Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Atlantic Bloggers Talk of "Traditional Families," Which Leads Me to Why I Got Married

Ross Douthat has a very thoughtful post on why marriage the institution is important, and why understanding couples in context of community is the underlying key. Check it out. Ross is a social conservative, and the post is part of a conversation with another Atlantic blogger, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is not so much a social conservative. I could summarize it, but I'm lazy, and you should just read it.

Point being, this conversation at the Atlantic has made me think about marriage and family, and the definitions and defenses thereof. I recall that when I was getting married, I wasn't able to articulate very well why I was getting married....not really. I mean, I could say, "well, I love Joel. Like, for serious." But why not move in together? I struggled to say.

I wanted the proper terms: "husband" and "wife." I wanted Joel and me and our future kids all to have the same last name. I have a hard enough time making up my mind --- I wanted the probationary period to be over, the decision made, the deal done. I need that. I wanted a wedding, not for the dress or the flowers, but so that God and everybody would be our witnesses. It meant a lot to me that people from every era of my life showed up at our wedding to support and celebrate, and I knew that from then on, I could not go back. I could return to no place in my life where they would not know me as a married woman. I wanted our relationship, our love, recorded in the county register, as if it were the equivalent of writing "Bethany {hearts} Joel" in the cement sidewalk outside City Hall.

Sidewalk proclamations
Photo courtesy of Jackie Huyh

I know there are specifically Christian reasons to get married, too, and those would be enough for me, but they are difficult to explain to people who don't accept the terms. My explanations fell into "divine fiat" territory, and that is rarely of any use in conversation. It's hard to explain the point of marriage; sometimes it's a challenge to give apology for why it exists at all. Which is why I was delighted to read Douthat's argument for the value of marriage to society at large. He says,
Yes, the best relationships shouldn't need institutional hedges against infidelity and/or abandonment. But an awful lot of relationships worth fighting for do end up benefiting from being hedged around with institutional supports - because life is long, people are complicated, and you don't always know when you're starting out what you'll need to reach the end of the road together....

When people don't do the right thing, whether by their partner or more importantly by their kids, it's by definition a problem for the community, because it's the community that's left to pick up the pieces. Which is why it makes sense for your community to ask you for a public commitment when you set out to rear a family, whether you think that you and the mother/father of your child needs such a thing or not. You may be sure that you're in the kind of relationship that won't benefit from an institutional commitment, but the community doesn't know that: It just knows that in the aggregate, public commitments tend to be stronger than private ones - and thus better for parents, for children, and for society writ large. So a community that asks for public commitments isn't disrespecting your potential exceptionalism; it's just asking you to respect the aggregate, and to set an example for the people who might not be as exceptional as you.
So there you go. I do not believe myself to be an exception to the rule; I need institutional supports. And why not take all the help you can get?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sex from the Pulpit, Take 2

After Brett McCracken's post on Mark Driscoll, I was pretty upset. Brett describes a recent sermon Mark Driscoll gave as part of his series on Song of Solomon at Mars Hill Church in Seattle:
Before he began his sermon, Driscoll noted that this was “one of the steamiest passages in the entire Bible” and urged all young children to immediately leave. He then proceeded to elaborate in great detail on the Dance of Mahanaim, talking about what each of the sexually suggestive metaphors meant, etc. Eventually he came to his point: that this passage of scripture was a call for wives to be “visually generous” to their husbands. They should keep the lights on in sex. Walk around the house topless. Things like that.

“The body is the greatest gift a wife can give,” said Driscoll.
I was okay reading the first paragraph, but nearly vomited when I got to the wife quote at the end. Immediately, I started to rant, as follows:
Oh come on, that last line is obviously total crap. My body is the greatest gift I can give my husband? Really? Because I could give him my body and deny him nearly everything else. (And I suspect if I did, he would sooner or later grow tired of my body.) Let's think this through. What if gave him my body but I denied him my support? What if I denied him my encouragement? My friendship? My respect? Heck, what if I denied him my cooking and cleaning? How about my words of love? You're telling me none of those gifts compare to the gift of my body? [Hand motion censored.] You can take a hike.
I decided to write about this, denouncing Mark Driscoll. Then, to get more ammunition with which to destroy him, I watched this sermon online.

Bad idea. I got way too much context. I didn't want to Jeremiah Wright the guy. And the problem was, I never did hear that precise sentence come out of his mouth. I heard a lot of similar phrases, but not those exact words.

