Monday, January 30, 2012

Fifty-Three-Year-Old Sex

Parishioners make the most fascinating choices when giving me books for gifts. This Christmas I received Sex and Love in the Bible by William Graham Cole (1959), then Professor of Religion at Williams College.

The erudition, depth, and eloquence of this book are as close to flawless as one could hope. It will inspire thought in anyone who reads it, and I daresay ought to be read by anyone who wants seriously to discover how biblical faith interacts with sexuality. The book is also now fifty-three years old. Though its theological insights are timeless, the issues with which it struggles--or perhaps better, the ways in which it struggles--are now historical.

The occasion for the book was the publication of the Kinsey Reports (1948 and 1953), which seem to be the first sociological research in the United States that asked about all expressions of sexual activity in our culture. It broke taboos by asking about masturbation, homosexuality, and age of first coitus. It set moralism largely aside and sought the facts of folks' behaviors. Starting with a recognition that the Kinsey Reports revealed something important about American society, Cole made it his task to offer a biblical response to the Reports. His conclusions many of us have come to accept as par for the course; his assumptions about the bible reveal his location in time and are still tensions within much of the Church. Here are the major conclusions I found.

Sex is good. Cole calls this a "concession" to the Kinsey Reports, but based on solid scriptural support. He believes the Church of the Victorian Age needed to be corrected from its prudery.
Parents must educate their children about the goodness of sex. Rather than hide behind obscure references to "birds and bees," children will grow up healthier if they understand sex and its role as soon as they can.
For Christians, all things are lawful, but not all things are wholesome. Cole falls solidly on the side of liberty rather than moralism: decisions about what is right and wrong in sexual relationships ought to be made based on the inner motivations rather than strict moral categories. This is still a tension within the Church--regarding sex and so many other things.
Sex cannot be disconnected from relationship. Cole rails against the Kinsey description of sexual encounters as simple "contacts." Every time sexual activity happens, whole persons are involved (whether they want to be or not). He establishes a firm biblical grounding for this view.
The bible is not an inerrant set of rules, but a vehicle by which the Holy Spirit speaks. With clear self-awareness, Cole places himself over against the Fundamentalist movement of the early twentieth century and firmly in the camp of historical-critical scholars who, at the time, were considered "liberal" by most of the Church. This divide, now tessellated by several additional factors, still exists in the Church.
Psychology is the profession which best deals with sexual abnormalities like homosexuality. Cole reveals a strong bias to the then-still-established cultural standard of heterosexuality as normalcy. There is no hint in Cole's writing of the possibility that homosexuality can be a natural state for human beings. He also betrays a great optimism--in my view, characteristic of his time--that with enough education and therapy every human being can be on the road to a normal, enjoyable sex life. Learning and psychotherapy are the keys to redemption of the aberrant; the roles of the Spirit, the Church, and the pastor are simply to ensure that folks get the right education and find the right therapist. Though education and psychotherapy are good--along with all "things" which Cole asserts are good in themselves--such optimism sounds hollow a half-century later.

Again, anyone interested in solid exegesis of the bible with respect to love and sex will be enriched by this book. And perhaps readers from the twenty-first century will see their own biases more clearly because of the distance we now experience from those of Kinsey and Cole.

Thanks, Steve, for passing this one along.

~ emrys

A Reason to Yell

A couple of weeks ago Sara, Gwendolyn, and I were driving along I-88 towards our little village. We had been out running errands in town. Gwendolyn sat in the back and Sara and I in the front seats. About a mile from our exit Gwendolyn asked if we were going home. Sara informed her that we had to stop at the library first, then we'd be going home.

Gwendolyn shouted, "We're going home! We're going home!"

She did this seven or eight times, her head thrown back to get full volume. "We're going home! We're going home!"

At the bottom of the exit ramp I turned left. Sara interrupted Gwendolyn's yell-fest and asked her, "Gwendolyn, if we were going home, which way would we have turned?"

Gwendolyn looked out the windows and took notice of which direction we were going. Then she threw her head back and yelled:

"We're not going home!"

Sometimes form is more important than content.

~ emrys

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Friday, January 13, 2012

On the Line

Two weeks ago I perused the shelves of a used book store looking for a birthday gift for my brother. In the course of my searching, my eyes lit upon a copy of Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea (1952). I flashed back to a dinner out on the occasion of my wedding, at which my dad rehearsed a long piece from a literary work which included--as I remembered it--an old fisherman dying in his boat. Caught up by the memory, I purchased Hemingway's short story then and there.

The "About the Author" paragraph at the end of the book declares Hemingway to be "one of the most important influences on the development of the short story and the novel in American fiction" (Scribner Paperback Fiction edition). Having failed to read any Hemingway before this book, I cannot tell you why his work is described this way. I can tell you that after the first three pages I had to read it to the end.

