Bodies, Gender, Sex and Purity

 

This week has been a week of reading. Some of it planned, some, a welcome surprise. There were books I needed to reread and then write up notes, because there comes a time when those fifty little coloured sticky notes need to be recorded in a more cohesive manner. Then, there was brief article reviewing a book on Purity Culture that came my way via social media, and the writing of this post, that was unexpected.

One of my planned tasks for this week was to re-read ‘Sex Difference in Christian Theology’ by Megan DeFranza[1]. Though one of my friends has jokingly mocked the dryness of the title and blandness of the cover, it is a thoroughly engaging read, no less so the second time round. Sure, there are no witty puns in the title, no catchy or provocative phrases, no dramatic, bold pink and red lettering against a black background, no arty graphics (seriously compare the title & cover to Roxane Gay’s “Difficult Women” or Jakobson and Pellegrini’s “Love the Sin”), but it is a title that tells you exactly what you are in for.

In Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female and Intersex in the Image of God, DeFranza gives an overview of intersex conditions from a contemporary medical point of view, as well as a brief history of ancient and historical approaches to categorizing, understanding and making space for intersex bodies. She considers what questions and challenges may surface in Christian Theology when the reality of intersex bodies and the lives of intersex persons is taken seriously. The key biblical figure that DeFranza focuses on is that of the eunuch, and the passages of the bible that she most frequently returns to are Isaiah 56, Matthew 19 and Galatians 3.

My purpose is not to offer a full review, but to take a moment to dwell on the thoughts that came to me as I read (and re-read) DeFranza, particularly her comments on Galatians 3. Then I want to bring those thoughts into conversation with the book review of ‘Pure’, which I read this morning after a friend posted it on social media.

 

Neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.

DeFranza uses the following NIV translation of Gal 3:26-9.

You are all [male, female and intersex] sons of God through faith in Jesus Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

On my desk sits a more recent publication of the NIV (an NNIV perhaps?), where the word “sons” has been replaced with “children”. Once I would have applauded the inclusiveness of this change, but on reading DeFranza, I was struck by the fact that a much more significant moment of inclusion might actually be lost when “son” is replaced with “children”. It is, in my pedestrian theological opinion, actually important that I, especially I, a woman, have become like a son and not a daughter, because it was only to a son that the promise and privilege of inheritance and status was given. I don’t become an actual boy, nor will I be resurrected as one, but the promise is that even though I am not actually a son, I get all the benefits of being one.  This was presumably quite exciting in the first century, and maybe still is today when, for instance, we consider that to be girly or to do anything -throw, cry- like a girl is still an insult. It would seem that in the eyes of God, my being a woman, should no longer be a reason for exclusion. It is not that being a Christian erases who we are;  those embodied points of difference that effect how we see and are seen, (those categories we think of when we talk about intersectionality), or that there are no differences between bodies that are male, female or otherwise, or that there aren’t differences between being ethnically Jewish or Gentile (or Australian), but that these points of difference should not be used by Christian people to create boundaries or exclusive practices. DeFranza writes:

Being ‘in Christ’ does not make all believers male ‘sons’ any more than the declaration of being ‘Abraham’s seed’ makes all believers Jewish – thus eliminating ethnic, cultural and racial distinctions upheld in Revelation 7:9. Rather all these distinctions, which now divide, are taken up into Christ, who is revealed as the true image of God, the seal of our shared humanity and the promise of its perfection” (184-5)

 

OK, so what, you ask.   What’s it to a girl who eats  feminist theory for breakfast that she can celebrate being a son? Well, my celebration is not just that I get to be a Son, but that all of the church, the men as well, get to be brides. We all get to be Sons and Brides, and being male or female (or otherwise) is not meant to be a difference we see as affecting our place in the church,  which makes me feel like it might be time to sit back and wonder why we (as a collective church) seem to be worried about upholding a strict binary understanding of what it is to be a human, who -apparently – must necessarily be male or female, and exhibit correspondingly ‘correct’ binary gendered behaviours. If I as a Christian woman, am both a son and a bride, what exactly is it to be feminine? And why be bothered with being the correct version of feminine (whatever that might be), when I know I’m meant to be modelling my life on my saviour who had a man’s body anyway?   Defranza persuasively argues – what perhaps many of us instinctively know – that path to being Christlike is the same path for all regardless of gender/sexed body:

