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Sex, Shame, and the Bible

It might seem like a funny way to start out: I’m sharing my least favorite Robert Frost poem with you. Stick with me.

Frost himself described “The Subverted Flower” in a 1960 Paris Review interview as one he would not like read widely. When pressed, he said it was about “the frigidity of women.” The poem, a romantic encounter between a man and woman in a field of “goldenrod and brake,” begins as flirtation and desire but devolves into shame—not for the woman but for the man, who is literally reduced to a beast when she hesitates on his gesture:

She drew back; he was calm:
‘It is this that had the power.’
And he lashed his open palm
With the tender-hearted flower.
He smiled for her to smile,
But she was either blind
Or willfully unkind.

………….

… her mother’s call
Made her steal a look of fear
To see if he could hear
And would pounce to end it all
Before her mother came.
She looked and saw the shame:
A hand hung like a paw,
An arm worked like a saw
As if to be persuasive,
An ingratiating laugh
That cut the snout in half,
An eye become evasive.
A girl could only see
That a flower had marred a man,
But what she could not see
Was that the flower might be
Other than base and fetid:
That the flower had done but part,
And what the flower began,
Her own too meager heart
Had terribly completed.

“The Subverted Flower,” A Witness Tree, 1942

Sometimes we read a poem not because we like it but because it captures an emotion. Even as I resent the man’s inability to empathize with the “girl,” I appreciate the precariousness of his attempt to cross into intimacy. The failure, at once subtle and devastating, actually undermines both partners' understanding of the man as human, as though he "should" have known how to woo her in a way that wouldn't expose her power to fell him with a look. Shame and vulnerability expert Brené Brown recently recounted a similar story of a man who approached her at a book signing and urged her to broaden her research on shame to include men, saying, “Men experience shame, too, deep shame. And before you start bringing up too-tough fathers and so on … my wife and daughters would rather see me die on my white horse than fall off of it.”

Many years of research later, Brown locates this shame in the tendency for people, both men and women, to derive power from the specific roles they hold for one another. When one person exposes his vulnerability to the other, it can fundamentally alter the dynamic between them. How can we deal with this in a healthy, affirming way? One answer suggested by Brown is to become more willing to live with discomfort, without assuming we will ever “get good at it” to such a degree that we actually “like” the discomfort. As we become sensitive to our own continuous attempts to draw our power from others, we become better able to sit longer with the discomfort that results. We begin to recognize that roles can change and our relationships with friends, coworkers, parents, lovers, etc., can survive and even improve.

Unprotected Texts Knust

This article is part of a series on Unprotected Texts by Jennifer Wright Knust.

In a way, this is a softening of my comments about Buddhist meditation from a couple weeks ago. Handling discomfort is one skill meditation teaches. Speaking from more than ten years’ experience with cross-cultural and interfaith work, I can vouch for the fact that this skill doesn’t get easier, only more necessary. So this week when I picked up Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire by biblical studies scholar and American Baptist minister Jennifer Wright Knust, I was elated to discover a kindred spirit who is unwilling to let the Bible’s enormous variety of attitudes toward sexuality—with all the related facets of shame, vulnerability, and self control—go unnoticed.

Knust in no way attacks the Bible or Christians. Rather, she asks readers to begin with the text itself, to learn what it actually says, and to consider in what sense we want to be guided by what we find. She opens with a personal story about the bullying she experienced as a sexually inexperienced twelve-year-old who nevertheless was pegged the school “slut.”

As studies of the slut phenomenon in American high schools have shown, when it comes to being called a slut, the story is pretty much the same: A girl who is a misfit for one reason or another is selected (she’s the new girl, she develops breasts earlier than the other girls, her hair is different—whatever). Then the stories start, irrespective of what the girl has or has not done. … My experience at twelve taught me that, when it comes to sex, people never simply report what others are doing or even what they themselves are doing. … Sex, I have since discovered, can be used as a public weapon. (2)

People who don’t read the Bible stories closely, or who learned to hurry past uncomfortable passages, may not realize just how diverse the Bible’s approaches to sex and sexuality really are. Maybe I’m being too euphemistic when I say that. Let’s face it. Some people undeniably know about that diversity but pretend it doesn’t exist. Knust confronts that issue, too. Countering the existence of such a thing as “biblical standards” of sex, she presents this helpful overview:

