A sexual follow-up: or, On the necessity of being anti-family

The discussion of the need not to discuss sex continues apace.

I feel the need to interject something. I notice that many of the participants in this discussion of the need for non-discussion are Yoder fans and that blogging mega-star Ben Myers objects to “the unbridled theologisation of marriage and the so-called ‘family unit’.”

With those points in mind, I would humbly suggest that the conclusion we should draw from Jesus’s unmarried state, etc., is not, first of all, that he was not a participant in any erotic activity — a position that seems to maintain the normative link between sex and marriage and assume that Jesus would necessarily abide by that — but rather that “marriage and family values” are among the powers and principalities of which Jesus was “independent.” (Note also that marriage is among those things that Paul says we should use, if we must, “as if not.”)

The upshot then would not be that we should just stop talking about it and certainly not that we need to make faux-radical statements about the irrelevance of sexuality to the definition of humanity. Instead, we should take a radically anti-family stance.

(I of course await comment on what Rowan Williams would think of this before embracing it as my final position.)

27 thoughts on “A sexual follow-up: or, On the necessity of being anti-family

  1. Of course, it is quite reasonable to suggest that the person who said hate your mother and father and follow me took a radical anti-family stance. I think the fact that Jesus didn’t marry is a pretty good indication, however, that he refrained from sex. Afterall, while the UCC is right that the Bible never says boo about pre-marital sex, they lazily fail to investigate why that is. Such a category was simply impossible in the Biblical world. According to Torah there were two ways to get married: the betrothal process or screwing an unmarried virgin.

  2. What does it mean to be “radically anti-family”? Is this a full-fledged public policy agenda, strictly a reaction against theological uses of sex and family, or what?

  3. Your reading here is a really clear example of reading through blinders — kind of similar to an explanation that the Bible hardly mentions homosexuality because it’s so blindingly obvious that it’s bad. There’s no reason to read most of the stories in the OT in terms of the explicit law. Saul and David, for instance, seem blissfully ignorant of the law. Job doesn’t so much as mention it, nor does Song of Songs — the couple in which does not appear to be a married one (sneaking around, etc.). And what about prostitution?

    The whole basis of the system you describe is that women’s sexuality is supposed to be under the control of some man or other (the father has the rights to give it away but not to use it; the husband has the exclusive right to use it, without the wife therefore having an exclusive right to his sexuality in turn). It’s very difficult for me to understand where this fits in with the gospel message.

  4. I note your objection to my ornery tone and acknowledge that I could’ve done otherwise.

    Now let’s actually continue to talk about substance rather than making meta-complaints. Thanks in advance for your cooperation on this.

  5. According to Torah there were two ways to get married: the betrothal process or screwing an unmarried virgin.

    And if you screw a married nonvirgin, what then?

  6. Ben, adultery.

    Adam, yes Job and Saul and David seem pretty much unaware of the law. According to historical critical scholarship this is because the vast majority of the law had yet to be given. Even according to a straight forward reading of the text, the law went through a long period of being forgotten ending with Josiah. No one knows when the hell Job lived either in terms of straight forward chronology or historical critical scholarship. Your reading of the Song of Songs depends on an importation of a category that we have no reason from the text or other texts to believe would have made sense to the characters in that drama. Prostitution was prostitution, it, of course, involved unmarried women, but the law in question clearly mentions unmarried virgins.

    It’s quite clear, however, that the law was known and that Jesus generally followed or reinterpreted it. So those laws in their original setting are patriarchal. That’s beside the point. There’s no reason they can’t be reinterpreted in a more egalitarian way (and rabbinic ways of reading such texts were usually a good step in this direction). More importantly the argument is about why the text is silent on the late modern category of pre-marital sex. It’s just a ridiculous argument for UCC people to argue from the silence of the text to suggest that the Bible was basically the same in terms of sexual ethics as the 1960s – just as ridiculous as reading it as a textbook for 1950s sexual ethics. What’s needed is a rigorous examination of the text in its setting in life followed by a creative act of imaginative translation into our much, much different setting. For instance, simply saying that Jesus was anti-family, which is quite true, doesn’t go very far in telling us the nature and reasons for his anti-family stance. An analysis of which is critical for creative translation.

