Much of the ancient world was rife with sex-cults; religious institutions and practices that were deeply sexual in their purpose and nature. Ba'al worship was particularly lascivious, based on a mythology of a promiscuous, violent, incestuous, rapist-god. The purpose of such cults was to express, which in turn shaped the expression of, the desire and need for fertility for the sake of social survival and/or for particular sexual practices. Mythology was about sex and family, and sex and family were about mythology. These cults were worldly and idolatrous, because they elevated human, worldly, needs to ultimate and divine significance.
It remains a relatively universal tendency that one's sexual practices, norms, and beliefs about sex are influenced by one's mythology; your 'theological narrative' as it were, and vice versa. When God entered history with Israel, and ultimately with Christ, He offered a new mythology that placed all of creation under the Lordship of One Creator and One Savior, ultimately orienting us toward a different sort of consummation: the marriage of God with His Creation; Christ with His Church. This was not to say that the longings that drove sex-cults were not important to Him: He cared about the wellbeing of His creation. But nothing was to stand in His place.
Contemporary Christianity sometimes operates as if it possesses a mythology that worships human marriage, sexuality, and reproduction, to the detriment of our worship of God and the minimization of this true theological narrative (most clearly expressed in Rev. 20 & 21). It's an old and relatively understandable form of idolatry, but one that has taken on a new tone and nature in the post-industrial, evangelical world.
One of my favorite bloggers, Rachel Held Evans, recently wrote a fantastic piece titled 'Sex and the Path of Holiness.' She critiques here the false choice our rhetoric places between purity & virginity vs. a notion of the unchaste (woman, particularly) as 'damaged goods.' She is not advocating a loosening of norms when it comes to pre-marital sex, but instead for turning away from hanging one's entire purity and worth on whether one is a virgin or not. This quotation is particularly poignant:
"Perhaps instead of virginity…or even purity (which carries something of an either/or connotation, I think)…we ought to talk about the path of holiness. Holiness, to me, means committing every area of my life— from sex, to food, to time, to work—to the lordship of Jesus. It means asking how I might love God and love my neighbors in those areas so that the Spirit can grow love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in the sacred soil of everyday life."
"...everything I believed about my own sexuality was built on two huge lies.
The first comes from our culture, and it tells us that sex outside of marriage isn't a big deal.
The second is from the Church, and it tells us that sex outside of marriage is the biggest deal of all the deals ever.
We've made virginity the goal, when it is purity that we should be aiming for; They're not the same thing. Sexual purity is a lifelong practice that doesn't begin or end with a single sex act, just as it doesn't begin or end on a wedding night."
We were told that the purpose of our sexuality is for marriage - human marriage is the entire goal and end of our sexuality. That saving ourselves for marriage (and really, no other reason) is what God's Word demands of us. That if we save ourselves and avoid lust we will enjoy marriage better, implying that this enjoyment should be one of our supreme concerns. Sexual purity, we were taught at least implicitly, is as Wright says above, 'the biggest deal of all deals ever' - a unique sin that marks us in ways other sins, it is implied, do not; because it defiles the marriage bed. We, now as young adults, feel pressure in some corners to get married and make babies quickly. We feel second-rate if we are not married, or are married but not having kids.
There's truth in all these things. And places for each of these teachings (especially when trying to encourage young people to make good decisions that they have not been well prepared to make by their culture). I believe this often, however, amounts to an evangelical obsession towards marriage and the nuclear family that borders on idolatry. Sometimes it sees as if we treat human sexuality and marriage are our mythology; our ultimate theological narrative. All of our sexual ethics, and other ethical dimensions as well, fall around this mythology. This emphasis is at odds with and competes with the Biblical sexual/relational/marital narrative of the marriage of the Lamb and the Church.
Please do not misunderstand me: family is absolutely a crucial institution. And I applaud and join with those who speak about the need for strengthening families. So much depends on this.
But so much seems missing here.
The point that Evans talks about above is, I think, the smoking gun. It reveals that we practically worship the human marriage bed. We laud virginity, and shame its absence, in a way that reveals an obsession with marriage and 'the ideal wedding night' as the ultimate goal for which we strive. As she perceptively asks us, what about holiness for its own sake? Or self-control (as Jamie Wright advocates) for its own sake? Is there anything worth living for, or a basis for making decisions about sex, that's bigger than a wedding night?
This missing link is also partially revealed in our apparent inability to deal sensitively and effectively with the complicated family lives around us. We live in churches where single individuals are often seen as 'missing something'; and the pressure on them to settle down and start popping babies can become pretty enormous. Very few are told how to be constructive with their singleness. As a result many men and women become angsty, desperate, insecure, and self-obsessed as a result. When they do get married, they probably make for not terribly emotionally-well-adjusted mates. For somewhat different reasons in either case, single pastors of each gender have trouble getting appointed at churches. We arguably also don't know how to deal very well with divorcees, single parents, barren couples, remarried couples, those who chose not to have kids (if they are ever allowed to voice such a desire), those with family (or themselves) in homosexual relationships (like it or hate it, it's a reality that churches will increasingly have to deal with), or those who are not chaste, as if an indelible mark has been placed on them that ruins their ability to be the best Christian they could otherwise be. We pay lip-service to 'new beginnings' and getting a new, spiritual virginity, but the fact we have to formulate such language tells us that we treat this failing as uniquely grave and detrimental. It's as if we don't exactly know how to find a place for these people in our 'religious cult,' because they don't fit into our mythology in which 'pure' marriage and kids are the ideal of all ideals.
Mother's or Father's Day are among the most explicitly celebrated non-liturgical holidays in the American Church. Perhaps there's a proper place for them, but for too many in the pews these are uncomfortable and painful days, and they are not often handled very well by pastors. They can be deeply painful days for the infertile, and those who have miscarried. Or whoever might feel less important for not cranking out babies. And for those who have to smile and lie through their teeth about how they feel about parents who abused them.
