Tag Archives: Marriage

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 1

Read 1 Samuel 1
The story of 1 Samuel opens with the story of Samuel’s birth and family, and especially of Hannah who is introduced as one of two wives of Elkanah, a devout and rather wealthy man from Ephraim. That Elkanah has two wives is unexceptional in the text and suggests that the practice of polygamy was not uncommon in ancient Israel, though it was probably only practiced by those sufficiently wealthy to support two wives.

But all is not happy in Elkanah’s household—a regular note in biblical portrayals of polygamist households (cf. Abraham and Sarah, Rachel and Leah), and echoed to some extent in the recent HBO series Big Love. While polygamy may not have been uncommon, it seems the biblical portrayals of the practice present it in a manner that indicates it is less than what God intended. Hannah is first mentioned of the wives which suggests she may have been the first of Elkanah’s wives. But Hannah is also childless. Peninnah, the second wife, has multiple children, both sons and daughters, and provokes and torments Hannah on this basis. Neither woman is enviable; both have reason to be unhappy: Hannah on account of her childlessness, and Peninnah on account of Elkanah’s apparent preference for Hannah. Hannah’s heartache in the story is palpable, Elkanah’s love notwithstanding. Indeed, female commentators on the book note Elkanah’s patronising attitude toward Hannah, and his seeming blindness to her distress.

1 Samuel 1:8
And Elkanah, her husband, said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”

Elkanah is viewing Hannah’s distress through only his own eyes, aware only of his own situation and desires. Sons were evidently more important to him than he is willing to admit, for if Hannah were in fact his first wife, the lack of sons led him to marry Peninnah. The daily presence of her rival was testimony to Hannah that in fact, she was not loved simply in and as herself, but also—or worse, simply—on account of her function as child bearer. In tribal and clan-based societies, a woman’s fertility is her primary gift, for children, and especially sons, are the future of the family and of the society generally. For Hannah, her childlessness is not simply a tragic personal disappointment, but a marital and social failure.

Verse five provides the reason for Hannah’s failure to conceive: “the Lord had closed her womb.” It is likely that this is more than a pious accounting for the situation, a referring of all outcomes to the hand of God. Rather, in an agrarian environment where even the people of God participated in the worship of fertility deities, the text immediately regards Yahweh as lord over all matters of fertility. It is Yahweh who has closed her womb; it is only Yahweh who can open it (Francesca Aran Murphy, 1 Samuel BTCB, 8). Thus in her desperation and grief, Hannah pours out her heart to God, and makes a deal with him: if God will grant her a son, she will devote him to the Lord for the whole of his life.

The chapter also introduces Eli and his two sons as priests at Shiloh which had become the centre of Israel’s worship. Although in this chapter we learn nothing of Hophni and Phineas, Eli reproves Hannah and is critical of her. It is easier to criticise an unknown woman than to reprove his own sons—as we shall learn in chapter two. He, too, is insensitive of her heartache and the depth of her anguish. Hannah, it seems, is utterly alone in her grief, with only Yahweh as her hope and comfort.

Hannah’s prayer was desperate, focussed and prolonged. She came to God in her misery, praying at the place of prayer, and despite initial misunderstanding during which she defended herself against accusation, received a blessing from the high priest. Old-time Pentecostals used to speak of “praying through.” Hannah “prayed through” to peace and to blessing. Her prayer was a cry for recognition, offered in the context of worship and sacrifice—“and the Lord remembered her” (v. 19). Just as God “remembered” Noah stranded in his ark (Gen 8:1), and his people when they cried out to him in the bondage of slavery (Ex. 2:24), so now he has remembered Hannah and opened her womb to conceive a son—one who would become leader and judge of God’s people.

Sex Before Marriage

The other day I came across an intensely personal and yet ambivalent reflection on the realities of sex before, and in, marriage. Katherine Willis Pershey recalls her own experience in an evangelical subculture, as well as her inability to fulfil its strictures:

Although I once was the proud wearer of a purity ring—a silver band acquired in junior high school that advertised my intention to remain a virgin until my wedding night—at some point along the way, I misplaced the ring and, some years later, the virginity (“Fully Naked, Fully Known” in Christian Century, September 28, 2016, 22-25).

