NOT QUITE THE EXPECTED
I bought Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Shameless with the aim of reviewing it. The book sounded too radical to ignore with its call for a sexual “reformation” in the churches. Some of the pre-launch hype and the anticipation from conservatives was nonetheless misleading . I can report the book does not advocate the unlimited use of porn “ethically sourced” (amateur?) but says a few things about sexual imagery and its use that are rather more nuanced.
But it is true that in-between a wealth of stories and testimonies, in a quieter vein the author does virtually discard biblical and traditional notions of “sexual purity”(equated with “rape culture”). They are seen as unnecessary compared with the purity of just sincerity and caring in consensual sex (free love one might say). This is something one can shamelessly enjoy without need for repentance or absolution because salvation is also about human flourishing not life wrecking . In short, there is something to this book of the more abrasive, less spiritually inclined Indecent Theology from late queer theologian, Marcella Althaus-Reid, back in 2000.
The Shameless title owes more to an insistence that just as Jesus retained and displayed the scars of his crucifixion, we should not be ashamed to display our hurts. Which is what this book does…. full on.
ONLY IN AMERICA, BUT LET’S OPEN THE FIELD
Nadia is intriguing to watch and hear and you can do that here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sVe7jKp4D-E But that the book is so full-on is why I find I can’t usefully review this offering in any conventional way. However valid its points, they emerge from within the expressions of an American cultural framework of extreme confession, emotion, group therapy, tears, hugs and kisses that, for me, gets in the way.
This is a book about and for especially the walking wounded. It could leave non- Americans feeling glad they weren’t raised in “the land of the free” where they might fall victim to often brutal, judgemental, incredibly gender-rigid, regimented, cultic forms of Christianity (rather in the style of the recent film Boy Erased), plus pressures from secular media and advertising. Combined, these can leave a person ashamed they are too fat, thin, ugly, sexually unfulfilled, effeminate, too mannish….the list goes on and on. But worst of all, it seems, is to be an abused, wrongly appreciated woman.
Though that could well be the case, I am neither a woman nor male feminist enough to be able to feel with the author in some areas like her current OTT project which involves collecting the purity rings of disappointed, disillusioned women to melt them down for a protest vagina sculpture.
Bolz-Weber would doubtless respond that sex itself is OTT and that one of the problems with preaching “purity” is that almost by definition sex cannot be only “pure”, it’s too irremediably earthy and messy. I accept the problem and in conclusion will be considering whether we have misunderstood what the biblical concept of sexual “purity” means and is intended to serve. But keeping to BW’s perspective, if, as her discourse implies, sex is as good as anti-feminist feminist philosopher Camille Paglia’s “Dionysian swamp”, then plainly Bolz-Weber’s feminist religiosity with its “rape culture” emphasis sounds like it would be less keen to take on board elements of masculine protest, straight or gay, and allow it to resist or shape eros in the way Paglia considers is almost necessary to life and culture.
So…after a few words about the author for those who don’t know her, I shall outline a more general picture of the church/sex problem that could apply almost anywhere. I shall conclude with what I think Nadia is overlooking and which is a possible facet of any reformation, one that challenges both her approach and the conservative, supposedly bible- based one of her sterner critics.
A LIFE AND MINISTRY OF ULTRA -LUTHERAN “ACCEPTANCE”
Though she has recently abandoned full time ministry for the lecture circuit and public theologian status, Nadia Bolz-Weber is by now celebrated as the swearing, heavily tattooed pastor or, some have said pastrix, of the House For all Saints and Sinners on Denver Colorado’s sin street and where her chief assistant was a drag queen.
Born 1969 and growing to over six foot tall and feeling disfigured by Graves disease, Nadia arrived at her pastoral office after a painful pilgrimage. It began amid childhood fundamentalist repressions, and was followed by a history of depression, youthful promiscuity leading to an abortion, alcoholism, drug addiction and some involvement in wicca and at one stage careers as a female wrestler and a stand-up comic. She has been married, had two children (the son is gay) but divorced by mutual agreement in 2016 -the pair didn’t get on too well sexually – and she has found the comfort of an erotically fulfilling lover since. A colourful, only-in- America person, if ever.
