Associate Dean for Ministerial Studies and Senior Lecturer on Ministry
Harvard Divinity School
Friday, November 5, 2004
I am honored to have been invited to be with you this weekend at this important conference and to share this podium with such incredible preachers and teachers. I have admired your work from afar for some time, and it is a very great joy to be able to stand before you to thank you for it. In the midst of the fear that has gripped and divided so many Christian communities, you have born witness to a vision of church that takes its shape not from fear but from God’s call, a call that comes in every moment of every day, to all of us, every one. With your ears pressed close to scripture and your hearts wide open, you have helped us all imagine what the church would look like if we stopped trying to legislate a call that summons us from the rising of the sun to its setting, a call that thunders across the cosmos, over oceans and land, through the open landscape of our lives, and the hidden silence of our hearts. You have helped us imagine a church that does not try to limit God’s mighty call with amendments and rules as if we know better than God whom God wishes to call into ministry, whose lives and commitments God wishes to bless. And I’m not just talking about Presbyterians here. You are bearing witness to the whole body of Christ, offering a vision of God’s freedom to all of us. In the wake of Tuesday’s elections, that witness is more important than ever.
I am not myself a Presbyterian, but as a lifelong member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I consider myself a close relative. I have had the joy of teaching many aspiring Presbyterian ministers, including Sam Adams, the son of your own Joanna Adams. This semester, I have a young Presbyterian woman in one of my classes, and I wish you could hear how she speaks about your church. She is passionate about the Presbyterian church. Now, she was, by her own admission, the kind of child who would rather read the Book of Order than go out and play, but she was also blessed, in her very small town, to have had pastors who nurtured that interest. When she talks about her call to ministry, she talks about the minister who taught her what it meant to be a Presbyterian in afternoon conversations around his kitchen table, with the life of his family humming all around them. She speaks about the minister who encouraged her to travel to General Assembly as a youth leader and by doing so, cracked open the world for her. She grew up in the church in all the best ways. She was formed there, she struggled with faith there, she encountered the living God there. And when, as a young woman, she fell in love with a woman, she was held and supported and loved by her church. When one of her classmates expressed surprise that a small rural congregation could be so accepting, my student answered fiercely: “but they know me. They’ve known me all my life. And we’ve always stuck together.”
This is not a naive young woman. She knows there are challenges ahead; she is brave, certainly; but God has called her to ministry, and the home of her heart is the Presbyterian Church. She believes there is a place for her there because there always has been.
One Sunday last spring, in my church in Cambridge, we celebrated the wedding of our pastor after the morning service. Rev. Mary Luti is the pastor I’ve been waiting for my whole life. A scholar of Teresa of Avila, a former member of a Roman Catholic religious order, she has a combination of Catholic spirituality and congregation-based polity that I find irresistible. Her sermons are like food and drink to me, like vitamins. Gently, she has moved our very New England-y protestant congregation to embrace more silence in our worship, to come to the Lord’s table more often. And yet she can sit through a three-hour annual meeting with such relish that you’d think she’d been a congregationalist all her life! She has also made our children more visible in our life together, inviting their participation and leadership at every level of church life. We all feel so blessed by her ministry.
Last spring, after our morning service had ended, Mary stepped out of her role as pastor and into the role of bride as she and her partner of twenty-three years, Rev. Anne Minton, stood before the congregation and pledged themselves to one another in marriage. (Of course, you know what it’s like to try to pastor the pastors–Mary shouted Amen to all the prayers, and Anne made sure everybody got to coffee hour when the ceremony was over!) It was a lovely service, brief and dignified, a service that honored the twenty-three years of fidelity that had gone before this moment. For our congregation, it was the high point of a month when all of Cambridge–all of Massachusetts–seemed lit by love, from the wedding cake and dancing on the lawn of city hall at midnight when the first marriage licenses were issued to gay couples, to the long days of weddings at the Arlington Street Church in Boston, to the quiet service in our own sanctuary celebrating the commitment between our pastor and her beloved.
