s nothing you need to be ashamed of.

Now that you’re hitting puberty, son, you’ll realize to what an extent that’s gospel, good news.

While we’re on this track, let me just say that, like other parents, your Mother and I certainly hope you’ll ‘wait’ for that perfect girl (and if it’s not a girl that’s fine too, but that’s advice for another day).

Always remember, though, if you do ‘wait’ you’re no better than anyone else and no worthier of my love. Or God’s.

And if you don’t wait, you and your other whomever is no less beautiful to me. Or God. Parents who suggest anything to the contrary are on some ugly, unGospely footing.

Finally, son, let me ask a favor of you.

If, in the years ahead, you ever mess up or make a mistake, in the real world or the virtual one, please don’t let me get so self-important that I resort to faith-based innuendo to shame you.

Always remember, even I don’t always appear to:

There’s nothing you can do to make me love you more, and there’s nothing you can do to make me love you less. I hope that one day you will find someone for whom you can say the same.

Love,

Dad

 

 

 

 

 

Let No One Tear Asunder

Jason Micheli —  February 3, 2014 — 14 Comments

1391011150566.cachedThis weekend I concluded our marriage sermon series by reflecting on how the issue of marriage, in particular homosexuality, threatens to split the United Methodist Church.

In it, I tried to survey the four broad perspectives that exist within the larger Church and within my own congregation, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of each view. Ephesians 2.13-22 was my text.

Here’s the audio. You can also download it in iTunes or, better yet, download the free mobile app.

 

      1. Let No One Tear Asunder

A Case for Gay Marriage

Jason Micheli —  February 1, 2014 — 5 Comments

RogersThis weekend I will conclude our marriage sermon series, Love to Stay, by discussing the marriage debate in the larger Church and unpacking the divergent perspectives in a fair way.

To prepare, I thought I would post a pro/con series of posts by written by former teachers of mine at UVA whom I respect immensely and whose work has shaped me.

Today, it’s an argument from Eugene Rogers, whose book, Sexuality and the Christian Body, is the best theological treatment of marriage in general that I’ve discovered.

Rogers was my very first theology teacher, my very first religion professor. I didn’t go to college thinking I’d be doing this with my life and I wouldn’t be had he never entered my life and ignited my curiosity about God.

Here it is:

I want to consider gay marriage by first reflecting on the theology of marriage, and I want to reflect on the theology of marriage under the rubric of sanctification. This approach is consistent with the tradition of the Orthodox Church, which regards marriage as a way of participating in the divine life not by way of sexual satisfaction but by way of ascetic self-denial for the sake of more desirable goods. Theologically understood, marriage is not primarily for the control of lust or for procreation. It is a discipline whereby we give ourselves to another for the sake of growing in holiness — for, more precisely, the sake of God.

In this respect marriage and monasticism are two forms of the same discipline, as the Orthodox writer Paul Evdokimov has argued. They are both ways of committing ourselves to others — a spouse or a monastic community — from whom we cannot easily escape. Both the monastic and the married give themselves over to be transformed by the perceptions of others; both seek to learn, over time, by the discipline of living with others something about how God perceives human beings.

Rowan Williams has written, “Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted. The whole story of creation, incarnation, and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God’s giving that God’s [Son] makes in the life of the Trinity. We are created [and we marry] so that we may be caught up in this, so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God.” Like all forms of asceticism, this is a high-risk endeavor. It can expose the worst in people — so that it can be healed.

Sexuality, in short, is for sanctification, that is, for God. It is to be a means by which God catches human beings up into the community of God’s Spirit and the identity of God’s child. Monogamy and monasticism are two ways of embodying features of the triune life in which God initiates, responds to and celebrates love.

Monasticism is for people who find a bodily, sexual sanctification first and foremost in the desirous perception of God. Marriage is for people who find themselves transformed by the desirous perception of another human being made in God’s image. In a marital or monastic community, the parties commit themselves to practicing faith, hope and charity in a situation in which those virtues get plenty of opportunity to be exercised.

This way of understanding the Christian life obviously takes seriously the embodied character of human life. And embodiment implies diversity. The Holy Spirit characteristically rests on bodies: the body of Christ in Jesus, in the church, in the sacraments and in the saints. As the Spirit forms the bodies of human beings into the body of Christ, she characteristically gathers the diverse and diversifies the corporate, making members of one body.