Also unusual in that unlike most sexual liberals in the church, Nadia, more or less, believes her bible as given (except on “purity”). She accepts the resurrection and miracles, though she has suitably kinky ideas about the afterlife in which she imagines dining with people she loathes like Harvey Weinstein! It’s a sort of penitential torture she has invented for herself via a universalism that believes since everyone is “accepted” by God she must love just everyone (even Hitler and Stalin?). In this she is undoubtedly a heretic because though the bible regularly gets cited to support variously inclusive and exclusive views of salvation, nowhere does it proclaim everyone is saved.
It is relevant Rev Nadia is a Lutheran pastor. Actually I’d say she’s ultra-Lutheran if only people beyond her denominational fold, (which despite protests hasn’t expelled her), could see it. Luther’s Table Talk is surprisingly frank and coarse. On sex Luther could also be quite liberal, supporting divorce and if necessary even bigamous marriage in the case of a partner become totally incapacitated. Moreover, at least initially and when he was still mind-blown with the revelation of grace over against a salvation worked or paid for, Luther’s rhetoric told people to go out and sin freely and come back again and again to repent it. In short, there was little notion of any cure for sin or what later by the likes of Wesley would be called “sanctification”, the improvement of self and soul throughout life.
…..But here and with the reformist Lutheran legacy, I can begin my general reflections because even the (sometimes) ascetical medieval church that Luther left behind, had an understanding that especially Protestant evangelicals have never absorbed, namely that there can be something in the order of “death by chastity”. (1)
It was a concept medievals inherited from the Greek doctor, Galen. Medieval Scholastic philosophers might expound their weird but influential notions, like notoriously that masturbation was akin to murder (because it destroyed seed thought of pre-scientifically as whole homunculi) and that “sodomy” was worse than rape (because rape was ‘natural” since offspring could result), but for the laity some priests accepted the inevitable. They believed that for both sexes masturbation might be medically sanctioned to save lives.
I think one could say exponents of Christian chastity have not been so much totally wrong as seriously one-sided. They will declare everything that is harmful about sex like STDs, but they won’t concede the pitfalls of not having sex, like for example increased likelihood of prostrate cancer in men and low spirits or outright depression in both sexes. Medieval medicine was not so far from the mark.
Return of libido among the chronically depressed is often the proof that cure has begun. But if cure requires libido to return, where does this put Christians who can’t or according to some churches supposedly shouldn’t, say, get remarried following divorce, or gays who should never have a lover, or almost anyone to whom stimulation or fantasy are forbidden?
I have written elsewhere about what can seem like “incoherence” in biblical sexual teachings https://wp.me/p2v96G-111 and one instance is St Paul’s notorious “better to marry than to burn”. Is this truly a helpful, meaningful statement? Marriage is a big, often expensive undertaking and like love itself not easily arranged. So can or should anyone enter it only to satisfy raging hormones? The very idea seems to contradict the idealization of love elsewhere in the bible; and then it isn’t envisaged for gays anyway whose needs are not even supposed to count but whose suppression of desire can be seen to have all sorts of negative effects.
Gays have been liable to be dismissed as mere pleasure seekers, “wankers” or masturbators because their sex serves “only” pleasure and not procreation. Yet if sex were not for pleasure, why, as BW asks, does the female clitoris serve nothing but pleasure and, I ask, why does modern medicine reveal to us that a foetus may be self-pleasuring in the womb? One can’t just diss pleasure as being automatically sin in itself.
Before I move towards anything like a solution to the range of problems Nadia’s rather free love values present us with , two points should be emphasized.
THE ILLUSION OF PERFECTION AND GUILT SYNDROMES
First is that though there can be improvements in sexual understanding and practice, there can be no complete solutions, so there can be no full “reformation”. BW partly admits this herself, suggesting one can really only hope for a good as opposed to a perfect sex life. Even so, one feels Bolz-Weber wants perfect solutions, and if that’s the case could still use insights and warnings of the mentioned Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae like, “the modern pursuit of self-realization has not led to sexual happiness, because assertions of selfhood merely release the moral chaos of libido”.