Pershey remains critical of such Christian attempts to control and shame adolescent sexuality, is grateful that couples living together are no longer the objects of abuse and shame as they once were, acknowledges the true beauty of love and commitment that can exist in the lives of many de facto couples, and wonders how she could possibly exhort her own children to abstain when she herself did not.

“And yet,” she says. Despite her misgivings, and almost in spite of herself and her deeply held convictions, Pershey finds herself drawn to accounts of marriage by conservatives such as Timothy Keller. Her experiences seem to have led her to a position she can hardly imagine holding: “I suspect I might actually believe that sex is for married people. … The contrast between unmarried and married sex is significant. The covenant of marriage—the vows to love now and forever—changes everything. It just does.”

Pershey provides some indication of how that might actually happen through the account of her own experiences both before marriage, and as a beloved wife. The final words of her article address the question of how, as a minister and a mother, she could possibly encourage others to consider saving certain intimacies for the wedding night without descending into the destructive shaming that so harmed her own life.

So perhaps I hold up my pain: all that fooling around before marriage ever did was give me a world of hurt. But I can’t hold up my pain without also lifting high my joy: all that fooling around within marriage ever did was give me a world of healing.

*****

This article is available online at Christian Century (pay wall), or here.

ANZATS 2017 – Lynn Cohick

The second international guest at this year’s ANZATS Conference was Lynn Cohick from Wheaton College in Illinois. Like Stephen Barton, Cohick is a New Testament scholar, but who is also very conversant with the life and circumstances of early Christianity in the first centuries of its history.

Cohick’s first lecture was entitled “What’s Love Got to Do with It? Marriage in First-Century Families.” Her second lecture addressed “Inheritance and Worthiness: What Children in First Century Families Reveal about the Message of the Gospel.” Both lectures used early Christian and ancient secular sources in addition to the New Testament to provide a vivid account of the life and times of families and children in the world of the New Testament, in both its Jewish and Hellenistic contexts.

Marriage in the first-century Greco-Roman world was highly regulated in terms of social class and custom. Polygamy was forbidden, concubinage allowed, and prostitution and other forms of sexual allowance for men was accepted as normal. Slaves, both male and female, could be used routinely for sex, though only a woman could be a concubine. A concubine had a status somewhere between a wife and a slave. Most marriages were contracted with the hope of love, or at least harmony, and some evidently attained it. But remarriage was common on account of both the death of one’s spouse, or divorce.

The forms of marriage, and power within marriage, were very patriarchal. A good wife was one who maintained a good reputation, bringing honour to the family name, undertook the duties of motherhood, was submissive to her husband’s authority, and modest, chaste and industrious in character. Cohick argues that Paul’s instructions to married couples in the New Testament were audacious and counter-cultural, introducing a strong note of mutuality and equality into the marital relations, challenging the male privilege of the Roman world, including the “natural social right” of the husband to use prostitutes. His vision of love demands self-sacrifice and honour of the other, making demands, especially on the husband.

With respect to children, Cohick acknowledges the difficulty of obtaining and interpreting sound data on the status and life-experiences of children in the ancient world. In fact, the concept of child does not really have an ancient analogue. Childhood was not sentimentalised in the ancient world where child mortality could run as high as 35% in the first year of life, and up to 50% by age ten. Life was harsh and work was rough, existence was brutal, even—especially?—for children.

Perhaps the enduring image Cohick’s lecture left for me was of the instrumentalising of children. Children were for work, for family support and honour, for sex. Children were like unformed clay, and needed education and a strong hand to cause them to grow and mature.  Cohick spent a good deal of time distinguishing between free and slave children, and between Roman and non-Roman children, and how these distinctions played out in society.

The image of children in the New Testament challenges the instrumentalising of children, and the central role of the Roman family in society. They were to be nurtured and educated in the “new family” which was the church, with a primary allegiance not to their earthly paterfamilias, but to God. Cohick used the story of Perpetua and Felicitas to great effect here. So, too, the adults in the church were to serve as surrogate mothers and fathers for all the children in the church, whether slave or free, Roman or otherwise.

Cohick’s lectures provided a “thick” descriptive account of family in the first century world. It was like seeing a full-colour picture after having only seen black-and-white and blurred images previously. It was easy to visualise the impact of the gospel message of hope, in a world of such high mortality. It was challenging to see the commitment the early Christians had to a devotional and moral existence that challenged the life and culture around them in fundamental ways.

