Sunday, May 29, 2011

Aroostook County, Maine

Bicycle and cobwebs, in my grandfather's basement

Sometimes I find myself consumed with ongoing doubt, chewing on a concept like a dog gnawing on a bone. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel. Why marriage? Why is it so important, in almost every culture, especially to organized religion, and especially now to those in the church? The anthropologist in me wants to say that it’s because society and religion’s central goals are controlling sexual mores. The feminist in me wants to say that it comes from Victorian ideals of the angel of the house.

The evangelical and Republican obsessions with “family values” come not from the Bible, but from the cultural change of the last 150 years. Before the industrial revolution, women had a role in pivotal role in society—they were farmers, teachers, craftspeople, homemakers in the true sense of the word. They created homes, they kept house. But when all of those tasks were outsourced—when vegetables and cloth and meat were bought in a market and children were taken away to school, women lost their role and the “angel of the house” myth took its place.

So women lost their place in society, and a new role was created for them, that central, annoying dichotomy of madonna versus whore. I’ve hypothesized before that the day of a wedding is the one time when a woman is a virgin, a mother, and a whore, all at the same moment. Hence the white. It’s a culmination of all a woman’s roles in one single day. “It’s your day,” scream the bridal magazines. No wonder.

My central thesis is that sexual ethics and gender politics change, over time. David had 300 wives, and yet he was a man after God’s own heart. No matter what kind of model is set out in Genesis, the church has changed and fundamentally twisted that vision over time, throughout history. As a single Christian with unconventional views on women in culture and marriage, I’ve been asked before for my opinion on the church’s view of intimacy. One of my first published reviews was a for the Christian Century on a book by Lisa Graham McMinn, called Sexuality and Holy Longing.

It’s always good to discover Christians discussing difficult issues, but I found Rob Bell’s book on the matter to be much more cogent and controversial. His new book, Love Wins, explores the ways in which a traditional evangelical concept of heaven and hell may not be exactly biblical and has earned him the title of heretic. In my mind his previous book, Sex God, was overlooked and much more controversial.

Almost all earthly religions have a tremendously warped view of the sexual realm: Catholics with their pedophile priests, Muslims with their suicidal boys, going happily to the arms of their 72 virgin lovers, evangelical Christians with their bizarre double standard (homosexuality and fornication are wrong, divorce and remarriage perfectly fine).

Rob Bell’s point is more simple and elegant. We, as human beings, exist in a realm somewhat lower than the angels and somewhat higher than the beasts, and that applies to our sexual realm as well. When we engage in sordid sexual practices, one-night stands with strangers, orgies, et cetera, we are lowering ourselves to the level of beasts, and our calling is higher than that. But to say that we are somehow above sex, more pure, more holy, raises us up to the level of the angels, just as erroneous of a judgment. We are somewhere in between, sexual beings in need of grace.

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