The Sexualization of Christian Religious Experience by Colin Eckstein

TW: sexual violence

 

“I want to stand with you on a mountain.

I want to bathe with you in the sea.

I want to lay like this forever.

Until the sky falls down on me”[1]

 

“Oh Jesus . . .” comes a sultry moan from somewhere in the meagerly lit auditorium.

 

Typical slow-dance fodder for a ‘90s prom, this Sunday Truly, Madly, Deeply doubles as a Christian worship song. True to its original intent, however, we close our eyes, settle into the Divine embrace, and sway to the music hoping to be titillated. So on we sing:

 

“He is jealous for me, loves like a hurricane, I am a tree

Bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy”[2]

 

David Crowder Band’s How He Loves, a more traditional evangelical favorite (and most definitely intended as a worship song), is similarly laden with innuendo. Its relational paradigm is exciting, emotive:

 

“And heaven meets earth like an unforeseen kiss

And my heart turns violently inside of my chest

I don't have time to maintain these regrets

When I think about the way…

 

He loves us.”

 

By the third song, some clutch hands to chests or reach longing fingers to the sky. We squeeze hot tears from our eyes—whisper and whine “I love you Jesus!”—and work ourselves into an emotional frenzy, indulging in the masturbatory display we intend to please God.

 

● ● ●

 

In The 16 Strivings for God: the New Psychology of Religious Experience, Dr. Stephen Reiss proposes the first comprehensive psychological theory of religion since Freud.[3] Reiss asserts that in order to achieve mass appeal, religion must paradoxically satisfy both high- and low-demand for the 16 fundamental human motivations.[4] Christianity, as a world religion, must necessarily affirm high- and low- demands for Family, Status, Curiosity, etc. so that all may practice their faith as a true expression of their individual motivational profile (i.e. as aligns with their own various high- and low-demands for the 16 strivings).

A Christian with a high-demand for Family, for example, may be drawn to Pauline passages that liken the Church to a family and God to a father. Conversely, a Christian with a low-demand for Family may choose to emphasize Jesus’ command to “hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters”.[5] In expounding his theory, Reiss presents this and other dichotomies within Christian doctrine that allow for multiple interpretations and a “personalized” faith. Indeed, Reiss asserts, Christianity may be construed so as to fulfill a high- or low-demand for each and every of the 16 strivings—save one: Romance, or Sexuality. Citing a celibate clergy, Madonna, and Messiah, Reiss easily paints a picture of low-demand Romantic Christianity. He nonetheless fails to explain the empirical finding that Christianity also attracts high-demand Romance seekers.

While Reiss’ theory has both merits and shortcomings aplenty, these are not my focus here. I ask not if high-demand Romantic Christianity exists, but rather what it looks like. How has Christianity, notorious for its prudish sexual ethic, evolved to accommodate high-demand Romance seekers? And perhaps more importantly, have these changes made Christianity more healthy for and accessible to this population, or less? What is the potential for, as in the opening vignette, sexuality bleeding into spiritual practice?

I would here like to note that my intention is not to “mansplain” feminist critiques to those who have experienced first-hand the hurts of a male-dominated Church. I do not pretend to understand what it means to be an LGBTQ+ Christian, with friends and family praying for your identity to be stripped from you. I speak only of what I know—and of what I know only because I too am guilty. To women and LGBTQ+ readers, I hope this may serve as a humble apology and acknowledgment that these oft-dismissed theological “nit-picks” cause real, systemic problems.

To my fellow straight cis male readers, this piece is an exhortation to reject sexualized Christianity (and all the privileges that come with it) as the patriarchal perversion of an egalitarian Gospel. Even as Biblical heroes toppled giant phallic shrines,[6] we have erected in their place a God-ordained gender dominance that continues to poison Christian community and thought.

Christianity underwent dramatic transformation in the millennium of its founding. The apocalyptic backwater sect, after decrying Rome’s sinful excess, was named the official imperial religion. Jesus, who railed against the establishment;[7]  who lauded the poor, meek, and oppressed;[8] who was executed for crimes against the state[9]; became a symbol of the Roman Empire and its powerful elite. In what may constitute the most successful “rebranding campaign” of all time, the Christian God was remade in the image of man—a landholding citizen patriarch, to be specific.

The Lamb of God and “servant of all,” was crowned King of Kings (with Constantine his convenient second), lending validity (i.e. God-as-king) to the Roman hierarchy.[10] The Prince of Peace took up the sword and became (i.e. God-as-warrior), in the words of mega-pastor Mark Driscoll, “a prize-fighter with a tattoo down His leg…and the commitment to make someone bleed.”[11] The Biblical paternal metaphor (i.e. God-as-father), meant to convey God’s provision, protection, and unconditional love, came to resemble the head of a Roman household, a patriarch who underwrote the Power and Status of landowning men within a traditional social structure.[12] God-as-master endorsed the institution of slavery while God-as-groom, of particular interest to us here, called for the subjugation of women.[13] Female disciples and deacons, representing a threat to social order, were swiftly eliminated.[14]