  7. The idea of secret unmarried lovers was unknown to the Israelite world? I find that difficult to believe. They were able to wrap their heads around the notion of adultery, for example, despite the fact that it violated the law. I still maintain that the only reason to think the couple in Song of Songs is married is that you go into the reading assuming they can’t be unmarried — not exactly a credible method of exegesis in my opinion.

    As for this “late modern category” of pre-marital sex — wouldn’t that just be fornication in the traditional language? Is that really so new?

    Another point: the advent of effective birth control really seems to change things in my view. The traditionalist stance seemed to be that we should pretend that never happened so that the old sexual ethics centered on marriage, etc., can still kind of work. A more credible path would be to figure out a way to creatively translate things into the post-Pill age. Who’s trying to do that, though? Maybe not the UCC — though official denominational publications have generally not been known for their nuanced exegesis anyway. Certainly not the RCC, for instance, and certainly not you, either.

  8. How do you know I’m not trying to creatively translate the text on the other side of modern forms of birth control? Because I disagree with you on libertinism as textually supportable?

    I don’t assume that the couple in the Song of Songs is married or unmarried (because the reverse of what you say is just as true, going into the text assuming that they are unmarried is the only way to come to the conclusion that they are). There is a third option that what they are up to is initial foreplay that ends in marriage the moment they have sex. However, the text never says marriage, so any of the three could be the case prima facie.

    Of course there could be secret unmarried lovers in the Israelite world, even on my reading. One or both could be married to other people. All I’m saying is that there is no evidence of the category of premarital sex in the entire 66 books of the protestant bible, nor, so far as I know, even if you add in the apocrypha, pseudepigrapha, and completely spurious books. And there is a hell of a lot of sex in those works combined. So if your only evidence for the category is an assumption about the state of unmarriage of the lovers in the Song of Songs, then you’re on quite shaky ground. That’s especially true when there are explicit texts saying that the act of sex between previously unmarried people equates to marriage.

  9. I only remembered after the fact of my first comment that CTS is a UCC school. I have indicated a suspicion of birth control and even said that I was against the “society of birth control” in a conversation which involved back and forth on Foucault and Deleuze, but even in that conversation, I believe, I indicated that I wasn’t against every act of birth control. The argument there, following Foucault, was that population control is critical to capitalism. I’m still persuaded by that line of thought, but don’t think it (or anything else that I hold to with respect to sexual ethics) means that every act or form of contraception is to be frowned upon.

  10. Okay, I got your position wrong. Still, I’m seeing a consistent pattern of negative critiques accompanied by nothing. That’d be fine, except that you point toward the need to do creative reconstruction. Do you get the impression that I think I’ve said everything that needs to be said in this one-off, rather polemical blog post? Of course not. Do you think that what I’m saying is equivalent to the admittedly rather simplistic statements of the UCC? I don’t think it is, and I don’t think you can read my account of Ted’s work on homosexuality as a simple embrace of liberal egalitarianism or something that must then be rigorously “read into” the Bible.

    I really think I’m being more open to the sources than you are here — at every step, you’re applying some kind of axiomatic view. You claim that’s the best way to be open to the texts, but everyone with that kind of view says that.

  11. I don’t exactly know what you mean by “consistent pattern of negative critiques followed by nothing.” Nor do I think it’s sustainable to say that I apply some kind of axiomatic view at every step. Specifically with respect to the Song of Songs, for instance, I’m refusing either the interpretation that suggests that they are married throughout the text or an interpretation that argues from silence with respect to marriage that they must be unmarried throughout the text. I’m offering a third possibility that is supportable given other Biblical texts, but I’m also rather rigorously committed to the idea that individual Biblical books be interpreted first and foremost according to the world created within the book itself (this owes to the influence of Richard Hays and his schooling in New Criticism). As such, I don’t think we can make anything like a definitive choice between the three options. They are all possibilities, and the Song of Songs probably can’t help us with this aspect of sexual ethics. If you think that’s axiomatic and less open to the text then you are, so be it.