We can see the Holy Spirit working for a harmonious diversity as she hovers over the waters in creation. Let us suppose that “Be fruitful and multiply” applies to the commands “Let the earth put forth vegetation” and “Let the waters bring forth swarms” and “Let the earth bring forth everything that creeps upon the ground” (Gen.1:26, 1:11, 1:20, 1:24). In all these cases, the earth and the waters bring forth things different from themselves, not just more dirt and more water. And in all these cases, they bring forth a variety of things: one might almost translate the phrase as “Be fruitful and diversify.”

Christian thinkers have argued against the notion that the diversity of creatures and persons is the result of the Fall rather than of God’s creation of a multifarious world, Aquinas represents a prominent strand of Christian thought on this point: the earthly environment demands to be filled with an ordered variety of creatures, he said, so that God’s creation will not suffer the imperfection of showing gaps.

Creatures require the diversity that the Spirit rejoices to evoke. Multiplication is always in God’s hand, so that the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes, the fruit of the virgin’s womb, the diversity of the natural world does not overturn nature but parallels, diversifies and celebrates it. The Spirit’s transformation of the elements of a sacrament is just a special case of the Spirit’s rule over all of God’s creation.

What kind of diversity or otherness does the Spirit evoke? Does it evoke the diversity represented by homosexual persons? Clearly, the majority opinion of the church has said no — that sort of diversity in creation is not the work of the Spirit. But it is not at all clear that such a judgment is necessary.

Conservatives will suppose that by invoking the diversity of creation I am begging the question. And yet, if the earth is to bring forth not according to its kind (more dirt) but creatures different from dirt and from each other, and if bodily differences among creatures are intended to represent a plenum in which every niche is filled, then the burden of proof lies on the other side. It needs to be shown that one of God’s existing entities somehow cannot do its part in communicating and representing God’s goodness and do so precisely in its finitude, by its limitations.

What are the limits on accepting diversity as capable of representing God’s goodness? Conservatives and liberals would agree that a diversity evoked by the Holy Spirit must be a holy diversity, a diversity ordered to the good, one that brings forth the fruits of the Spirit, primarily faith, hope and charity.

Given that no human beings exhibit faith, hope and charity on their own, but only in community, it is hard to argue that gay and lesbian people ought to be left out of social arrangements, such as marriage, in which these virtues are trained. In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus, our human limitations are intended for our good. So too, then, the limitations ascribed to same-sex couples, or for that matter cross-sex couples: in Gregory’s words, their “very limitations are a form of training” toward communicating and representing the good.

The church needs both biological and adoptive parents, especially since baptism is a type of adoption. The trick is to turn these created limits toward the appreciation of the goods represented by others. Our differences are meant to make us yearn for and love one another. Says Williams:

“The life of the Christian community has as its rationale — if not invariably its practical reality — the task of teaching us to so order our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired, as the occasion of joy.”

Perhaps the signal case of the blessing of diversity is God’s promise to Abraham that by him all the nations of the earth would become blessings to one another (Gen. 18:18). The promise to Abraham interprets “otherness” as primarily moral, in the sense that the other is the one that sanctifies — difference is intended for blessing.

Under conditions of sin, otherness can lead to curse rather than blessing, to hostility rather than hospitality. Certainly there has been enough cursing and hostility to go around in the sexuality debates. But as created, otherness is intended for blessing and hospitality.

For large sections of various Christian traditions, blessing does not float overhead. Sanctification comes through concrete practices of asceticism, a discipline or training through which lesser goods serve greater ones. This asceticism is not a bizarre, antiquated Christian weirdness. Americans are already deeply if sometimes mistakenly invested in one kind of asceticism: dieting and working out at the gym are physical disciplines that are supposed to bring spiritual benefits. Indeed, they are supposed by some to bring the greatest of these, love. Surely there are more effective disciplines than those.

To reflect trinitarian holiness, sanctification must involve community. It involves commitments to a community from which one can’t easily escape, whether monastic, nuptial or congregational. (The New Testament devalues commitments to one’s family of origin.) Even hermits and solitaries tend to follow the liturgy, the community’s prayer. The first hermit, Anthony the Great, emerged from solitude with an increased sociality, so that people were drawn to him. His “heart had achieved total transparency to others” (in the words of Peter Brown).

