To start reading at the beginning of the series, click here.
[If you are short on time, I recommend just scrolling down to the poetry]
When Rachel Held Evans’ latest blog post showed up in my news feed, I figured something was astir. Reading her response to Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile’s post on The Gospel Coalition website, I was grateful for her responses and I was compelled to read Anyabwile’s original article.
I do not know Anyabwile (or Held Evans). I know nothing more of him than he might know of me by reading my words on this page. So what I am about to write is simply a reflection of what I observe as a broader theme within the Evangelical church that is expressed so pointedly in his post.
I won’t rehash the many other critiques of his post that Evans addresses and links to from her post. I simply want to spend a few moments with Anyabwile’s attempt at “obscene descriptions” of gay and lesbian sex. The following is the excerpt from the post that is meant to induce moral outrage:
We are talking about one man inserting the male organ used to create life into the part of another man used to excrete waste. We are talking about one man taking the penis of another man into his mouth, or engaging in penis-to-penis grinding.
We are talking about a woman using her mouth to stimilute the nipples, vulva, clitoris or vagina of another woman, or using her hand or other “toys” to simulate sexual intercourse.
We are talking about anilingus and other things I still cannot name or describe.
That sense of moral outrage you’re now likely feeling–either at the descriptions above or at me for writing them–that gut-wrenching, jaw-clenching, hand-over-your-mouth, “I feel dirty” moral outrage is the gag reflex. It’s what you quietly felt when you read “two men deep kissing” in the second paragraph. Your moral sensibilities have been provoked–and rightly so. That reflex triggered by an accurate description of homosexual behavior will be the beginning of the recovery of moral sense and sensibility when it comes to the so-called “gay marriage” debate.
Now, I just want to spend a moment telling you about my actual reactions to the above passage. Truthfully, I did, indeed, have my hand over my mouth. I nearly had to pick myself up off the floor I was shaking so hard with laughter.
Once I had recovered from my fit of giggles, I sighed a few times and began to feel deep compassion and sadness for the author and the Evangelical community out of which he offers this opinion. And isn’t laughter one of the more ready indicators of the presence of shame?
The crushing weight of wielding so much shame is a terrible burden to bear. It is the blade with no handle that destroys the hand that uses it against another.
I actually think that Anyabwile is right on this one point: it is high time that the Evangelical church spoke explicitly about sex and its role in Christian formation. I also appreciate his attempt to directly address the issue without resorting to euphemisms about the shapes of plugs and sockets. Coming from the Evangelical community, this took great courage on his part.
But the mechanistic descriptions of sex acts, and body parts disconnected from the emotional spiritual—even just full-bodied—realities of human sexuality reveals so much more about the Evangelical understanding of sex than it does about what actually happens when two men or two women engage in any form of sexual activity. That explicitly describing sex between any two consenting adults is intended to trigger my gag reflex, tells me so very much about the level of shame surrounding Evangelical understandings of sexuality.
If we are supposed to see the acts themselves as shameful (oral sex, anal sex, using sex toys), my guess is that there’s an enormous number of red-faced, straight, married, Evangelical couples who are squirming, because they’re (“not supposed to be”) doing many of the things that actually give them a lot of shared pleasure and intimacy. I’m also guessing there is a large number in the same demographic who are really frustrated because they feel constricted for not being able to fully explore their own bodies together.
But my hunch is that it’s not really about the sex. It’s about the gender.
This is less about the explicit details of what body parts are inserted where and how people are pleasuring each other. Instead, it is about the disruption of cultural norms that are anchored in a neo-platonic understanding of the forms—a worldview that’s been used to shame women (and men) for that heinous shortcoming of not being man (enough).
It’s less the sex and more the disruption of the gender hierarchy that is so gag-reflex-inducing. That’s precisely why Anyabwile feels upset by “two men deep kissing.” The gender hierarchy itself is built on shame—shaming both women and men about their bodies—objectifying and victimizing women and cutting men of from the vulnerability of their desire and need for relationship and replacing it with the (fear-of-rejection fueled) urge to power-over the person they desire sexually.
This is why Anyabwile’s description of gay and lesbian sex is not poetic or even clinical; this is why he doesn’t even imagine addressing transgender or intersex sexuality. A vivid description of two people of the same gender intimately expressing love with their bodies is just as damaging to the gender hierarchy as the boring ol’ argument about the over a thousand rights (privileges) associated with civil marriage being denied to these same couples.
An aesthetic, reverent, explicit description of LGBTIQ sex lives serves as a poignant reminder of the possibility for equality, mutuality, vulnerability, and holy growth of desire between any two consenting lovers. It has the potential to call out the vulnerability of all men and agency of all women in a way that leads to greater love and better sex for all couples (and just by the numbers, this will mostly help out the straight folks).