In an imperfect world, sex and love will never be perfect (or if sufficiently perfect insufficiently long lasting to quite satisfy). And this is the case no matter how many sex guides (or biblical counsels) the individual applies to it. But it’s this incompletion has always made it easy to generate guilt and/or embarrassment and disappointment around the topic. Also a degree of confusion to the extent erotic experience takes people “out of themselves”….. but to quite where, for what and why? There are always quasi-metaphysical questions and unsurprisingly “God” is a word often accompanies orgasm.
It’s not a Protestant coping mechanism and Bolz-Weber is all of a Lutheran, but in traditionally Catholic countries, minor rituals like removing religious jewellry, turning crucifixes to the wall, blessing oneself afterwards etc seem designed to cover vague uncertainty over the real status and meaning of sex. The sexually insatiable but moralizing novelist Victor Hugo would even put money in the nearest church box after every visit to a brothel.
All these actions speak to the unease with activity not, however, puritanically rejected as it might be further north. (And It would be wrong to put all this down to a Judaeo-Christian legacy. From years ago I can’t cite the precise source – probably a study of historic Japanese homosexuality, Partings Before Dawn, I recall a Japanese feeling remorse he expressed to the gods for on account of his use of a great number of youths). In the Catholic cultures it was more a case of accepting an “ethics of ambiguity”, even a Baudelarian “conscience dans le mal”, (conscience amid the wrong).
One of the core wrongs, at least as far as certain Jewish cleansing rituals were concerned, had always been that, in the case of male sperm touching the body, even as a result of wet dreams, death had touched the body. To the extent sex is about reproduction and not just pleasure, it hints at the need to overcome the universal blight or curse of death and death is ritual impurity (in traditional Judaism to touch a corpse left one impure for days).
THE ASEXUAL EXAMPLE THAT ISN’T ONE
The second point that causes misunderstanding around sex and bolsters false hopes among preachers and moralists that the problems can be easily overcome with a will, or even be virtually ignored, is that despite what modern society and books like Shameless assume, not everyone is sex-hungry and repressed.
The phenomenon of what the French would call “les indifferents” is real enough. It applies to many famous people throughout history like the orator Cicero who amid the opportunities of ancient Rome wasn’t “much interested in those kind of things” or Mme de Pompadour who though happy to be Louis XV’s mistress preferred to run France for him than be active in bed. This was a chore she preferred to delegate to nubile young things like Louise O’ Murphy (immortalized by Boucher’s painting). And then we must absorb that even reputedly sexy people may not be that sexy – Pop icon Madonna has admitted she’d almost rather read in bed than have sex.
The existence, sometimes widespread, of the indifferent has always emboldened moralists to assume there isn’t or needn’t be any problem beyond one of rational ethics and mutual respect. (That seems to be the position of especially the Anglican clergy who have lived through various sexual revolutions without scarcely mentioning the sex subject in their sermons or statements!)
Looking at the sexual problem at the purely ethical level, which I don’t believe one can and should wholly do, it is easy enough to see what the bible is getting at. This is pure intentions and loyalties, good interpersonal relations with fellow humans and beyond them with God. Infidelity at this level bespeaks a failure to remain loyal, to keep promises, to see persons as persons as opposed to objects for passing pleasure. Infidelity is thus an attitude of coveting whatever and whoever we don’t have, or a desire to score or have power over others. And symbolically there can be failure to reflect the ideal of the perfect marriage of Christ with the church.
All this is fine as far as it goes in training sensibilities, making for general security and respect within society and it’s the general framework for any basically devout lifestyle. (Rather obviously prayer and riotous living don’t belong together!). In especially the OT, however, purely patriarchal notions of ownership and property (instinct of the age of Aries, the ultra-patriarchal sign under which it was written), may muddy the ideal which has never quite been able to manage difficult cases like the infidelities of those married against their will . What can get called “adultery” may be little more than a desperate will to realize one’s identity and find some love. Few of us would care like Dante to send Francesca da Rimini to the Inferno.