Gay and lesbian people who commit themselves to a community — to a church, or to one another as partners — do so to seek greater goods, to embark upon a discipline, to donate themselves to a greater social meaning. Living out these commitments under conditions of sin, in a community from which one can’t easily escape — especially a community such as marriage, and monasticism — is not likely to be straightforwardly improving. The community from which one can’t easily escape is morally risky. It tends to expose the worst in people. The hope is that community exposes the worst in people in order that the worst can be healed.

Christians will see such healing as the work of Christ. Many Christian traditions portray Christ as a physician who must probe people’s wounds in order to heal them. For example, St. Romanos the Melodist offers this account of Christ explaining his mission to his mother at the foot of the cross:

Be patient a little longer, Mother, and you will see how, like a physician, . . . I treat their wounds, cutting with the lance their calluses and their scabs. And I take [the] vinegar, I apply it as astringent to the wound, when with the probe of the nails I have investigated the cut, I shall plug it with the cloak. And, with my cross as a splint, I shall make use of it, Mother, so that you may chant with understanding, “By suffering he has abolished suffering, my Son and my God” (from On the Lament of the Mother of God).

For the risk of commitment to be worth it and to have the best chance of success, the community must have plenty of time and be made up of the right sort of people. Growth takes a lifetime. The right sort of people are those who will succeed in exposing and healing one another’s flaws.

For gay and lesbian people, the right sort of otherness is unlikely to be represented by someone of the opposite sex, because only someone of the apposite, not opposite, sex will get deep enough into the relationship to expose one’s vulnerabilities and inspire the trust that healing requires. The crucial question is, What sort of created diversity will lead one to holiness?

The answer is no doubt as various as creation itself. But certainly same-sex couples find the right spur to vulnerability, self-exposure, and the long and difficult commitment over time to discover themselves in the perceptions of another — they find all this in someone of the same sex. Theologically, says theologian David McCarthy, a homosexual orientation is this: “Gay men and lesbians are persons who encounter the other (and thus themselves) in relation to persons of the same sex.” Some people, therefore, are called to same-sex partnerships for their own sanctification. Opposite-sex partnerships wouldn’t work for them, because those would evade rather than establish the right kind of transformative vulnerability.

The difference between members of a same-sex couple is not “merely psychological,” but also an embodied difference, if only because sexual response is nothing if not something done bodily. Difference cannot be reduced to male-female complementarity, because that would leave Jesus a deficient human being. Jesus did not need a female other half to be fully human. (This point raises the issue of what singleness is for, but that’s a question for another day.)

If this account is correct, then it turns out that conservatives wish to deprive same-sex couples not so much of satisfaction as of sanctification. But that is contradictory, because so far as I know no conservative has ever seriously argued that same-sex couples need sanctification any less than cross-sex couples do. It is at least contradictory to attempt in the name of holiness to deprive people of the means of their own sanctification,

Conservatives often claim it’s dangerous to practice homosexuality, because it might be a sin. I want to propose that the danger runs both ways. It is more than contradictory, it may even be resisting the Spirit, to attempt to deprive same-sex couples of the discipline of marriage and not to celebrate same-sex weddings. I don’t mean this kind of rhetoric to insult others or forestall discussion. I just mean that the danger of refusing to celebrate love is real.

And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast to his son, and sent his servants to those who were invited to the marriage feast; but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, “Tell those who are invited, Behold, I have made ready my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves are killed, and everything is ready; come to the marriage feast.” But they made light of it and went off . . . Then he said to his servants, . . . “Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find. And . . . so the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment; and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?” And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth” (Matt. 22:1-13).

Not to celebrate same-sex weddings may also be morally dangerous.

lightstock_70152_small_user_2741517For our sermon series on marriage, I’m blogging my way through the Bible’s erogenous zone: The Song of Songs.

Today, I’m still reflecting on  2.1-17.

As I mentioned earlier, in chapter 2, verse 3 of the Song, the young woman sings:

   With great delight I sat in his shadow,
   and his fruit was sweet to my taste. 

And in case it’s not obvious to you, she’s talking about a vine of a different sort. This portion of the poem continues with imagery of mountains and gardens and, uh, “fruit-tasting.”

In my prior take on Song of Songs 2 I noted how the young woman who narrates her passion in the Song contradicts our prejudices of the Old Testament taking a mechanistic view of sex generally and a misogynistic view of women specifically. In the Song of Songs, we find quite the opposite.

The primary narrator is as bold and forthright in what she desires as any Cosmo article and the fact that her aggressive passion is not chastened but canonized tells us that her desire is good.

Even holy.