The thing that’s gag-inducing about Anyabwile’s description is that it is dehumanizing—it seeks to shame from a place of deep-seated shame, and thus it only succeeds in revealing the harmful system out of which it emerges.
For another way of engaging sexuality in a way that embraces humanity and Christ, I’d invite you to check out the blog http://trybestpractices.wordpress.com/. This blogger I do know, and I find the work he’s doing to be refreshingly Christian and humane.
For my own theological response, I’ve decided to post three poems.
Insofar as they are mine, they are poems about gay love and desire. Insofar as they are human, they are about lovers, bodies, intimacy, and mutuality.
This is my invitation to those who feel the crushing weight of wielding so much shame: join again in the goodness of the life you have been given.
The Forest Need Not Justify Its Existence
We lay here for once as if
our bodies matter
as much as clods of soil;
knots of bone and muscle curl, exhausted,
upon one another, waiting,
in asynchronous gasps,
to lapse into one amending heave.
Stillness grows us older, you
and me observing stealth of hair
moss across the backs and bends
of all our twisted limbs,
rooted through finitude
of kisses sweet and wild.
Here old stories thaw, plots
unraveling through gracious gaps
opened by the fibrous weave,
me, you, me—relaxing us into
the solidity of who we are becoming.
“Have you forgotten the myth of unbelonging?”
I question the heart between these ribs.
The answer (yours or mine?), a sure reply,
wealth of warmth flowing, skin on skin;
salted mouth plying under arm, over rib;
tongue slips quick through wet lips, twists
round areola as if to say
what leg splayed ’cross hip
and genitals, pressed
into generous thigh, have been
pulsing all along:
I am always home because
are for our thriving and
our economy is song
and its rhythm is determined on
these instruments of peace
with which we practice
“Churn butter backwards—into cream, into
thick clots scooped in glops back
into milk, warm and grassy on the tongue
to udder, to cow, to
actual grass gradually sloshed back through
four stomachs and slime, past
cow lips into blades
of green to two parts sun and one
part soil—how far back could you
trace the journey of soil?
To rock, to crash of spatial bodies? Stars?
exploded elements in space?”
interrupt your scrape, scraping
of knife across toast and ask:
“Where is this going?”
“In! Into our mouths, our
bodies; butter and bread, the wheat,
the salt, the minerals—all
disassembled in our bowels, carried in
our blood, become
our source of cell and synapse.”
(I do know that this is not
what you were asking)
“How far? Can you trace the need
back into desire, to
throat-ached trembling? Back from
breakfast table to bed, piled legs like
eggs on a plate, scrambled in sheets and
Back to your back, covered
in constellation of freckles and covered
in my kisses and arms
wrapped round your sides, my hands
pressed against your chest. My calf
nuzzles round your thigh and I
like butter in your starlight.”
“How far back?”
look up cross toast at me
“I can never take you back—
You know it was your turn to do the dishes.
I come home, hoping for nothing more than a bite to eat,
a quick kiss, but nothing more—I
do not have the time
for something more (even though I’d like it).
No, this is the one night,
set aside out of seven,
when I sit down,
and prey upon the pages
like a ravenous pagan
frenetically parsing nouns into verbs,
words like: pretzel.
how you pretzel me into the
salt warm scent of your arms,
whiskering into my neck the things
you say you’d like to do to me
if only we had the time.
do not have the time.
The watch my parents gave me stopped
working, or maybe I stopped
winding it, when they
stopped calling me when I stopped
pretending I could pretzel myself
into their approval.
And now I am walking through our front door,
and you know
it was your turn
to do the dishes.
I know that five out of seven nights you scrape
down sides of bowls and break eggs and
roast vegetable kindness that my body
takes in, as greedily and gratefully as I take in
you. You know
it was your turn to do the dishes and
all I wanted to do
was come in, eat a pretzel and write
all the wrongs of my day
into some semblance of poetry.
and even though, you know I’ll love you
if the plates stack high and mold grows
on scooped out rinds of winter squash
beside the full compost;
I will still put out
the trash on Wednesdays even if
we sleep on opposite sides of the bed.
And you will still put out
when I forget to do the laundry.
You know that this
was the one night I had
before the deadline and
you met me at the door with that shirtless grin, as if
there were ever any contest between you
and fifty pages of revision.
Yours is not the sideways glance
of a lover more interested in getting off than
getting old, and boring, and grey. No,
you look at me with laughing eyes that play
across my brow and
pretzel into my fiercest longings,
knotting me into the softest dough. And I
would drop my clothes, my
prose, my terse idealism
to wrap myself inside
the softness of your mouth, your
gentle-welcome whispered kisses
traveling down my tired body. And you know
it was your turn to do the dishes
you did them