Apparently, the last post on the Proverbs 31 meme went semi-viral for a couple of days. My son Levi flagged it in reddit/r/religion and it hit #1 for a brief period, and I am told that some Facebook reposts made it as far as Baylor University, the place where the meme (which I still think is well-meaning, and good in many respects) originated. For the most part the reactions, and comments, have come from young women, and most of them have been very positive, which I appreciate. And since there seems to be some interest in this subject, I thought I’d put up one more post on the notion of healthy sexual expression before moving on to some seasonally-themed materials.
I’m privileged to get to work with a group of young adults on Sunday mornings at St. Paul UMC here in Abilene. It’s a great group of people, as I’ve said before – very interested in digging deep into scripture, but also becoming deeply involved in the mission of God in the world.
A few months ago, I asked the class to give me some feedback on things they’d like to talk about in class, and a consensus developed fairly quickly that they wanted to look at obscure things from the Bible – things we don’t tend to talk about all the time. So we did it. We talked about mythical-sounding giants from Genesis, a character in Judges who killed his daughter to fulfill a vow to God, a psalm that asks God to kill babies, and even a clear mathematical error that appears in the Pentateuch … all kinds of interesting, albeit sometimes uncomfortable texts.
We also talked about the Song of Songs, which I referenced briefly in the last post. Song of Songs is an interesting study. We all know its there. We all know it has something to do about sex. But few people ever sit down to appreciate the level of eroticism that can be found in the text (see this text, for an example that doesn’t require a lot of cultural “translation” to confer a subtle-ish metaphor).
What interests me about Song of Songs – and about Esther, another book in the “wisdom literature” section of scripture is that it seems to be a product of an ancient Jewish community that is willing to openly discuss and appreciate eroticism. Indeed, the people who eventually selected the Biblical canon seem likewise to have felt like acknowledgement and appreciation of eroticism had a place within the Christian community. Yet within most church cultures today, the subject of eroticism itself is tacitly, if not explicitly a hush-hush subject.
What has happened here? We used our discussion of Song of Songs to talk about how – at some point – the subject of sexuality became balkanized – that is, it is a subject about which we experience two distinct and diametrically opposed cultures. The so-called “culture wars” – if they exist – are surely about sexuality as much as anything else. As a result of this cultural polarization, people end up feeling like they must either participate in an over-sexualized, porn-saturated culture where hooking up is the norm, or in a repressive culture where we never, ever acknowledge that we are sexual beings, and never even talk about the subject except, perhaps to pronounce judgment on various subjects of sexual ethics.
Because there are many vocal people with strong opinions on both sides of the “war” it is quite difficult to find a middle ground where we can be acknowledge and express our sexuality, but not be so overly sexualized that it is unhealthy.
We can visualize it on a continuum that looks like this:
|Sexuality is seldom expressed or appreciated publicly, except for ethical discussion/judgment, resulting in unhealthy psychological and spiritual side effects (pedophilia, repressed anxiety or rage, etc.)||Sexuality is openly acknowledged and appreciated, although ethical and practical limits are also acknowledged and observed (what seems to be the Hebrew culture that generates Song of Songs, Esther, etc.)||Over-investment in sexuality as a means of self-fulfillment, with few or no ethical boundaries (empty “hook ups,” porn addiction, unhealthy female self-concepts relating to appearance, etc.)|
In a balkanized sexual culture, we feel like ping-pong balls being tossed around between two sub-cultures: the “church” culture where, outside of the occasional pronunciation of ethical judgment, we may never, never talk or think about how great and compelling sex is, and the alluring over-the-top culture of hyper-sexuality, where unrealistic levels of fulfillment are promised at every turn, but never delivered.
Living out a healthy expression of sexuality (the middle column) is very difficult. It is like walking a balance beam. It is challenging, and – given the pressures that are involved – people are bound to fall off on one side or the other from time to time, so a lot of grace and understanding is needed.
The key to me, is for sexuality to find an appropriate place in life, without becoming a be-all-and-end-all. Going back to Kinneman’s book You Lost Me again, one young, newly married woman that was interviewed for the book put it this way:
Sometimes [sex is] incredible but sometimes it’s hard work, just like the rest of the relationship. In fact I’m learning it’s all related…good sex doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s entiwned with every part of my life. But I feel like my church…compartmentalized everything, and so I did too. Here’s your faith in this pigeonhole. Here’s your education. Here’s your work cubicle, and there’s your family. Over there is sex, all by itself behind the curtain. I feel like becoming an adult is this painful process of decategorizing my life. There are no categories. There is just life.
(italics mine). So what does a healthy culture of sexual expression look like? I am not a psychological expert, and I don’[t pretend to have the final answer, but I think, for starters, it is one where art and literature and conversation openly explore eroticism and sensuality in age-appropriate contexts. Adults in the community can experience and enjoy a bawdy, lurid tale (such as Esther) or a work of erotic literature (such as Song of Songs) without feeling ashamed of it. There are also conversations about sexual ethics, of course. But they usually don’t occur at the same time, and the stories and poems are never peppered with so many footnotes and commentary that the focus of the work or conversation becomes ethical rather than artistic. They simply stand on their own.
That, to me, seems to be the way the wisdom of the Old Testament would be best reflected in our culture. But that culture doesn’t seem to exist. When it comes to sexuality, there are a lot of Christian ethicists, theologians, and therapists, but there are no poets, filmmakers, or musicians, that I know of. There is no modern-day equivalent to the Song of Songs within the Christian community. I can’t even imagine how such a person could emerge in the current environment.
So what do you think? Is it possible to create a culture that avoids the pitfalls of spiritually and psychologically damaging repression and the empty, unfulfilling tendency toward over-expression at the same time? What does it look like?