For my second take on Song of Songs 2 I notice not the woman’s 8 1/2 Weeks worthy word pictures but the fact that those word pictures have mountains and gardens in their background.

That is, I can’t help but notice not the novelty of WHO is speaking but Where she is speaking it.

Describing it.

To put it bluntly:

She’s describing her beloved and herself making love in the outdoors, with mountains behind them, naked, in the light of day, in a springtime garden.

Garden.

St Paul chooses the image of Jesus as the Second Adam to describe an alternative and antidote to the Fall in the Garden of Eden.

I think I like our narrator’s version in the Song of Songs better.

Certainly the allusions to Eden are one of the reasons the ancient rabbis included what would otherwise be a Madonna song in the holy scriptures.

And if it was one of their reasons, then this is more than this unabashed passion with the lights on is more than a passing allusion.

We can reason from the Song of Songs that shame is not intrinsic to sex nor was it intended by God to be such.

Irony is almost always tragic and no less is the case here, for shame is often the very thing Christians attach to sex.

Unashamed, unafraid lovemaking in the light of day is as homey an image of New Creation as any I can think of.

Just as irony is always tragic, from inferences always follow corollaries. If unashamed sex, outside, in the day, with the lights on best describes what Sin undid in Eden, then ‘Sin’ is anything we do to make sex ‘dirty.’

By ‘dirty’ I turn to Robert Jenson:

‘Sadomasochism, bondage and the like are not harmless deviations; they are attacks on humanity…the blessing of marriage brings sex within the gate of the coming new and transformed Eden, so restores its innocence.’

9fd2f25f6a96a760872a425d027134abNeo-Calvinist pastor, Mark Driscoll, infamously declared the Song of Songs to be his favorite book of scripture, an attention-getting claim if you’re speaking primarily to bible nerds. Driscoll even preached a long sermon series through the Song of Songs. That I’ve gotten this far in the Song without referencing that bile is a testament to my character.

Nevertheless…in one particular sermon Driscoll takes the graphic imagery of the Song of Songs, an erotic poem, a POEM, and uses it as a biblical mandate for wives to perform ____________ for on their husbands regardless of their own reciprocal desire.

He’s taking the Song of Songs and putting it back in the Old Eden.

Where it doesn’t belong.

 

lightstock_70152_small_user_2741517For our sermon series on marriage, I’m blogging my way through the Bible’s erogenous zone: The Song of Songs.

Today, it’s 2.1-17.

“I’ll have what she’s having.”

I don’t even need to cite the movie; you know the scene:

Sally Albright: Most women at one time or another have faked it.

Harry Burns: Well, they haven’t faked it with me.

Sally Albright: How do you know?

Harry Burns: Because I know.

Sally Albright: Oh. Right. Thats right. I forgot. Youre a man.

Harry Burns: What was that supposed to mean?

Sally Albright: Nothing. Its just that all men are sure it never happened to them and all women at one time or other have done it so you do the math.

And then, to prove her point, sitting there in the diner Sally takes her good, long time coming into the garden of delights. To use the Song of Songs imagery.

And when she’s done…well, just watch it:

Everyone’s seen the scene and quoted the line, though in my marriage ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ is a distant fourth to ‘white-man overbite,’ ‘wagon wheel coffee table,’ and ‘_______ is quiche of the ’90’s.’

Turns out, When Harry Met Sally’s ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ scene isn’t just ubiquitous it’s theologically instructive.

Where Sally’s sated desire elicits hunger from the two-top at table 8, the young woman of the Song of Song’s desire for her lover is meant to arouse (pun intended) in us a similar desire for God.

The Old Testament usually receives critique and suspicion as being the testament that takes a dim of women generally and women’s sexuality specifically. Despite our assumptions, here in the OT of all places, a woman’s forward, sexual desire is presented in an unabashed and positive light.

In chapter, verse 3 of the Song, the young woman sings:

   With great delight I sat in his shadow,
   and his fruit was sweet to my taste. 

If you think she’s talking about apples and oranges, then you probably thought Led Zeppelin’s ‘Lemon Song’ was also about horticulture.

But no, the ‘Sally’ of the Song of Songs is every bit as bold and unashamed about her desire as the Sally in the film.

By the time we get to verse 16 of the same chapter, the young woman is overcome with hunger, love and desire. The preceding verses climax by breaking breathlessly from poetry and metaphor.

With an almost asphyxiated shout she cries:

My beloved is mine and I am his…

Of course the English translation turns the lights down on how she says it.