We’re working for a day when the story of my student and my pastor will not seem like miracle stories. We’re working for a day when God’s call will reach young people unimpeded by our fear of whom they love. We’re working for a day when the most striking miracle of any wedding will be that two people have pledged themselves in love to one another for a lifetime. That day has not yet come–if we know anything after last Tuesday, we know that–but it is coming. And when we find ourselves living in that day, we will have you and others like you to thank. You are bringing us to that day by keeping faith: with God, with the gospel, with the church, with the red states and the blue states, with those who agree with you and those who don’t. It is not easy to stand in a place of such pain and keep faith. I am so glad to be here to say thank you, and to learn from you.
Just as feminist theology, with its insistence on careful attention to how we name God, really reopened the question of God for church, so the struggles around sexuality, ordination and marriage have reopened the question of the place of the body in Christian faith. As painful as this struggle is, this is one of the gifts it has brought us: it has caused us to turn to our faith, to ask what help we might find there to help us think about and talk about and live our lives as embodied creatures. It has caused us to turn to our faith for help in learning how to honor our bodies and the bodies of others.
There aren’t many places in our culture shaped by the conviction that the body is sacred, that it is holy, that it is worthy of blessing and care. We don’t read it in the glossy magazines. We don’t hear it from insurance providers or pharmaceutical companies. Hollywood doesn’t often show us the mystery of fragile, vulnerable bodies somehow made in God’s image. And an affirmation of the goodness of the body doesn’t seem to be on the ballot anywhere.
But we don’t hear this message often enough in church, either. And that’s a tragedy, for the church and for the world. Churches are among the few places in this culture where we can go to learn that every body–every single body–is worthy of the tenderest care. So when we Christians fail to draw on the resources our faith genuinely offers to honor our bodies and the bodies of others, we fail spectacularly.
Christian life depends on practices that honor the body in gestures large and small. When we wash a child in the waters of baptism, when we eat together at the Lord’s Table, when we take our youth on a ski trip or welcome our homeless neighbors to a hot meal in the fellowship hall or when we grasp one another’s hands in worship at the sharing of Christ’s peace, we have an opportunity to illuminate and clarify God’s gift of embodiment, the treasure our bodies are and the care they deserve.
But, as you know very well, Christianity offers an ambiguous legacy when it comes to the body. We have not always lived as if the bedrock convictions of our faith were the creation of human beings in God’s image, the incarnation of God’s presence in a body as vulnerable as any other, and the resurrection of that body from the dead. No where is this more true than in the realm of sexuality. The sexual body does not exist apart from the body that was made in the image of God. Sexual desire does not exist in isolation from other desires. But we have set sexuality apart somehow, as a specialized topic. We’ve paid a terrible price for that, perhaps most visibly in the clergy sexual abuse scandals. Because the worst of the perpetrators wouldn’t have been helped by another workshop on boundary issues. Not that we don’t need workshops on boundary issues–of course we do. But what we need more is a whole church culture that so cherishes the body, that sees so clearly the image of God in every body that silence could never grow up around the violation of a body, most especially the body of a child. What we need are leaders who know–who really know–how precious our bodies are in the sight of God, who make the body visible in worship and conversation, and who are aghast and brokenhearted and quick to act when they learn that a body has been harmed.
So a conference like this one is a great gift. By grounding our conversation about sexuality in the Christian conviction that we have been made in the image of God, the conference organizers have invited us to consider sexuality not as a specialized subject–or problem–but as an integral part of our lives as Christians, as human beings, as embodied creatures.
To help us into this conversation, the conference organizers have offered four important questions: how can we make careful, biblically informed decisions about ethical living? What standards should guide the church and its ordained leadership? How can we learn to talk about things we’d rather not talk about? How can we listen faithfully for God’s lively Word? It’s the third question I’d like to take up with you this afternoon–how can we learn to talk about things we’d rather not talk about–because we cannot honor the sexual body if it is not visible, and one of the ways we make it visible is through the stories we tell about it.
One of the places where Christian stories about sex have been critiqued recently has been, interestingly enough, in children’s literature, specifically and sharply in Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass. May I ask how many of you have read these books? They are very popular with most kids and adults, and the third book in the trilogy, The Amber Spyglass, won the Whitbread Award, a prestigious literary prize normally reserved for literature for adults.