ANZATS 2017 – Stephen Barton

This week I have been at the 2017 ANZATS Conference in Adelaide. The theme this year has been “Kinship & Family in Contemporary Australia and New Zealand.” The two international guests have given excellent plenary addresses, and the elective sessions that I have attended have been good. Of course, one of the best things about Conferences is catching up with peers from around the country—and from New Zealand, and meeting new friends.

Stephen Barton from Durham, UK has given two addresses on the topic of marriage, the first providing a biblical perspective and the second, an historical perspective from the Christian tradition. Both accounts were descriptive rather than prescriptive, and portrayed the complexity and plurality of images and approaches in both the Bible and the Christian tradition. Several things stood out to me:

  1. Barton rejects a “sola scriptura” approach to the question of a Christian ethic of marriage and family. Several statements in the lecture make his position clear: “‘The Bible says’ is no way to establish a ‘biblical’ understanding of ‘family.’” He prefers a more “Anglican” approach—Lex orandi, lex credendi (which translates roughly as “the law of praying [is] the law of believing” and means that prayer and worship lead to belief and theology)—“the Bible released from rationalism opens a depth of biblical resources for prayer and moral reflection.” And again, “sola scriptura is too narrow a foundation for a full doctrine or ethic of marriage and family.” Barton views marriage as a complex, many-layered phenomenon with natural, spiritual, legal, social, cultural, and sacramental aspects. He eschews reductionist approaches which would reduce marriage to just one thing. Thus while scripture is an indispensable source for a Christian ethic of marriage and family, other sources of moral reflection must also be consulted, including an understanding of natural law, the history of development of concepts and practices of marriage, cultural forms and traditions, philosophical reflection on the “goods” of marriage, etc.
  2. Barton views marriage primarily through an eschatological lens: a wise reading of Scripture adopts a prophetic-eschatological perspective that disrupts cultural values in the light of the coming kingdom. I found this intriguing, especially since biblically, it appears grounded more in creational frame of reference. Nevertheless, his treatment of the biblical vision was very insightful and challenging.
  3. His recounting of the development of marriage in historical and ecclesial perspective was incredibly interesting and illuminating. The lecture was peppered with such gems as “the [medieval] Roman Catholics understood marriage a natural origin, a legal form, and a spiritual significance.” Or, the Roman Catholic understanding of marriage as a sacrament was transformed in Protestantism: Luther viewed it as a “social estate,” Calvin in terms of a “covenant,” and Anglicanism as a “little commonwealth.” Barton’s discussion of each of these was rich in detail and insight.

In the end, says Barton, marriage is indeed a complex institution, essential for personal flourishing and familial and societal well-being. He understands it especially in terms of a practise of life-long openness to the other, in a context of deepening hospitality and self-giving.

Meilaender on Marriage & Children

In his primer to bioethics (Bioethics: A Primer for Christians), Gilbert Meilaender argues that children are a gift from God, the fruit of a loving union, and so their existence is a result of procreation – of the love that precedes their begetting. He is wary of technologies that facilitate reproduction not least because practitioners may tend to think of children in terms of a product or a commodity, something to be produced like an item in a factory. Dangers here abound. Parents can tend to think of their children in terms of ownership (our child) rather than in terms of a task and a responsibility that has been given. Increasingly, technology can offer the possibility of designer babies, screening for defects, gender selection, and other options. As such, a child is produced, and the child’s worth may be considered as something achieved rather than in terms of inherent and inalienable right.

Meilaender is clearly very ambivalent about Christian use of assisted reproductive technologies, and comes close to saying that Christians should not utilise these means. He draws a firm boundary against the use of third parties in reproduction. Pastorally, he calls the couple experiencing difficulty in bearing children to walk a tough path; it presupposes they have a very strong commitment to trust in God and walk out God’s purpose for their lives possibly without children, to suffer this sadness, and perhaps, to do so in the midst of a supportive community of fellow-travellers.

Meilaender’s discussion of the natural biological bond between parents and children portrays an ideal, but is nonetheless a beautiful picture. He suggests the moral significance of the biological bond can be understood in three ways:

  1. As embodied creatures we need to know ourselves as those who occupy a fixed place in the generations. “Lines of kinship and descent locate and identify us, and, unless we learn to accept such a limit on our freedom, we remain alienated from our shared human nature” (13).

