Since I started questioning my religious upbringing, I’ve been increasingly aware of how incredibly narrow and anomalous fundamentalist and reformed evangelical understandings of Christianity are from a historical perspective. The kerfuffle over Ann Voskamp’s book is a perfect example of this; some reformed evangelicals claim it promotes a dangerous, heretical, and irreverent view of God and how God relates with human beings. But the things they claim are blasphemous are actually long established ideas and motifs in numerous Christian traditions, traceable in one form or another as far back as the earliest Church, and well within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy by any reasonable, historically informed standard.
For example, Everyday Mommy, the blogger who sparked the initial controversy over Voskamp’s book, has repeatedly criticized it for “embracing and promoting mysticism and contemplative spirituality” and drawing from traditions she finds heretical:
This extremely dangerous notion has it’s [sic] roots in the heretical, mystical teachings of a 16th century Carmelite nun who wrote of her ‘ecstasy’ with Christ achieved through trances and out-of-body experiences. Mrs. Voskamp is a devotee’ [sic] of this mystic. This metaphorical imagery is not Scriptural and is unsound at best and false teaching at worst. (comment)
Set aside for a moment that this is really bad history; this is an argument that doesn’t make sense even from a reformed evangelical perspective. The Bible is full of examples of people who had trances, visions, and other mystical encounters. Paul claimed to have been “caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know” (2 Corinthians 12, ESV). The entire book of Revelation is one big, trippy, out of this world hallucination. Biblical figures like Abraham, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Cornelius – just for starters – experienced visions. By EM’s definitions none of these experiences count as “mystical.” Nor is it “mysticism” when Christians claim to hear directly from God, to have God “living in their hearts,” or to speak spiritual languages that only God and other Christians (if anyone) can understand. No, we’re supposed to accept these pretty strange accounts as “normal” biblical Christianity, while rejecting Teresa of Ávila’s visions and raptures as obviously beyond the pale of orthodox Christian experience.
“Mysticism” has little meaning here beyond “spiritual experiences we’re uncomfortable with.” It’s a privileging of the reformed version of authentic spirituality over any and all alternatives, and a reading of the Bible and reformed Christianity’s own spirituality that’s blinkered by a priori assumptions. They either can’t or won’t acknowledge that Christianity – a faith which, after all, for most calls for belief that a virgin could conceive a child by the Holy Spirit and that a being can be both fully man and fully God – has always had a deep mystical streak at its heart. Nor are they aware of or willing to admit that there are mystics in virtually every Christian tradition and at all points in church history, not just in Catholicism or other traditions she deems heretical, and her tradition is no exception.
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.]
I’d never heard of Ann Voskamp until a few weeks ago, when Elizabeth Esther wrote about the controversy some reformed evangelicals are stirring up over Voskamp’s latest book. (Is it just me, or does this seem to happen, oh, ALL THE TIME?) Voskamp has written a spiritual memoir which has some clutching their pearls over the sensual language she uses to describe her longings for God, e.g.: expressing a wish to have “intercourse,” “union,” “intimate communion” with God, and to “make love to” God.
Despite, once again, not having actually read the book, critics have leapt from being (understandably) squicked out by this language to basically calling Voskamp an irreligious pervert, blasting her book as “poison, “evil,” panentheistic, and “mysticism” (which is bad, apparently?), and comparing it to, I kid you not, a book on “how to kill your grandmother.” Right.
Now, to be clear, I haven’t read Voskamp’s book, and this post isn’t about the book. I have no intention of reading it; it’s the sort of spiritual writing I know will leave me cold. I’ve never had more than a fleeting, very occasional sense of personal connection with a spiritual being. It’s a relief to no longer have to pretend to feel any such connection, or try and fail to force myself to. And I completely understand being disturbed and even repulsed by the imagery of intimate union with God (although it does raise the question as to why people who feel this way belong to a tradition that requires them to believe the Holy Spirit impregnated a virgin).
Still, when Christians leap from disagreement or even outright disgust to accusations that different perspectives within their religion are poisonous or dangerous to “real” Christianity, it raises some questions for me. The perennial question being, why are conservative Christians so very threatened by anything even slightly outside their worldview or experience, if their version of God is so correct? Especially reformed evangelicals, with their completely sovereign and omnipotent God? Why are they so threatened by people like Voskamp, or Rob Bell, or William P Young (author of The Shack) who suggest a different view of God? It baffles. On my more cynical days I’m inclined to think the haters are just angry that these authors are so popular, with Bell and Young having sold millions of books in a religious publishing market where selling 100,000 makes an author a “bestseller.” John Piper can only dream of having such an audience for his writing.
The specific response to Voskamp raises further questions about: 1) how well reformed evangelicals know what they claim is their own religious history (hint: not all that well. Shocking, I know.) and 2) how well claims about the timelessness and universality of complementarian teachings on gender and sexuality hold up to the historical record (see above hint). Because the thing is, concepts of gender and sexuality have been far more fluid in historical Christian traditions than they are in modern day reformed Christianity, even in traditions present-day reformed Christians claim as their predecessors. If the ‘truly reformed’ bloggers of the world think Voskamp’s imagery is perverted, what the Puritans – Puritan men – wrote about union with Christ would make their heads spin. As Richard Godbeer writes in his excellent book Sexual Revolution in Early America:
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Puritan sexuality was not its spiritualization of the erotic but its eroticization of the spiritual. Scripture invites believers, male and female, to conceive of Christ as a husband and to envisage union with him in vividly sensual, even sexual terms. The challenge that biblical images of Christ as bridegroom and lover post to what we might term male heterosexuality has been met in various ways by different Christian cultures. Modern westerners have, for the most part, ignored biblical passages that contain this imagery. But previous Christian traditions have chosen options other than the suppression and bowldlerization of biblical text. New England Puritans welcomed and celebrated the sensual possibilities embedded within the scripture from which they drew inspiration. Their ability to do so was due in large part to remarkably fluid conceptions of gender within Puritan culture. As a result, in this world and the next, through both human marriage and espousal to the savior, Puritans could find sensual and sexual fulfillment within the Lord’s garden (55-6).
In upcoming posts I’ll look at some specific examples of the Puritan’s “eroticization of the spiritual” and how it undermines reformed complementarian claims about the fixed, eternal nature of gender roles.