In Hebrew:

‘My beloved- mine. Me- his.’ 

And that a poem not unlike the scene in When Harry Met Sally made it into the scriptural canon is a very good indication that when the ancients heard this young woman cry out in passion: ‘My beloved- mine. Me- his’ they heard an allegorized version of the Hebrew Bible’s primary profession of love:

‘I will be their God and they shall be my people.’

By including a long, racy poem like the Song in the canon, the ancient rabbis wanted us to look at this woman, think of our relationship to our Beloved, and respond with our own desire: ‘I’ll have what she’s having…’

As Bernard of Clairvaux observes:

“What does she say when she says ‘He for me and I for him?’ We do not know, because we do not feel what she feels. O holy soul, what is this ‘He’ for you, what are you for him?

What, I beg to know, is so familiarly and gracefully given and returned between you? He is for you and you in turn are for him.

Can you speak to our understanding and tell us what you feel?’

The Song of Songs, in other words, is like so many of the songs on the radio. It’s meant to make us long, to wonder what it’s like to be her and to have that other in her life. It’s meant, I’d argue even, to make us jealous of her lover.

 

 

 

 

lightstock_70152_small_user_2741517For our winter sermon series on marriage and relationships, I’ve decided to blog my way through the Bible’s erogenous zone: The Song of Songs.

1.6 Do not gaze at me because I am dark,
because the sun has gazed on me.
My mother’s sons were angry with me;
they made me keeper of the vineyards,
but my own vineyard I have not kept! 


7 Tell me, you whom my soul loves,
where you pasture your flock,
where you make it lie down at noon;
for why should I be like one who is veiled
beside the flocks of your companions? 


8 If you do not know,
O fairest among women,
follow the tracks of the flock,
and pasture your kids
beside the shepherds’ tents. 

     My mother’s sons were angry with me/they made me keeper of the vineyards/but my own vineyard I have not kept! 

     This poem shouldn’t continue.

It shouldn’t go on.

Were Dr James Dobson the author and ‘family values’ his muse, then you can be sure the poem wouldn’t persist past verse 6.

Or, at the very least, the poem would conclude with a cautionary, moralizing coda to young women about the dangers of not protecting their “vineyard,” about the mandate to keep their vineyard pure and wait for God to send them their foreordained vintner.

Something tells me Dr. Dobson isn’t sufficiently subtle for poetry but if he were then Song of Songs 1.6 might be followed by allusions to the permissiveness of modern culture and its anything goes media.

But the Song of Songs doesn’t with Hester Prynne finger-wagging. It doesn’t end at all. No poetis interruptus here. Instead the Song continues on for 7+ chapters of soft-core poetry that would make Skinemax proud.

And that’s remarkable.

That this Song continues at all is gospel.

Good news.

It’s grace.

An unmerited, unexpected gift.

Because, we’re left to conclude, this unfaithful young woman (my own vineyard I have not kept!) has been forgiven by her betrothed.

He loves her still.

His love is steadfast.

Read simply as an exchange between two mortal lovers then this poem might only conjure the worst type of Jerry Springer, Ike & Tina melodrama.

Read- as it is- as a piece of the biblical canon and thus as a piece of poetry that witnesses to God and God’s relationship with God’s People, then this poem sings with a U2-like, stadium-show volume.

The forgiveness implied within here is enough to make Easter deja vu all over again.

 Because the betrothed’s off-stage forgiveness of his fiancee parallels God’s own forgiveness of his unfaithful people.

What’s more, the physical reminder of the young woman’s sin (her dark skin which resulted from the labor imposed for her infidelity) now has become a mark of greatest beauty and pride.

Like Peter who after Easter could weave the blemish of his 3-fold denial of Christ into a beautiful declaration of God’s forgiveness, this young woman’s lover’s forgiveness allows her to rhapsodize (dark skin) that which would otherwise remain repulsive (in an ancient context).

A lover’s forgiveness makes it possible for sin and shame to become instead a part of a larger, more redemptive story.

Lovers possess the power to turn their relationship’s greatest tragedy into their greatest triumph.

Of course, the caution with the Song of Songs should always be against making poetry do the work reserved for prose alone. Nonetheless I think there’s a reminder here.

Over the course of ministry I’ve encountered a number of couples who share this Song’s couple’s struggle if not their youth; that is, I’ve encountered a number of couples encountering what could/should be a marriage ending betrayal.