Pullman’s trilogy has also been proclaimed “worthy of the bonfire,” by one Christian critic, and Pullman himself has been called “the most dangerous man in Britain.” “Pullman does for atheism,” another critic concludes, “what C.S. Lewis did for God.”(1)
Pullman’s argument is, in fact, with C.S. Lewis’s, especially his Narnia series which Pullman has described as “an invaluable guide to what is wrong and cruel and selfish.”(2) He bases this strong assessment on the theology embraced by the books, which he argues are marked by a devaluing of the world and the body. He is especially bothered by the last book in the series, The Last Battle, in which Lewis portrays the death of a family in a train accident as a fortunate event, the beginning, as Lewis the narrator says, of the family’s “real story.” Such a plot twist, Pullman says, could only come from a religious perspective that utterly disdains embodied life.
But Pullman reserves his most intense critique for the way Susan Pevensie, one of the four children who find Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and reign there for years as kings and queens before returning to their childhood in England during World War II, is left out of the eschatological ending. “My sister Susan,” announces her brother Peter to Narnia’s last king, as they stand together at the threshold of heaven, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.” “Oh Susan!” adds another character. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She was always a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”(3)
This is the story Pullman believes Christianity offers about sexuality–that a developing awareness of one’s body (especially if it is a female body) and a growing erotic consciousness disqualifies one from admittance to the Kingdom of Heaven. Now, one may want to argue with Pullman’s reading of Lewis. Or one may wish that Pullman would put down his Lewis and read a little more widely in Christianity. But it’s hard to deny that Christianity is marked, throughout its history, by a fear of women and women’s sexuality–to which we can now add gay and lesbian sexuality–and by a profound anxiety about the power of erotic desire.
In contrast to Lewis’s stories of Narnia, Pullman offers a tale he has described as “Paradise Lost for teenagers.”(4) In the trilogy, two children on the cusp of puberty named Lyra and Will save the living and the dead from the authoritarian powers of what Pullman calls “the kingdom of Heaven”–and from God, who turns out to be an ancient, demented angel, creator of nothing, propped up by powers and principalities for authoritarian ends. What really animates the universe and all its worlds in Pullman’s story is a substance called Dust, which as an angel in the story explains, is “what happens when matter begins to understand itself.” “Conscious beings make Dust,” another angel says, “they renew it all the time, by thinking and feeling and reflecting, by gaining wisdom and passing it on.”
In Pullman’s story, the universe is a palimpsest of worlds, as one critic has put it, all lying flat against each other. Will is from Oxford, England in our world. Lyra is from another Oxford, where human beings have what Pullman calls “daemons”–an animal nearly always of the opposite sex, who, while a separate body is part of the human, like an embodied soul or conscience. Humans and their daemons cannot be separated without great pain; even out of sight of one another, they start to ache. The daemon can change its form until the human to which it is attached comes into sexual awareness in puberty. Then the daemon settles into its final form. We first meet Lyra’s daemon as a moth fluttering about her, arguing with her about her actions, and later, when she’s hiding in a wardrobe (shades of Lewis!), changes into an ermine and sleeps curled around her neck.
In Lyra’s world, children are being abducted by the church’s General Oblation Board and taken north, a region, if you remember your Narnia, C.S. Lewis valorized. In Pullman’s north, by contrast, terrible things are happening to these children. They are being severed from their daemons in an experiment to find out what happens in the transition from innocence to experience. Severed from their daemons, the children live a sort of semi-conscious half-life, never reaching puberty, never coming to full sexual awareness, and so not creating more Dust–which the universe needs to flourish and survive but which the church, in Pullman’s story, fears.
In the book of Genesis read in Lyra’s world, the tempter says this to Adam and Eve: “For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and your daemons shall assume their true forms, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”(5) The Dust that is produced when a young person comes to sexual consciousness and his or her daemon assumes its final form is interpreted by the church in Lyra’s world as original sin. By severing children from their daemons, the church tries to find out whether or not it is possible to live free from original sin, believing that if they destroy Dust, they will destroy death itself.
