Friday, June 8, 2012

The Right Kind of Sex?

As an undergraduate in biblical studies, I took a required course on ethics, taught by a world-class theologian and a very capable biblical scholar. He used the common rubric of the Ten Commandments to organize biblical ethics (though this is a method very often criticized in the academy of Evangelical scholars). We came to the seventh commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery,” and he moved from adultery to fornication to lust and licentiousness. Then he told us that oral and anal sex were likewise prohibited and a violation of the seventh commandment.

There was an uncomfortable silence in the room. I wanted to talk about his reasoning but I was aware that any discussion would give the impression that I, gasp, engaged in such practices. But I WAS the oldest student in the room, and I WAS the only married student in the room, and I HATE unasked questions. So I asked, “Sir, where do you get that?” “It's not natural,” he answered.

That was it. There was no biblical argument, no theological argument, no citing of Church fathers, just as dismissive statement. To be honest, he didn't say it dismissively, it seemed more like no one had asked the question before. Thinking about it now, the statement was radically out of touch with modern Christian college students, for whom “technical virginity” is a very live concept. There are Christian girls having anal sex because it leaves their hymens intact. Discussing non-vaginal sexual behavior would have been massively more helpful.

The truth is that Christians rarely question the morality of oral sex any more, even if they don't find it distasteful. Douglas Rosenau, probably the most eminent Christian sex therapist today, either wrote or told me (I don't remember which) that thirty years ago Christians asked him if oral sex was ok, today they ask about anal sex.

Ed Wheat, who wrote a helpful, if somewhat limited, book, Intended for Pleasure, cautions against sex toys, arguing that women become dependent upon them (citing absolutely no research). I had no recollection that statement was in his book until a worried couple came back into premarital counseling and asked me about it. I think they had been investing in a variety of sex toys before the honeymoon. He isn't the only one who sets limits, Doug Rosenau, in a much more candid and open book, cautions against anal sex because of “health risks.”

So I thought I'd write up what the Bible actually says and doesn't say about forbidden sex.

The grand list in the Bible is in Leviticus 18. The commandment to not commit adultery is in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. “Lusting in the heart” is in Matthew 5:28. Prohibitions against male and female homosexuality are found in Romans 1:26-27 (and in other places).

So the Bible limits sex between a man and a woman married to each other. If you have sex with someone who is married to another person or if you are married and have sex with another, it is adultery. Very bad. If you have sex with someone with whom you are not married and neither are they, it is fornication. Not quite as bad. If you “fool around” without having sex, it is technically licentiousness or “sensuality,” though I think most fooling around that results in an orgasm would be considered sex and therefore be fornication or adultery. Jesus makes the point that the standard is not just drawing the line with behavior, but striving for real heart holiness.

Leviticus forbids you from marrying someone of too close of relation: father, mother, stepmother, sister, half-sister, step-sibling brought up in your home, aunt (either side) and presumably uncle, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, your brother's wife (while he is alive I guess, given the whole Levirite marriage thing), a woman and her daughter (back in the polygamy days) or one of her grandchildren or a woman and her sister (I guess Rachel and Leah were an exception?). Cousins, nieces and nephews are ok (at least in Louisiana!).

So this means that Woody Allen broke God's law with his step-daughter, but my friend who married his step-sister didn't because they grew up (mostly) in different homes didn't. My friend who's mom married her ex-husband's oldest son had a bad situation though. It was kind of creepy in that his step-father was a dead-ringer for his older brother.

Aside from this, no adultery, no sex during periods and no sex with animals.

That's the entire list.

I figured that the rest of the stuff didn't make the list because it just wasn't around. It was in the category of questionable things that the Bible didn't address directly, but might not be OK. I mean the Bible doesn't say you can't shoot heroin and heroin's basically legal in some places.
Ishtar, a very racy goddess
Then I spent a summer reading literature about the Ancient Near East: Sumerians, Hittites (Gurney), Egyptians (Gardiner) and all of the different cultures that have called Babylon home (Assyrians, old and new Babylonians, Akkadians, Arameans, etc, by Saggs.). They did EVERYTHING. Same-sex intercourse, animals, oral and sex toys. Saggs even makes a point of mentioning that sex “per anum” (in the booty) was common. The Ancient Near East was full of all the kinds of sex we have today, and God mentions only a few things: homosexuality, sex outside of marriage, marrying relatives, animals, and menstrual sex.

Apparently God isn't terribly concerned if you perform oral sex on your husband or if you have anal sex with your wife. There's even some evidence (grist for another post) that God encourages some “alternative sexual practices.”

