Ann Voskamp and Jesus as lover: Perspective from the Puritans, pt. 2

Part 1

The crux of the controversy over Ann Voskamp’s book revolves around accusations that she wants to have “intercourse” with God. Everyday Mommy, the blogger whose post sparked the debate, argues that the biblical image of the Christian church as the bride of Christ is solely an analogy that illustrates how different persons of the Trinity relate to each other, and how husbands and wives should relate to each other – except for the sex part. “The Biblical imagery of marriage between Christ and His bride has [nothing] whatsoever to do with sex,” and exploring any sensual or sexual aspect of this marital metaphor is “[imposing] our own fallen, fleshly views on scripture.”

Frankly I think this response points to a rather low view of sexuality as something to be ashamed of (“fallen” and “fleshly”), while divinity necessarily means being sexless – but also necessarily means being of male gender. The obsession with a power-hungry, violent and vengeful male God who is completely invulnerable to any kind of human need or desire, perhaps most especially sexual desire, is very revealing of the gender and sexual politics at the heart of complementarianism. It’s the sort of thing Freud would have had a field day with (and did, I think).

But as for the claim that the metaphor of “intercourse with God” is unscriptural and heretic, this would have been news to Puritan Christians. In his study of sexuality in colonial America, Richard Godbeer shows that Puritans found such imagery not only appropriate, but in fact necessary for understanding the proper relationship between God and the Christian soul. They believed that physical, sexual passion was not to be repressed, but rather channelled into heterosexual marriage and celebrated in that context; all sexual expression outside those boundaries was “unclean” and “disorderly.”

At the same time, even legitimate marital love could become a sin if it distracted a Christian from what should be their primary object of affection, namely, Christ. For many Puritans, the imagery of Christ as bridegroom to the Church, and the erotic language in which they rendered that imagery, wasn’t merely an analogy. It was an illustration that pointed to the very real spiritual passion a Christian should feel for Christ – a passion far more important than any human affection, and a passion that, pursued above any other, would lead to far greater and more lasting pleasure than any human relationship could. Puritan literature on the love between Christ and the Christian soul was full of talk of ecstasies, swooning, raptures, and even “seed” and “impregnation.”

We can see an example of this in the writings of Edward Taylor, a seventeenth century Massachusetts pastor. Taylor wrote to his future wife that his intense, “sanctified” love for her would nevertheless always have to be subordinate to the love “betwixt Christ and his church,” and spoke of this spiritual love in sensual and sexual terms. In his poems, Taylor described his soul as a “womb” which would be “impregnated” by “Christ the spermadote” with the “seed” of grace, and eventually give birth to the “babe of grace.”

Taylor’s spiritual poetry portrayed his relationship with Christ as a passionate, sexual encounter. He imagined Christ as a lover who was a “spotless male in prime,” and wrote of preparing “gospel pillows, sheets, and sweet perfumes” to welcome Christ into the “feather-bed” of his heart. Through union with Christ he expected to experience “love raptures” quite clearly orgasmic in nature: “Yea, with thy holy oil make thou it slick till like a flash of lightning it grow quick.”

Whew! Pretty hot and heavy, I’d say. Certainly far more explicit than Voskamp’s vague, generic longings to “make love to” or have “intercourse” with God. And as Godbeer points out, Taylor “was neither unique nor unorthodox” for his time in making use of such erotic language and imagery. Nor did Puritans consider it inappropriate for men to write about Jesus as a masculine, spiritual lover – to the contrary, his masculinity was emphasized in such writing. As I’ll discuss in a future post, the greater fluidity of Puritan understandings of gender (by comparison to 21st century Americans) made what looks to us like a queering of the relationship between Jesus and the church completely acceptable, even in a context where same gender love was roundly condemned.

Which is why I found this comment from a male reader at Everyday Mommy so ironic:

@Karen and the supporters:
Since this stuff is okay I’m going to write about how [Jesus is] *my* lover too. My soul longs for sweet, intimate, gay sex.
And if you protest I can just say it’s spiritual.

