Teaching Christian Sexual Ethics: Reflecting on Week One

Last Thursday marked the beginning of my time as an adjunct professor teaching Christian Sexual Ethics at the Candler School of Theology. I’m grateful for the opportunity to teach this class not only because once upon a time I was a Candler student who wished that such a course was offered during my matriculation, but also because I understand the necessity and value of a course such as this at such a time as this. So, with the first week behind me yet ever on my mind, I want to reflect on it.

The first day of class is often “getting to know you” time and my first day of class was no different. I spent time, with varying levels of success, introducing students to the overall structure of the class, though in telling them about the structure of the class I completely missed telling them about the class as in, “What is Christian Sexual Ethics?” I did a brief lecture that laid a foundation for the first quarter of the class, the section that will deal with historical documents that have influenced the discourse of and on Christian Sexual Ethics. I trotted out the usual suspects: The ones such as Paul, Plato, and Augustine who set the body against the soul or flesh against the spirit. Aquinas and his virtue-based approach to the body and sex. Then we quickly went through how sexual ethics turns topical in the 19th-21st century. Finally I asked the students, what is it that they want and need from the course. The answers were varied. We spent the second half of class discussing a few chapters in Michael Coogan’s God and Sex, a book that I recommend to people who are interested in beginning their study, in sober fashion, of what the Bible really says about sex. It was a lively discussion where students shared their understanding of the text, their theoretical perspectives adjacent to it, and personal experiences within their lives and their contexts.

It felt like a good class but it was only the first day. Since the class I have been thinking about the kind of space I want to create for the students, something that I could not have decided until I had an opportunity to meet and engage with them in the classroom. Now that I have done that once I am reflecting on what I think the task of a Christian Sexual Ethics teacher is, particularly as I see the ways in which students are hungry for knowledge, knowledge that will deconstruct the myth and production of sex and sexuality as the Christian Church has constructed it, for the sake of church contexts they may be leading or will lead in the future, and the knowledge that will give them a new ethical code to follow.

It is my belief that in teaching Christian Sexual Ethics one does not, necessarily, just prescribe a way forward. That is, the job of the person who teaches Christian Sexual Ethics is not to promote what to think but it is to promote how to think about what we have been thinking about the discourse at large. It is to test and approve or disapprove the ethic of Christian Sexual Ethics, particularly that which is prone to be regulatory. Thus I promote no new ethic that can be conceived of as in line with a new normal or that which would be conceived of as liberal, but I desire to take every side of the discourse, consider it in context, consider it outside of its context regarding the way it has been taught, and then think through the ways in which we might move forward with or from it.

I consider what one student said on the first day about presenting “alternative ideas,” which, in her definition, was not about actual alternative ideas but about how we make room for those who believe in the tradition–or what more progressive to liberal Christians might call the “conservative” teachings of the church. How do we talk to those for whom abstinence before marriage is still the model, purity is de riguer, marriage is between one man and one woman, etc? I felt this student deeply because it reminded me that space must be made for a multitude of views and that there is a possibility that someone could believe in the traditional teachings of the church on sexual ethics and if that is the case, how do we make room for that and ensure that if one stays close to traditional views they do no harm in the process? Because I am under no delusion that one can remain within the realm of tradition or the traditional and not toe the line of doing harm that can do violence either physically or metaphysically. How do we hold views that may be considered more liberal without making them the norm and categorical imperative? How do we help people own their sexuality wherever they fall on the spectrum not presuming that an interest abstinence denotes being a prude or a robust sex life denotes a whore? Can we break the binary that both implicitly and explicitly suggests to be tradition is to be repressed and to be liberal is to be liberated? Is there something in between all of this?