RELIEF, NOT JUST “FULFILLMENT”
I am going to suggest that almost the core problem is the need of quite a sizeable portion of the population (from horny youth to the masturbating geriatrics with which Simone de Beauvoir concludes La Veillesse, her depressing study of old age), to just have some sex, to need stimulation and orgasm as surely as some exercise is needed for health. Idealists may wish otherwise, but love alone if it can be conveniently found, may not suffice to cover the lack of erotic excitement even if it’s also true that sex dissociated from love can also demoralize and increase loneliness.
Not being able to put erotic need neatly inside any framework from the social to the ethical or the spiritual, can cause all manner of confusion including among the devout. These may be left to wonder how repentant they are meant to be about what might seem only necessary but which, (in the Catholicism which didn’t allow medieval style “medical” reasons for it), traditionally rendered it a subject for penance itself. That perversely brilliant poem The Great Hunger from Patrick Kavanagh evokes the confusion from the Catholic and peasant position, “once a week at least flesh must make its appearance…” but it’s all a confusion of a life “more lousy than savage”.
Much helped by St Augustine, the Genesis story of Onan has given rise to fantastic superstitions and horrors around masturbation (onanism) which, despite Augustine, is not even the real point of the story, which is Onan’s insulting and wilful refusal to do his sacred duty to preserve the family line. (Gen 38:9).
Superficially, even words of Jesus might not seem helpful. In what can be made to sound like distressing impossible extremism, he is often interpreted as declaring that to look on a woman with desire at all is equal to adultery (IMatt 5:27), but the point is missed that Jesus’ subject is precisely the ten commandments and adultery, “woman” means married woman and looking at (more like having a mind to taking) someone else’s wife is to be understood morally equal to doing it. Intentions count and guide contact. Interiorization of the Law is the message not approving what would make for depopulation if no man ever allowed himself to feel anything.
And surely on a normal basis we would not call all erotic pleasure and fantasy a defiling misdirection of the will; it can just accompany relief of tension and in the young where imagery might be strongest, it may serve a sort of clarification of the kind of person and experience the individual is working towards. So in this area I am rather in agreement with Bolz-Weber who dissents from the religious culture which has sought to banish sexual thought and feeling as soon as they arise because this can shut down feeling itself and create ignorance of one’s true character and needs. A very strict control of feelings risks creating either or both such internalized guilt feelings about eros or idealistic expectations for its expression that paradoxically, as Nadia observes, it will not automatically help the adjustments of a Christian marriage at all.
One suspects too some of the periodically reported near sadism of some monks and nuns could have links to precisely a too icily efficient “taking custody” of mind and vision. Granted one could – just- maintain a radical self-correction is only in harmony with Jesus on if need be cutting off the hand or plucking out the eye to avoid sin. But not only does the expression of this counsel belong with the violent idioms of Jesus’ native Aramaic with its exclamations like “cut off my nose if I don’t tell truth”, but the reference is to an obligation to avoid whatever is absolutely, totally wrong for the individual in a way even Bolz-Weber acknowledges is a practical necessity as mentioned presently.
So how should one think about the less regimented approach to impulse, and how does/should the more libidinous kind of spiritual person manage it?
At this point I am prepared to take a leaf out of the book of gay experience of recent decades because dangerous addiction to sex and sensation has been a problem for some within that community. A surprising discovery of various experiments has been that if one can give the sex addict big or “full body orgasm” (which I take it is something closer to what women rather than men typically experience at best) once achieved, addiction is overcome and generally desire for sex diminishes.
In effect the method is a yin, tantric, Asian one, not a typically yang western one over-represented in traditional Christianity and influenced by an ascetical strain within prior paganism. In this one fights impulse (and may even increase desire by doing so). By contrast, the tantric mode surrenders to desire in order to overcome and/or transform it.
There are variations upon this (the subject is a large one I can’t pursue here), but even in modern systems of so-called “mindful masturbation”, it is often recommended to get away as far as possible from person imagery lest it be attaching. The stimulation then serves rather more to increase self-love, comfort and acceptance and as said any sex detached from love can finish problematic..
