I’m pretty passionate about women needing to embrace their own sexuality without shame and without regard to male sexual desire, and today I’m over at The Friendly Atheist to review Dannah Gresh and Dr. Juli Slattery’s book Pulling Back the Shades, their Christian response to 50 Shades of Grey.

This [is] a pervasive problem in Christian relationship books aimed at women: the assumption that female sexuality begins with the initiation of a woman into the world of male sexuality. This can be through abuse, rape, regretful premarital sex, or happy married sex, but it always starts and ends with a penis. This gets taken to such an extreme that even masturbation is condemned if it uses any sort of imagination or fantasy to speed things along — that would be making oneself dependent on a man other than your husband, even if he’s fictional. Which would be cheating, and a misuse of sex (by their definition of the act).

Gresh is known for her interpretation of the Hebrew references to sex in the Old Testament (yada, according to her) as “to know, to be deeply respected,” and she explains that this is a sign of how sex was intended by God for marriage, where you can have that sort of intimate knowledge of your partner. She further asserts that sex always transcends the physical act, which is how she explains that cheating is wrong (again: no mention of consent here) and why she believes that no-strings-attached sexual encounters are also wrong.

She concludes this little explanation by saying:

“Erotica places undue emphasis on the physical and disables your ability to connect emotionally.”

I find this hard to believe, seeing as erotica is entirely based on the imaginative capabilities of a sexual human being to use fantasy for arousal, and doesn’t require anything physical at all. The focus in the fantasy, I agree, is physical rather than emotional, but can’t it also follow that heightened sexual awareness can help improve intimacy in the bedroom and increase emotional connection during sex? I suspect that Slattery and Gresh both have trouble connecting their own experiences of moments where they owned their sexuality to themselves as whole human beings in positive ways. The over-emphasis on the spiritual and intellectual understandings of sexuality leave the physical out in the cold in a very Gnosticdualistic sort of way.

Gresh brings this split out further in a later chapter, where she tells a story from her marriage where she considered herself to be owning her sexuality in her marriage in a positive way: one evening, she wore a somewhat sheer black top to the dinner table on a night when she and her husband were dining alone by candlelight. He checked her out across the table, and she congratulated herself and felt empowered. Essentially, she was exploring her ability to perform for her small audience’s male gaze and felt good about her success in catching his eye.

But again, this is about him and his arousal and her sexuality is entirely defined in reaction to or performing for his sexuality. He is the fixed point and she orbits him. It’s as if she has no sexuality outside of him, and while she is quite articulate about how women should not be ashamed of their bodies when they are with their husbands, she shows little capability of being aware of herself as a sexual being independent of her sexual relationship with her husband.

This is not a critique of Gresh or Slattery as individuals. Their stories happen to be very common, compared with the many I have heard and witnessed in my years in the church. Evangelical American Christians don’t have a framework for female sexuality that doesn’t start and stop with a husband’s penis. And I think this is ultimately why erotica is seen as a threat: it’s a primarily female-focused genre, and it explores female sexual pleasure in ways that are infrequently seen in our society.

Read the rest here.


Okay. Okay. I’m fed up with the annual Summer Modesty Argument On The Interwebz.

Here’s the rundown:

1) Modesty keeps men’s uncontrollable sex drives in check! vs. NO THAT’S RAPE CULTURE

2) God commands modesty to honor his creation, your body! vs. Uh, modesty is a shame thing and that’s the result of the fall.

3) Modesty makes a statement about What Your Heart Really Wants, so be a good witness! vs. Rape culture, again! I wear what I want, and I’m not asking for anything, AND Jesus doesn’t depend on my clothes for his Kingdom, thanks.

4) Everything in our culture is so sexualized! Wish we could go back to the Good Old Days. vs. Let me give you a history lesson! Everyone was having sex and covering up is a cultural standard, not a godliness thing.

And then, there’s the one that set me off last night, which basically argues that I need to cover up to protect my God-given dignity as a woman.

I want to tackle this idea that my behavior, clothing, or other external things dictates the way church people perceive my dignity. I know it does. I grew up in the thick of modesty-shame culture in SGM.

The message of modesty = dignity was clear, though perhaps not defined in such a reductive fashion. But if your listeners (or readers) are coming away with an idea that’s false, the burden is on you, the teacher/speaker (or writer) to use your language clearly enough to eliminate miscommunication. And so I feel it fair to take on this idea in the manner in which it was received and assumed to be true.

Here’s the beefy quote on this from the article in the Atlantic yesterday:

Here, there is freedom for individual women to practice modesty not primarily to preserve men’s sexual purity, but to preserve their own dignity. To show in outward form the inward truth that they matter to society for their minds, their leadership, their passions, and their talents–talents that have nothing to do with how many heads they can turn. Modesty can become a form of female power.

Female power can take LOTS of forms. Usually by transgressing against a social expectation and rewriting some rules. I get that. I applaud that. Some of my favorite things about feminism is how it’s transgressing social orders as those who are traditionally marginalized are empowering themselves and speaking up.

But my dignity is not won or lost by my clothing OR my level of empowerment. And when we’re talking about my body and dignity and working with the assumption that our motives for this discussion are in keeping with pursuing orthodox Christianity, then I’ll take further issue with this.

If you separate my dignity from my physical self, you’re assuming that my spiritual self is “better” or “holier” than my body, and you are 1) demeaning Christ’s incarnation (and thereby devaluing the sacrament of communion), and 2) embracing Gnosticism, a classic heresy. 

God made humankind in his/her image and called us very good. God is not gendered, and we happen to be, but that means that ALL of us are in the image of God. Then, the fall happened, and THEN humans were introduced to shame and shame introduced clothing.

  1. Bodies made, called good.
  2. Sin/shame introduced, clothing happens.

My dignity as a human being comes from the fact that God made me and called it good. My body is inseparable from my human experience and identity, and my body is inseparable from my identity as a Christian, because it was through my understanding of the incarnation that I was able to overcome modesty culture shame about my body and re-embrace it as beautiful and good. Same goes for my sexuality, actually.

Don’t buy the lie that “modesty” will win you respect and dignity. If it does, it’s in a fear- and shame-centered legalistic culture, and Christ died to set us free, not bind us with more shame. My dignity doesn’t need clothes. Or your respect.

 


In which I will probably sound a lot like Lauren Dubinsky, who is usually right about this stuff.

The credits were rolling on the Disney princess movie. I was in a swoony-moony eight-year-old’s post-Disney euphoria, soaking up the soundtrack swelling as I leaned back on my elbows on the living room carpet.

