One of the most interesting and insidious aspects of complementarianism is its use of alternative (read: false) historical narratives to legitimize its claims about the timeless and universal nature of “masculinity” and “femininity.” Men everywhere have always been like X, and women everywhere have always been Y, and that’s that.
Of course, these kinds of ahistorical claims are hardly unique to complementarianism – you can see the same phenomenon at work in the counterfactual history promoted by the Tea Party and their ilk (Paul Revere’s Ride was about defending the right to bear arms against the British! The Founding Fathers fought tirelessly to end slavery!), or by anti-Muslim warmongers (Islam is a bloodthirsty religion that’s been hellbent on wiping Christianity off the face of the earth for over a millenium!). These kinds of narratives show how important history is, how powerful historical accounts – accurate or not – can be in lending credibility and influence to particular points of view and undermining others.
Unsurprisingly, the actual historical record completely contradicts complementarian assertions of a monolithic “masculine nature.” Sara Lipton’s recent New York Times article on ancient and medieval concepts of masculinity is a great example of this. Our current cultural view of masculinity holds that “all men” or “real” men are characterized by an insatiable and barely controllable lust for sex – which is why we often ascribe the sexual escapades (and far worse) of powerful men to their gender:
The conventionalis that when it comes to sex, a certain kind of man, no matter how intelligent, doesn’t think at all; he just acts. Somehow a need for sexual conquest, female adulation and illicit and risky liaisons seems to go along with drive, ambition and confidence in the “alpha male.” And even if we denounce him and hound him from office, we tend to accept the idea that power accentuates the lusty nature of men.
But as Lipton points out, for much of western history, sexual restraint, not excess, was viewed as the hallmark of mature masculinity.
Late antique and Roman writers, like Plutarch, lauded men for their ability to resist sexual temptation and control bodily desire through force of will and intellect….Rampant sexuality was something men were supposed to grow out of: in medieval political theory, young male bodies were used as symbols of badly run kingdoms. A man who indulged in excessive eating, drinking, sleeping or sex — who failed to “rule himself” — was considered unfit to rule his household, much less a polity.
At the same time, lustfulness and sexual excess were in fact associated with women, not men:
Ancient and medieval writers described women as consumed by lust and sexual desire. In 1433, officials in Florence charged with regulating women’s dress and behavior sought “to restrain the barbarous and irrepressible bestiality of women who, not mindful of the weakness of their nature, forgetting that they are subject to their husbands, and transforming their perverse sense into a reprobate and diabolical nature, force their husbands with their honeyed poison to submit to them.” [Of course, this notion of female sexuality as a weapon used to subdue hapless men is still very much with us.]
Because of this association of sexuality with femaleness, men who failed to control their sexual urges or were susceptible to feminine attractions found their masculinity challenged. Marc Antony was roundly mocked as having been “softened and effeminized” by his desire for Cleopatra. When the king and war hero Pedro II of Aragon spent the night before a battle not in prayer or council but in bed with a woman, he was labeled effeminate.
Of course in a sense this trope is not so different from our current cultural framing of masculine and feminine sexuality. Both the ancient/medieval and our model are essentially misogynistic, blaming women for sexual indiscretions or outright crimes by men, whether because of imagined female sexual aggression on the one hand, or because women supposedly stir up uncontrollable male lusts simply by existing (I’m sorry, being “immodest” or “provocative”) on the other. Still, it’s clear that our modern understanding of gendered sexuality didn’t exist in the West as recently as a few centuries ago. Kind of calls into question claims that our notions of masculinity and femininity reflect some divinely created male or female nature, hmm?
Traditional Marriage includes…
1691: Whites only
1724: Blacks with permission of slave owner
1769: The wife is property
1900: The wife can own property
1965: Contraception legal
1967: Interracial couples
1975: Wife can have credit in her name
Husband owns all property
Legal marital rape
20??: Same-sex marriage
Makes one wonder what makes the anti marriage equality crowd think they have “traditional marriage” figured out this time around…
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.
LDS (Mormon) owned Brigham Young University just dismissed Brandon Davies, a key player on their #3 ranked men’s basketball team, for violating the school’s honor code. Davies was apparently dismissed because he and his girlfriend had premarital sex. Amazingly, a number of otherwise liberal bloggers and mainstream media figures who are applauding BYU for “sticking to their principles” in this case (including Jon Stewart, for heaven’s sake). Many are also castigating Davies for breaking a “contract” and “letting his teammates down.” Um, no. Fail.
BYU’s right to define its own rules doesn’t make those rules or how they’re applied inherently right, or exempt them from criticism and scrutiny. There are undoubtedly quite a lot of sexually active, unmarried students at BYU. The honor code holds up standards the school must know a large proportion of the student body won’t be able to meet, and the vast majority of people will get away with breaking. According to one BYU alum, the rules are unevenly applied; Davies may be subject to a double standard because he’s part of a nationally prominent team.
As for claims that BYU showed “integrity” and “courage” by giving up potential wins for its principles – I’m sorry, but that’s utter bullshit. It doesn’t take “courage” to turn a 19 year old into a national spectacle. It would take more courage for such a conservative institution to acknowledge that not everything is black and white, and to take a nuanced, non-judgmental approach to the situation. Or to acknowledge that maybe there’s more than one way to deal with offenses, and the harshest way is often more self-righteousness and legalism than it is thoughtful adherence to “principles.”