“Christ Jesus is ‘the image of the invisible God’ (Col. 1:15 NRSV), and all Christians – male, female, interexed – ‘are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit’  (2 Cor. 3:18 NIV). Despite its potential effectiveness as a rhetorical strategy for men, growth in holiness must not be misconstrued as growth toward manhood. Holiness must be separated from any gendered understandings of virtue – masculine, feminine, intersex or transgendered. Holiness must not be presented as pink, blue or purple. Christ is the model or all. All Christians are to model his victory (1 Cor. 15:54-57; Eph. 6:10-17). All Christians receive his inheritance as sons (Gal. 3:36-4:7). All Christians become his bride (Eph 5:25 – 27). These mixed metaphors illustrate the universal call to conformity to Christ, but they do even more than this; they also testify to the mystery that remains in any exploration of the Christian life, no less in any exploration of the image of God” (284)

Again, what strikes me as I read this is the importance of being a ‘son’ of God. However, I also realise how rarely we talk of what it might mean for those with non-female bodies to be like a ‘bride’. I actually raised this at a bible study a few months ago and one of the guys responded, “oh but that’s collective, we – the church – are brides of Christ, I don’t know how I feel about being a bride”, and he’s right, it is collective, in the same way that we’re also collectively sons of God, but that doesn’t mean that he himself, with his male sexed body, isn’t also a bride of Christ.

Of course, our bodies matter, in that they shape how we move through the world, and how other people respond to us, but they don’t matter when it comes to understanding what a good, moral or ethical Christian life is, because we are all to conform to the same standard, which is Jesus Christ. Haven’t we all been standing side by side, singing may the mind of Christ my saviour, dwell in me from day to day, by his love and power controlling, all I do and say …?

 

Bodies, Sex and Purity

This morning as I read ‘New Book Details Harm of Evangelical Purity Movement and Obstacle to Change’ by Elizabeth Shively, a review of the book ‘Pure’ by Linda Kaye Klein. The review came my way when it was posted in a little Facebook group I co-founded and “facilitate” called Reading Faith, Gender and Sexuality. (I use scare quotes around the word “facilitate” because I kind of dropped off the planet over winter, and the extent to which I facilitated anything is questionable).

I re-posted the review on my own page, noting that the article references a pastor interviewed in the book who said he didn’t know what he could teach instead of Purity Culture, I suggested it would be interesting to see a well-balanced  Evangelical engagement with sex-ed that didn’t involve Purity Culture.

Shively opens her review with a memory Klein includes in her book, which from everything I read on American Purity Culture while completing my Master of Research last year, and my own memories of Sydney Anglican youth group, is a fairly standard experience. Here’s Klein’s story:

“[Klein] dreamed of being cast as a virtuous woman or pious martyr in church plays. Instead, because of her sexually developed body and feminine curves, she was often cast as a demon or Jezebel figure; and once, she writes, she even played sex itself, miming the role in a skit about a Christian resisting temptations. It wasn’t until she was physically emaciated and weak, recovering from surgery due to untreated Crohn’s disease that she was offered the role of Mary, mother of Jesus, in the church Nativity play. It was only when both her body and spirit had been whittled down to size that she was deemed appropriate to represent the pious mother.”

In a nutshell Purity Culture is about sexual abstinence. But its not just ‘don’t have sex, because God says so in the bible’ (though to be fair, it is also that), it’s don’t have sex, and perhaps don’t even kiss or date, because you will be plagued by shame and never have good married relationship as an adult. (If you want a more thorough account see Sarah Bessey’s several blog posts on this, or, if you were an evangelical teenager in the nineties, cast your mind back to I Kissed Dating Goodbye). Just as Little Red Riding Hood was given strict instructions not to stray from the path, good evangelical girls learn to fear stepping off the path that leads good girls to marriage (and by implication to the proper expression of their sexual selves within a necessarily heterosexual marriage). Red Riding Hood refused to be a good girl, strayed from the path and invited shame, danger and death not just into her own life, but also her family’s. In purity culture, Evangelical girls walk the path for fear of inviting shame, distress, danger and potentially (spiritual or actual) death into their lives.[2]