I don’t remember which parent said it or the exact words, but what I heard was something to the effect of

“Now, Hannah, we know that this is a good story, but the Bible teaches us that following our hearts is bad, and you can see how she made choices that hurt her family and friends because she was being selfish and followed her heart.”

This little moment was followed up later by years of Bible memory drills and post-spanking lectures:

The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?”

This verse was later reinforced by SGM teachings drawn from various bits and pieces of reformed theology.

  • You are the greatest sinner you know. 
  • I’m doing better than I deserve. 
  • I just don’t know if this is a good choice, because I need to pray and discern my motives. 
  • This is how this situation makes me feel, but I need to pray about it, because I might be reacting wrongly, because my heart is fundamentally evil, you know.

This was my justification for faith: people do bad things even if they want to be good. So T.U.L.I.P. and the SGM gospel had to be true. They were logically sound.

If you grew up like I did, you know what I’m talking about. And I’m not here to argue the logic of the theology. I know it “works” but I also know that it takes a toll on the heart, and that room for the miraculous and the impossible and the creative grace of a vastly loving God are so much more important to sane orthodoxy than systematic theology.

So I believed this. I doubted myself. I tried to act on reason and Scripture. If you look at my prayer journals (because talking about my feelings wasn’t okay, in my mind, unless I was “praying” about them) from when I was dating my ex, you’d see me agonizing about issues in our relationship (that never got better), and then you’d see me talking myself out of being worried about them because of reasons like: God is Sovereign, and God Led Us Here, and Love Endures and Hopes All Things. And I shoved red flags into a “hard things I can live with” pile.

I did this with everything, not just dating. Actually, I probably did it MORE with other parts of my life. I didn’t aspire very high with my college options, because I thought I should go to a Christian college so I’d have accountability from other Christians in authority over me, because, obviously, my heart was deceitful and college is a time when people explore, which naturally leads them into sin, so. Don’t follow your heart. Stay safe. Stay in authority structures that will keep you safe from you.

I chose to not make an issue about moving to my ex’s hometown when we got married, because I wanted to respect his preferences and he wanted to be near his family. I didn’t even make an issue out of the fact that I was the one who wanted to go to grad school and had definite ideas about what career I wanted. And later, we talked about grad school options, and assumed he’d “go first” and then I’d do my schooling later. Even my job choices were dictated by practicality and security, not passion.

Choice after choice after choice was pushed and nudged and bumped into place by systematic self-distrust and self-effacement in my head. I don’t regret the choices I made, not really. How could I? These choices have made me who I am. But they took a toll on me.

I stopped doing things I loved. I stopped being creative. During college, I didn’t do anything creative–I just did school and spent time with friends. I wrote a little poetry, but mostly for creative writing class. I painted and drew one semester, but again, for a class. I was happier than I’d been in a long time, but I still did it for the grade. I didn’t dance much. I didn’t cook or bake much. I didn’t write fiction or draw. If I was dying for creativity to stay sane, I’d indulge and make a batch of cookies or go for a walk. But it wasn’t a healthy habit–it was loosening the cap on a high-pressure container to let a little gas out so I could screw the lid back on, tight. So I could keep going, being productive, achieving goals, looking ahead.

And yes, I got shit done. But big changes happened to me, and I’m realizing I don’t know who I am now. What does “new” me like? Is that what “little me” liked? Were these things I identified with in the height of my fundydom really part of me, or just part of the alternate self I created to stay sane and fly under the legalism radar?

On Saturday I sat out on a slab of concrete above the James River in Richmond and started to make a list of things I knew about me. Trying to reintroduce myself to myself, in a way. I got overwhelmed pretty shortly after starting this list, because, shit, my life and choices don’t really give me space to breathe and be me. I’m not feeding myself, the breathing living creative soul-self. And I can’t just shove that aside and give it attention every few months to keep it from dying. I can’t just make choices for the sake of “balance” when my creative self is atrophied and disoriented–there is no balance without health in all parts.

Fighting fragments of evangelical Gnosticism keeps getting stranger and stranger. It’s not just the body we’ve forgotten, but the heart, too.

If my heart is so desperately wicked, why does following my gut leave me more rested and healthy and satisfied than constant self-control and vigilance in rational, Church-people-approved life choices? If my heart is so desperately wicked, why do I love beautiful things? If my heart is so desperately wicked, why does caring for myself allow me to care for people better? It can’t just be the one thing. It much more likely to be both/and.

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secretes are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name: through Christ our Lord. Amen. [Book of Common Prayer, 1662]

***

Edit: Here’s why this is a big deal. Go find a QF daughter or a woman who has spent significant time in either a legalistic church/family situation or a hyper-reformed group and ask her (if she’s still “in”) if she knows what her strengths are. Ask her what she likes about herself. Ask her what she wants her legacy to be. And if she’s “out,” ask her what she would have said when she was “in.”

I bet it’ll be really hard for her to say.


My purpose with almost everything I write here is to communicate two things: 1) you are not alone and shame is not from Jesus, and 2) it is possible to develop an authentic theology of the body and live as an embodied sexual being and experience both healthy boundaries and real grace.

These two things have never been more true than for this post.

Please be gentle with me and with each other as we discuss this.

To begin, I’d like to tell you a story.

***

I didn’t have much of a sense of shame or self-awareness when I was young. I happily shed my clothes to play in the sprinklers in the front yard, and scandalized the neighbors (I was banned from playing with several neighbor kids because going nekkid in the sprinklers at 5 years old on a hot California afternoon in July was being a “bad influence”). I finger painted in my panties in our backyard at six, proudly drawing a red H on my chest and prancing around with it to show my parents. I skinny dipped in my best friend’s backyard pool with no thought that anyone wouldn’t do such a thing if given the chance.

I chatted up strangers at the grocery store and asked impertinent questions like “when are you going to have a baby? why is your skin brown? how old are you? do you know Jesus? do you like being fat?”

My mom used to say that God had given a child like me to introvert parents “to stretch us out of our comfort zone.”

And one summer evening, when I was 7 or 8, it was one of those evenings where the light fades late in the day and small children are restless in bed because they can still hear friends playing out in the street and the blinds are still glowing with sunset light. And as I was trying so very hard to be obedient and stay in bed and be quiet and fall asleep, I discovered a secret.

A few weeks later, my mom checked in with me and discovered me touching myself and we had a talk about it. “It helps me fall asleep quickly, Mom!” I explained.

“Well, it’s not really a good habit to get into,” she said. “Try to sleep with your hands away from your private parts.”