Lyra’s adventures between the worlds begin when she travels north to rescue a friend who has been abducted by the General Oblation Board. She succeeds, only to have her friend perish at the hand of Lyra’s own father, who is also looking for the origin of Dust. He severs the child from his daemon in order to generate the energy needed to blast his way into another universe. Brokenhearted, Lyra and her daemon cross the threshold of the other world opened in the blast. There they meet Will, who possesses a knife with which he can slice his way between worlds
After many adventures, too many to list here, involving armored bears, witches, an instrument by which Lyra can tell what is and is not true, and a pair of gay male angels who save Lyra and Will from the assassin the church has dispatched to kill them, Lyra and Will eventually come to the world of the dead, a sort of prison camp presided over by screeching harpies hungry for stories of the world above ground. It’s not hell, it’s just where all the dead go; heaven and hell have been a lie all along. At the end of the third volume of Pullman’s trilogy, in a terrifying scene inspired by Dante, Lyra and Will enter the world of the dead. There, they negotiate with the harpies who guard the underworld to allow the dead safe passage out in exchange for true stories, by which the harpies are nourished and fed. And they use their knife to open a window in the underworld through which the dead can forever escape.
As the dead drift out into the open air, “becoming part of the earth and the dew and the night breeze,”(6) as Pullman puts it, one of them speaks to Dr. Mary Malone, a former nun turned physicist who will play the tempter in Pullman’s retelling of the fall. Mary is from our world, but has found her way into this parallel world, where living things are dying because the Dust that sustains their life has been flooding into the sky and out of their world. “Tell them stories,” the ghost says to her. “They need the truth. You must tell them true stories, and everything will be well. Just tell them stories.”(7)
The stories that Mary Malone tells Lyra and Will are stories of sexual desire and of the potential deep relationship between sexual experience and self-knowledge. The first story she tells is the story of her first kiss as a young girl herself on the edge of adolescence, a story of how she met a boy at a birthday party, and how they talked and talked and talked, and he touched her lips with a bit of marzipan from a birthday cake, and how she loved him for his gentleness, and how her body ached and ached, and how they were each too shy to move, and then suddenly they were kissing each other, and oh, she says, it was paradise.
As Mary spoke, Lyra felt something strange happen to her body. She felt as if she had been handed the key to a great house she hadn’t known was there, a house that was somehow inside her, and as she turned the key, she felt other doors opening deep in the darkness, and lights coming on. She sat trembling as Mary went on…It was the strangest thing: Lyra knew exactly what [Mary] meant, and half an hour earlier she would have had no idea at all. And inside her, that rich house with all its doors open and all its rooms lit stood waiting, quiet, expectant.(8)
The next day, Mary Malone packs a lunch for Lyra and Will of bread and cheese and–you guessed it–fruit, and they go out to explore a world that is new to them. After all of their adventures, they are unexpectedly shy and awkward with one another and finally, in an imitation of the marzipan story, Lyra lifts a piece of ripe red fruit to Will’s lips, and they are both undone. Brimming with happiness and love, they cover each other in kisses of utter adoration. And as these young people come into a consciousness of their bodies and of their bodies in loving, mutual relation to another’s body, the Dust that had been flooding into the sky, leaving the world parched and dying, begins to reverse its direction. Lyra and Will are a new Eve and Adam, who save the world instead of losing it, whose movement from innocence to experience brings life, not death. When Mary Malone sees them returning, hand in hand, talking quietly with their heads close to touching, they seem to her “the true image of what human beings always could be, once they had come into their inheritance.”(9)
All of this happens toward the end of the story, but it is not itself the end. Before we turn the last page, stories of erotic desire are matched by stories of the pleasures of solitude. And the embrace of sexual knowledge is matched by the refusal of sexual pleasure for a greater good. What has stayed with me, though, is the description of the effect on Lyra of a story about sexual desire and pleasure told by a trusted adult who loves and respects her, somebody who desires her safety and wellbeing, and who wants her first erotic experience to be joyful and full of love
Pullman describes the effect of Mary Malone’s story on Lyra as an experience of opening. Lyra feels as if she has been given a key to a house hidden inside her, a house that lights up, room by room, as she takes her first steps inside. Pullman’s image reminds me of Catherine of Siena’s “cell of self-knowledge” or Teresa of Avila’s “interior castle.” It’s an image of freedom and knowledge, of having doors open and lights come on, of entering more deeply into the mystery of one’s inner life without impediment. Could we ask anything more of a story?