To teach Christian Sexual Ethics toward the end of liberation cannot always mean teaching liberal, it includes teaching what is considered liberal but it is not only that. It talks to tradition and contends with it and permits space for separating the wheat from the chaff in those teaching so that it might be possible to utilize the theoretical frameworks of a tradition to more liberating ends. Just as we are fully human and fully divine beings, we require a full conversation that includes all we can consider about how we move through the world as the embodied divine, little words made flesh. With this in mind we move forward entrusting one another with a full range of being and thinking through who and how we are on this earth and we wrestle with that on every level. We create space to wrestle with the implications of our commitments to our bodies and to God and to help determine for ourselves how to reconcile these two seemingly disparate modes. It is not only about how we live as faithful and sexual beings but how we think about how we live in accordance with that way of being.

At the conclusion of this course I hope that students might be able to articulate where they have been and where they are going in light of the sources and resources that have been set before them over the course of the semester and that given all of this they might leave different than they came, whatever that looks like.

So once more unto the breach I go to teach Christian Sexual Ethics, hoping that I do the topic justice, uncovering what is unjust and just about our reflections on and utilization of sexual ethics in our tradition and hoping that I help students see a way forward for themselves and their contexts.

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Spiritually-Mixed Marriages= Bad Sex

I haven’t posted in nearly two years but it is with good cause. I was in the thick of my PhD coursework but now I’m out, actually I’m just done with coursework. I’m currently studying for my comprehensive exams which are the exams PhD students take to demonstrate intellectual proficiency and prowess in their discipline and research and the test that, once we pass, we become conversant members of our guild. My core discipline is Ethics with a focus on Women, Gender, and (Sex)uality, thus my reading for exams spans those areas as well as Catholic Social Teachings because, hey, I’m Catholic now (more on that later). Nevertheless I hope to share a little of what I’m reading and thinking as I study over the next few months. The quote below is from True Sexual Morality: Recovering Biblical Standards for a Culture in Crisis by Daniel R. Heimbach. This book isn’t on my exam list–though I’m considering adding it–I am considering using a chapter out of the book for a Sexual Ethics class I’ll be teaching for a group of high school students. The class will be a brief survey of sexual ethics on the spectrum–meaning students will study ethicists who theorize on sex from conservative, moderate, and liberal perspectives. I’m using Stanley Grenz’s Sexual Ethics: An Evangelical Perspective as our conservative sexual ethics text but Heimbach’s book goes the extra mile–and an extra 200 pages or so–to provide a thorough view of biblical sexual morality. The quote below jumped out at me while I was looking for a chapter to read with class. Check it out:

God’s general prohibition against spiritually mixed marriage is consistent with his interest in guarding the positive value of complexity, intimacy, and complementarity in sexual relationships. Spiritually mixed marriage weakens the complexity of sex by trying to construct relationships that do not include the spiritual dimension. Since sex remains spiritual no matter how we try leaving it out, relationships that ignore the spiritual dimension are doomed to failure because of what couples try pretending is not there.

The prohibition guards the value of sexual intimacy as well. The spiritual dimension of sex is not just unavoidable but is the most important dimension, and spiritually mixed marriage leaves a vacuum at the deepest level of sexual intimacy. So long as the vacuum is there, sex will never reach the potential for intimacy that God intends it to have. Nothing else in a relationship goes as deep as the spiritual dimension, and nothing else can take its place.

Finally, the prohibition against spiritually mixed marriage protects the value of complementarity in God’s design for sex. If a Christian marries a non-Christian, the two may be able to complement each other physically, emotionally, and psychologically, but they cannot complement each other spiritually. Daniel R. Heimbach, True Sexual Morality, 211

Simply put, an unequally yoked marriage will impact your sex life because you will be unable to reach the intimacy God intends in loving relationships. There can be no intimacy between two people with differing spiritualities.

This is fascinating.

I know those within Christian traditions are well aware of the prohibitions against unequally yoked relationships and marriages, but have you ever heard of the prohibition against it for this reason? Do you purchase the claim that a spiritually mixed marriage can impact sex life? If you do believe sex is spiritual, do you believe that your partner must share the same spiritual and religious practice as you do? And a more fundamental question, does shared spirituality come from shared religion?

It has been a longtime but let’s talk about sex.