Be it with another’s body or with a bottle or _________________.

The challenge in encountering such problems is also the opportunity:

To not let your partner’s sin be the end of your story.

To work- to do the work of forgiveness and then to work- towards making a partner’s sin into a larger story of mercy and love.

To work for that day when your partner’s ‘dark skin’ can be seen not as the blemish it originally was but as a cause for beauty.

In other words, to work…so that you can say ‘X happened to us, he/she did Y to our marriage but we’ve overcome it and have discovered a life even more delightful.

Certainly it’s easier to end the poem at v.6.

To go on requires…

faith?

It’s easier to end the poem at v.6, but, take Easter as your evidence, sometimes the alternative leads to a far more interesting story.

This isn’t to say every partner’s sin should follow unremittingly with the other’s forgiveness. The Song allegorizes God’s forgiving love of our unfaithful love.

It would be idolatrous to think we’re capable of God’s frequency of forgiveness.

This Song, then, doesn’t mandate our forgiveness in every instance. Rather, it points out the possibility of forgiveness in ever instance.

It points out the reality that when we forgive- when we invite forgiveness with those magic words ‘I’m sorry’- we’re participating in the very life of God.

The G(od) Spot

Jason Micheli —  January 7, 2014 — 2 Comments

lightstock_70152_small_user_2741517This weekend we kick-off a 4 week sermon series on marriage and relationships based off of Adam Hamilton’s book, Love to Stay: Sex, Grace and Commitment. 

The first of those subtitled themes has spooked some sober-minded fellow sinners.

Sex, the assumption seems to be, is simply not a suitable subject for a sermon (unless, I suppose, it’s in the service of preaching ‘against’ some form of sexuality).

Ironically, this time last year I posted an article about how Christians are uncomfortable with the full implications of the doctrine of the Incarnation. The post, ‘Jesus Farts,’ netted me a scolding from my bishop whilst simultaneously proving the point of the post: we don’t think of our bodies in a divine way and we certainly don’t want to think of the Christ in a full-throated physical way.

The reaction to my post last year and a single theme of Hamilton’s book this year has convinced me that many Christians have a malnourished theology of the incarnation.

We’re closeted Gnostics.

We think ‘God’ is Spirit thus godly things must be ‘spiritual things.’

We’re conditioned by the Enlightenment.

We doubt that the objects of the material world point to and are sustained by Beauty itself.

We forget that by taking on physicality in Jesus Christ the Divine imbues our physical lives with the divine.

The things which comprise our everyday, material, physical, fleshly lives are sacred.

Holy.

 Just as with the tangible objects of bread and wine, the physical touch of another can be a means of grace.

The reaction to the first subtitled third of Adam Hamilton’s book has provoked my interest not in Hamilton’s book (sorry, Adam) but in a little book of the Old Testament.

The Song of Songs.

All of the above, then, is just throat-clearing to say that during our 4 week Love to Stay sermon series I will be blogging my way through this much-neglected (if known at all) part of the Jewish and Christian canon.

So read it with me and check out the future posts.

Even though the Song of Songs is one of the most commented upon books by theologians and biblical scholars, chances are you’ll have to locate it by way of your bible’s table of contents.

Before I commit to the Song itself perhaps a little courtship is in order.

The Song of Songs falls under the Old Testament’s ‘Wisdom’ literature, but it’s not at all like the other books in that category.

The Song of Songs does not meditate on the goodness of God in a suffering world a la Job.

The Song of Songs does not reflect on faith in or fear of the Lord as the Psalms do.

The Song of Songs contain no prudent, pithy sayings like you’ll find in Proverbs or Ecclesiastes.

The Song of Songs is not like anything in the Hebrew Bible at all.

It’s not law, prophecy or covenant history.

It’s an erotic, explicit series of poems to love.

Physical love.

The Song of Songs is about a passionate young woman and her not-always-as-interested lover.

The Song of Songs is about erogenous zones and seduction, aromas and places to be found alone.

The Song of Songs could make Shakespeare blush and the 50 Shades author red with envy.

hs3Most of the poems in the Song of Songs are narrated in the voice of the young woman, a woman who, in the words of one ancient commentator, is without modesty. Contrary to what you may think about the stodgy, antiquated bible, this young woman’s voice and desire drives the arc of the book.

Here’s the odd thing about the Song of Songs: it’s completely secular.

None of the poems make any mention of God, faith or religious practice.