    Also, I haven’t mentioned Ted or accused you of a simple embrace of liberal egalitarianism here at all. I haven’t read Ted’s book and would like to someday. I think that some of the things you’ve said in these two posts and their comments indicates a bit of sloppiness with the text, but I know that this is a blog and not a final word on your sexual ethical reasoning. But I get the impression that you are of the opinion that bullshit can still be called bullshit when it happens, even on blogs.

  12. [sorry to make this comment in two places, it was originally intended to go here, before an early morning birding walk was just too early]

    And as to openness to the text … I’m actually open to something similar to what you are arguing in your summary of Ted’s book. It’s just not my way (as Badiou would say with respect to theological uses of his reading of the event). But I am genuinely open to the fact that I may be wrong. Two weeks ago, I preached a sermon at my church (available at http://www.tumc.ca/fstart.htm) suggesting that Acts 15 holds the potential for both the best argument for and the best argument against acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender practice in the life of the church. It also suggested that what happened there helped to overdetermine sex as *the* ethical issue in the church. To give some context, over sixty percent of my church supports gay marriage (we know because we had a vote four years ago which required a 2/3 vote to buck the conference on the matter and keep a lesbian youth pastor in an open relationship), and approximately the same number of the adult membership has graduate degrees.

  13. The more I think about it, the less I buy your claim that sex automatically equals marriage. To take the rape example — the provision that the rapist should marry the woman is obviously intended to reflect the reality that a woman who’s been violated is going to be much harder to marry off in Israelite society, not to respect some kind of metaphysical “sex == marriage” regime. As evidence of that, I note that the father has the option of not giving his daughter in marriage to the rapist, indicating that married status does not follow automatically.

    You can say that the norm is for sex and marriage to go together in the worldview represented by the written law, and obviously I’d agree. Rape of an unmarried virgin is a borderline situation where sex and marriage don’t go together, and the law, characteristically, provides a way to “fix” that mismatch — but it’s not compulsory to “fix” it, and the very fact that it needs to be fixed indicates that sex doesn’t automatically mean marriage, i.e., that extra-marital sex has occured. (The fact that voluntary extra-marital sex isn’t discussed seems to me to stem more from the fact that the law rarely views women as agents, so the problem of a virgin who wants and seeks out sex doesn’t fall within their purview. Again, it’s patriarchy, not some kind of deep metaphysical insight into the essence of sex.)

  14. This is actually what Martin argues in “Sex and the Single Savior”. He points out that Jesus, Paul, and lots of the early fathers were pretty much radically anti-marriage, but they weren’t anti-eroticism. He imagines the Church as something like a traveling band of erotic companions. There are problems with the other essays, but I find his contention that Christianity is an anti-family religion to be persuasive.

  15. Adam, totally fine with that kind of analysis. In fact, I think you’ve got things pretty much just right. Never argued for a particularly metaphysical viewpoint. Starting with a position which says that “the norm is for sex and marriage … go together in the worldview represented by the written law” is all I want. Immediately appealing to the patriarchy of that world is fine by me as well. What I’m against is a crass statement that the Bible doesn’t say anything against it, therefore it’s okay. Is there any way a sex and marriage go together view can jump the patriarchy divide? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it’s completely not desirable. The discussion, however, should start with rigorous analysis of the Biblical situation alongside rigorous analysis of the contemporary situation with a genuinely open asking of whether or not the former has wisdom to offer to the latter or whether writing it off as completely patriarchal is appropriate. In some situations of theological ethics, I completely think its the answer. Really not sure here, but giving this beginning of an answer (and admitting that it created its own world of problems) was really quite helpful in a situation where I was interviewing for a job as a youth pastor with my current church (didn’t get the job, but was sort of offered my current job instead) – a church that has a huge range of opinions on sexual matters. It certainly cut through some of the bullshit questions of how far is too far without coming off as a complete libertine.

  16. Was anyone here making such a “crass statement” or supporting it?

    What I think ultimately needs clarifying is in what sense the Bible is or can be “normative” for ethics. We seem to be pretty capable of writing off stories as non-normative, for instance, but laws tend to be given the benefit of the doubt for some reason — and this despite the authority of, you know, St. Paul.

  17. You seemed to be supporting it for several comments. And, you know, given that this was my thesis topic (and the topic of the panel my wife and I put together for AAR last year), I have given a thought or two to St. Paul and the law. I mean, you know.

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