So I complied. Or tried to.

I was hooked. It felt amazing. But I managed to refrain more often that not, and kept it from becoming a habit.

Until I was 15 and more stressed than I had ever been before, with so much constant chaos at home, little privacy, regular demands on my time to babysit and help the family, lots of pressure to keep up in school (I was falling behind due to the chaos of toddler twin brothers and another infant in the house). And I was increasingly isolated from my peers as more and more of the things they became involved with were Things Our Family Doesn’t Do (movies, NCFCA debate, ballroom dance club, teen “care group” at church, top 40 radio, pop concerts, etc.). On top of all that, I found myself no longer getting along well with my roommate sister, and the constant tension between us over how to decorate our 10′ x 10′ bedroom, when lights-out should be, who could play music when, etc., sucked us both dry emotionally.

And so, to relieve the stress and distract my affection-starved self, I became addicted to sneaking romance novels from the library and reading them behind my school books. But after a while, I became fed up with the clichés and stock characters, and replaced this with a habit of masturbating when I was stressed and overwhelmed.

Dear reader, I didn’t realize that I was doing it to relieve stress, but looking back on how incredibly tense those three years were, I see it all now: that was my primary outlet and it was because I craved  affirmation, connection, unconditional love, and I wasn’t getting it at home and I couldn’t get it elsewhere AND. and. I was 15 and newly horny as hell. I thought instead that I was horribly perverted and a vile, filthy sinner.

I have the pain-laced journal entries from those three years to prove it. Usually confessory, they read something like this (spaced out at about two of these entries per week):

1) Frustration over some conflict with family member (during which description I beat myself up for being bothered by these things at all and ask God to make me more loving, loyal, content, peaceful).

2) Grief and appalled shame that I masturbated AGAIN.

3) Thanking God for being good to me even if I’m such a horrible worm and detestable in his eyes (cue long dramatic description akin to that found in Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”).

What happened, between the mild conversation with my mother (who, to her credit, never ever told me that masturbation was a sin or that my sex drive was wrong or shameful) when I was 8 and this perpetual emotional self-flagellation for my wickedness?

A couple of things happened: first, I got caught up in a church culture where shame and self-loathing were used by authority figures to prey on the insecurities of their congregants for the purposes of social control. Second, I became displaced when we moved from California and lost a lot of my self-confidence when I was introduced to Southern social expectations and felt the pressure to conform to [what seemed to me] bizarre standards of dignity and politeness. Suddenly I was immersed in a culture where sinner, sinner, sinner was emphasized spiritually, and girls were expected to be ethereal, saintly, soft-spoken, and elevated above the physical.

Happy little dirt-and-trees-and-creeks-and-loud-laughter-and-louder-ideas me was totally lost, and I was overeager to perform well and please everyone. But I had this secret.

And so I was caught in an overpowering sense of fear, shame, and guilt. I was the messed up one, the girl who wished she could attend the men’s retreat session on lust and pornography. The girl who was afraid to date someone because what might happen if I “woke love” and my desires increased more than they are now?! I was embarrassed because I liked my body, and all my friends hated theirs and dieted and binged and cut and hid theirs under frumpy clothes. I did, too, for fear of boys looking at me, but secretly I dreamed that someone might notice me beyond my frumpy clothes and see that I could pretty and desirable if I got a chance to try being so. And they all chattered on about what the most romantic proposal might be and who’d end up having the first baby, while I wondered what it might be like to be kissed and wondered if I was the only one among us who felt this way.

The rest of the story goes like an American rags-to-riches story, where I steeled myself with the power of shame and I fought hard and worked harder at school and chores and keeping busy, and I read myself to sleep at night and eventually broke the habit. I was free.

And I swore to myself that I would never tell anyone. Not even my husband. Because it was too dark and shameful and no one could ever know that I was that sort of person. 

***

Here’s the thing, though. That wasn’t a victory.

I killed a habit. But I sold my soul to shame in order to do it.

And the problem wasn’t whether masturbating was right or wrong. The problem was that I was using it to cope with stress. I sought out the cathartic high instead of facing the real issues I was living with — loneliness, anxiety, fear, anger. It could have been any number of things — I could have discovered cutting, I could have developed an unhealthy relationship with food, or become obsessed with working out or studying. But instead I developed an imbalanced, unhealthy relationship to my sexuality.

But like any “addict,” I supplanted one addiction for another to overcome the initial habit: I replaced masturbating with emotional self-flagellation.

And I never addressed the most fundamental missing puzzle piece to this whole thing: I never bothered to pair up a grace-centered understanding of myself as BOTH a child of God and a sexual being.

Stopping the “addiction” didn’t fix what was broken.

***

I’ve been thrilled to see so many wonderful faithful saints raising their voices to challenge the shame-centered Church teachings on virginity. This is a start to healing in the church that has long been needed.

Here’s my bone to pick with the Church on this: we can’t possibly create healthy marriages and a healthy theology of the body (and ourselves as sexual beings) if we assume that men are the only ones with sex drives, the only ones tempted to seek out titillation, the only ones prone to thinking with their genitals.

I’m sorry. That’s bullshit. My vagina likes to try to make my decisions for me, too.

Men are no more rapists in their natural state than I am asexual in my natural state.

These caricatures deny us both our humanity and a chance at a decent conversation about our sexuality and bodies and God’s intent for these beautiful, mysterious, pleasurable, soul-touching things we’re capable of creating when joined together in the fullness of human connection.

Limiting the conversation to “guard your heart” and “porn is wrong” and “don’t have sex, you’ll be damaged goods” is cheating ourselves out of mature discussions about why these things work the way they do, why our bodies are important, why emotions are beautiful and powerful and dangerously good, and traps us in a black-and-white world where we can only think with childish terms of understanding and control the deeper, more mature intuitions of our emotions and bodies with the blunt tool of fear and shame.

Shame as a tool for control creates perversions and nullifies grace. It does things like: twisting developing sexual habits so that some of my peers can only get off when they feel shame or pain; preventing virgin newlyweds from having happy and safe honeymoon sex because they’re unlearning years and years of fear-based self-control; letting married women think that sex should/can only be on their husbands’ terms of use/desire (e.g., she should only be turned on by what turns him on because they’re soul mates/made for each other/designed for each other); keeping married couples from communicating about what they like/don’t like in the bedroom, because of unspoken expectations about How Sex Is Done; etc., etc.

