This week the University of Saint Mary on the Lake concluded its annual Courage Conference. The conference is a gathering of the saints to discuss the foremost topic facing Christians: sex.
In and of itself, a conference about Christian sexuality is hardly something to criticize, much less subject to my usual level of mockery. But the conference opens itself up to parody, if not outright satire, with its opening prayer which is posted above the fold on its web site. The prayer opens innocently: “Lord Jesus, I consecrate my sexuality to you.”
How can any sincere Christian argue with that? Any reading of scripture indicates that Christians want to bring all of our desires into subjugation to God, our appetites, our health, our quest for knowledge, our ambition, our pursuit of fortune for the benefit of our families. But the next lines are nothing less than a punchline: “cleanse my mind, my memory, my imagination and my dreams of all erotic content.”
Clear my mind of all erotic content? Wow, that's pretty harsh. So if Carol bends over I'm supposed to ask Jesus to keep me from getting a little bit aroused? That kind of kills the point of marriage, doesn't it? Why bother to be fruitful and multiply? It's kind of hard to multiply if you've purged your mind of the erotic thoughts that make multiplication possible.
That would kill dating too, wouldn't it? Isn't that why kids date? Because they see other kids and they get those urges? Why get married if you've put all erotic thought out of your head? You could just be friends. Of course, that would kill Christian Mingle, not to mention all those weddings which are a major source of income for churches and companies tied to churches.
I read through the panel presentations and a couple caught my eye. My favorite was “Interior Purity: Tricky Temptation and Jumbo Chastity.” I got the “tricky temptation” metaphor, but what is “jumbo chastity?” I'm trying to picture the seminar and the speaker trying to stretch that metaphor to fit, kind of like a jumbo gum ball or jumbo condom.
The other one involved sacred imagery in art. Why would a program on sacred imagery be included in a sexuality conference? Oh wait, are they trying to hide a discussion on erotic imagery in art? Is it really a panel on replacing naked babes in painting with the Virgin mother? I wouldn't be surprised. Once Christians get an itch in their pants, they're likely to do anything.
The conference will launch with training seminars for clergy and mental health care providers on how to pray the gay away by National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) therapists. It doesn’t matter that their methods have been discredited by just about every legitimate therapist and medical organization (including Christian groups), if it's anti-Gay it's the Courage way.
The sessions are only the lead up to the opening mass conducted by Chicago's Archbishop Cardinal Francis George. His scheduled appearance only fueled the fires of dissent with protesting groups, even though the church consistently swore it didn't constitute an official endorsement. Unfortunately, when one of the key figures in the church presides, an endorsement inevitably follows.
Nor can we ignore the fact that the church's ardent anti-abortion stance, at least in part, stems from the belief that women should not be allowed to have sex and get off scott free. Yes, every life is sacred, but if women engage in promiscuous sex they should at least be saddled with a child to remind them of their transgressions.
Somehow during the process by which the church managed to build an institutional structure, sex got a bad rap. A very bad rap. I read the Bible and I’m not sure that was ever supposed to happen, but happen it did, and it’s one of the indications of how our drive to institutionalize absolute ways of thinking took us on a detour with the real scripture in the rearview window.
Being raised Baptist Preacher's Kid (BPK), I was told from the beginning that sex would warp my mind and my relationships with women. Masturbation was the sin of Onan, and fornication, or sex out of marriage, was equated with homosexuality among the worst sins in Paul's accounting of sins in Romans. The only problem was, the more I read my own Bible the more I had doubts.
Onan didn't masturbate. He refused to father kids in his brother's place. There is no reference to masturbation in the Bible (or abortion for that matter). The early Old Testament saints were having sex out of wedlock all the time. They would even meet women on the road and sleep with them. And it wasn't that big a deal. And once I read the book of Romans I realized that as far as Paul was concerned, homosexuality and fornication were held to be as evil in God's eyes as gossip and jealousy. In short, all sin is pretty much the same.
So the prayer for the Courage Conference perhaps should read, “cleanse my mind, my memory, my imagination and my dreams of all erotic, malicious, jealous, spiteful, gossipy and even narcissistic content.”
As for fornication, or sex out of wedlock? After hearing a sermon on how words from the New Testament such as “baptism” were frequently mistranslated, I decided to look fornication up. It turns out no concordance I referenced would really tackle the word's etymology. It really seems to be a transliteration rather than a real translation. The real word is “pornea.” As best I could tell from reading, the early Christians were very concerned about a practice involving temple prostitutes.
It seems pilgrims visited temple prostitutes as part of pagan worship (and no doubt to enrich the temples, not to mention keep up membership). Now I ask you, which practice do you think would upset practicing Jews and early Christians more, sex out of wedlock or sex with foreign gods and goddesses? I've got to think fornication more likely referred to temple prostitution than kids fumbling around in the courtyard when their parents weren't looking. Especially since those two rascals would probably end up married in a month or two anyway.
Yes, the Bible acknowledges that we can be driven by lustful thoughts and impulses. But we can also be driven by greed, pride and hatred. Nor am I suggesting that Christians seek out meaningless sexual encounters with multiple partners, or drop into bed just because the body moves them. The question is whether or not the enjoyment of sex, or even eroticism itself bad.
Any good BPK knows where I'm going with this. The great white elephant of the Bible. The Song of Solomon. That poem puts DH Lawrence to shame and yet it has been twisted and lied about and interpreted in every possible way to brainwash us into thinking it's not about sex.
It's about sex. It relishes sex. It is the most erotic poem in the history of Western Civilization.
I know, I know. As a BPK I was told it's an allegory, it's symbolic of our love for Christ written hundreds of years before Jesus was born, it's about anything but sex. Unfortunately, we're Baptists. Every word of the Bible is literal. And that means it's good to think about breasts and kissing and exploring what's between a woman's legs and her exploring what's between mine. Literally.
Which brings us back to the Courage prayer: “cleanse my mind, my memory, my imagination and my dreams of all erotic content, and please take the Song of Songs out of the Bible because if I stumble across it in my daily devotions, I have to clean my mind all over again.”