21 January 2012

Damage and Desire

This is a link to and discussion of a three-part blogpost that a colleague posted on Facebook; I figured I'd toss them up here for those of us who aren't into the whole Social Networking Site scene, at least partly in the hopes that it might spark some conversation (or at least some reflection).

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

What these posts do, basically, is break down, in some (though limited) detail, the way that the church trains us to think about desire, pleasure, dating, and marriage.

The first post (same link as above) talks about what the author calls "a really poor, really shallow theology of desire" that gets taught in most churches. I immediately flashed back to I Kissed Dating Goodbye and C.S. Lewis; the author mentions Every Man's Battle, another book I was made to read when I was youngish.
The way that theology of (anti)desire got preached to me was this. Desire outside the context of marriage is dangerous, it’s unpredictable, uncontrollable, and wrong. It’s so dangerous that if you choose to entertain it in any way, shape, or form, it will seriously and permanently fuck you up for life. It’s so unpredictable and uncontrollable that you should have nothing to do with it whatsoever because you can’t predict what you can’t control and you can’t control what you can’t predict. And it’s so wrong that we’re going to immediately brandish you with white hot shame if we even suspect you’re dabbling in it in any way whatsoever… because that’s how much we love you.

In that first post, the author talks about that theology primarily in terms of its concrete effects: its ineffectiveness (something I, and most of my friends, can vouch for); its dysfunctional emotional results (likewise); and the misogyny that it too-often inspires (something else that I still struggle with).

The second post (again, a repeated link - just making sure y'all can find everything quickly and easily) gets a little bit more personal and talks about the ways that the ideas of "courtship" and marriage that are getting taught (or at least that were when he and I were in these places, and that still seem to be where he is) are very similar to what he calls "transactional theology" - the idea that there's a cause and effect relationship between behavior and reward.

One common place you hear this idea is when preachers talk about tithing. They’ll quote Malachi 3:10 where God seems to be saying, “test me on this – if you tithe, I will bless you.” See how that works? If you do this thing (tithe) then God will do this other thing (bless). It gets preached as a transaction and it’s supposed to be bulletproof, a sure thing, quid pro quo.

The way this idea got related to dating was this. IF you set aside your filthy, carnal urges; IF you worry less about finding the right person and worry more about being the right person; IF you spend diligent, consistent, considerable time in prayer and study of God’s word THEN (and only then) God will bring an amazing woman into your life. Just like that. Happily ever after.

This isn't a connection I'd thought about before, but it makes a hell of a lot (pun slightly intended) of sense - and it gets at some of the reasons that I wound up leaving the church. Not all of them, of course. Some of them I keep to myself, some of them I've talked about with my family and close friends, some of them are probably pretty obvious if you know me at all or read anything I write. But there's a point that the author makes in another one of his blogposts that echoes a constant thread in my own experiences:

See, for most of my Christian life, I attended churches that preached what you might call Transaction Theology. This is a view of God that says that X, Y, and Z will happen if you do A, B, and C for God. The most common expression of this theology can be seen in this popular Gospel presentation: “If you accept Christ into your heart, you’ll never feel alone again (or) your life will be filled with a sense of purpose and direction (or) God will set things right in your life.”

This kind of Transaction Theology was ubiquitous. It was drummed into me at church retreats, in church services, in Christian books, on Christian radio, all over the place. It always took the form of, if you do this certain thing for God then you can expect God to do this other thing in return.

And of course, I wanted to be blessed, I wanted to have God fill the void of loneliness, to give me peace and understanding, I wanted to see my cup overfilled with the oil of joy. And so I did the A, the B, and the C to the best of my understanding and ability and waited for the X, the Y, and the Z, but far more often than not, I’d be left waiting for the other shoe to drop. Waiting and waiting and waiting.

The failure of this "transactional theology" for me is something that I've written about before, more than once, and probably will again. I guess I kind of am right now.

The third post in the series begins with a history lesson, breaking down a few of the changes that have occurred in terms of cultural norms about marriage between the time when the Bible was being written and the time we're in now. It then moves to a discussion of the ways that many of the verses - Matthew 5:27-30, for example - that have been used to govern single people's desires were written for a largely married audience:

Read those verses while keeping in mind that they are speaking to an audience that got married in their teens (and almost all of them would be married) and you begin to see that they have nothing to do with the dating/courtship world we live in today. These are verses concerned with protecting the sanctity of marriage – keeping husbands and wives committed to one another in a covenant relationship – NOT with controlling the desires of single people.

Today, we might look at the ancient world and say, that it’s awful that they got married so young – we consider that statutory rape. But really, there’s a kind of genius to it. All those budding desires, all of those bodily changes and the curiosity and exploration that goes along with them? Because they got married young, all of those new feelings could be freely explored within their committed marriage relationship. And that’s the way it was meant to be.

This makes a lot of sense to me, even though I'd be one of those people saying it's awful.

After that lesson, the post moves into a discussion of desire and of pleasure that leads finally into a brief discussion of grace - a topic that has been missing from so much of what I (and, I believe, most other folks coming out of similar contexts) got drilled about growing up.

I might post more on this later, I'm not sure. For now, though, read those blogposts; they're a perspective that too many young Christian people - or, as in my case, young people who grew up Christian and then ran for the hills as soon as church attendance wasn't mandated - need to hear.


s.m. deWitt said...

I have a Google alert set for the phrase "theology of desire" because I've been writing about the concept for some years. Thanks for your blog post! I think it is a critical issue for all humanity to examine.

The key piece for me is that our God views each of us in a marital context. His love for us is a desire to be one flesh. He built us to desire the same. Our hearts, souls, and bodies yearn for union, and we seek it in all sorts of ways, both good and bad. But the desire itself is a wonderful gift, and a participation in Him who simultaneously desires.

Check out my blog:

Theology of Desire

sprawwling said...

Glad you came by, Suzanne! Hope you found the post and the links helpful.