A word of caution. Sex is supposed to be about intimacy with your spouse, not just using your spouse as an object. We are commanded to live in love and it isn't loving to pressure your wife into anal sex or dressing up in leather and chains. Sex should express love not degrade it. But God's not a prude and I guess his people shouldn't be either.

What are your thoughts on acceptable sex?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Smoking a Turd in Purgatory

This is for the pastors out there (and those who influence them). Because there are some things that pastors do (and neglect to do) which, if there is a Purgatory, merit smoking a brown one to contemplate their crimes.

I don't know if it is cowardice, laziness or stupidity, but I cannot believe that pastors are not aware of the execrable state of marriage in our culture. Our children are watching marriages crater all around them. They lack role models of faithfulness and unselfishness. Our culture has lost a sense of shame for unfaithfulness, divorce and out of wedlock births. They are inundated with filth and worldliness by Hollywood (the marriage experts, if frequency brings expertise), false expectations and the raising of selfishness to a virtue. Pastors know all that and still marry two people together with little more than a one hour chat (if that) and a beatific smile. If this is you, I have two important words for you:

You suck.

Light one up and press your lips on it.

This is one of the most important aspects of your ministry. You are sinning if you don't do it and learn to do it well. It makes all of the difference in the world. Do you believe me? Consider this. I've married one to four couples a year for the last four years, probably an average of two per year. Guess how many Christian couples I've lost? Zero. Considering there are danger zones at years three and eight, we are defying the odds. How's your lazy and irresponsible technique working for you?

Well, this is your chance to change. Below I'm going to give you enough information to get started being faithful in this area of your ministry. I'm going to keep you from the stinky lips.

First, I tell all Christian couples that I will only marry them if they commit to 8-10 sessions of premarital counseling, which includes assignments and reading. I will do non-Christians in 6 sessions, just to try to get them in. I don't get many takers because of you guys who marry people with no counseling for 50 bucks (not that I'm bitter).

Second, I make sure that they understand the Gospel and that I do not have an “unequally yoked” couple. It is important that we investigate actual fruit, not the profession that the good looking guy first made three weeks ago. This is also the point where you begin to ask, Is this going to be a train wreck? If so, do what you can to slow the process down to the point where one of them sees what you see and hits the brakes.

Third, determine whether there are huge unaddressed issues. You have to ask specific questions. This where you send someone to the DivorceCare workshop or sexual abuse recovery counseling. If they are blending families, seek a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist for additional direction. If there is a former spouse, have the new potential spouse call the former spouse and ask the question: Is there anything I need to know?

Fourth, give a theology of marriage. I have found Marriage and Family Life Conference material helpful as well as Kenneth Matthews's Commentary on Genesis (chapters 2-3).

Fifth, talk about money. Discuss basic financial principles and their financial goals. Have them draw up a budget and make sure it is reasonable. Larry Burkett's Complete Financial Guide for Young Couples isn't bad.

Sixth, talk about the differences between men and women and their communication styles. Love and Respect is very helpful. If you buy the video series you can just have them watch it.

Seventh, talk about sex and have them read a good book about it (this one if they've never been married and this one if they have), even if they are not virgins or were previously married. Talk about expectations and how to resolve difficult issues. Talk about boundaries with the opposite sex and affair-proofing a marriage.

Eighth, talk about plans for the future and expectations for roles. Discuss family traditions and how to set appropriate boundaries with the couples' families. How many kids do they wish to have? How will they discipline? What would their dreams be for their children?

That should be enough to get you started. Please do this.

And here's something else. You could call up couples you have already married and do "post-wedding" counseling. Don't wait for them to ask for help.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Cain's Wife

The first eleven chapters of Genesis are fascinating, majestic, and tantalizing. As a story, they are incredibly dense, tight narrative that straddles realism and myth. They soar high above other literature of the Ancient Near East and offer a deep well of theological richness as well as a plethora of difficulties for biblical literalists.

The first five chapters are relatively straightforward on the face of the story. Adam and Eve are the first humans, directly created by God. They have two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain murders Abel in a fit of jealousy involving God himself and Cain is banished from the family. Cain is sent into the “land of Nod,” which means “wandering.” The problem comes with verse 17, Cain's wife, and verse 14, “whoever finds me will kill me.” Who did Cain marry and who are the people who will kill Cain when they find him?