The Bible does not speak with one voice when it comes to marriage, women’s roles, sexy clothes, and the importance of remaining a pure virgin for one’s (future) spouse. According to Genesis, a woman who sleeps with her father-in-law can be a heroine. Visits to prostitutes are also not a problem, so long as the prostitute in question is not a proper Israelite woman. According to the Song of Songs, a beautiful girl who enjoys making love can fulfill her desires outside of marriage and still be honored both by God and by her larger community. Sex is a good thing, and sexual desire is a blessing, not an embarrassment. Yet according to Exodus and Deuteronomy, sex is a matter of male property. Men can have sex with as many women as they like, so long as these women are their wives, slaves, or prostitutes, but a woman must guard her virginity for the sake of her father and then remain sexually faithful to one man after marriage. First Timothy offers yet another perspective: a woman must marry not so that she can express her desires appropriately but so that she can become pregnant and suffer the pangs of childbirth. God requires women to suffer in this way, and has demanded labor pains from them since Eve first sinned in Eden. Nevertheless, other New Testament books argue that the faithful followers of Jesus should avoid marriage if possible, in anticipation of a time when sexual intercourse will be eliminated altogether. Could one imagine a more contradictory set of teachings collected within one set of sacred texts? (8)

Sitting with these texts is a risky pursuit. It puts us in a position of discomfort, especially those of us who were raised with a “biblical standard of sex” mentality (whether or not we still adhere to it). I hope that you will join me, first of all, in reading this book over the next few weeks, and second, in testing some new, perhaps more vulnerable responses to today’s debates on this subject.

By the way, Brené Brown made one other point about vulnerability: it most often appears in situations that require a virtue we can all admire—courage.

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Cassandra Farrin Dec 2014 smCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history. 

Sex and Gender in Early Christianity

I had the privilege this weekend of hearing Westar Fellows Pamela Eisenbaum and Stephen Patterson speak about sex and gender in early Christianity at a Jesus Seminar on the Road jointly sponsored with the University Congregational UCC Lecture Series in Seattle, Washington. Pamela Eisenbaum, author of Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle, and Stephen Patterson, author of The Lost Way: How Two Forgotten Gospels Are Rewriting the Story of Christian Origins, introduced ancient Greco-Roman and Jewish ideas of gender, and tackled some red-flag issues such as virginity, asceticism, male-male sex, and some early Jesus followers' practice of cross-dressing (yes, really!). I wish I could pack it all into this blog, but I'll have to confine myself to the highlights.

Male-Male Sex in Greco-Roman Culture
By far the most fascinating thing I learned this weekend from Stephen was about Greco-Roman attitudes toward male-male sex. Homoeroticism was commonplace in ancient Greece, but of course when you delve into the history, the situation is more complex than that. Properly defined, ancient Greek culture condoned pederasty, or amorous relations between young adult men and boys in their upper teens, and most of the relationships gave way eventually to heterosexual marriages. The intent behind this practice was to develop the boys into proper citizens.

Here's the catch: there were specific rules around such relations, the most important of which was that male citizens were not to penetrate other male citizens. This rule did not apply to male citizens penetrating women, male slaves, or foreign men. Thus, maleness in this culture was defined not by male-female relations but by dominant-subordinate relations. Any subordinate could be one's partner, but if one penetrated another male citizen, it was labeled rape and could be prosecuted.

In short, as Stephen explains from a different angle in his 2013 article "David Loves Jonathan," in the ancient world male-male sex was generally about ownership, not love. We should not confuse this with modern definitions of male-male sex as an expression of intimacy between two partners.

By now you might be wondering about female-female sex. What do we know about it? The answer is, not much. The reason for that is pretty straightforward: it didn't directly challenge the power hierarchy, so it didn't get much attention or regulation. Of course, this doesn't mean women didn't challenge the power hierarchy in other ways. For example, the early Christian heroine Thecla rejected her arranged marriage for a life of celibacy, cut her hair short, and dressed as a man. Thecla is by no means atypical; she is one of many possible examples we might cite of women in the Jesus movement acting out masculine or asexual roles as a way to express their commitment to mastering human desire for the sake of religious commitments.

