Ann Voskamp and Jesus as lover: Perspective from the Puritans, pt. 1

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.

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