Family is one of our favorite buzz words. We create a myriad of organizations about 'family.' Defending 'traditional marriage' or 'traditional family values,' are some of our favorite political talking points. It's almost literally the only thing we can talk about. Walk through a Christian book store and find countless books (perhaps even the majority of the book you will find) on improving marriage, finding a spouse, parenting, how to date, and (my favorite category of fringe-worthy texts) how to have good 'Christian' sex. I don't want to say all these things are necessarily wrong. There's plenty of important topics that need to be talked about within these areas. I merely want to point out the overwhelming degree to which we talk about family, sex, and children. I think it's suggestive of a misappropriation of priorities. This is perhaps best illustrated by the relatively minimal selection of books on theology, rigorous discipleship, justice, the poor, and classic Christian writings, at Christian bookstores. They're there, but rarely on the front table when you walk in and usually relegated to a small corner - to leave room for the Christian romance novels, of course.
I'm purposefully being hyperbolic. This is not the case everywhere, and the situation is quite complicated on the ground - but I think there's some general truth here. Our worship of marriage as the pinnacle and crux of the Christian life too often marginalizes too many people and leaves them feeling un-celebrated, second-rate, and half-Christian. It turns our focus from God. It creates false expectations. And it ultimately undermines the ability to actually have healthy marriages and families.
We need a new mythology.
We may find plenty to critique here, but let's not fail to point the finger back at ourselves. We often focus too exclusively on other portions of Scripture, especially the Old Testament with its admonition to 'multiply' and the blessings of having a 'quiver-full,' and its celebration of marriage and sexuality (Song of Solomon). The early Christians perhaps had too low a view of sexuality and family. We, at the same time, have too low a view of a state of being non-married and without kids. Neither seems entirely biblical to me. Perhaps we ought to try and balance out these extremes, or find a new way to understand how they relate to one another.
I think the balance comes in recognizing more consciously that marriage is not the be-all and end-all of the Christian life: Christ is. This requires putting all things, even good things, on the altar - willing to follow whatever path we are called to, trusting that God is with us...and with those called to a different path than our own. He is our goal.
No wonder we live with rampant sexual promiscuity, pornography, lust, and are watching our families deteriorate. We make marriage and self-fulfillment and children the goal of our sexual ethics, instead of self-denial and commitment to God. Without such discipline, we will never conquer these huge issues. Grasp onto this world and you will lose it all. We'll never solve our family and marriage problems by making family and marriage the ultimate goal. All we do is create self-obsessed, short-sighted, individuals not well suited for healthy marriage in the first place. How can we expect to repair our human marriages without paying attention to our eternal and supreme marriage to Christ?
The elephant in the room is the fact that many Christians in my generation (like the rest of the west, different only in degree), are putting off or avoiding marriage, and having very few kids, compared to the rest of the world. An obsession with marriage and family is not the proper response. Encouraging increased commitment to Christ, is.
Christ gave His body to us. Our body belongs to Him. He is our first love, our ultimate spouse. All that we do should be directed toward that relationship. Our sexuality, our whole being, belongs to Him above anyone else (even our spouse/hypothetical spouse). For some, this commitment means marriage and kids. For others it might be something different. The worship of Christ and the cultivation of this union between Christ and His bride - becoming a holy people for Him is the goal for all. That is the marriage at the center of our worship that should direct our sexual, and other, practices. That is our ultimate mythology; our theological narrative upon which all else depends.
We do not have to give up the celebration of marriage to put Christ first. To the contrary, putting Christ first puts marriage in its proper context and makes it beautiful and whole. Indeed, bad spouses are bad Christians. Likewise, bad Christians are bad spouses. I like the Orthodox understanding of marriage as an 'icon' of Christ and His Church. It anticipates the union of God with humanity, and between humans, that will come in the Kingdom. It has eternal significance. Yet it is also subservient to the call to Christ. For all these reasons, the Eucharist is central to the Orthodox wedding ceremony. And this is also why the Orthodox can be comfortable celebrating both celibacy and marriage; they are different paths toward the common goal of becoming the spotless bride of Christ.
This perspective gives marriage a beauty and significance far beyond the wildest dreams of many evangelicals, while yet taking it down from the lofty place of idolatry where we have placed it.
I am inclined to think that a healthy church will find a way to honor, celebrate, and find a key role in the Kingdom for temporary singleness and (I think we should consider the place for) lifelong celibacy, or barrenness, ( I realize this is controversial, but I would include couples who intentionally avoid bearing children - I think this might be a legitimate calling some people might have - though I would encourage couples without kids to strongly consider and pray about adoption), or those who are not 'spotless virgins,' and training everyone to make their ethical decisions with Christ foremost in their minds. Marriage, sex, and reproduction are not our gods. Yahweh is our God. Christ is our God, our spouse.
A healthy church will live in the strange contrast between enjoying what God provides and desires for us, and living in simplicity, humility, and self-sacrifice in order to remain humble before Him and focused on serving others - particularly the 'least of these' who are the very body of our First Love. This is the whole reason why the Church has long encouraged fasting; from food and sex, and trying to live as detached from possessions as possible. To make sure that nothing, even generally good things, become gods and get in the way of serving others and being close to God.
Can we re-orient our perspective to not live for a worldly sex-cult, but for the cosmic marriage of God with His creation that we look forward to? The marriage supper of the Lamb?
We wait for Him to come for His bride. May we be found wanting only Him.
In part 2, we hope to challenge our assumptions about what the Church's relationship to society's definition of marriage is or should be, in a post tentatively titled: 'They're Re-Defining Marriage? That Happened A Long Time Ago.'