It’s just about the erotic passion between this woman and her lover.

‘Just?’

The full title for the book is The Song of Songs: Which is Solomon’s. It has a subtitle too.

That construction, Song of Songs, is a Hebrew idiom for a superlative. The Hebrew Bible uses it a lot, mostly in constructions like ‘Lord of Lords’ and ‘Holy of Holies.’ In other words, this form of superlative most often is a way of referring to the Most High God.

And so…

Song of Songs likely could be a way of saying this Song is about God or that this is the godliest, holiest, most sacred of songs.

Why not? The Old Testament prophets frequently compare God’s relationship with Israel to that of a jilted lover or a cuckcolded spouse.

Why must the analogies always and only be in the negative?

While we can’t be sure who wrote the Song of Songs or what was their intent by writing it, we can be certain what the ancient rabbis intended by including it in the canon. In this ode to erotic, physical love they found an analogue to the love between Israel and her God.

Later the ancient Church Fathers found in the Song a parallel for the love Christ has for his Church, and because the Church Fathers believed the external works of God mirror the interior life of God, they found in the Song a description of the love the Father and Son have for each other through the Spirit. chag1

Sex, according the most ancient way of reading this scripture, is an analogue for the love between the Trinity, the love between God and Israel and the love between Christ and the Church.

As anyone who’s taken the SAT’s knows, sound analogies work both ways.

The ancients didn’t just read the Song of Songs as suggesting that God is like the erotic passion of lovers.

The ancients believed the Song of Songs showed that the erotic, physical passion between lovers is like God.

It’s not just a poetic description in other words. The erotic love between lovers really does correlate, in reality, to the nature of God. Indeed our love is only an approximation of it.

A foretaste of it. Foreplay, if you like.

As Robert Jenson puts it:

“By the classic understanding of Creator/creature analogies, mostly developed by Thomas Aquinas, this does not mean that our eroticism is the original and that we construe God’s relation to his people by projecting it. Just the other way around, it means that human lovers’ relations to each other are recognizable in their true eroticism only by noting their analogy to an eroticism that is God’s alone.

Just as our faulty righteousness can nonetheless be anticipation of our eschatological sharing in God’s own righteousness, our frail eroticism can be an anticipation of final sharing in the fulfillment of God’s and his people’s desire for another.”

Eschatological is a jargonny word, I know.

For the laymen out there, the quote means this:

Heaven will be a lot more fun than sitting on clouds and playing harps.

 

 

 

 

Myth_of_You_Complete_MeYesterday, I concluded a series of posts I’ve been writing on Marriage. And in my church we’re in the midst of a sermon series on Counterfeit God. In a way, this seemed like an appropriate Post Script to both those series.

While I’m not in a congregation or a denomination that harps on sexual purity, abstinence and what not, because I’m a pastor, I do know for a fact that young people, particularly women, still struggle with guilt and self-image problems as a result of being sexually active. Particularly when those relationships don’t work out or when bad choices get made. And, because I’m a pastor, I know many married couples struggle with their sexual relationship and often because its predicated on unrealistic expectations.

Tony Jones has a thoughtful piece written by an anonymous commenter, pointing out how both pornographers and abstinence-only Christians turn sex into an idol, giving it far importance and power over our lives than it has in reality. Ultimately both can create illusions and expectations that are destructive. Here’s a clip from his post:

1. That the world fetishes (as in ascribing magical powers to a mundate object) sex, but then so does the church. If there’s any wisdom in the worldly teenage rush to rid oneself of virginity, it’s that it unmasks the object and robs it of some of its power. Meanwhile teenage Christian guys struggle with porn because sex is mysterious and powerful, and God cares just as much about sexual “purity” as he does about people getting tortured and killed or going hungry or without shelter, apparently.

2. The message of the Christian sexual ethic shouldn’t be “save sex for marriage and everything will be great,” because it won’t.

3. Virginity doesn’t have the moral value attached to it that we think it should have. If that really weighs into how you value a person, you’re not even seeing that person. In fact, your view of other persons is depraved.

4. No one ever talks to Christian youth about how lame sex in marriage can be. (See also 1 and 2) Sure it can be great, but for many, many people at some greater or lesser time, because of stress/kids/sickness/etc. it isn’t. No one ever talks to them about how or why affairs happen. I think it’s cruel to let someone go about building their life on completely unrealistic expectations because no one cares to mention to them that the story might be different.

 

Click here to read the rest.