To learn to affirm and give thanks for our place in lines of kinship and descent is to begin to learn how to give thanks for the mysterious gift of life. We learn to accept and rejoice in our limits, our creatureliness, and we learn gradually to relinquish the secret longing to be more than that.

  1. Meilaender describes the act of human love in terms of passion and ecstasy, a “going out” from oneself, an act of mutual self-giving and self-spending that issues in the creation of another like us and of us, equal to us in dignity.
  2. Thus the couple’s love-making has become life-giving. “The act of love that overcame their separation and united them in “one flesh,” that directed them out of themselves and toward each other, creates in the child a still larger community—a sign once again that such self-giving love is by God’s blessing creative and fruitful.

That Meilaender argues along these lines suggests that he takes a teleological approach to marriage in which marriage includes procreation as one of its fundamental goods.

Meanderings

CrucibleThe November issue of The Crucible has now been released, with articles on New Testament hermeneutics and growing in the midst of suffering, as well as some Australian ministry resources and book reviews.

Ed Stetzer gives his opinion on some PhD dissertations that are needed today. I do like his final paragraph: “It’s worth remembering that Ph.D. work on a specific denomination is not as helpful as research projects on likeminded people across denominations. Be an expert at something where you can make a difference for the kingdom.”

Peter Scazzero, author of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, has written a blog post entitled, “Leading out of your marriage“. Evangelicals are sometimes accused of making an idol of marriage and family. I am not convinced by those accusations, though I do sometimes think that evangelicals’ emphasis marriage and family is more culturally than theologically grounded. Scazzero’s table suggests he may have a more sacramental understanding of what marriage is. “But I speak of Christ and the Church…” (Ephesians 5).

Marriage chart1

Bruce Springsteen is coming to town in January and I have a ticket! He has been in the press a great deal just lately because of his support for Hilary Clinton, and more likely, on account of the release of his autobiography. I don’t know a lot about the man, but do enjoy his music! Favourite song? Hard to say. Born to Run is a classic. Everbody’s Got a Hungry Heart is true! American Skin is haunting, as is Streets of Philadelphia. I first heard Prove it All Night and Blinded by the Light as cover versions by other artists (Patty Smith and Manfred Mann) and loved the songs not knowing they were Springsteen written. After 2001 I enjoyed Mary’s Place from The Rising. But the song that always strikes a chord is The River. Hope he plays it.

More Hugh Mackay

Hugh MackayOn Tuesday I gave a brief review of Hugh Mackay’s Infidelity. Here are a few more insights from the book, asides from Mackay the psychologist, which sparked an interest as I read. The first comes as Tom is discussing Sarah’s past with her mother, Elizabeth, and has relevance for the kinds of spirituality we nurture in the church, and especially in our youth and young adults groups. Elizabeth says of Sarah:

She went wild over religion, too. There was more than a bit of overlap, in fact. I think a lot of adolescents confuse spirituality and sexuality – don’t you, Tom? Or is it just that churchgoing covers all that steaminess in a cloak of respectability? (276)

The second finds Tom reflecting on the nature of intimate relationships, salient as a warning for all couples, and more broadly, for any kind of relationship:

I had heard plenty of clients describe the frightening lunge from ‘I love you’ to ‘I hate you.’ It had always struck me as being a bit like a passion hangover – when the stimulants were withdrawn, their toxic effects took over. The swing from devotion to indifference was more common, though, and more familiar to me. When the love switch is turned to ‘off,’ for any one of a thousand reasons, or none, the current simply stops flowing. You don’t have to hate someone to destroy a relationship – you just have to lose interest. (298)

The final thought comes from the final chapter of the book, and here Mackay’s agnosticism comes to the fore:

The hardest thing, finally, is to accept our insignificance in the scheme of things – or perhaps to accept that there is no ‘scheme of things.’ There are no inevitabilities. No embedded meanings, either – only those we choose to attach to what happens. And often, when we most ardently desire them, no answers.  Life surges on, mostly out of control, rarely giving us respite… (310)

There is both wisdom and pathos in this statement. In the end, though, it seems that life, for Mackay, has only the meaning we ascribe to it. That we do ascribe meaning to life is part of what it means to be human. That we ascribe meaning to life, though natural, is also somewhat arbitrary and threatens to undermine the kind of ethics that Mackay wants to commend. This approach inevitably leads us back to ourselves as the moral centre in a manner reminiscent of the biblical book of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25) – and the results were less than ideal. Stanley Grenz recognises this problem and argues that “justification of moral claims requires a foundational principle that in the end is religious” (The Moral Quest: Foundations of Christian Ethics, 58).