In conclusion, I don't think Mark Driscoll believes that a wife's body is her most precious gift. Not per se. Let me explain.

He opened this sermon with a treatise on how "men are visual." He said that men keep a "iPod of images" of attractive women, a log of beauty that extends back to grade school. The subtext here is the appeal of pornography. A wife should be "visually generous" so that the snapshots in her husband's head are of her, and she will show her husband that she is "on his team" in his "battle against porn." This is the line of thought that brings us to how "visually generous wives" are a "great gift to their husbands."

Now, I still am not convinced by this argument, but it does not sound completely insane. Men are visually stimulated (as are some women, as Driscoll admits). He advises husbands to be "verbally generous" to their wives, and I appreciate that at least he is suggesting reciprocity. Come to think of it, I am pro-generosity of all kinds.

What does not convince me is the idea that "visual generosity" would be of much help in fighting a porn habit. It wouldn't hurt, probably, but there is much more involved. I reckon Driscoll would agree that the lure of pornography goes far beyond nekkid chicks, given the book he has written on the subject. I would just have liked him to give a disclaimer or two in his speech on visual generosity.

Obviously, porn is visually stimulating. What is also true about porn is that it is easy, cheap, and widely available. With a connection to the Internet, you can summon naked women (and men) in almost infinite variety. They are always delighted to see you. They never refuse. They are understanding of your unique preferences, your need for perfection, your every whim. And you don't ever need to call them or explain, awkwardly, why you forgot. No wife can compete on these terms. No wife should be made to.

I know Mark Driscoll gets that. When asked, "Isn’t looking at porno and masturbating an acceptable alternative to adultery or divorce if sex with my wife is terrible, infrequent, and/or unsatisfying?" He answers no:
If your sex life is not satisfying, then it is your responsibility whether or not it is entirely your fault because you are the head of your wife (Eph. 5:23). Therefore, rather than excusing your sin, you should repent of your sin and the condition of your home and seek counsel from your pastor(s) and/or professional Christian counselor(s) on how to be about redemption, like Jesus, rather than blame-shifting, like Adam.
I liked this response, despite the whole "my husband is my head" thing (see how old-school this guy is? He's a traditional pastor who happens to dress like a hipster and intro his sermons with slick animated graphics). I don't think any of his views on sex are new, like I said in my previous post. He just addresses these traditional views to contemporary concerns. More power to him, I say.

So I have decided not to be mad at him. He's not perfect, but he's not a monster. And he seems like he does really love his wife.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Sex from the Pulpit? I'll take my sex from my husband, thank you.

My pastor hardly ever talks about sex. Occasionally, he throws “sexual immorality” into a list of sins, but that’s about it. I love the man, but he’s just not keeping up with the cool kids anymore. If he were, he would be telling us to have more sex. Lots of it, in new and daring ways.

It’s surprising but true: preaching about sex is popular among conservative Christian pastors these days. Several pastors have made the news by challenging their married parishioners to have sex every day for seven days, or even a month. Not to be out-done (haha), one Christian couple from North Carolina had sex for 365 days in a row and wrote a book about it.

Before I criticize, I should say here that there is much in this development to praise. First of all, there is truth. A whole book of the Bible, Song of Solomon, is an erotic love story, and it’s only because it was written in the 4th or 3rd century BC that its sexual innuendos fly right over our heads. God is much more “sex-positive” than he has been made out to be. That is true.

On the other hand, it’s also true that pastors have taught on sexuality for years. John Piper has sermons on sex that date back to 1981, and I am sure others wrote sermons on sex before him. A Celebration of Sex, the first major Christian sex manual, was published in 1979. Okay, so most pastors didn’t recite passages from the sex manual on Sunday morning. I’ll grant you that. But what is new is not that pastors are talking about sex in church; it’s the provocative way pastors are talking about it.

I am less than enthused by the way this sex-talk is going. For instance, apparently the church has subscribed to a more = better school of sexology, hence the “sex challenges” to have sex every day for a certain period of time, like the opposite of a fast. I tend to think there is already too much anxiety/emphasis out there over sexual frequency, as if we must be abnormal if we are not having sex x amount of times per week – either we’re unwanted loser-freaks and/or our relationship is sub-par. I do not need this anxiety reinforced. And if I don't need it, I am sure my single and celibate friends don't need it either.