I’ve known people who got married and couldn’t have sex without having panic attacks, throwing up/feeling nauseous, tensing up and being unable to follow through with penetration (both him and her), feeling dirty and ashamed for desiring one’s spouse, for asking for any sexual favor from one’s spouse, and the list goes on. This is directly caused by the Church (okay, fine, the evangelical church) abdicating from a nuanced, mature, intellectual discussion of a Christian understanding of sex and the body jointly. These two things should never be discussed in isolation from each other.

I am not just a soul. I am an embodied being and my body is who I am just as much as my soul is. God made me this way and called it good. And part of this existence is that he made me a woman and he gave me a healthy sex drive and my body is good and I like sex.

And sex is spiritual AND physical, intimate and natural, meaningful and a bodily function. All together. At once.

Masturbation is natural and not necessarily sinful on its own. But objectifying human beings for sexual pleasure is wrong just as it’s wrong to be addicted to anything. Both choices are compromising to the soul.

But the worst is shame. An appropriate grief for sin is right and good. But dwelling on your sin and obsessing to the point of self-loathing? Jesus never taught that.

Perfect love casts out fear. Living life with delight in Jesus and in the grace found in relationship with him sets us free from fear, from shame, from being chained to shame or lust or arrogant self-righteousness.

Instead we receive each day with the promise of wholeness through identifying ourselves with Jesus and living without fear.

Dear friends. You are not alone.

Don’t be afraid.


And we’re baaaack. Commonplace links went away when I stopped reading blogs for a month or so.

This week there’s been a fantastic rash of posts on virginity and Christian culture, and I’m really excited that this is being discussed.

I have been hesitant to say so, but I have become increasingly convinced that the concept of virginity is a concept created for male power/social control and not a medical or spiritual reality (and for those suffering from homeschool sex-ed or abstinence-only sex-ed and don’t know what I mean by this, go watch Laci Green explain). I have also discovered that the Bible really isn’t clear on the question: is consensual premarital sex between two consenting, adult, and committed individuals sinful? Instead it seems to suggest that sexuality is wonderful and powerful and deeply intimate (and therefore either so very good or so very damaging), and that God’s best plan is for sex to be a safe place for mutual benefit and love and pleasure and possibly procreation. Marriage is logically the place where this can best happen, but there’s no indication that it’s the only place it can happen. 

[That is what I think. We can disagree.]

So, here’s the best posts on virginity that I’ve read this week. Go read and ponder and soak up the grace.

Virginity: New & Improved — Elizabeth Esther

Whenever we seek to improve upon virtue, we are actually creating an idol. Furthermore, by elevating virginity to the ethereal realms of unicorns and angels, we place an unfair burden upon the shoulders of real, human beings.

And that’s what concerns me the most. The New & Improved Virginity places a heavy weight of shame upon women—even those whoare virgins.

I was a virgin and I didn’t feel “pure enough”  because I’d kissed a couple boys before my husband. I was a virgin and I felt horribly defiled because I’d discovered this crazy, secret thing called masturbating. I was a virgin and I was disappointed to realize that my ‘sacrifice’ didn’t automatically result in a happily ever after marriage.

I was a virgin and I felt superior to “damaged” women. The purity culture showed no compassion for me so I had no compassion for myself or women who had “chosen” to “give away” their virtue.

I am damaged goods — Sarah Bessey at Deeper Story

And so here, now, I’ll stand up and say it, the way I wish someone had said it to me fifteen years ago when I was sitting in that packed auditorium with my heart racing, wrists aching, eyes stinging, drowning and silenced by the imposition of shame masquerading as ashes of repentance:

“So, you had sex before you were married.

It’s okay.

Really. It’s okay.

There is no shame in Christ’s love. Let him without sin cast the first stone. You are more than your virginity – or lack thereof – and more than your sexual past.

Your marriage is not doomed because you said yes to the boys you loved as a young woman. Your husband won’t hold it against you, he’s not that weak and ego-driven, choose a man marked by grace.

And the coup de grace, delivered by Emily Maynard at Prodigal — The day I turned in my v-card

I’m done blanketing all sexual experience outside of marriage as sin and never acknowledging that abuse can happen within a marriage. I’m done with Christians enforcing oppression in the name of purity.

I am not a virgin or a non-virgin.

I am a human. I am Emily.


I didn’t expect to write two angry-at-abusive-mindset posts back to back, but here I am. This needs to be said.

Christians take romantic relationships too seriously.

Not even just courtship-only Christians, or virgins-until-wedding-night Christians. Pretty much any sincere Christian who wants to serve God and honor him with how they handle a romantic relationship is going to be prone to this obsession with doing things right.

Let me back up.

Now, first: I have no regrets with how my life so far has turned out. It’s mine, it’s beautiful, it’s messy, it’s hard, but I have been a survivor and I have grown through hardship and become more me, more whole.

But. I feel that I was told some things which are common assumptions for most Christians, and I now think that these are unnecessary and harmful. So I’m going to name them.

1) Christians are given special knowledge about God’s will for their lives because they can have a relationship with God, so they should to get things right in romantic relationships because otherwise they’ll be a bad witness for the gospel. Subtext: the world is screwy and doesn’t get sex or love right because they don’t know Jesus, but we can because we do know Jesus. Sub-subtext: it’s us vs. The World.

2) Christians don’t need to fool around because they believe sex outside of marriage is wrong, and they should be able to get things right in relationships because they have Jesus, so it should be possible to find your mate quickly/early on without dating around a lot. This will show the world how we get it right and make them curious about Jesus because we’re different, and getting married at 22 instead of 28.

3) If assumptions #1 and #2 are true, a Christian couple can actually manage to be virgins on their wedding night, so all Christians really need to try to live up to this standard. There’s no good reason not to achieve this. If you don’t, your faith is probably weak and you’re a bad witness.

4) We have to submit to our authority structures in the family and in the church to be accountable in our relationships. Unbelievers don’t believe in God so they don’t have any respect for authority or accountability or consequences, so they’re more likely to sin sexually in a romantic relationship or just do what feels good instead of being responsible, committed, or mature. Christians know we are sinful and our hearts may want to be just like the unbelievers, so we need to be transparent to authority and have our fathers, mentors, and pastors help and guide us and let us know where we’re in sin, being lazy, or hurting our significant other in how we act in our relationships.

5) You may not end up with the one you’re with, so don’t do anything that would be committing emotional or physical infidelity. If your desires are uncontrollable, you probably need to marry the person you’re with, because it’s [somehow] less of a serious sin if you end up getting married.

6) Dating early (15-17) is okay as long as you are serious and committed to “honoring God” with your relationship and have older, wiser people involved.