The message of the gospel is not that there are no inevitabilities, or that every question will be answered, or that life can be fully controlled. In these respects, Mackay is quite correct. Yet the gospel assures each person that their lives, choices and deeds can and do have enduring significance. Further, it testifies to a transcendent meaning embedded in the orders of creation and redemption that tells the truth of our existence and so provides an orientation to the good life. The moral life is not simply the assertion of power in this direction or that, but response to a transcendent reality which in the Christian tradition is understood in terms of the triune God of infinite goodness, holiness and love.

Tales of Infidelity (2): Paul Coelho

Paul Coelho, Adultery (Melbourne: Hamish Hamilton, 2014)
ISBN: 978-1-926428-64-2

adultery CoelhoI did not know anything about Paul Coelho when I bought this book, other than that he was the celebrated author of The Alchemist, which I had also just bought but not yet read. In place of dedication and acknowledgements there is a prayer (“O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for those who turn to you. Amen”) and a verse from the Bible (Luke 5:4: “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch”). Despite the religious overtones of such a beginning, the book doesn’t preach. Indeed, those of a religious persuasion might find both the title and the major drama of the book off-putting. No doubt the seventh commandment lurks in the background unseen and unheard but nevertheless there. Or is it?

The story concerns Linda, a Swiss woman upon whom fortune has smiled. She has it all: looks, a loving husband, well-behaved children, a satisfying job, wealth, possessions and comfort. Yet she is unhappy and deeply discontent. Her inner turmoil leads to a fling with an old high-school flame, which subsequently escalates into an obsession. The main action of the book traces Linda’s mental world as she engages with the affair, wrestles with her conscience, and struggles to understand her own mind, feelings and actions, and those of others around her. In the end she does have an epiphany of sorts, and manages to find equilibrium once more.

The book reads easily, told from Linda’s point of view. Just how effective Coelho is at portraying the mind of a woman I will have to leave to female readers. For me, a male, it was a believable read. I did, however, find Linda’s husband to be less than believable, and under-developed. This weakness allows an ending that for me seemed unreal, unlikely. At several points Coelho dwells on the differences between male and female via his major character, as here, where he reflects on an old double standard:

Men cheat because it’s in their genetic code. A woman does it because she doesn’t have enough dignity; in addition to handing over her body, she always ends up handing over a bit of heart. A true crime. A theft. It’s worse than robbing a bank, because if one day she is discovered (and she always is), she will cause irreparable damage to her family. For men it is just a “stupid mistake.” For women, it feels like a spiritual crime against all those who surround her with affection and support her as a mother and wife (187).

Coelho’s use of Luke 5 is ambiguous. Linda has launched out into the deep and let down her nets for a catch. In the biblical story the unlikely result is a miraculous catch of fish, and the occasion for revelation and repentance. In this story, there is revelation but little sense of repentance, despite the opening prayer. The seventh commandment has been violated but bypassed; Linda emerges if not unscathed, unburnt. Yet it is also clear that the adultery is not without cost:

I feel disgusted. I waited so long to act like a tigress and ended up being used like a mare. But that’s life; reality never comes close to our teenage romantic fantasies (184). 

In the end the reader will have to decide whether or not adultery is worth it. This book suggests that one might just get away with it, and with a better grasp on life for having indulged. The Bible which Coelho cites would warn us to take a different path. “Who can take fire to his breast and not be burned?” (Proverbs 6:27).