As I hope this admittedly brief description of Greco-Roman ideas about gender and sex demonstrates, gender is, among other things, a structure of power. Gender as power manifests in expectations about what a person can or should wear, spaces people are allowed to occupy, forms of speech they can use, and so on. Like all socially constructed concepts, gender holds a different meaning depending on culture, and power is allocated differently depending on one's gender. We still see this today in areas like government office, church hierarchy, and the arts. Yet to enforce power differences you must define male and female; you have to know which is which. The philosopher Judith Butler, whom I mentioned last week, defines gender as a role to be performed. Early Christ followers operated within the structures of the reigning culture but also challenged them, discovering and shaping new gender roles through experimentation and practice.

Image of  an androgyne, detail on ancient greek amphora, from Plato's theory of the origin of sexual orientation.  Credit: aquileana.wordpress.com

Image of an androgyne, detail on ancient greek amphora, from Plato's theory of the origin of sexual orientation.

The Body in Greco-Roman Culture
Pamela in her presentation transported us back to a world before Descartes introduced the concept of mind-body separation. Westerners often struggle to return to that world because Descartes' explanation of the relationship between mind and body as two separate entities, coming as it did at the cusp of the Enlightenment, was so helpful and timely that Western culture has more or less absorbed his language into its basic concepts of existence.

In contrast, words like "spirit" and "soul" in the ancient world did not describe non-tangible entities. Prior to Descartes, psyche and pneuma were substances, like ether. For instance, the Stoic philosopher Seneca says, "Nature (natura) includes things that exist (sunt) and things that do not exist (non sunt)." Would we ever say this? Probably not, because nature in the modern world is specifically confined to the physical universe. We can see that the very models of what a person is and what the fleshy aspects of the self were in ancient times, are not the same as our concepts of them today. Even where Paul describes a "spiritual" resurrection, he still implies a substance of sorts, just not the base material substance (physic).

Queering the Bible
Most of the discussions in the final hours of the lectures today were dedicated to dialogue among participants, Pamela, and Stephen. A couple lessons emerged from this back-and-forth that I thought you also might find helpful in your own reading of biblical and other early Christian stories:

  • Queer theory is about how we handle difference.
    Do you take a fundamentally fearful or a fundamentally curious approach to difference? Do you let yourself imagine your way into a very different position from your own? Next time you read a biblical story, try reading the story from the point of view of each of the actors, and ask yourself how each person might have interpreted what happened. Where do you see power relations acted out? Does reading the story from somebody else's point of view change the lesson you take from it?
  • Uniqueness can be an empty concept if not given some context.
    When we talk about difference or uniqueness, it’s hard to know what we mean by it. "Christianity was unique in that [insert a characteristic]." However, common sense tells us that everything is unique in and of itself. It would be just as easy to flip a statement about Christianity around to make a claim of uniqueness about a pagan cult, Second Temple Judaism, or another movement of the times. Often, what we are actually doing is making a claim of superiority. We're implying that Christianity was special. It may very well have been special, but only when given a context for that special status. We need to ask why we care about that uniqueness and be mindful of present-day power plays based on such claims.

This really only touches the surface of the weekend's conversations, which were incredibly thoughtful and deep. Thank you to everybody who came out to join us! Last but not least, here are a few resources recommended by Stephen and Pamela for further reading:

Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

Marcion: Forgotten “Father” and Inventor of the New Testament

Christianity owes a major debt to a man with no direct connection to Jesus of Nazareth or Paul of Tarsus – a man labeled a heretic by the forerunners of orthodox Christianity. Marcion (c. 95-165 CE) was a shipbuilder, possibly ship owner, from Pontus, a small region in what is now northern Turkey. We know little else about him, except that at some point in his career he joined the Christian community in Rome only to find himself embroiled in debate with the leadership there. Ultimately they were unable to resolve their differences, and the Marcionite community broke from other Jesus followers of that era. It is unknown how separate the communities were in practice, but in some parts of the ancient world Marcionites were called "Christians" while groups with closer ties to Judaism were called "Nazoreans."

