At the Festival of Faith and Writing today, two intrepid authors/speakers, John Estes and Amy Frykholm, offered a seminar called The Word Needs Flesh: Sex and Faith in Contemporary Writing. As you can imagine at a Christian conference, the room was packed. People stood along the walls; they sat on the floor.
How we Talk (badly) about Sex
Amy started by saying, “There’s a misunderstanding about sexuality in the church. As Christians, we’re really bad at having this conversation. So, we’re going to step out now and try–though we’re going to make some mistakes. But if we don’t start a conversation, we leave it to the Mark Driscolls.” This received long sighs and laughs of approval, with a tinge of fear. If we were ever going to hijack the conversation, it best be right here, right now.
Many of us in the room were still giggling at double entendres before the session began, but all were rapt at listening to Amy and John have the dialogue the church should be having. I won’t spoil anything by telling you the last thing anyone said in the room. An older woman, in her “seventh decade” so she felt a freedom to speak her mind. “I learn more outside the church than I ever have in it,” referring to all that she had heard today in this seminar. We found ourselves agreeing. How do we get this conversation in the church?
“Why are we so bad at this?” Amy started. We didn’t know. “Sex is part of our core being.” Still we had problems discussing sex unless it was to talk about it as the glorious bond of marriage or the ever present temptation that could destroy that marriage. We avoided it, perhaps, because it made us more like the animals than we wanted to be. Still, it was not a topic in churches very often–and we weren’t really talking about the joy of our sexuality. We acted like it was a weapon against us till the wedding bells rang.
John’s phrasing sometimes caught me off guard as he tried to find the words for it. “Our sex is a problem without a solution. The solutions offered by the church are wanting.” Here he referred to sex only inside marriage–but also something wider–the inability, even the avoidance of talking about sexuality positively. Though I didn’t like him referring to sex as a problem, I understood which perspective he was taking. The church’s position was that sex seemed to be treated as something OUTSIDE us, a separate thing.
Loss of the Erotic
John’s concern was the loss of the erotic in contemporary christian culture. That removal of the erotic in a christian context had ghettoized eroticism by making it only available in a porn way. Or thinking about the erotic, as John told us about a moment in Starbucks that morning, seems fraught with judgment and sin instead of the magic of that moment. Even telling us about it, he felt that tinge of guilt and embarrassment.
He told us that we have a hard time thinking about “sex” or “erotic” without equating that only with the act of sex. “We are erotic creatures,” he said. “Eros is our want, our need, the life force, an expression of our incompletion.” He was reluctant to think of Christ erotically–but in a sense, our desire to be complete in Christ, was an eros desire, he said. Not a sexual desire, but a driving force to be complete with Christ.
Coming back down to earth, he contended, “our needs are made to seem selfish. The Christian tradition calls for only three ways to look at sexual desire–stem the desire with asceticism, cordon off the desire in marriage fences, or have sinful, elicit sex outside of marriage.”
The Erotic as Art
As for images— Artists are allowed only to paint or draw the erotic if they’ve become “professionalized” artists–institutionalized at universities so that they can academically pursue their art, so it’s divorced from the want or need to paint something erotic. But artists working outside the “professional” boundaries, who do erotic art because they like to look at it, paint it, enjoy it–they seem perverse in our culture. In fact, any desire to see the erotic seemed perverse, instead of human. Of COURSE, I’m going to want to see what I think is beautiful. That is the way my body is made–but that desire is seen as sinful (even for straights) and we seem perverse for wanting to see it.
Amy saw, though, in our culture that TOO MUCH had been exposed–either in the lowest forms, or in conversation itself. That there was a mystery in the erotic that doesn’t always need to be talked out–a “beauty in privacy and secrecy too.” And while she confessed this sounded as if she were contradicting herself, she meant that there were some things we SHOULD be talking about more, and some things we need to talk about LESS. She wondered that if “we became better at communicating, we’d be better at knowing what we NEED to talk about. And what we do not need to be talking about, or what doesn’t need to be a part of a conversation.”
But she lamented that when she wanted to write a book about sexuality and faith, everyone expected her to do what 95% of the other Christian authors had done: go over the rules again, or reinterpret the rules, or somehow give them some RULES. “We love to tell each other what to do,” she said to laughter.
She didn’t want to give rules. She wanted to talk about ideas and imagination. “There’s a paucity of imagination in our culture.” They want to go back again and again to the reinterpret what they should and should not think about, or do.
Pleasure as a guide
But there is a better way, we were learning in that room. A way for us to see pleasure not as a warning alert, but as a communication from our body to our minds. John quoted Auden: “Pleasure is not an infallible guide to criticism, but it is the least fallible.” John talked about leading with our feelings of pleasure for something–listening to our body’s reaction to events, people, things, in order to learn more about what we love, what we feel about something. It was almost as if we were embarrassed by our pleasures, what made us feel good. John urged us to listen to our pleasures. Amy asked us to go deep. “Why do I love cheetos? What are they anyway? They aren’t really food.” We started laughing at the banality of cheetos in such an aesthetic conversation. But in some ways, cheetos and Angry Birds seem to sum up for Amy what was lacking in our culture.
“We have lost a soil for aesthetics, a place for good things to grow.” She said we’d replaced good arts, books, music, food, replaced them with terrible copies: spider solitaire, cheetos, angry birds…. she didn’t really LOVE these things or find pleasure in them, but she searched for pleasure in them, and that search became, it seemed, a pleasure in itself. “If I had better food, better things to do, I would stop searching for pleasure in those things.” She encouraged us rather than try to be ascetic about it–turning away from Angry Birds–try to look deeply at it to find what we are trying to get out of it, and then isolate that—learn about our pleasures, and turn to something else.