The Old Man and the Sea breaks all the rules of writing. It has commas galore in the wrong places. Many sentences run on while others are only fragments. It does not honor the traditions of marking by punctuation what text is narration and what is the personal thought of a character. And the whole book reads like a staccato viola piece, temptuously and tortuously choppy. Like the waves of a windy sea. Perhaps this union of form and function help to make it the masterpiece that it is.

Two characters, an old man and a boy, have active roles in the story, and in ninety-four out of the book's one hundred twenty-seven pages we only read about the old man. Yet the old man's determination, his depth of experience, and his sympathy for the sea held my attention better than the kaleidoscope of characters in, say, The Brothers Karamozov. Perhaps the most masterful work within the narrative is the blurring of the line between human and oceanic, sea and sky, heaven and world, which comes to be embodied in the old man as he enters the deadly struggle with the biggest fish ever caught. Hemingway narration keeps us on the line, wondering equally whether fisher or fished will win and whether we will find ourselves in the man or the sea.

Like the artist who suggests meaning by depicting voids, The Old Man and the Sea never offers concrete statements of theme, purpose, or moral. And in this case the story is more powerful for the darkened void, like the attractive mystery of a sea unfathomed. One could find almost any enduring theme within the narrative, if one but reads the story another time. (And I have done so, twice now.)

The "About the Author" text mentions that Hemingway, recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature, killed himself in 1961. Knowing nothing about his life outside this book's one-page synopsis, I find there a great mystery. Though I agree with the rear cover which lauds The Old Man and the Sea as heralding "the classic theme of courage in the face of defeat, of personal triumph won from loss," I hear in the story a sad twist at the end which betrays both courage and triumph. Like so much of the book, the twist is not clear and sharp but deep and murky. Yet it ends the great minuet of The Old Man and the Sea on a chord that does not resolve, which, I suspect, also characterizes the lives of those who end their own.

I am left to wonder, both of the old man and of Hemingway himself: can one conquer the sea, or only weather its storms?

After my first read of the short story, I realized that the piece my dad recited was not Hemingway at all, but Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. When I bought this book, I was trolling in the wrong waters. But to my joy, I have caught a big fish after all.

Thanks to Annie's Book Stop in Manchester, New Hampshire for putting some classics right up front.

~ emrys

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Savoring the Spirit

I love black preaching. White preaching (classical preaching, Presbyterian preaching), of which tradition I am a part, relies upon uniform control of concepts and words as the primary vehicle of the Spirit. Most of the time, calmness and crisp diction are the hallmarks of good sermon delivery. The goal is to blossom a flower for the contemplation of the congregation's mind.

Not so black preaching. My observation of black preaching is that it seeks to drive truth into the congregational bones. And the primary vehicle of the Spirit is the response of those bones. Do those bones stand up in response to the preaching? Do those mouths open to praise the Lord? Does the congregation respond to the call of the Word? Does real, embodied life show up when the Word is unleashed?

These three days I am steeping in the blessing of twenty-six sermons delivered by young preachers. I'm staying at a hotel in Louisville, Kentucky and attending the Festival of Young Preachers. One hundred twenty-five young preachers (between the ages of 15 and 29) preach in five different rooms over the course of eleven sessions. Though all preachers are starting with Jesus' "sermon on the mount" (Matthew 5-7), every sermon is unique because every preacher is unique. I have been laughing with young Orthodox preachers. I have thrilled at teenage young women announcing the gospel in the context of Advanced Placement exams. I have wept as I responded "Amen!" to young black preachers. I've been basking in the glory of the Spirit moving in strange, loud, soft, and wonderful ways among the next generation of preachers.

I have the joy and responsibility of bringing the Word to a congregation most Sundays of every year. I rarely get to sit back and soak in someone else's delivery. And even when I do, it's most often within the cool intellectual climate of Presbyterian worship. Hearing such a variety of interpretations of scripture both from folks who craft elegant turns of phrase, and also from folks who repeat a three-word litany to make a drum-beating summons, is a treat for my soul.

What a cool opportunity, too, to bring a young man from our congregation to be part of this homiletic extravaganza. I have high hopes that he will go home remembering how rich, varied, and eccentric are the ways in which the Spirit words in the work of the Word.

If you're involved in the work of preaching to the world; if you're interested in the elevation of young preachers for the next generation of the Church; if you're young and want to preach; or if you would just jump at the chance to bask in the joy of hearing young energy in the pulpit, you must check out the opportunities at the Academy of Preachers. The Lord is doing some cool stuff here.

~ emrys

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Carbon Sasquatch

After a conference in Louisville, Kentucky next week, I'll be flying from there to Manchester, New Hampshire. Via Orlando, Florida.

Thank you, Southwest Airlines, for filling my annual carbon footprint for 2012 before Epiphany.

~ emrys