In order to maintain their “integrity” as a religious institution, BYU showed appalling disregard for the welfare of two young people and their families. But even if Davies were a grown man, “rules is rules” would be a shitty excuse for throwing context, nuance, or basic human decency and compassion out the window. Is the purpose of a religious code of conduct to weed out anyone who doesn’t behave perfectly? An excuse to expose anyone who makes a mistake to national scrutiny and humiliation? Or to help people make better choices and live well? Insisting on rules for their own sake lacks compassion – it makes being human itself into a sin and a failing. Is this what passes for pastoral care at BYU?
Davies now feels he owes his teammates an apology for having consensual sex, which is just sad and awful. Funny how some churches claim to believe sexuality is an incredibly private thing but still put it on such public display. Apparently that’s only bad if someone chooses to express themselves sexually in a not entirely private context; exposing someone’s body or sex life to public scrutiny without their consent is just fine. One wonders if the famous BYU alums who are defending the school would be willing to have their sexual histories laid out for public consumption and examined to see if they held up the honor code as students. Somehow I think not.
The bottom line is what Brandon Davies and his girlfriend have or haven’t done sexually, assuming consent, is NO ONE’S BUSINESS BUT THEIR OWN. It’s no business of the coach, the team, or the university. It’s damn sure not the country’s business. This is an inexcusable violation of the privacy and dignity of Davies, his girlfriend, and their families. They are owed an apology. Davies didn’t let his teammates, his fans, BYU, or anyone else down. The adults and the institution who are supposed to be looking out for him let him down. The awful irony is that Davies is implicitly praised for apologizing for consensual sex in the same culture where Ben Roethlisberger and myriad other athletes with a history of rape or sexual assault are under little or no pressure to apologize for their behavior (thanks to @FearlessFemme for pointing this out).
Davies is a young black man at a predominantly white institution; he belongs to a predominantly white religion (in the U.S.) with a long, documented history of institutionalized racism and white privilege. The holding up of a young black Mormon as a national example of sexual transgression has to be understood in that context, and in the broader hypersexualization of black men and other men of color in U.S. culture. Rumors that Davies’ girlfriend is white have also fueled comments, which one doesn’t have to look hard to find, speculating about her judgment, self-esteem, and even body image and weight because of her decision to date and have sex with a black man. Such comments indicate the persistence of old, ugly attitudes about racial “miscegenation” in the U.S.. It’s worth noting here that the 100+ years ban on black men in the Mormon priesthood, lifted only in 1978, is thought to have been a response to an interracial marriage between a white woman and the son of a black elder in the early years of the LDS church.
There’s also a concerning pattern here of male athletes of color coming under university scrutiny over the honor code – now at least three in the past year. Harvey Unga, a Tongan football player, and Keilani Moeaki, a women’s basketball player, voluntarily withdrew from BYU in 2010 for honor code violations presumably sexual in nature, as Moeaki gave birth to their son three months later. Michael Loyd, another black basketball player, left BYU for reasons reported by the school and its supporters to be related to discipline problems and possible honor code violations. It’s unclear at this point whether Davies will remain at BYU – whether he will be expelled, as is reported to be a possible penalty for an honor code violation of this “seriousness,” or transfer elsewhere. If he is expelled, it will raise further questions about the disposability of young black men in higher education and athletics.
I find it telling that very little concern has been expressed for Davies’ girlfriend. She’s entirely out of the picture as a stock figure and sexual objected implicitly blamed for luring Davies into making a “mistake.” We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this young woman has had her sex life turned into fodder for national debate overnight. If, like Davies, she’s also a member of the LDS church, the scrutiny may be even more damaging; in cultures like conservative Mormonism, a man might be forgiven the “indiscretion” of premarital sex or even an affair because that’s just “how men are.” Women in such cultures, by contrast, are simultaneously constructed as asexual and as natural objects of male desire, especially if they are white (women of color are often depicted as naturally hypersexual and inclined to promiscuity).
In addition to being extremely misogynist and racist, this view of gender and sexuality is also extremely heteronormative. It’s as obvious that even a “good” young man would want to have sex with a young woman as it is that any “good” young woman wouldn’t want to have sex unless she were deceived or susceptible in some way. If she wanted to have sex, she must have been bad in some way. Obviously these ideas aren’t limited to religion, and they’re some of the ideas that constitute and perpetuate rape culture. Still, they’re more explicit in patriarchal religions like Mormonism, and even codified into official teaching.
There are rumors that Davies was found out because his girlfriend is pregnant; who knows if that’s true. This certainly seems to have been a factor in Unga and Moeaki’s departures from BYU, however, and it points to incredible hypocrisy on the part of a supposedly pro-life institution. Given the school’s past behavior, unmarried student athletes who find themselves pregnant must face external pressure to terminate in order to avoid losing their scholarships. If abortion is really and truly murder – the LAST thing a pro-life religious institution should do is punish someone for getting pregnant and and not terminating. People who make the tough decision to continue an unplanned pregnancy in a context where they will be vilified and potentially lose their reputations and jobs for being sexually active should be applauded by pro-life institutions as courageous and honorable by their own internal standards, not punished and shunned.
Davies and his girlfriend shouldn’t be ashamed of having consensual premarital sex. But BYU should be ashamed of violating their privacy, making their sex lives into a spectacle, and failing to show compassion. And BYU’s defenders need to learn that “rules is rules” isn’t actually a “principled” stance at all.