Our faith is a faith of stories, stories that have opened those spaces of freedom and knowledge inside of us. As you say so beautifully in your covenant, “the words of scripture provide life and nourishment; they are desirable, delicious and sweet.”
When we’re anxious though, we often lose our faith in the shaping power of stories. We rush along instead to the story’s moral, grinding our narratives down into propositions and rules. If you’ve ever tried to speak to a young person about sex, you know how hard it is not to do this. How quickly we move to define the boundaries–this far and no farther!–how quickly we move to the do’s and don’ts, how easily we communicate our fear. When it comes to sex, we’d much rather legislate than tell a story. Stories take too much time to do their shaping work. They are imprecise. They wander. We can’t guarantee how they will be received or interpreted. We can’t predict their effect.
In thinking about the question posed by this conference–how do we learn to talk about things we don’t want to talk about?–I wonder if the imprecision and multi-layeredness of stories might work in our favor. One of the reasons it’s so hard to talk about sex–in church or at home–is that often there’s no context for it, no nest of stories to cushion our speech, no garden of stories for it to grow from, organically. And so talk about sex seems to come out of the blue–for the teenagers who suddenly have it thrust at them in Sunday School or youth group or the couple struggling in their relationship who comes to the pastor for counseling. Just as the sexual body does not exist apart from the body that eats and drinks, bathes and dresses, rests and exercises and work, talk about sex doesn’t flourish in isolation. It flourishes when our conversation and our practices make all dimensions of our embodiment visible. It flourishes when we are constantly exploring–in our everyday meals and in the Lord’s Supper, in bathing and in baptism, in caring for others and in caring for ourselves–what it means to be made in the image of God. And it would flourish, I believe, if we could find ways of telling the stories we have to tell about the sexual dimension of human life, both the shared stories of our faith and the particular stories of our lives.
Now, I know how committed this group is to beginning with scripture, and our natural tendency is to begin at the beginning, as Philip Pullman did, with Adam and Eve. But it’s so easy to get stuck there. I wonder what would happen if we just leapt right over Genesis to the Song of Songs. We don’t read it enough; we don’t preach on it. The only places I ever hear the Song of Songs read out loud is at weddings and in monasteries! Rev. Sheila Gustafson is leading a workshop today on the Song, which I commend to you. We need to make this poem more known in our communities, we need to be able to draw on it.
“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!” Bernard of Clairvaux preached several sermons on this opening verse; so can we. Right in the middle of our Bibles, between the pragmatic Ecclesiastes and the sublime Isaiah, a woman, “black and beautiful,” and a man, “radiant and ruddy,” speak the language of desire, cataloguing every inch of each other’s body, every smell and taste. “Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine,” he says to her. “His cheeks are like beds of spices, yielding fragrance. His lips are lilies, distilling liquid myrrh,” she tells her friends. “Your two breasts,” he sings, “are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle.” “I am my beloved’s,” she exults, “and his desire is for me.”
Probably, like me, you have been to weddings where the readers could not get through their reading without bursting into hysterical laughter. But that’s OK–when we’re in love we say things that sound silly to any ears other than ours or our beloved. If we’re going to talk about things we don’t want to talk about, it will help if laughter is part of it.
I’ve also seen readers cry while reading the Song of Songs at weddings. It is song, after all, about desire, and so it is inevitably a song about the pain of separation, of missed meetings, of absence. “O that his left hand were under my head,” the woman sings, “and that his right hand embraced me!” Describing a moment when her lover knocked on her door and she hesitated for a moment to open, the woman speaks some of the sexiest lines in any literature.
My beloved thrust his hand into the opening,
and my inmost being yearned for him.
I arose to open to my beloved,
and my hands dripped with myrrh,
my fingers with liquid myrhh,
upon the handles of the bolt.
When she opens the door, however, he is gone, and she heads out into the city to search for him.
I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
if you find my beloved,
tell him this:
I am faint with love.