Or we could recognize that EverydayMommy is right about this is morally reprehensible.

Not to worry, dude. Edward Taylor was waaaaay ahead of you.

[Note: In this series of posts I’m paraphrasing and drawing on research by Richard Godbeer in Sexual Revolution in Early America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.]

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12 Comments on “Ann Voskamp and Jesus as lover: Perspective from the Puritans, pt. 2”

  1. Mark says:

    I have found this polemic and your blogs about it, Grace, fascinating. Very few, if any, Early Modern theologies were more conservative than Puritan Theology, and yet we can see a very intense, sexual charge after reading what you have shared with us. Of course, the debate about sexual connections with god is an old one. From the opening of the Old Testament, with the Song of Songs, to the intense and explicit sexual scenes between prophets, wives, and biblical heroes that were chopped off during the Nicene Council in the 4th century (scenes that will constantly come back to haunt the Church until today), sexual intercourse with the divine was everywhere. In fact, Peter Brown, in his book The Body and Society, describes how many “microristianities” (a term he invented to describe the many different communities of Christians that existed in Late Antiquity, and which had very, very different readings of the diverse and abundant sources of the Old and New testaments) used orgies and sexual encounters as a way to reach a state of divine connection. The idea of sex with Jesus is as old as probably Jesus himself (let’s not forget the Gospel of Mary and the tradition that describes Mary of Magdala as Christs’ wife).
    Furthermore, even the Church Fathers discussed the question of whether or not Adam and Eve had sex in Paradise (granted, this is not the same as having sex with god, but it is definitely a discussion on how sex and sexual encounter should not be understood as inherently unclean or bad). Many of them believed they did, and we all would if admitted back in Paradise after the final judgment… a sex free of sin, they believed.
    The fact that Complementarianist and Evangelicals are so upset about Voskamp’s book (which, as you have pointed out, seems rather generic and light) is ludicrous to me. Once more, hearing them calling themselves Christians is perhaps the most upsetting aspect to me: if they are, in fact, Christians, why don’t they learn from the previous Christian exegetical traditions? If they would they would be forced to stop most of their ridiculous attacks of fear and scandal. At the end, it seems to me that Complementarianist and Evangelicas are, in fact, a completely different religion than Christianity, that simply happen to use edited texts from Christianity as their religious base, but working with readings and editions that are actually against even some of the most conservative readings of Christianity.

    • Grace says:

      Thanks for this really informative comment, Mark! Does Brown discuss the passages that were edited out by the Nicene Council, or is there another book I can check out that discusses this? I’d love to learn more about it…

      I completely agree with your points about how conservative Christians have twisted or completely ignored whole elements of the Christian tradition out of convenience (or in many cases proud and willful ignorance). The farther I get from evangelicalism the more I see that Christianity is a HUGE tradition with so many different beliefs, practices, and cultures – especially if you take the whole history of the church into account. The reformed perspective on it is like if you had an enormous ocean to swim in and explore, but keep insisting that a tiny tributary off a river that comes from that ocean is the only “real” body of water in the world. Ridiculous!

  2. prairienymph says:

    Isn’t saying Evangelicals are a completely different religion than Christianity a little like saying modern English is a completely different language than old English?

    It is so different as to be nearly incomprehensible, but they would argue that language and religion evolves with “revealed truths”. Its an argument that won’t convince or impress them since they have the arrogance that they are more right than anyone else.
    Tradition, in their minds, has been corrupted and become obsolete. They are blind to the evolutionary process that brought them and keeps them where they are.

    • Grace says:

      And what’s so irritating about it is that they are completely convinced that how they do Christianity is the real, biblical, historical Christianity. Are you kidding me? I doubt that even a single early Christian would have recognized most of evangelicalism as Christianity, not as they understood it. But they insist that they can have their own facts and their own history.