The idea of sex serving self-love and acceptance may nonetheless sound ungodly to some, but one must concede that even the bible teaches to love one’s neighbour as oneself. Loving the self is almost impossible where some measure of self-acceptance is not included in the package. To hate oneself, one’s body and its desires, the whole diable au corps, ( devil in the flesh) approach as opposed to thanking God for sensation, seems like a good recipe for some of the perversions associated with places of celibate life. Particularly if, for whatever reason, the person cannot hope to find love quickly or be with a partner, a more tantric way could function positively, especially within the context of an almost over-sexed, over-stimulated society where the sex theme is harder to avoid.
It should be stressed that BW, and I would agree with her, admits that there is such a thing as unacceptable sexual drives (such as towards children or animals) that must be cast out of mind ; but as regards sexual images more generally, art, porn or whatever, she opines each person must responsibly follow sense and conscience because, rather as with alcohol, some can do and benefit from what others can’t. As a former alcoholic, she herself cannot touch even one glass of alcohol. But she wouldn’t tell other not to; and similarly with many sexual images. If you know they serve only addiction, avoid them. (I would be inclined to add one would wish to avoid what, in the case of porn is a whole industry liable to exploit people much like the prostitution whose services you presumably wouldn’t wish to employ). ).
A SOUL ISSUE?
Finally here and despite all my inclination to liberal religious views on sex as attested by various articles on this site and my other McCleary’s Alternatives site, I am still left in disagreement with BW, and in a way that almost contradicts the whole enterprise. Basically, her position (like Althaus-Reid, the bisexual author of Indecent Theology who confessed to affairs with clergy including a bishop) is a “materialistic”, not a spiritual one. The problem with treating sex in total disregard of the so-called purity question, is you don’t just make love to people as bodies but to souls with which you can at some level be joined.
Ultimately the bible doesn’t quite make sense unless an esoteric theory (such as Jewish mysticism as in Kabbalah would anyway envisage) is brought in to explain it. Early Jewish society didn’t even celebrate marriages. Intercourse itself was the celebration. Consummation was the seal of marriage. And since two persons cannot literally become “one flesh” it must be considered – short of a case to poetic language – that understood is that what is mixed and joined by marriage are the soul bodies.
St Paul makes no sense at all, short of esoteric theory, when he tells the Corinthians not to join the spirit that dwells with in them, to a prostitute (1 Cor 6: 16-20). To go to a prostitute amounts to virtual marriage with that person. Where full penetrative orgasm has taken place between consenting parties, no such thing as a casual relation exists. So far as I can see, what we call an affair or a fling is a form of marriage where biblical tradition is concerned. And if the esoteric dimension is true then this would be be a trans-cultural, trans-historical principle.
I am not quite sure how and to what extent this applies to any gay relations, but it may be the same, and this has been claimed . In A Special Illumination I cite the case of a particularly devout lesbian conflicted about her status who was shocked to be told in vision by Jesus that in fact partners to a gay relation can and do become “one”. The visionary couldn’t understand how this could be, and wasn’t told in what she took as a general warning against gay promiscuity as opposed to gay unions as such, but if it’s an esoteric matter of two souls united, all is immediately clear (2)
Ironically it was an early (Victorian/Edwardian) gay rights campaigner, Edward Carpenter, who was spiritual enough (as gays often are spiritual) to suggest there are never two people in a relation, there is always a third, namely God, If this is so, one can’t go where Nadia tends to lead, which is to just follow immediate sensed need, free love style, regardless of where God might intend to be, or , as in divorce, remove from.
Like Luther I don’t consider all divorce is wrong, but I have to ask if the often reported acute strain on the system suffered by many people in the wake of divorce could well be linked to, beyond psychological effects, more spiritual ones of sundering what has been meshed and melded over time. Some people may be too extraverted and careless to consciously suffer such effects, but that doesn’t automatically signify some degree of joining and then separation has not occurred.
COLOURS THAT SHOW
Even outside Christian religion, persons able to read auras and perceive the so-called astral body would attest to the clouded or distorted auras (often grey or muddy) of those who have lived promiscuously.