Jason BeDuhn gives a lecture on Marcion

Jason BeDuhn

Marcion holds a lasting legacy for Christians as the inventor of the New Testament. Jason BeDuhn, author of The First New Testament: Marcion’s Scriptural Canon, argues that Marcion not only put together the very first Christian canon of scriptures, he gave Christianity very idea of doing so. At the Early Christianity: Heritage or Heresies? Conference in Santa Rosa, California, BeDuhn spoke about the important role Marcion played in shaping Christian identity. This begins with the relationship between Gentiles and Jews in the Roman Empire. “A good contemporary analogy is the interest some modern White Americans have in Native American religion and culture,” he said, “A similar thing was going on with Gentile fans of Judaism in the ancient world. They wanted to take on foreign spirituality and practices.” However, Jews rebelled multiple times against the Roman Empire in the second century, and Gentile Christian groups fled association with them, taking on new forms in the process.

Marcionites were pesco-vegetarians who embraced pacifism. Women held high leadership roles, at least prominently enough that critics of Marcionites complained about the role women were playing in the movement. They did not believe the god of Jesus was the god of the Jews. They believed the god of the Jews was a creator god that ruled based on judgment and violence, which Marcion argued by appealing to violent texts in the Hebrew scriptures. Marcion saw the god of Jesus as an entirely new being, a higher god who provided escape from the judgment of this world. Most importantly, Marcionites had something no other Christians had: a canon of their own scriptures.

Challenging Traditional Views of Marcion

Critics of Marcion like Tertullian and Epiphanius complained that Marcion cut and edited scripture to fit his beliefs. Biblical scholar Adolf von Harnack accepted this claim in his definitive text on Marcion, Marcion: The Gospel of an Alien God (1920). However, Tertullian and Epiphanius lived several generations after Marcion, and they assumed the New Testament they read already existed in Marcion's era. It didn't. Marcion's critics were reading history backward instead of forward: there was no New Testament yet.

We tend to assume the version of Christianity we see today as inevitable, but actually there were many possible ways for Christianity to develop. Christianity may never have become a religion with a set of scriptures at all. Christians may have continued to interpret and reinterpret Hebrew scriptures, rely on oral storytelling, consider themselves Jewish, and so on. The very attitude of Marcionites setting themselves apart from Jews led them to declare a "new" testament, and that has made all the difference.

Marcion's New Testament

What did Marcion's version of the New Testament look like? It had two parts: the Evangelion, which was a gospel related to the Gospel of Luke, and the Apostolikon, a collection of Paul's letters. Marcion is our first witness to six of the ten letters now considered to be authentic by modern biblical scholars. Biblical scholars came to the conclusion that only some letters attributed to Paul are authentic (most exclude 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, for example). The evidence from Marcion supports this finding. The inclusion of Paul's letters in the New Testament was by no means certain. Rather, Marcion's choice to include the letters succeeded in pushing other communities to do the same thing when they came up with competing canons of scripture, although it took his competitors two hundred years to establish the canon now found in Bibles today.

This is a very different way of looking at the Marcionite New Testament, and scholars will need to compare the edition reconstructed by Jason BeDuhn to determine how this changes our view of how early Christianity developed. For example, the Evangelion is much shorter than the Gospel of Luke, and it is not clear whether they were both written by the same person for different communities, or if a later editor added new material to the Gospel of Luke. Also, BeDuhn found that the Marcionite version of Romans 9-11 is completely different, yet this text has been used by some scholars as a key to Pauline theology. Regardless of how these findings eventually play out in scholarly discussion and debates, BeDuhn identifies four significant contributions of Marcion to Christian history:

The First New Testament: Marcion's Scriptural Canon

Available from Polebridge Press

  1. Christians owe the idea of a "new" testament to Marcion.
  2. Christians owe to Marcion the particular form of the New Testament.
  3. Christians owe to Marcion the prominence of the voice of Paul in the New Testament.
  4. Finally, Christians owe to Marcion a Christian identity built on a special scripture all their own.