  3. Mark says:

    I agree with you, Prairienymph, they wouldn’t agree with my comment and would not define themselves as a different religion. That was my impression only. Yes, they are characterized by an immense arrogance, and ignore the traditions that has made them up purposely.

  4. David Holland says:

    It seems clear to me that the Puritans were speaking of real passion, but not physical sex with God (since that would be highly problematic). Isn’t that the definition of allegory?

    Certainly you are not suggesting a return to the practice of temple prostitution as that is truly demeaning women.

    I suppose alternatively we can worship the women themselves, but that smacks of idolatry. Better still the church orgies, now there is a prospect that would make the old temple money changes green with envy (and some televangelists as well, they could broadcast the services and ratings would SOAR).

    Hmm, maybe a separation between Church and Sex isn’t such a bad thing after all.

    • Grace says:

      Right, it is an allegory. The controversy with Voskamp’s book is that some of the reformed crowd think it’s inappropriate and even heretical to use such allegorical imagery.

      Reading a comment calling for more honesty and rigorous study of church history as a call for a return to previous practices in the church is quite the non sequitur…

      • David Holland says:

        Grace,

        I’m sorry. I missed the call for honesty and a more rigorous study of church history. I was probably sidetracked by the paragraph where you wrote…

        “Frankly I think this response points to a rather low view of sexuality as something to be ashamed of (“fallen” and “fleshly”), while divinity necessarily means being sexless – but also necessarily means being of male gender. The obsession with a power-hungry, violent and vengeful male God who is completely invulnerable to any kind of human need or desire, perhaps most especially sexual desire, is very revealing of the gender and sexual politics at the heart of complementarianism. It’s the sort of thing Freud would have had a field day with (and did, I think).”

        But I think you may have missed my point. I was not calling for a return to heretical practice, merely attempting to highlight the danger inherent in mixing Church and sex. There are apparently very good reasons for some people to keep a clear distinction between them, not simply because of a “low view” of sex but in recognition of its power and our fallen nature.

        David

        • Grace says:

          David, I think you need to read more closely and with a less adversarial mindset. That paragraph isn’t about actual sexual desire on the part of a deity. It’s about how the construction of God in a particular image reveals things about how people want to understand themselves – as is the entire post, as is this entire blog. And the construction of God in patriarchal Christianity as male, omnipotent, free from all vulnerability (“he” is allowed the emotions of anger and jealousy, and “love”- but a jealous, possessive love, even vengeful). That reveals a lot of things about how patriarchal Christianity wants to construct human masculinity.

          I wasn’t calling for mixing the Church and sex.

  5. Mark says:

    Yes, it is Peter Brown in his The Body and Society who talks about it!

  6. ringtales says:

    i can’t help thinking when i read all the fuss over sex, that there are a lot of people having a lot of lousy sex, or not enough really good sex. i can hardly think of anything that makes me *see* god, like an orgasm. i’m serious. you feel, reduced to your humblest physical element and at the exact time, spiritually elevated in a way that is mysterious and pure.

    “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
    — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    you have got to wonder about the people that defend EverydayMommy’s position, which seems to be devoid of any reasoning beyond finding sex, inherently dirty. therefore the perfectly biblical meditation on a consummated relationship with god, is dismissed out of hand. to these good willed people of shallow understanding, please contemplate that the prophets used the intimate word for carnal knowledge or sexual intimacy when they spoke of “knowing” god. hosea 2:21, 6:6, john 10:14-15,14:20, 17:3 (referencing richard rohr’s The Naked Now).

    sex is not just about organs and fluids. it is equally about allowing yourself to be accessible in the most bare way in which you are capable, with your beloved.

    inflammatory talk of temple prostitutes, is an example of shallow understanding, that serves to distance oneself from the vulnerability necessary to understand and love, god and man.

    don’t make it about religion, and defending god’s holiness, when it is about the fear of being vulnerable


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