7) Christians can have better marriages than unbelievers even if certain things in a relationship are harmful or immature, because knowing and practicing biblical gender roles and committing to your marriage vows will honor God’s plan for your life and he’ll give you extra grace for keeping your promises when it’s hard.

I saw a lot of people acting on these assumptions inside the Christian bubble, courtship-minded and not, complementarians and egalitarians, homeschoolers and mainstream Christians. The folks at my Christian college seemed to all be in a rush to be paired off at the end of senior year and married by the end of the summer after graduation. The folks in my homeschooling community back home similarly pressured themselves to pair off and get married and have babies — it was as if they felt like real adult life couldn’t commence if they weren’t settled down and married. Most of them would never dream of living on their own (away from their family of origin) unless it was to get married. [That’s an extreme that’s less common, but you get the point — real life starts when you’re married.]

Even my husband and I rushed to get married because we were trying to sate the intense pressure we felt from my dad and others to “get it right” — and for whatever reason it wasn’t seen as a good option to break up or take more time to be sure that we were sure, or that we were mature enough, or had done all the single-life things we wanted to do before getting married. My dad certainly pressured us to find those things out, but it was because marriage was seen as the endgame, not because it would make us better individuals.

I have a few thoughts on how to why these assumptions are harmful and how we can improve the way Christians approach dating/romance, but I’m just getting the conversation going, really.

Dating doesn’t have to be huge, serious, or marriage-focused. Maybe it can just be getting to know people and yourself. Maybe it can just be enjoying a person for who they are, and maybe the romance can just naturally flow from that sweet spot where connection and friendship meet. Maybe taking all those crappy purity metaphors too literally restricts us and makes us more naive and vulnerable to abusive situations than we should be. It undermines healthy emotional development and a right sense of boundaries to commit yourself to this complicated, authority-and-shame driven path where it’s easier to “mess up” than it is to enjoy a person and learn from your relationship with them, and then either move on, or continue to grow in trust and intimacy in a wholesome manner.

And dating relationships should never, ever be focused on proving a point about Christianity “getting it right” or some other bizarre evangelism-by-example tool. That goes against the truth of grace and the power of the incarnation. Relationships are human. We’re going to do some things right and we’re going to hurt each other. Jesus became human, not to show us how to do it right, but to meet us where we’re at and free us from shame.

Let’s talk about this. What do you think? How can Christians avoid making the subject of relationships and romance a legalistic fear fest? How can we practice healthy boundaries and emotional growth in romance? And can we please, please talk about how a right theology of the body would improve everything about Christian dating assumptions?


This week’s collection is a little more light and brief than the last few have been. Enjoy!


This is a less documented, more anecdotal post, as a result of my discovery a few days ago that all my books on this subject are in storage. I think I did that deliberately because I was tired of reading things that made me angry. So, this post won’t have a ton of sources, but if you want clarification on anything, I can probably point you to a book or essay explaining it in more depth.

***

I was 15 and that afternoon I was at the local swimming pool with my family. I was wearing a new-to-me swimsuit in an outdated shade of orange, but it was a “modest” one-piece and it fit my angular body well. While Mom was getting the littles slathered up in sunscreen, I stepped out of my shorts and flip flops, and tossed them onto the lounge next to my t-shirt. While I looked around the pool for friends, I untwisted my knot of hair from its ponytail holder and shook it all out in the breeze. Spotting my friends, I started toward them, but then mom called my name. “Hännah! Come here!”

She was beckoning me with a very serious look on her face. I walked toward her, and bent down. “Hm?”

She whispered, “Put your hair back up. You look…” She frowned, looking for the words. “You look too pretty. The young men will notice.”

I was confused. “What?”

“Put your hair back up. It’s long and catching the sun, and that swimsuit is…very striking. It’s too much. Put your hair back up.”

“Okay, okay. I will,” I said, walking away. I took my time with obeying her, dipping my head down and away from the people nearby, letting my hair flop across my face to hide my tears. I didn’t understand, and my stomach felt tight and my face hot. Once my hair was up, I plunged into the diving well, kicking down to sit on the bottom as long as I could before rising to the surface in a burst of cathartic energy.

I spent the rest of the afternoon away from my friends, reading a book by the poolside, wrapped in a damp towel and wearing my hair pulled back tightly. I didn’t want to be noticed.

Modest me shortly after the pool incident.

***

The current church’s concept of modesty is largely reactionary and fear-based.

But I didn’t realize that for a long time after the poolside incident. It was just one of many moments where I was “called out” on some impropriety (sitting cross legged, wearing a blouse with a too-thin back, bra straps peekabooing, twirling without shorts under my skirt at swing club, peekaboo gaps between buttons on a blouse, etc.) or told another girl that she was being immodest and to cover her neckline when she bent down.

In our SGM church, we were taught that modesty was a way we helped men not to lust. In youth group, we had breakout sessions, where the girls sat in one room and listened to talks about not reading romance novels (they make you think impure thoughts and desire a relationship too early!) and about how our responsibility was to not cause the guys to lust. Therefore, we were taught how to be modest.  We were taught that “correcting” each other was the highest form of Christian love, and so if we saw someone being immodest, we should speak to her about our “concern” and help her see how she was hurting the guys by her dress. And if a guy was “struggling”  because of a girl’s outfit, he could talk to her and ask her to cover up. (Meanwhile, the guys were in the next room listening to a talk about the sinfulness of pornography and masturbation.)

We got really good at this. We had the checklist posted up on our bathroom mirrors. We talked in code to each other if we spotted an infraction when we were around boys. We learned to sew well enough to modesty-hack new clothes so they would be “appropriate.” We dressed up in new shopping finds and paraded them for our fathers, asking him to make sure they weren’t inappropriate. If he said something didn’t make the cut, we’d return it and start over. This was “biblical femininity” in action.

Once I was conscious of the male gaze, I was a slave to avoiding it. I became obsessed with obeying the rules as dutifully as I could. I avoided talking with boys—it might be seen as flirting. I avoided looking too stylish or doing my hair and makeup with too much care, because I didn’t want to be dressing for attention. I wore shorts and a t-shirt over my swimsuits or avoided the pool altogether, claiming that I didn’t want to get a bad sunburn. I became a watchdog for my sisters, smugly tattling on them to our dad if I caught them dressing in a way I deemed immodest. I judged my friends for enjoying time hanging out with guys in a group, thinking that this was a perverse desire for male attention.