Arguably, there are couples out there who would benefit from making their physical relationship more of a priority. That leads us to another problem --- namely, that there aren't enough allowances made for complexity, for differing circumstances. Appropriate sex advice would vary widely from person to person, couple to couple. I am not saying there aren't biblical guidelines. There just aren't one-size-fits-all "solutions."

And do I really need the church to tell me I should be having an endless amount of great sex? I can get that message by turning on the TV. When pastor's say “sex is great! God designed sex to be great!" I am afraid that people in the pew may hear: "God designed sex to be great; therefore, if my experience of sex is not so great, I must be disappointing Jesus, too. Great."

I think that most people need to hear a different message (and hopefully, most people do --- my pastor has not jumped on this bandwagon so I can only go by the sermons I can find online). I think most of us need to hear that Jesus loves us just as we are, that with Christ, we have nothing left to prove, that because of His great love, we know that our personal worth is not localized in our genitals. We need to know that there is hope in Jesus, and that therefore we can be patient while we continue in our celibacy or while we work through our sexual problems. We need to know that the Holy Spirit is with us, even in bed, and that therefore we can be healed and cleansed, forgiven and unashamed. And in our sex-saturated culture, we need to know that there are more important things than our sexual fulfillment. Whether we are single or married, having sex or not, we would benefit from a truly counter-cultural, Christ-centered message. I have not yet seen that kind of message getting much play in the news.

P.S. Sorry I have not posted anything here for so long. Thanks to Brett McCracken for his intelligent posts on this topic for getting me back in the game.

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Best Thing I've Heard from a Conservative Christian This Election: Pastor John Piper's Reflections

For the record, I disagree with John Piper on several issues (I'll let you guess which ones...not all are mentioned in this video). However, I was incredibly encouraged to listen to his message. If only more conservative Christians sounded like John Piper, rather than like Focus on the Family Action with their "Letter from 2012 in Obama's America," which I hesitate to even link to because I know it will only make a lot of people angry. Feel free not to read it. I am not recommending it.

Now, John Piper is not theologically very different from the Focus on the Family people. He believes God designed men and women to fulfill different roles. He believes homosexuality is sinful. But those aren't the only things he believes.

He believes there is hope in Jesus. He believes that God is in control, even of hard-fought democratic elections. He believes that we in the church should be about being Christians -- an astoundingly radical thought in an era when so many church leaders are deeply invested in being pro this or that piece of legislation. He insists that the church's mission is to "spread the gospel." Again, this should not be a radical claim, but somehow, right now, it is.

Christian involvement in politics is a complicated matter. Personally, I subscribe to the "sin boldly" school of Christian political thought (yes, I just made that school up). I believe that since Jesus is not on the ballot, I will be implicated in sin and evil and corruption no matter who I vote for. We are only human, and so are the candidates. Because I am human I must operate on limited information; I cannot predict the future. I will not be able to choose perfectly because there is no perfect option, and it is not altogether certain what even the "okay" option might be. I would have voted for George W. Bush in 2000, and today I would say I would have been wrong. Voting is not easy, and we should not imagine that either side has clean hands.

However, I also happen to believe that it's important to vote. Not to vote would be an abdication of my civic responsibility. And I do believe that important issues and ideas and even lives are at stake here. This election will affect the future of our country, whichever way it goes. It's important.

It's important, but it's not easy. Now, for honesty's sake here, I should clarify what I mean by "easy." I made up my mind in January, and I have not changed it. In fact, you could say I made up my mind sometime in late 2004, when I heard Barack Obama speak at the Democratic National Convention. I liked him then, and I like him now. I believe he will make a good President, and maybe a great one.

So in a real sense, this decision is very easy for me. I say it's not easy, though, because I still have a seed of doubt. I will enthusiastically vote for him, but I'll try to keep both eyes open. Doubtless there would be consequences of an Obama Presidency that would be negative, and it's impossible to tell now how significant those negatives would be. I am hopeful, but not without doubt. Trusting, but not without cynicism.

I think my posture is about as good of one as a Christian could have (um, humbly). Mostly, I hope, because it tempers the self-righteousness that comes with being on the obviously-superior-side (whichever side that is). I hope my seed of doubt leaves me more respectful of people who disagree with me. I know they have their reasons.