Why the Nate Parker Case Matters Now

Over the weekend old news about Nate Parker surfaced. 17 years ago Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin, who he co-wrote The Birth of a Nation with, were involved in a rape case while they were roommates at Penn State in 1999. The victim said that she was raped by the two men after passing out in their room following a night of drinking while Parker and Celestin said that the sex was consensual. Parker, who had consensual sex with the victim on an earlier occasion was, somehow, acquitted and Celestin was convicted and then had it overturned in an appeal. The victim, whose name we don’t know, dropped out of Penn State, attempted suicide twice, and committed suicide in 2012 according to recent reports. Fast forward to 17 years later…

Parker is at the height of his career with his film The Birth of a Nation being talked about as an Oscar contender. But now his past has come back to haunt him and some discussions of it are inordinately focused on how it may affect his chances at an Oscar:

Fox Searchlight, Nate Parker Confront Old Sex Case That Could Tarnish ‘The Birth Of A Nation’

Nate Parker’s College Rape Trial Raises Questions for ‘The Birth of a Nation’ Release

Is This the First Controversy of the 2017 Awards Season?

The industry is concerned that they may not see a return on their investment and their rising star might fall. This feels kind of familiar to me, as familiar as a father who, during his child’s sentencing for raping an unconscious woman said, “That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.” Turner was convicted on three counts of felony sexual assault, sentenced to six months in jail, three years on probation, and will have to register as a sexual offender. His lenient sentence was attributed to his whiteness and privilege and his people’s desire to see him flourish after this hard time in his life. In many ways, Parker’s case reads the same.

There seems to be a need to protect men in power or on the brink of power in sexual assault cases. Parker is joining a line of men in Hollywood–and other men in power–with sexual assault cases on their personal resumes: Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Bill Cosby, and the scores of others we don’t know about. I’m reminded of a story I pitched a year ago on Bill Cosby, rape culture, and Christian silence only to have a man in a position of power tell me that “outing” Cosby at the time–which was around the time of the South Carolina confederate flag debate–would be a distraction. As if we couldn’t address both. I was discouraged and felt like this man also shared a part in rape culture by keeping silent and trying to keep me silent–don’t worry, I did end up writing about Cosby, Christian Silence and Rape Culture on my personal blog. But this is just another example how men in power protect other men in power. (Want another example, check out this season of Orange is the New Black.) Hollywood’s interest is to protect these men because of the investment they made in them and Parker is just the latest. This isn’t an attack on him because he’s a black man on the come up, it’s par for the course for his position in the industry and for this day and age when talk of sexual violence is becoming commonplace. Given this, Parker’s PR has clearly been on their grind if his mealy-mouthed statements are any indication:

“I stand here, a 36-year-old man, 17 years removed from one of the most painful moments in my life. And I can imagine it was painful, for everyone. I was cleared of everything, of all charges. I’ve done a lot of living, and raised a lot of children. I’ve got five daughters and a lovely wife. My mom lives here with me; I brought her here. I’ve got four younger sisters.”

“The reality is, this is a serious issue, a very serious issue, and the fact that there is a dialogue going on right now around the country is paramount. It is critical. The fact we are making moves and taking action to protect women on campuses and off campuses, and educating men and persecuting them when things come up. … I want women to stand up, to speak out when they feel violated, in every degree, as I prepare to take my own daughter to college.”

Maybe “mealy-mouthed” isn’t a fair description of his statement, it’s more than a mealy-mouthed statement and yet it is still less than what is necessary at a time when narratives of sexual violence are still more determined by men than they are by the women who are most affected by it. Parker tries to pay general attention to those affected by sexual violence, but in his particular role in enacting violence he, nor Celestin, take explicit responsibly for their actions and that feels violent to me.

