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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. 

Infographic: What Does the New Testament Say about Homosexuality?

What does the New Testament say about homosexuality

What does the New Testament say about homosexuality? The infographic below is based on an article by Westar Fellow William O. Walker Jr., Jennie Farris King Professor Emeritus of Religion at Trinity University. You can read the full article here.

It's important to realize we can't take the historical attitudes of the past and apply them uncritically to today. This is called anachronism: misplacing persons, objects, and customs of one era into another. No matter where we fall in the spectrum of attitudes surrounding gender and sexuality in Christian denominations today, we need to be cautious about grabbing from the past to prove our points.

That said, we can challenge common assumptions by pointing out that the past isn't as clear-cut as we sometimes would like it to be. Diversity existed in the past, too. There were all kinds of Christians. Even the writers of books that appear in the New Testament didn't all share the same theology. Sometimes they even edited each other's work to suit their own communities' needs and beliefs! The Apostle Paul regularly complained about missionaries with alternate messages for his communities. An early Christian handbook known as the Didache provided instructions for at least one Christian community to test the validity of itinerant preachers.

To quote Anne Lamott in Traveling Mercies, "If the God you believe in hates all the same people you do, then you know you've created God in your own image." History, especially the history of religion, is more complex and more diverse than we usually imagine, and it doesn't easily fit into modern categories.