Here are some of the possible answers:

1) The whole thing is a myth with not attempt at coherency.
2) A biblical editor has taken two traditions and combined them into one story (much of Arthurian legend is like that).
3) God created lots of people after he created Adam and Eve and Cain married one and then lived among them.
4) There were lots of people on the earth during the time of Adam and Eve that they were not “related to,” both during and before their time.
5) Adam and Eve were the first two actual “humans,” in the image of God (presumably with a spiritual sense), and Cain married and lived among pre-humans who became a human life with the inclusion/infusion of Cain. This is basically a Neanderthal hypothesis.
6) Cain married his sister and all people on the earth were, and are, descended from Adam and Eve.

 Answer #1 – In one sense this is a logically valid hypothesis, one which non-Christians would embrace without a thought. The creation story becomes an aetiological tale, a “how humans came to be” story, not unlike Rudyard Kipling's “How the Elephant Got his Trunk.” For the Christian who believes in the divinity of Christ and the inspiration of the apostles this is not really an option, as both Jesus and Paul seemed to believe in the historicity of the Adam and Eve account (Matt 19:4-6; 1 Tim 2:13). Since the resurrection of Christ is a strongly established fact in most Christian's minds, one would have to argue that Jesus, who rose from the dead, was pretty na├»ve. On top of that, the account is not written as most Ancient Near Eastern myths and the Jews never read it that way (in contrast most educated Romans understood their gods and legends were fabrications).

Answer #2 – This answer is much like the first, except that it hypothesizes that there were originally two stories and that answers the question as to why someone would compose a story with such glaring narrative holes. Trying to discern hypothetical source stories is a favorite occupation of Bible scholars (liberal ones). Chopping up the Adam-Cain narrative doesn't work well, though. It doesn't lend itself to revealing any helpful separation and the literary tools used to do so are based on Western European forms. The Western European literary traditions are oral and the Ancient Near Eastern forms were mostly written. The hypothesis doesn't work very well.

Answer #3 – According the Bible narrative, God could have created more people after Adam and Eve if one reads the narrative that way. This would reduce the theology of the Fall to something fully federal. God made Adam the representative of the whole human race and he fell in their place. God then imputes, or credits, the sin of Adam to the whole human race. Or perhaps Adam's sin brings sin into the world and all humans are effected by it. It kind of works except that it involves a mechanism for sin that isn't very biblical. It doesn't seem that Adam's sin creates a radioactive sin cloud that settles on the earth. Instead, all of Adam's descendants, starting with Cain and Abel, inherit a corrupted nature. Jesus doesn't inherit the corrupted nature because he is a son of Eve and not a son of Adam (having no human father). Why would the "radioactive sin cloud" not effect Jesus?

Answer #4 – Simply taking the story as a story about real people, but not the first or only people, takes the story from being a story about the origins of humanity to the origins of Israel. However, that doesn't work very well because the story clearly intends to tell the story of all humanity and the story is understood throughout Scripture as a story of humanity. The story is told as if Adam and Eve are the parents of all humanity. In addition, the theology behind why Jesus had to die on the cross becomes a little shaky if Adam and Eve are not the first parents.

Answer #5 – The Neanderthal Hypothesis is very clever. Adam and Eve are the first two people with spirits and created in the image of God. This allows science and faith to co-exist, though not happily. There are a few Christian Scientists who like this kind of resolution, but their colleagues still think they are daft. I imagine that this idea will look pretty silly in a couple of decades. There's also nothing in the text to give the slightest hint that there were non-humans being married into humanity.

Answer #6 – The oldest answer is that Cain married his sister. There is the moral objection to this answer, but that isn't much of an objection because of the uniqueness of the situation, such strictures would come later when there were other people to marry. There do seem to be others around, but they could all be part of Adam and Eve's fruitful progeny. They lived a long time and had plenty of opportunity to have lots of kids. This doesn't change the general impression that the “others” don't seem to be a part of the family and it doesn't seem like there would have been others born before Cain and Abel were born. There are no easy answers here.

All of this to say, I don't know the answer. And what's more, I don't think the answer is knowable. I accept the Bible for what it says and have no idea about what it doesn't say. Clearly Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel are meant to be taken historically, and I do so. The Cain and Abel incident is a clear demonstration of the immediate outworking of sin, and I accept that as well. I acknowledge the difficulties with the unanswered questions and take comfort in the fact that the narrative made sense to the writer, even if all of it doesn't make sense to me. I receive what it teaches and shrug at what it doesn't. It makes no difference to my faith and even less difference to my life who Cain married.

When we start trying to answer a question like that we run into problems and create more than we solve. I think that is true even with option #6, the Cain's sister resolution. I prefer to respond to the question with an “I don't know.” At least it is honest.