In my Master of Research thesis, drawing on Sara Ahmed’s[3] theory that  Happiness Scripts which promise future happiness for specific behaviours and life choices, I looked at some of the problems with how emotions like future fear, shame and also happiness operate within evangelical cultures. Ahmed (2010) teaches us that Happiness scripts work in two ways.[4]  Firstly, they direct us towards choices and relationships that are deemed as good, but they also teach us that to choose otherwise is to walk a path that is not good, and not happy. Purity Culture is a prime example of this.

Can it really be that there is no Evangelical alternative to the way fear and shame is used to limit and control the expression of sexuality of being afraid or ashamed of one’s body or sexuality. How can we think about our bodies and sexualities, as Christian people, without fear and shame? Let’s go back to DeFranza.

What Megan DeFranza Can Teach Us

After sharing the article, I began to wonder whether DeFranza’s work which in many ways seeks to de-centre – but not ignore – gender identity and the untangle ideas of supposedly deviant bodies, sexualities and moralities, by looking instead to the actually very gender-neutral call to Christians to be like Christ, may actually be what needs to be taught instead. And yes, of course Churches already teach this, but maybe we need to rethink how we teach it in relation to sexual ethics. And that we should teach it alongside actual sex-ed, that involves equipping evangelical youth with an adequate understanding of things like consent and contraception. Maybe we need to move away from purity culture which operates via an economy of fear and shame, and instead develop a theory of what it is to conduct an intimate relationship -or indeed any relationship – in a Christlike way.

DeFranza’s work revolves around the image of the eunuch. The eunuch (whether a castrated male or perhaps a person born with what would now be considered an intersex variation) moved through the ancient world in a body that evoked both fear and shame due to its failure to conform to a masculine ideal, and a mix of alternating belief’s about Eunuchs being infertile, asexual, sexually active and sexually deviant.

Because eunuchs were gendered as other, their presence unsettled many beliefs and ideas assumed to be natural and given. Defranza writes that Eunuchs “were simultaneously considered asexual and unable to restrain themselves from sexual passion. The physical ambiguity of eunuchs translated into the moral realm in areas well beyond sexuality. Eunuchs suffered the same aspersions of character as did women in the ancient world. … self control was believed to be a masculine virtue, visible in the hardness of men’s bodies. The etymological link between virtus (virtue)  and vir (man, male) is debated; nevertheless the linguistic association remained strong among Latin speakers” p77

Yet DeFranza goes on to remind us that Isaiah prophesies a time when the eunuch would be welcomed into God’s family. Defranza writes that Isaiah 56 promise a time of future inclusion, when a person’s moral status will be judged according to faith and action, not the type of body they have: “These pious eunuchs would no longer be excluded from God’s people. In other words, eunuchs would no longer be judged by their physicality; they would be judged by their moral practice – their faith that binds them to YHWH and their obedience to God’s Law” p 82. And maybe part of being Christlike is to stop judging and fearing the physicality of our own sexed (and sexual) bodies, and that of others.

I wonder if there is a lesson here for Purity Culture, and perhaps also for those who continue to insist on gay conversion therapy or for those in non-hetero relationships to opt out of ministry. Imagine, if within the church a person was not excluded from ministry on the basis of their sexed-body (for example, being a woman) or their sexuality (for example being in a queer relationship) but considered on the basis of their faith that binds them to the Lord.

Josh Harris confesses[5] that when he first received criticism for I Kissed Dating Goodbye, it took him some time to detach his identity and sense of value from the status of being a best-selling author.  It took me some time to detach my identity and sense of value from being someone who refused to certain things with their body, and I wonder how my own perception of my body and sexual self might have been different had I not been taught that displaying my body (for example, in a bikini) would weaken the faith of others or that I was essentially a gift to a potential husband and that any and every sexual encounter decreased the value and beauty of that gift, ie, of me. I remember telling someone I could not sleep with them because then I wouldn’t know who I was anymore. How might I be a different person, and how might have modelled Christ better if I had had a sexual ethic I didn’t need to completely tear apart and rebuild from virtually nothing before I could begin to be at home in my body?