Finally, she just sighed. “Augustine. Augustine is really part of the problem,” she confessed and everyone groaned. Yes, he was. Poor guy. Quite the sexual man, Augustine suddenly transforms when he becomes a Christian and vows to turn away from ALL sexual desire. He saw it competing with the desire he should have for God. He never figured out that they weren’t mutually exclusive. But he affected generations and generations of Christians afterwards with his twisted conception of the duality of flesh and spirit.
Augustine asked us to see “through” the things we want, not to see them for themselves. John says that’s the problem–we have to see these things for what they are. Our desires, John said, actually contain information about us that is vital. They are trustworthy feelings. We have to be able to explore, experiment and fail in order to grow as a human being.
The Beast versus the Human
We don’t like being human. Not in a sexual way. For us, that human quality is as bestial as the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. That fairy tale has always struck me, and many interpreters and folklorists, to be a story for women about the sexual natures of men–that at first they seem like beasts. And then, once they are loved, they turn into androgynous men who float in the air after their curse of beast-ness is taken away. Ah well.
Augustine gave us the whip we use on ourselves now. We try in vain to create a life that will pull us out of the sexual and into a blissful, asexual divine state where we don’t think, or act, on sexual thoughts. Statistics show, however, Amy pointed out, that folks in churches do everything the same as the rest of the world–our religion doesn’t stop us from acting human, not in the least bit.
In age of first sexual experience, in frequency of pre-marital sex, in rates of divorce, in rates of infidelity, we are exactly the same humans on the inside of churches as those outside of churches. The stats reflect our humanity, not our Christianity.
“Churches can’t make you holy,” John said. “Any more than schools can make you smart. Without self-motivation, people don’t change.” He said only 12% of people are self-motivated–those that will learn no matter the school or situation; these twelve percent will excel and you almost can’t keep them down. But the other 88% are not self-motivated. They depend on outside force, outside thinking, to push them through life. “They are asking to be fed.”
Amy said that Christianity and Culture don’t create good, rich soil anymore— our pleasures are not rich enough. Cheetos are not a food group! Churches especially have bad aesthetic soil–having swept out of the building anything that smacked of pleasure or beauty or eros. We can’t talk about sex because we don’t like the way it makes us feel: human. She quoted Rumi, an appropriate poem— “between the good thing and the bad thing there is a field. Let us meet there and talk.” She wanted that field to talk to other people in the church.
John finished the talk by telling us: “Trust the motion of the human soul towards desire. We are linked to the divine.”
Someone raised their hand: “What’s wrong with passion?” She spoke about how it is drummed out of the workplace. A passion is just a hobby, a minor character trait that makes you interesting at parties. But it also seemed to threaten the workplace if you felt too passionately about something.
John answered, “Passion is dangerous. Dark energies are involved in the erotic. You can’t tame them without investigating them.”
Someone else said, “We act like gnostics!” And everyone agreed. “We are always trying to make ourselves pure.”
“You are an animal with divinity in you. A very dangerous thing.” He asked us to allow that to be a tension in our life.
A woman in the crowd tells us that she’s found herself questioning her own ideas about sexuality when her four year old boy called her into the room to see the best thing. He was in a bath, and he scrunched up his face for her, and slowly had an erection. “Isn’t that neat?” he cried out in joy.
Yes, yes it is. The crowd smiled. And then, as a child leads us, we ask: How do we keep that joy alive?
Some further thoughts
I watched the room of people struggle to speak about the subject they were told so many times they shouldn’t really speak about… not in public, not as part of a Christian life. But one thing i realized is that they were allowed to fumble around. They had designed a Festival of Faith and Writing seminar topic on the subject of Sex. They were talking freely in front of 150 people. They had the acceptance and the approval, the sympathy and the togetherness of a crowd that is on the same, bumpy journey.
I wanted to raise my hand and say, “You are at least able to talk about it–even badly.”
Knowing that if I were teaching in a Christian college like John Estes, I could be fired for talking about my sexuality. If I were in a church that didn’t approve of gays, I wouldn’t be allowed to talk freely about my sexuality. Even in that room, I daresay, that I couldn’t have spoken up without having a backlash of those who would feel uncomfortable if I even mentioned my sexuality.
Talking about sexuality for them is comparatively easy. LGBT christians have to push the envelope—but in 150 people, it was, as John pointed out, selfish for me to say anything. Or to remind them that the fact that they could have this conversation is good. Now they needed to have conversations.
Unless the church solves its sex discussion problem….
….it will never be able to look closely at gay issues in the church. Our future as gay and lesbian leaders in churches rely on churches getting past their sexual discussion barriers. If they can’t talk about their own desires, they will never be able to properly respect ours. But they are currently embarrassed by their rutting animal natures because they have been taught that it is “not neat” what their bodies can do, what their bodies feel, what can happen in a moment at Starbucks, any part of their body. They shun their bodies like ascetics, instead of embracing them as aesthetics. And they condemn gays SPECIFICALLY because gays tend to be more open about their desires, more comfortable with their sexuality, because they fought for it, than straight people who are still struggling with their desires. And because they feel awful about their own desires, how much more disgusting is the sexuality of gays and lesbians–something foreign.
So the church needs to have these conversations, and I’m sure that Calvin College is leading the way for those conversations. If they are to happen, they happen here. If there is hope, it will probably start here. And I support Amy and John in sparking these conversations in our churches–so that we can find again the “neat”ness of the erotic and the sexual. That we can once again enjoy a feeling without erupting in guilt and shame. That we can find something beautiful in faith again, erotic in the spiritual and spirituality in the erotic.
* With great apologies to Amy and John if I misrepresented the conversation or their points. It went so quickly. Perhaps they were happy that there was no recorder in the room, but not all recorders, I guess, are mechanical. I only hope I did their conversation justice.