The effects of this mindset on others (not just in my church, but in the QF/CP movement as a whole) were more personally damaging than my priggishness, but perhaps less obvious. My sister judged classic art for the nudes, “fixing” them with a permanent marker in a textbook. Friends fell into eating disorders, hoping to be less seductive if they were thinner and had less boobs to notice. Some hated themselves for their developing bodies and instead ate too much, silencing their self-consciousness with comfort food. Some took razors to their bodies in secret. Some toed the line, but just barely, attempting to get away with whatever they could without getting “called out” by someone.

This was essentially an assumption that lust is damning, women are both the objects and the cause of lust, and so we were responsible to prevent it. This, I believed, was gospel truth straight from the Bible.

Of course, women were never mentioned as having lust problems. We might have emotional fantasies and imaginary romances, but lust was a male issue. This drove me to loneliness and horrific shame, as I was a teenager with a normal, healthy sex drive. I was horny and I was mortified; this wasn’t supposed to be my problem. The church would announce a men’s meeting to talk about fighting lust and accountability for not using porn, and I would shrivel up, wishing that my secret wasn’t a secret, and that maybe there would be a women’s meeting, too. Or that I could “serve” at the men’s event and eavesdrop, and there learn the secrets for freeing myself from myself.

Later I would learn that I was 1) pretty normal, 2) not “addicted” or damned, 3) loved unconditionally by my husband and by Jesus. The bondage I had been in wasn’t as real as I thought—the mindset I had about lust and modesty fed my obsession and my shame, and once freed from the whole set of lies, I would discover that this was just a minor difficulty, not a paralyzing sin issue.

For the guys growing up in this environment of modesty culture, there was (as I have since learned from my husband, who grew up in a church affiliated with mine) a similar sense of being paralyzed by lust and shame. It was so assumed that he would lust after women that he never questioned it when accountability groups would meet and the guys would almost exclusively talk about their struggles with lust. It was as if they were powerless, animalistic and perpetually obsessed with sex. This is a caricature in Hollywood and the über conservative church—but this is not your average man.

Kevin told me that once he left SGM and he’d been out of the dialect and culture for a while, he found that he wasn’t struggling with lust like he used to–the idea of a woman’s body alone wasn’t a turn-on anymore. He found that his desires naturally were directed at a few specific things and toward whoever he was in a relationship with, and that he could appreciate a woman’s beauty and form without lust. He was no longer being told he was a slave to these things and asked to confess and obsess on them, and when he left that environment he was freed from the mentality it fostered.

As I spent time out of this culture, I found changes as well. I learned that being pretty and enjoying making myself look good weren’t sinful things, and I began to relax a bit. After being married, I have discovered that the idea that modesty is a woman’s responsibility is a very demeaning concept, and really doesn’t share anything in common with the teachings of Jesus, who held individuals responsible for their own sins, and gave grace to the naive and broken and penitent. He never said that women caused lust. Instead, he argued that lust reflects preexisting heart desires. And instead of demeaning women like the culture of his day, he respected them and made them his disciples and close friends, and the first witnesses to his resurrection.

I now realize that most of the assumptions I previously held were false, even anti-Christian:

The assumption that preventing lust is my job is wrong: only the one lusting is responsible for his or her heart. 

The assumption that modesty will prevent lust is false: lust wants what it wants and will see it where it wants.

The assumption that men are ravenous, sex-crazed beings, trapped by their passions: false. Men desire companionship and affirmation and sex and love, just like women. Women experience lust and sexual urges and visual stimulation. These things vary from person to person, but not so much gender to gender. There is great compassion in Jesus for our humanity. 

The Bible verses on modesty we all used as proof texts for the misconceptions and legalism we held so dear? These were largely about compassion for others and humility. True modest is not drawing undue attention to yourself. We wear what fits the occasion and is respectable. Finding the line of what’s appropriate and reverent: this is modesty. It’s a heart attitude, not a set of rules defined by gender stereotypes.

I have learned that my shame over my body was wrong. My body is hallowed because Jesus took on a body. My body is beautiful in the echo of creation and redemption perfection. My body is human and flawed and funky in my fallenness. But I am not to be ashamed of how I was made or loathe myself for it, and I am not guilty for the sins of others who may happen to lust after it. I can dress without fear, because I am not responsible for the worst possible outcome. I am responsible for doing well and living in a manner that reflects the grace I know in Jesus’ unconditional love.

Overcoming lust doesn’t happen by working harder. I tried. Overcoming lust happens by loving Jesus more than loving self-service. Shame over past lust and past sins is inappropriate–grace is active in the lives of the saints, and we are conformed to holiness by Jesus’ love. Not by working hard because we think that’s a what good Christians are supposed to do. We are transformed by taking each day on its own and not being anxious over transgressions that have already been cast away. Perfect love casts out fear.


Have you heard of a “commonplace book”? It’s an old idea, and has been most recently resurrected by hipsters bearing Moleskines. Basically, it’s a notebook full of  accumulated everyday notes – your shopping list, a quote from the book you’re reading, the recipe copied from your mom’s cookbook, a sketch from the metro of the weird bag lady, the outline for the novel you’re planning on writing.

I think I’m going to steal the idea for these link roundups I’ve been posting and call the series “Commonplace Links.” The theme is this: I think they’re all worth reading, to expand one’s understanding of the world and compassion for others. They intrigued or tickled my fancy, or perhaps they sobered me and challenged me to step outside myself. I may not agree with all the ideas presented therein, but I will pretty much always think the concepts contained are worth weighing out without bringing my own presuppositions and baggage to the table. If you read them too, I ask that you give them the courtesy of a fair read, even if you instinctively disagree or it’s not terribly well-written. This will be a weekly feature on Thursdays, and I’ll take recommendations if you have anything you’d like to pass on.

So, here we go again! Commonplace links for your perusal.

“Is ambition a sin?”  – Rachel Held Evans responds to the “Top 200 Church Blogs” fiasco (basically a lot of really good women bloggers were missing for weird reasons and the compiler of the list wrote a patronizing apology) with a graceful analysis of the deeper assumptions involved.

“In Defense of the 4-letter Word” Addie Zeirman posts on the appropriate use of strong language in a Christian’s vocabulary. After a particularly rough week, my brother said he was feeling shitty, and got jumped on by some well-meaning friends for using “foul language” and not “representing Christ well” and not “using words that build up.” Here is a lovely, succinct post which captures why the comments of those kids rubbed me the wrong way.

“Jesus Was Otherwise Engaged: Impacting All Women, Not Just One” – Ortberg reacts to the discovery of a text supposedly from the 4th century which indicates that Jesus may have had a wife. His response is calm and thoughtful–the discovery, if true, doesn’t change much. Jesus already drastically impacted how women are viewed (in historically positive ways), and he elucidates on the beauty of this.