I have a problem with the fact that the discussions of this are being couched in terms of how this will affect The Birth of a Nation‘s chance at the Oscars or its general release. That ought not be the issue and Parker’s deflecting from the problem of that framing is disheartening. I get it, Parker wants to tell Nat Turner’s story and wants America to face the truth of its history. But this encounter with his own part in the history of sexual violence is also an opportunity for him and America, particularly American men, to face the truth of the role they play in normalizing sexual violence. Parker’s statement turns away from the gross reality of how sexual violence narratives are scripted for men in positions of power. They are swept under the rug and a “not guilty” sentence is interpreted as innocence while the victim suffers in silence. Their stories can be revised and edited in such a way as to make the men the victims and cancel the real victim out. In this case, the spotlight is on Parker and Celestin but they are using it to focus on the wrong thing, themselves, their project, and their families as some kind of scapegoat that absolves them from anyone ever thinking they could do harm. All of this is the result of failing to recognize how easy it is for sexual violence narratives to be minimized and how they–Parker and Celestin–are a part of the problem.

17 years later this still matters because the effects of sexual violence have no statute of limitations, not for the victim, not for the suspect, not for anyone involved. We need a different word from Parker and Celestin, one that doesn’t deflect to their project and who they’ve become before it takes a long, hard look at the effects of a crime they committed 17 years ago and how the stories we tell about rape always matter. An accusation of rape always matters. A rape case always matters. The victim of rape always matters and Parker and Celestin seem blithely unaware that, 17 years later, this still matters as if it happened yesterday because rape matters.

 

 

 

Sex Talk in Song Then and Now: What Do You Remember Hearing?

This is the first semester of my doctoral studies at Emory University and I have the good fortune of serving as a teaching assistant for Religion & Sexuality. This undergraduate-level course is all about, you guessed it, religion and sexuality and the many ways they are related. Students study the main religious traditions perspectives on sexuality, significant thinkers in the disciplines, media coverage and pop culture. Keeping in line with the latter, yesterday the professor started to dive deep into this discourse by focusing on Freud and Foucault. But, so as not to completely lose the students due to the denseness of these two thinkers matter, he offered a more contemporary resource to help them understand what is at stake in discourses on sex by using, wait for it…

Yes, Salt-n-Pepa’s 1991 hit supplemented a discussion on Foucault’s discourse on sex in the Victorian age and I was here for it. But as the video played and I surveyed the room to observe its reception, I saw many of the students just staring at it blankly. It hit me that no one in the classroom except for me, the other teaching assistant, and the professor, was born when the song dropped. I was 11 when the song came out and I remember it as the first song I’d ever heard that explicitly talked about sex. The students in the class weren’t even zygotes in 1991 and I realized that, to them, a song that explicitly talks about sex could mean something entirely different.

When I say “explicitly talked about sex” I mean that sex talk in song was direct and not reliant on the oftentimes hyper-aggressive, hostile, violent, and sometimes rape-y sex talk in songs today. The students’s experience of sex talk in song is most likely different from my experience of sex talk in the songs that I came of age to such as Salt-n-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex,” Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up,” and TLC’s “I Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” all songs which spoke about sex in plain terms–although the argument can be made that these songs were pushing boundaries at the time. These songs were still tame in nature, didn’t use potentially harmful language, and promoted safe sex either explicitly in the lyrics on in their corresponding videos. This, however, is probably not the reality for young people who were born in 1994–the approximate year I believe most of the students were born in–because by 2005, the sex talk in song sounded something like this,

I’ll take you to the candy shop
I’ll let you lick the lollipop
Go ‘head girl, don’t you stop
Keep going ’til you hit the spot (woah)
[Olivia]
I’ll take you to the candy shop
Boy one taste of what I got
I’ll have you spending all you got
Keep going ’til you hit the spot (woah)

That is an excerpt from 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop” a song that was number eight on Billboard’s 2005 Year-End list. But this still might not be the first song with sex talk that they’ve heard. There may have been something earlier or later but I’m curious about what they first heard and how that formed–or didn’t form them. And now I’m curious about what many people first heard and how that formed–or didn’t form them. So I’m throwing the query out to readers,

What is the first song you recall hearing sex talk in or the first song you heard that was all about sex? How did the song make you feel? What did it make you think about sex? Also be sure to include the approximate decade in which you were born and when the song came out. I may or may not be using this for research. 😉

So…Let’s talk about sex!