How did this erotic poem make it into the Bible? No one knows for sure. But scores of interpreters, both Jewish and Christian, have found in it the song of the human yearning for God and God’s desire to be in relationship with humanity. The Song of Songs is read at the festival of the Passover as a reminder that God delivered Israel from slavery not only because God was contractually bound to do so through the covenant but also because God loved them and desired their good. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, in the 12th century, wrote more than eighty sermons on the Song and never got past the third chapter, finding in the poem a means to come into intimate relationship with God. St. John of the Cross, in the 16th century, discovered in the Song the inspiration for his own poetry, a poetry of absence and longing and desire for God.
Like all great poetry, the Song of Songs can easily sustain such a range of interpretations. But it also resists being read only as a spiritual text about human beings and God. Even Bernard of Clairvaux with his eighty sermons on the first three chapters knew this. He counseled that young monks and nuns should not be allowed to read it until their faith had matured, because of the sexual feelings it was able to inspire. As many interpretations as the Song of Songs has received, it remains a testimony to mutuality in love, to the beauty of the human body, to the goodness of sexual desire and the power of love.
“Love is as strong as death,” the Song proclaims, “passion fierce as the grave.”
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love all the wealth of his house,
it would be utterly scorned.
In the Song of Songs, desire is portrayed as the poet Mark Doty described it in Heaven’s Coast, Doty’s meditation on the death of his lover, Wally Roberts. There, he described desire as “the ineradicable force that binds us to the world.”(10) The relationship described in the Song is one of mutuality; the lovers are evenly matched in the force of their desire. They are equally vulnerable in their desire to be desired by the other; they are as determined to give pleasure as they are to receive it. In the Song, desire leads not to exploitation but rather, as Doty says, to “participation, the will to involve oneself in the body of the world, in the principle of things expressing itself in splendid specificity, a handful of images: a lover’s irreplaceable body, the roil and shimmer of sea overshot with sunlight, a handful of cherries, the texture and weight of a word.”
Through desire, Doty writes, “we are implicated in another being, which is always the beginning of wisdom, isn’t it?”(11) That, I think, is a great way to account for the presence of the Song of Songs in the wisdom literature of the Bible–and why it ought to matter to us as we try to create a context for real conversation about sex in relation to Christian life. Because it shows us a path, through desire, outside the boundaries of our individual selves. Because it offers a way of receiving the world that is motivated by love. Because it teaches that in seeking the pleasure of another we may find our own deepest pleasure, and in the commitment to another we may come to know ecstasy. This is a story we need to hear more often; it is a story we need to learn to tell.
Of course, many of the stories of our faith that have to do with sexuality are not about sexual pleasure. Many of them are about the refusal of sexual relationships, and those are ones that often give us trouble. The Song of Songs celebrates the exquisite flame of sexual desire; Paul says it is better to marry than to burn. St. Augustine, who is often cited as the cause of all our troubles with sexuality, famously refused to become a Christian until he was sure he could live without sex. Are these stories we should listen to, stories we should tell?
They stories require our analysis and our critique, to be sure, but they also beckon us to listen in them for a story that might be worth telling. I think it is possible to hear in the words of early Christians like Paul and Augustine not only a suspicion of human sexuality but also an honest acknowledgment of the power of sexual desire, a struggle to understand their vulnerability to it, and a real desire for freedom. It is possible, as Augustine knew, to be imprisoned by one’s desires and to become locked in patterns of satisfying them that make use of others as a means of one’s satisfaction only. It is possible to be led by one’s desires away from one’s most profound aspirations, away from the life one hopes to lead.
There have been times in Christian history when the refusal of sexual relationships meant the refusal to believe in the goodness of the body. But there have also been times when Christians have refused sexual relationships in order to preserve their freedom. As the great historian, Peter Brown,(12) teaches us, when some early Christians, men and women alike, decided to live outside of the institutions of marriage and family, they declared that their bodies belonged to God, instead of to the Roman Empire, for whom the body and its desires were tools for empire building. When these early Christians chose sexual abstinence in order to preserve their life’s energies for prayer and service, they generated no new citizens, no new soldiers, no new cities. They shocked their contemporaries by becoming so “useless.” By claiming their bodies and their desires for God, they claimed the freedom to make their own choices about the currents in which their sexual energies would run, the uses to which their bodies would be put.