“The Dark Side of Weight Loss” – NSFW, but worth seeing. One woman photographs the ravages of her major weight loss on her body. This is art.

“Why Women Hide Their Pregnancies” – NYT article on pregnant woman in the workplace/on the job hunt. Makes me want to just move to Scandinavia. Women there get 6 months off work after they give birth, guaranteed. Humph.

“Julia Gillard Launches Blistering Attack on Sexism” – After I finish with Sweden, I’ll just to Australia. This video is the most epic blast of calm reason. If our presidential candidates could speak half this well, voter turnout would spike. Just watch it.

“Espresso and the Meaning of Life: Embracing Reality through Everyday Liturgies” – I’m happy to be introduced to this new webzine, Fare Forward. This post on the ritual of making coffee for the love of the thing is beautiful. Walker Percy, of course, is involved. It goes very nicely with my series on incarnation and eating.

“Ask a stay-at-home dad” – Last week, some bloggers said that stay-at-home dads are “man fails.” Utter silliness. Take a look at this delightful interview with a Christian dad and enjoy his apologetic for why he chose to stay home with his son.

“Bamfield’s John Vanden” – My brother- and sister-in-law introduced me to The Bills last week on the roadtrip. Some of the best new folk I’ve heard in a long time. If you like Allison Krauss, Mumford and Sons, or The Avett Brothers, you’ll like The Bills. Go listen!

Have recommendations for me? Email them to me at mattiechatham [at] gmail [dot] com.


Previous posts in this series: Loving Your FoodEating in Community, and Jesus Ate.

For the benefit of my readers: I write this for Christians, with the understanding that communion is a sacrament and an essential, regular part of a healthy practice of faith and a healthy church. For my own part, I am of the Anglican persuasion, believing in what is called the doctrine of “real presence” (as opposed to transubstantiation or the idea that communion is simply a memorial act). 

Anglican service in Portland, ME last week.

As I touched on in my last post, Jesus eating, as a man with ordinary people, transformed the manner in which we as Christians and humans can relate to each other and food. But that Jesus ate is really the fluffy part of his reinvention of community and eating through his incarnation. The real weight of this new perspective comes in his institution of the sacrament of communion. Every time he ate was either a foreshadowing or echo of this act, and every time the church gathers, we dutifully walk through the ceremonial reverencing of this act and acknowledge our odd but profound need for it.

The most sacred act of the church is the practicing of the sacrament of communion. This is really rather odd. It’s crass—the idea that we receive grace and sustenance because God died and we can eat his body and blood? It’s a repulsive concept in the elemental ways. Perhaps as a result, most evangelical churches skirt around the reality of what is implied by communion by sanitizing the sacrament  into a mere memorial act, a bread-and-wine mimic of the last supper to honor Christ’s final hours. The idea in these circles is that we eat the bread and wine a few times a year to remind us that Jesus broke bread and drank wine with his disciples as a foreshadowing of what would happen to his body, and so the church now mimics this last supper to recall what was done to his body for us. It’s tidy and clean. All symbolic, no gore, no rush to do it every week. This perspective is Gnostic, which is to say, it is a heretical mockery of the real thing.

Gnosticism is often explained in terms of its mysticism and achievement of holiness via secret knowledge and gradual initiation into said knowledge. But the reason it existed (and is still alive and well in a new form in the church today) is because the humanness of Jesus and the physicality of the cross and resurrection and ascension were difficult paradoxes in the ancient world. It didn’t sit well in the context of philosophies like Stoicism to have a God who affirmed the body. To accept the paradox of incarnation and Jesus as fully God and fully man would require believers to accept the worth of one’s own flesh and physicality. Instead, Gnosticism simplifies Christianity and removes this paradox, and allows Christianity to be all about the intellect, spiritual experience, and the knowledge of truth.  There is little value in the body or the physical life—because the flesh is wholly sinful, it should be dominated and made as irrelevant as possible to the spiritual life. The creeping discomfort of the Gnostic Christian with the physical aspect of being human undermines the sacraments and the daily routines of life. It says that your time is better spent in the Word than studying for tomorrow’s test at school. It says that prayer is more valuable than doing household chores. It says that worship songs are inherently better than any other songs. It says that art should only ever be beautiful, because only the true things are beautiful, and the nude body is always pornography and that a mundane or grittily gross scene from real life can’t be true art because it has ugliness (e.g., Thomas Kincade and his ilk). In essence, Gnosticism is an impatience with the realities of daily life and the sin and ugliness and slow realities of a physical body, and tries to practice Christianity as a sort of pre-heaven escapism by devaluing anything that is physical or mundane or ordinary. [My apologies to Dr. Messer for the content of this paragraph.]

Now, I understand the impulse of this skewed perspective. Life as a physical being is contradictory, and the most beautiful and the most gross are usually two sides of the same thing. Sex, for example, is a beautiful union where the purest of passions can be expressed in the safety of your lover’s affections and embraces. But it’s also a gross bodily function with funky noises and awkward angles. Likewise, eating can be an almost spiritual experience if the food is really good. But you still have to digest and pass it later. Childbirth, as well: it’s a life-changing and beautifully holy moment when a baby is born and takes its first gasping breathes and begins to cry, and suckles at the breast of its mother. But there’s also blood and mucus and feces to be cleaned up, and the mother may have tearing, and will usually be exhausted, pale, with greasy hair, and sweat trickling down her face. These ugly and gross sides of these events are things we’d like to do without, but because we are physical beings in a physical world, we cannot. Likewise, to sanitize communion as only a memorial act is an immature escapist impulse. We are physical beings, Jesus is a physical being, his death was a physical act, and communion cannot be just symbolism. To treat communion as if it was just symbolic is to cheapen his death in a way that is dangerous and irreverent.

[Before I continue, I must ask my readers to do me a favor: be comfortable with mystery, and don’t expect of me a theologian’s precision. I am not trying to give a completely thorough, systematic apologetic for the theological nuances of “real presence” in communion. I gave up on being Presbyterian in part because of the OCD-like obsession with a wholly reasonable theology. Paradox is an essential part of the Christian faith, and I am not equipped to be an educated defender of it. I am only trying to impart here my layman’s understanding of the significance of communion as a physical sacrament whereby God imparts grace tangibly to his people.]