 How might we, as Christians, conduct our lives, and particularly our sexually intimate lives, differently if we spent more time dwelling on who we are in Christ, and  less time thinking about who I am (ok, who I was) as an individual  ‘pure’, no-sex-please kind of girl.

I realise I’ve done that thing where I ask lots of questions and don’t propose an actual answer. But what should we teach if not Purity Culture? How will a Christian person develop a good sexual ethic? The same way they will develop any ‘good’ ethic, by being focused on being Christlike, and modelling that in their lives, and in their bodies, whatever kind of body they have.  Let’s return to Defranza’s point that the path to being Christlike is the same path for all regardless of sexed body, regardless of the gendered behaviours we gravitate towards.

“Christ Jesus is ‘the image of the invisible God’ (Col. 1:15 NRSV), and all Christians – male, female, interexed – ‘are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit’  (2 Cor. 3:18 NIV). Despite its potential effectiveness as a rhetorical strategy for men, growth in holiness must not be misconstrued as growth toward manhood. Holiness must be separated from any gendered understandings of virtue – masculine, feminine, intersex or transgendered. Holiness must not be presented as pink, blue or purple. Christ is the model or all. All Christians are to model his victory (1 Cor. 15:54-57; Eph. 6:10-17). All Christians receive his inheritance as sons (Gal. 3:36-4:7). All Christians become his bride (Eph 5:25 – 27). These mixed metaphors illustrate the universal call to conformity to Christ, but they do even more than this; they also testify to the mystery that remains in any exploration of the Christian life, no less in any exploration of the image of God” p284

There is indeed a lot of mystery in any life. But in the Christian life one thing that is not a mystery is that all of us, regardless of our bodies, are to  strive to be Christlike. The mystery of course is what that looks like. And, I’m not sure, but maybe even if they a Christian person isn’t in a heterosexual marriage, or perhaps, isn’t in their first, heterosexual marriage, maybe they will find a way that they can be Christlike in the intimate relationships they do or don’t have, and maybe we have to be willing to have a more flexible conversation around this, so that people can actually grow into a place of holiness rather than have a cookie cutter vision of right behaviour enforced upon them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] DeFranza, M.K (2015). Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, female and intersex in the image of God. Grand Rapids, Michigan & Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

[2]       Maybe you think Purity Culture isn’t really like that, or that no-one is really that shaken by it. Here is a little extract from my thesis:

Sarah Bessey has written on her blog in detail about some of the less-than-happy ways Protestant Evangelical youth are taught to direct their lives towards marriage, particularly in the movement known as ‘Purity Culture’.. Bessey recalls being:

nineteen years old and crazy in love with Jesus when that preacher told an auditorium I was “damaged goods” because of my sexual past …  he didn’t call me up to the front and name me. But he stood up there and talked about me with such disgust, like I couldn’t be in that real-life crowd of young people worshipping in that church. (2013, n.p)

Here, rather than a scriptural command, emotional shaming for those who have had sex before or outside of marriage, and the threat of shame, unhappiness, of not really belonging, are used to direct those who might be contemplating lives that do not follow the path which dictates that sex is for marriage. Similarly, Joshua Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, the widely read advice manual for Protestant Evangelical youth, describes a couple who had pre-marital sex as “violating each other’s purity” (1997, p69).

 

[3] Ahmed, S. (2010). The promise of happiness. Durham and London:  Duke University Press.

[4] Ahmed writes that “Happiness scripts are powerful even when we fail or refuse to follow them, even when we deviate from their line. …Happiness scripts encourage us to avoid the unhappy consequences of deviation by making those consequences explicit” (2010, p91). If, either in a Christian or secular context, marriage and married sexuality is held up as the best or only way to be happy,  it is possibleto be enticed, or even coerced, into following a specific happiness-via-marriage script, so that we might not suffer unhappiness.

 

[5] It’s a while since I read the articles on Harris, and can’t find the exact ones I read last year, but here’s one:
https://world.wng.org/2018/01/hindsight_and_hope

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