I wish we had more arguments about politics in church. I mean honest, respectful arguments, which are hard to have. It's easy to conclude that the people who disagree with you are stupid, crazy, evil, or some combination of the three. It's harder to listen to them and keep in mind the fact that your opponent is yet God's child, your sibling, no matter how different they are. No matter, even, how wrong they are. For Christ's sake, let's remember that our salvation does not hinge on how we vote.

When I remember Christ my Savior, I am less anxious about who to vote for. Sin boldly, said Martin Luther, the reformer who kick-started Protestantism 491 years ago today. Sin boldy because God is merciful, because you know not what you do. Sin bodly, as you cannot help but sin; yet nevertheless, live and love and risk and act and vote in the confidence that Christ lives to offer you forgiveness, to always invite you home.

What I appreciate about John Piper, I think, is that he comes to a similar conclusion. I hear in the background of his thought one theme: Jesus is my hero and defender, not John McCain. Jesus is my hope and reconciler, not Barack Obama. I could not agree more.

I am posting the "long version" of this video because it gives more context, even though in the short version he says fewer controversial things. I don't want to portray him as anybody other than who he is, and my whole excitement over this video depends upon Piper's theological conservatism. I would ask you to watch the whole thing -- but if you can't stand it, skip forward to about 2:44 seconds in. He's worth listening to. I wish more Christians would.

For more on voting from John Piper, read this.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Telling the Truth Shouldn't Be a Losing Game

Slate has a new article by Farhad Manjoo suggesting that Barack Obama should maybe try lying more. This paragraph I found particularly depressing:
But it wouldn't be surprising if McCain's lies worked. In my book True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society, published earlier this year, I argued that in the digital world, facts are a stock of faltering value. The phenomenon that scholars call "media fragmentation"—the disintegration of the mass media into the many niches of the Web, cable news, and talk radio—lets us consume news that we like and avoid news that we don't, leading people to perceive reality in a way that conforms to their long-held beliefs. Not everyone agrees with me that our new infosphere will open the floodgates to fiction, but it's clear that the McCain camp is benefiting from some of the forces I described.
What is profoundly disturbing about this paragraph is what I consider its core truth: that it is now possible to cocoon oneself with newsmedia that already agree with you. It doesn't matter if we're talking about the New York Times or FOX News, both have the same affect --- if either one is the only source you believe.

I have recently tried to balance myself out a bit. I'm reading the Wall Street Journal more in an attempt to ensure that my most conservative source of news isn't the Colbert Report. I've tried to read a few conservative blogs. I find that while I usually find the articles interesting and admit some of the editorials make good points, I cannot stand to read any of the comments. People on the internet are mean, plain and simple, and the "facts" hardly matter at all.

I have found to be an invaluable reminder of Reality. Everything else I read I take with a grain of salt.

I think our democracy is at stake here, and I don't think I'm an alarmist. If we cannot sustain decent, honorable, and truthful political discourse, we will be left to vote more and more on the basis of lies and emotion. The "truth" will become subservient to power, if it isn't already.

Obviously, we will always have differences of opinion, conflicting dreams for what America could be. But we do not have to have a politics of slander. I know we're sinners, all, but come on. We can hold liars accountable. We can be less cynical ("Oh, that's just politics") and more involved. We can quit believing that lies during a campaign will stop after the election; one who lies to get power will lie to retain it.

I think Christians, especially, should demand better. We are commanded to delight in the truth, and we are warned not to give false witness against our neighbor. I think our Christian witness is at stake, lest we leave ourselves open to the accusation that all we're after is power --- in other words, we should demand truthfulness even when lies might advance our agenda, lest we lose all credibility.

Furthermore, each of us should seek after wisdom at all costs, as the Book of Proverbs encourages us. The wise person, Scripture tells us, is not the person who has it all figured out, who knows all the answers already. The wise person is the one who listens to correction, who goes so far as to even love the one who rebukes her. Which is all to say that if we only listen to those who reinforce our own version of reality, we do so at our peril --- and I believe this to be the case whether we're talking about our view of politics or relationships or our own holiness. If we cannot admit when we are wrong, we are without hope.

Lastly, we should try to aim for truth because otherwise we can easily fall into hate. It's easy to demonize your opponents/their supporters if you don't listen to a word they say. And you have to actually listen to them --- not just listen to a report of what they said. We are told to love our enemies. That includes "commie pinko stuck-up fembots" and "racist war-mongering theocrats." Feel free to check my source on that.