For women especially, sexual abstinence has sometimes been one of the few roads leading to freedom. The history of Christianity is full of stories of women who run to the monastery or the hermitage or the anchorhold to escape the marriages arranged for them by their parents and to embrace a life of study, prayer and service. In an age when women married young to men not of their choosing, whose bodies were worn out early by the hard work of frequent childbearing, the celibacy practiced in women’s religious communities meant not the end of freedom but the beginning of it–freedom to seek God, to become educated, to read and write, to preach and teach. And it is clear from some of their writings, which describe their life with God in deeply erotic terms, the celibate life by no means required an end to an engagement with the sexual dimension of the self.
These stories are worth telling, too, for all of us, but maybe especially for young people awakening to sexual desire for the first time. Like Mary Malone in Philip Pullman’s story, we want our young people to experience that awakening as the unlocking of a door inside of them, not as door that locks them in. Bad early sexual experience is so wounding, so difficult to recover from. In our time, when memoirs of extreme and dangerous sexual experience crowd bookstore shelves and receive admiring reviews, it’s good to remember and tell stories about how postponing or refusing sexual relationships can also be a gesture toward freedom. It is good for young people, whose sexual selves are still unfolding, to know that delaying full sexual expression might preserve for them the freedom to live into a deeply satisfying sexual life as adults. It is good for couples practicing the discipline of sexual fidelity to remember the freedom that deepens over time when two people remain committed to one another’s pleasure in a context of trust and faithfulness. And it’s good for those living with or without a sexual relationship to remember that the erotic dimension of life is not dependent on sexual intercourse. Now, none of these goods is going to sound very attractive when expressed as a commandment or a proposition. But a story–a story is complex enough to allow all of these goods to unfold.
The sharing of stories takes time, but it worth the wait, worth the meandering, worth the stuttering and stumbling and the struggle to find the right words. The difference between a story and a rule is the difference between a person encountering an amendment banning same-sex marriage on a ballot in a voting booth and encountering two women emerging from a church with rice in their hair, and joy on their faces, who pause to tell the story of how they met and came to love each other. It’s the difference between encountering an amendment banning the ordination of gays and lesbians on the floor of any of our general assemblies and sitting around a table listening to a lifelong Presbyterian talk about the many ways God has reached her, held her, and called out to her. We have a lot of work to do with amendments, of course–some we will oppose, some we may write ourselves. But let’s remember to bring both our opposition and our own attempts at legislation up out of our stories, and let’s remember to keep those stories visible and sharable.
“Thou shalt not is soon forgotten,” Philip Pullman has written, “but once upon a time lasts forever.”(13) I think he is right about that. But he is wrong that C.S. Lewis’s story of Susan Pevensie’s exclusion from Narnia is in any way a definitive Christian story about the sexual body. A Christian story about the sexual body would not be a story of exclusion or disgust. It would be a story of desire and mutuality, of passion and commitment, of fidelity and freedom. It would be a story very like the story of Jesus–a deeply human story of reaching across boundaries, of risking ourselves in relationship with others. It would be a story, as Amy Miracle read to us from Romans this morning, of “the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” And it would not be one story, but many stories–stories lying very near to one another, like the worlds in Philip Pullman’s universe, a palimpsest of stories in which stories do not block each other out but allow each other to shine through.
The more stories we can tell, the more harbors we will create for human beings struggling to understand and live sexuality as part of a meaningful human life. I am grateful for the many stories you have already evoked through your covenant. May you tell many, many, many more.
1. Quoted in Claire Squires, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy (New York: Continuum, 2004), pp. 72-72.
2. Philip Pullman, “The Republic of Heaven,” The Horn Book, November/December 2001, p. 661.
3. C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle (New York: HarperCollins, 1956), p. 154.
4. Quoted in Squires, p. 18.
5. Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass (New York: Random House, 1995), p. 372.
6. Pullman, The Amber Spyglass (New York: Knopf, 2000), p. 432.
8. Ibid., p. 444.
9. Ibid., p. 470.
10. Mark Doty, Heaven’s Coast (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), p. 17.
11. Ibid., p. 20.
12. Peter Brown, The Body and Society (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988).
13. Quoted in Squires, p. 63.