So here we are: Gnostic Christianity creates a bad substitute for the real meaning of communion. Having explained this, I can now continue onto my larger point: Jesus ate and because he ate I can eat with a holy enjoyment of food and fellowship, imitating his united experience of food with people as a centering activity for healthy relationships.

Jesus was God incarnate, and as God incarnate, he achieved a restoration of relationships in the context of food as good and a guiltless pleasure.  When he ate the Passover feast with his disciples he made this personal, as he broke the bread and passed the cup and said to them “This is my body” and “This is my blood.” Suddenly it became more obvious what he meant during a talk with leaders of the Jews, when he said to them,

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. I tell you the truth, he who believes in me has everlasting life. I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” – John 6:44-58, NIV

Jesus’s body as manna for his people is, clearly, symbolic of God’s provision of the appropriate salvation for the needs of his people in the physical wilderness wanderings and in the spiritual desert of the old covenant isolation from God without blood appeasement for transgressions. This is an appropriate metaphorical parallel for Jesus, as the sacrificial Lamb of God, to draw. Whoever fed on the manna was saved; whoever puts their faith in Jesus’s sufficient sacrifice on their behalf is saved.

But it’s much more literal than just this, as became evident during the last supper. Jesus reiterated the literal command to eat his flesh and drink his blood, passing the bread and wine as physical symbols of this. He was there with them in this shared, communal experience, and partaking of it was in a way, the last seal of the fellowship existing between the disciples and with their Lord.

And when Jesus died on the cross, bleeding and mangled, and the propitiation for sins was achieved, the reality of partaking in the supper as partaking in his death and living by his death—both physically and spiritually—the deeper truth was made firm. At the command of Christ to remember his sacrifice by sharing the bread and wine as they shared in his body and blood whenever the disciples gathered together, the routine of communion was established, and fellowship with each other was renewed by the common need and the common cup, and the Holy Spirit sustained the fellowship and blessed the act of communion to the church.

This is, sort of, what is implied by the term “real presence” in communion: Christ is present through his Spirit when the believers gather in his name, and Christ is made tangible in the body and blood, the bread and wine, and the Spirit restores and renews the faith of the individual believers taking of this food, and restores and renews the unity and fellowship—the communion—of the church, of the saints.

And because of this, I say that tangible grace is directly imparted to the soul of the believer who partakes of the sacrament of communion. To take part in this sacrament requires nothing of the believer except for an acknowledgement of his sinfulness and need of spiritual food, his need of grace, and his need of fellowship with other believers to sustain his faith. (This is why, in the Anglican church, one joins in a congregational confession of sin and hears the words of peace from the scriptures, and then offers the hand of peace to the other congregants, before processing to the altar to kneel [an appropriate posture for those dependent on Christ for life] and receive [not take, but passively receive, reflecting our helplessness and God’s willingness to meet us just where we are in our worst selves] the sacrament and the blessing.) Grace is unmerited favor poured out with generosity from God on man—communion is the most physically real experience of grace in its purest, most elemental form a believer can have.

I like how one author describes it,

“Not only is Christ present at the altar, but He also gives Himself to us. As we eat the bread, we are receiving, in an intimate and personal way, His body that was broken on the cross. When we sip the wine, we are receiving His blood that sealed the covenant, assuring the forgiveness of sin. We are literally united with Christ—Christ crucified, resurrected, and ascended—bridging the gap between here and Golgotha, now and eternity.

It has been said that this contact with Christ is more direct and closer and more intimate than what His disciples enjoyed. Again, Christ comes to us. It is not something we do, but something Christ does, which we have only to receive. The Lord’s Supper is nothing less than the Gospel. . . .

There is nothing vague here. There is no need to worry about my decisions or whether or not I have been elected to be saved or whether or not I am sinful. In the Sacrament, Christ gives Himself to me. All of His promises and everything He did for my redemption and forgiveness on the cross are made so tangible, I can taste them. I am touching, in fact, the risen Christ, as the first disciples did. And God’s Word, ringing in my ears as I take this nourishment, tells me that His body and blood are for me. That means that my sins are actually forgiven, that I can be assured of God’s favor.” (The Spirituality of the Cross, Veith)

Because God incarnate as the man Jesus made such a big deal of instituting the sacrament of communion food, for the Christian, can never again be just something we put in our mouths to give us energy. Seriously, just reread the gospels with an eye out for the phrases, “body and blood,” “eat my flesh,” and for the idea of Jesus as food for eternal life. It is a central theme in his ministry, intertwining elegantly with his affirmation of the physical body as he walked about the country healing the bodies of those who believed, and eating with them and knowing them intimately through that fellowship.

God has taken flesh and eaten with us and made the very act of eating together with him and others a vital part of how we relate to him and each other. I would argue that a church isn’t a church if it’s not celebrating communion together regularly, because without it, our fellowship is only a heady and intellectual, rational sort of relating to God and to each other. With communion, our practice of faith and our need of grace and our need of each other suddenly become powerfully physical, and we must be united to take the elements in a sacramental, reverential way. It is the literal lifeblood of the church.

In our church on Sunday mornings, the priest prays over the elements and when he is done, he lifts them up for the congregation to see, saying,

The gifts of God for the people of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving.

And when I kneel to take the bread, he says to me,

The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for you, preserve your body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your heart by faith, with thanksgiving.

And then as I am given the cup,

The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for you, preserve your body and soul unto everlasting life. Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s blood was shed for you, and be thankful.

Some versions of the liturgy has this, instead:

The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven.
The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.

The wedding feast of the Lamb. The body and blood on the cross. The breaking of bread with the disciples and with the faithful, socially despicable. The God of holiness in human flesh, hungry. Jesus Christ, the bread of life.

Eating can’t be done just for its own sake ever again. It is now Christ-haunted.

{This post was written with this song on repeat in my “mental stereo.” Go listen.}

Iron and marble, wood and stone
Craftsman’s chisel, hammer and nail
All the straight lines form our gath’ring place
At the Altar of God, at the Communion Rail

And the powerful and common, we all come alike
With our faith so weak and our souls so frail
To dine upon the promises of Christ the Lamb
Kept safe for His sheep at the Communion Rail

I can’t help but watch this blessed parade
Of strangers and neighbors, we all fall and fail
We come to have our lives made new again
And to return our thanks at the Communion Rail

And a great cloud of witnesses surrounds us out of time
We will follow their footsteps beyond this earthly veil
We will all join together at the Supper of the Lamb
And we glimpse that shining time
At the Communion Rail

We will follow their footsteps beyond this earthly veil
And we glimpse that shining time now
At the Communion Rail 

Bob Bennett, “The Communion Rail”