Tales of Infidelity (1): Hugh Mackay

Hugh Mackay, Infidelity: A Novel 
(Sydney: Pan MacMillan Australia, 2013) 
ISBN: 978-1-74261-248-5

Infidelity, MackayHugh Mackay is a well-known Australian social commentator and author of both non-fiction and fiction works. Several of Mackay’s non-fiction works—Right and Wrong and The Good Life—demonstrate his interest in moral questions, an interest also finding expression in his opinion pieces in Australian newspapers. His most recent novel Infidelity develops this interest. A brief statement at the close of the book says,

I first encountered the central moral dilemma faced by Sarah and Tom in an article published in The Psychologist, the monthly magazine of The British Psychological Society. It was presented as part of a series of complex moral questions that might be raised by clients receiving psychotherapy. When I read it, I could imagine how that dilemma, somewhat nuanced, could form the ‘hinge’ of a plot for a novel.

The story is told from Tom’s perspective. Tom is a forty-three Australian psychologist ‘exiled’ temporarily in London who falls deeply in love with Sarah. The attachment very quickly turns into an affair and before long he has moved in. But things are complicated: Sarah is still married to someone else in what is portrayed as a loveless but nevertheless mutually convenient relationship.

As the book unfolds and the affair deepens, various kinds and levels of infidelity are noticed as Mackay weaves a range of moral questions, scenarios and dilemmas into the narrative. These are such a subtle  part of the story that it is only upon subsequent reflection that I became conscious of the extent of everyday moral issues that Mackay has canvassed. The core matter though concerns what the object of fidelity truly is. Early on Sarah, a popular university lecturer, notes that “once you’ve stopped being true to yourself, other infidelities come more easily” (44). Later, in a reflection on his own loss of religious faith, Tom ponders:

Unfaithfulness. Was that, I wondered, one of the infidelities that could lead on to others? Was that what Sarah had meant when she said being corrupted by Perry’s wealth made other infidelities easier? Was one kind of faithfulness a bastion against other lapses?

Sitting in that magnificent setting, surrounded by all the panoply of religious practice, I wasn’t sure. Not sure at all. I could be true to myself, I thought, and faithful to a partner, without needing religious faith to shore me up. Yet I saw how the reverse process might work: one kind of infidelity could make others easier. If a man betrayed his wife, or his friends, or his colleagues – or even his country – perhaps that would lower the moral barrier to other betrayals. But I couldn’t see why steadfast religious belief should be the core fidelity. Wasn’t the core fidelity being true to yourself, to your own scruples? And wouldn’t other fidelities be more likely to flow from that one than from any others? That was an idea that had been with us for thousands of years. Shakespeare, as usual, put it best: this above all – to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man. (178-179, original emphasis)

Although Mackay portrays religious faith in quite positive terms, this is as close as he comes to preaching. In an interview/review in the Sydney Morning Herald, he described himself as a Christian agnostic, by which he means to convey the idea that he is broadly in sympathy with the Christian position on many issues, having been steeped in Christian culture and tradition. “But I am not currently the kind of believer I once was,” he says. “More pilgrim than committed. Neither atheist nor theist. Full of doubt, as I suspect many Christian believers also are. Very wary of the fundamentalist, having been one in my youth.”

In his interview Mackay indicates that he is arguing with Shakespeare that “fidelity is about being true to yourself and your own convictions.” Certainly Sarah’s initial observation, together with Tom’s reflection, suggests that the primary fidelity involves being true to oneself.

Yet does the story subvert this observation and undermine Shakespeare’s wisdom? Perhaps Sarah’s initial compromise with respect to her husband was an initial infidelity. Arguably, however, the infidelities of her life are the symptoms of a deeper fidelity to self-above-all. Sarah’s infidelities arise precisely because she is so committed to herself and what she perceives to be in her own best interests. If the theological dictum homo incurvatus in se has credence, this (inherent) self-fidelity will be overcome only by a more fundamental fidelity to that which is not our self, to that which is external to ourselves in such a way that the self becomes decentred—though not lost. That there are secular ways of framing this external reality is undoubted; nonetheless, the very act of establishing such an external reference is inherently religious, whether that external reference is God or an abstract value such as justice, or dare I say it, the “golden rule.” Thus, the question persists, perhaps even in spite of Mackay’s intent. Might religious faith be that core of fidelity which supports and enables other kinds of fidelity?

Mackay is doing here in fiction what he does more straight-forwardly in The Good Life. That is, he argues that true satisfaction is found not in serving one’s own (selfish) interests, but in our capacity for selflessness, for relationship, for hospitality toward others. He has written a credible and thoughtful story in a very readable form. I recommend it.