At any rate Christians have to consider the possibility that, short of precisely the kind of “repentance” Bolz-Weber deems unnecessary to sex-helpful relating (and is Christianity quite itself without the call to repentance or self-examination in the face of almost any subject?), one must pass into the next life with other souls shadowing you. This is something which may or may not be fortunate – for you or for them. (It might be bit more painful than any of Nadia’s heavenly seats besides Harvey Weinstein!). That the apostle assumes the believing partner to a marriage sanctifies the unbelieving partner 1 Cor 7:14, itself again implies some doctrine of purely spiritual effects).
According to the esoteric worldview (which I don’t say we must accept uncritically, but should keep in mind), it is even possible to establish a strong tie of souls by just intent, obsessive looking – a kind of Rasputin effect – a reason some say it is necessary to be careful around addictive porn.
For the nowadays returning tribe of exorcists, the problem, whether with porn addiction or promiscuous relations more generally, is they are said to open up pathways to spiritual obsession if not outright possession, though this misfortune often comes out in the offspring of the guilty parties. To the extent it is attaching, sex and orgasm, which temporarily makes the aura detach from the body to join with another aura also outside the body, risks opening the body/soul portal to spiritual influences. On this understanding, sex which can be divine can also be demonic. At best it is a foretaste of the paradise which the lovers of the Song of Songs anticipate from “within the fires of Yahweh”. (Song 8:3) and see my Solomon’s Tantric Song https://goo.gl/sU21My
Since however just about all sex falls short of that high ideal and is never got right, provided it is not morbid, an element of doubt, regret and repentance about the whole subject is natural and could even protect it and finish more healthy than “shameless” alternatives. What may look like easy adjustment in some individuals may only be their way station to the next hook-up. And against the argument, one that I understand, that it can help rather than hinder adjustment if couples live together to be sure they are fitted for greater commitment (almost essential in borderline cases like persons of uncertain orientation), I have come to believe, what many Christians refuse to consider, namely that marriage by trial is not actually necessary because the nature and possibilities of the relation can be foreknown.
If the couple is really sexually fit and suited can be read in their compared birth patterns. Bribery of astrologers and various cheating of data have been known, but in India it is generally felt that the relative stability of marriages in contrast to the breakdown and almost frenetic instability of Western unions, owes something to the ability to read and match natal charts.
Like it or not, no one can have better sex than their birth stars show is possible for them. Many just don’t have the gift of eros and their expectations will fail no matter how much they try. For example, always disappointed in love Jennifer Aniston, could not be encouraged to expect too much given that, as only one thing within a difficult pattern, separative Uranus is opposite her relational Venus.
It’s a strange opinion from a pastor that even if people like her daughter will have numbers of affairs, at least they will have acquired more sexual knowledge and experience towards greater erotic fulfillment later. In theory, and occasionally in fact, this could seem justified, but things don’t necessarily work out like that because there’s a fate and timing dimension that modifies.
I accept that the pastrix is sincere, has suffered and in her latest book highlights real problems needing attention in the churches of especially America. But I think she is ultimately too “materialistic” about sex and risks being, or making others, blasé about the whole “purity” problem.
That subject may need complete re- thinking and re-statement (it doubtless will increasingly receive attention in various ways – only this week there are rumbles from the Sanhedrin mixed with the expectations for a third temple, declaring that the world is largely in a state of unacceptable “sexual impurity” before God); but whatever one’s take on the subject, the purity theme doesn’t need Nadia’s rejection as something virtually irrelevant to management of the spiritual life. It’s a position she can only sustain by maintaining everyone is accepted just as they are and saved (as though they scarcely had the dignity of agency!) and were thus justified and enjoyed rights with God as much by their scars and psycho-histories of pain as by faith.
I suspect that what is called “sexual purity” in the biblical tradition is linked to a system of quasi- occult/esoteric soul protection which may hold enough significance not to be too lightly dismissed in an age of rabid competition, experiment. and instant gratification…These days the rejection of this-worldly American values might represent the beginning of wisdom.
(1) See https://aeon.co/essays/getting-down-and-medieval-the-sex-lives-of-the-middle-ages?fbclid=IwAR0cjXjuhNMP3xg_wjqGDbz9VhLhrMXJ8-LEyzx6PBAVoS_cxLarEqH_lSM
(2) Rollan McCleary, A Special Illumination, 2006, p.118 https://goo.gl/sU21My