Beth Felker Jones – Faithful: A Theology of Sex (Review, Pt. 2)

Faithful (Felker Jones)(Continued from yesterday…)

One of the great strengths of this little book is its insistence on the integrity and goodness of the single life, a theme which comes to the fore in the fifth chapter. The Christian sexual ethic has always proclaimed two ways of bearing radical public witness to the faithfulness of God: celibate singleness, and exclusive, permanent marriage. Both ways, argues Felker Jones, function as a sign of the kingdom, a repudiation of commodified relationships, sexual slavery and selfishness, and cultural mores that enslave and demean.

Early Christianity was bold enough to imagine that all of us have—in Christ—the freedom to bear witness to who God is. The Christian understanding of sex was dramatic in the ways that it ran against Roman sexual morality. Roman women were not free to not marry. Christian women could choose—even insist on—celibacy. For Christians, women aren’t property or baby makers. We’re witnesses to the life of Jesus Christ in our bodies. Including in the ways we choose to have and not have sex. For Christians, men aren’t lust machines or power mongers. They’re witnesses to the life of Jesus Christ in their bodies, including in the ways they choose to have and not have sex. … In Rome, you were either a slave or you were free. In the kingdom of God, we’re all free. As a witness to this, we value singleness and marriage as two routes, two ways of life, in which the Christian may be truly sexual and truly free. (71-72)

Chapter six addresses consent, an issue fraught with difficulty in the present, and almost impossible, especially for the vulnerable, in an unrestrained, anything-goes culture. Yet, if sex is to be freely given and received, consent is essential. Felker Jones suggests that consent is at the heart of a biblical-Christian sexual ethic, and is in fact, one of the most Christian things about the ways in which Christians have—and don’t have—sex (78). True consent must be freely given and mutual, and for Christians this happens in the marriage ceremony in a very public way: “See this man? (or, see this woman?)—I’m having sex with him tonight” (79).

Although deeply committed to values traditional evangelical Christians will affirm, Felker Jones takes aim in her seventh chapter at a prominent movement in recent evangelicalism: the so-called “purity” movement. Since sex belongs in a context of grace and freedom, bodies must never be made commodities, and marriage and sex must never be made a reward for effort; thus “purity” must never be reduced to a pelagian work of self-effort toward holiness. The economy of grace and the market economy are antithetical (91).

If sex is in any way a sign of God’s grace, it can never be commodified. It can never be wrenched out of the framework of free, mutual, consensual relationship and placed on the market floor. If sex is thus free, then sexual holiness cannot—cannot, cannot—mean having a “valuable” kind of body or preserving that “value” against loss of value. But we’ve failed to be clear about that. Instead, we’ve bought into a mistaken set of ideas about what purity looks like. (83)

The purity paradigm turns physical virginity into a possession. This tendency heightens the sense that purity matters most for females and heightens the unbiblical idea that virginity and purity don’t apply to men. The purity paradigm makes virginity into a thing that one needs to cling to in order to retain value. It tells the graceless lie that we are more valuable spouses for someone if we have this thing. It tells the demonic lie that our market value is what makes us precious to God. (91)

While she is careful to note that “there is much that is healthy, holy and happy about the situation in which both spouses can come to a marriage without sexual experience” (108), she insists that purity, marriage and singleness are about discipleship in the kingdom of God and never about our value as persons.

And so we return to the central point: married or single, the body is one hundred percent for the Lord. Our bodies bear witness, our flesh is for mission, for witness, for giving glory to God. Both faithful marriage and celibate singleness may be ways in which we harness all of our life and pour that life out for God (69). “The sexual orthodoxy of our fallen world wants to create a body that is something to be consumed. Christian sexuality recognizes that the body is meant to be a witness. Sex is a witness to what God does in our lives, a witness to the God who is faithful and keeps promises” (104). The faithful body tells a story of God’s faithfulness. It witnesses to the goodness of embodied life as created by God. It does kingdom work in relationship and service to others. It testifies to the longing and consummation of God’s eschatological future. It witnesses to the fact that we already are “bought with a price.” In Christ we have been made free to be truly and fully human, and so truly and fully sexual—in the ways we do—and don’t—have sex (97).