The God-as-groom metaphor did not, at its inception, denote intimacy or “personal relationship.”[15] The romanticization of Christian religious experience, rather, arose during the late Medieval and Renaissance era, as courtly love and chivalric romance became mainstream ideals and the female form the subject of poetry and art (even while religious themes remained prominent).[16] As the Christian human-divine relational paradigm was infused with Sexual/Romantic subtext and imagery, however, its foundations in Power, Status, and privileged affection endured. Take, for instance, Renaissance artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s seminal sculpture, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa (1652). This Baroque masterpiece depicts a swooning (possibly orgasming) nun and spear-wielding angel as described in the autobiography of Teresa of Avila (1515-1582):

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.[17]

St. Teresa’s rapturous religious encounter, novel in its application of the God-as-lover-metaphor, nonetheless continues to depict God as violent (God-as-warrior) and dominating (God-as-master, God-as-king, even God-as-father or God-as-groom). God forces His love onto Teresa; “divinity intrudes on an earthly body.”[18] At its inception Romantic Christianity was the product of toxic chauvinism.

Today, high-demand Romantic Christianity continues to normalize choice-less love and trivialize the importance of consent in love relationships. Christ exists as a deadly cocktail of God-as-lover and God-as-master. He resembles a stalker ex-boyfriend, knocking, knocking, knocking on the door of your heart and demanding to come in so He can love you.[19] Seeking fulfillment elsewhere is hopeless: you can’t leave him. He knows what’s best for you. Raised in a patriarchal Protestant South, Flannery O’Connor identifies a palpable fear of divine pursuit in her novel Wise Blood: “Jesus was so soul-hungry that he had died, one death for all . . . and Jesus wasn’t going to leave [me] ever. Jesus would never let me forget that I was redeemed . . . Jesus would have [me] in the end.”[20]

This is not to say that Romantic Christianity is always this apparent or extreme. Evangelicalism at large tends to prefer the God-as-boyfriend trope, instructing young women to practice celibacy while playing a subordinate role in a love relationship. Christian pop artist Jamie Grace typifies the God-as-boyfriend mentality in her song Beautiful Day: “It's a love so true I can never get enough of You / This feeling can't be wrong / I'm about to get my worship on / Take me away.”[21] Jesus has become Edward Cullen, whose coveted affection you don’t deserve and can’t live without. Christian women, meanwhile, are encouraged to see themselves as Bella Swan, innocent and vulnerable, with Jesus as their sparkly, chivalrous, and endlessly devoted lover from heaven (literally). It is no wonder that Christian relational paradigms so closely resemble modern (problematic) Romantic ideals.

There is, however, good news: Christianity can change again. In his Defense of Everything Else, G. K. Chesterton compares himself to an “English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island.”[22] Fancying himself the first to set foot in New South Wales, the yachtsman realizes with a start that he’s planted the Union Jack on the Pavilion steps of old South Wales. Similarly, Chesterton recounts his journey to “found a heresy of [his] own; and when [he] had put the last touches to it, discovered that it was orthodoxy.”[23] Overcome by spiritual wanderlust, Chesterton sets out beyond the borderlands of Christendom only to find himself at the foot of the cross.

So too we must leave mainstream Christianity behind in order to return to that first, fundamental metaphor on which it was founded: God-as-love. Instead of perpetuating rape culture through victim blaming and slut shaming, we can (indeed, must) stand in solidarity with victims of sexual violence, openly affirm sexual expression regardless of marital status, sexual orientation, or gender identity. The language and imagery we use have power to shape both individual and communal identities. It is of the utmost importance, then, that it is love we are living out—pursuing in relationships both human and divine.

[1] Hayes, D. & Jones, D. (1997). Truly Madly Deeply. Recorded by Savage Garden. On Truly Madly Deeply. Columbia Records.

[2] McMillan, J. M. (2005) How He Loves. Recorded by David Crowder Band. On Church Music. Sixsteps.

[3] Reiss, S. (2015). The 16 Strivings for God: The New Psychology of Religious Experiences. Mercer University Press.

[4] Ibid. For reference, the 16 strivings are as follows: Curiosity, Acceptance, Eating, Family, Honor, Idealism, Independence, Order, Physical activity, Power, Romance, Saving, Social contact, Status, Tranquility, and Vengeance.

[5] Luke 14:26, Holy Bible. New Revised Standard Version. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. Print.

[6] Asherah poles stood at Canaanite holy sites to honor the Ugaritic mother-goddess Asherah, consort of El (whom the phallic shrines were meant to arouse). Asherah poles are expressly prohibited in Exodus 34:13 and Deuteronomy 16:21. King Josiah is praised by God in 2 Kings 23 for tearing them down.

[7] Jesus harshly criticizes the religious establishment in Matthew 23:1-39, Mark 12:35-40, and Luke 11:37-54; 20:45-47. Jesus’ criticisms of Rome and the political establishment are more thinly veiled in Matthew 22:21 and others.

[8] Matthew 5-7, Holy Bible. New Revised Standard Version. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. Print.

[9] Pontius Pilate orders that a sign be posted above Jesus on the cross stating "Jesus of Nazareth, The King of the Jews" to give public notice of the legal charge against him.

[10] Mark 9:35, Holy Bible. New Revised Standard Version. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. Print.

[11] Anthony B. Robinson. The anti-Mark Driscoll: Resisting cage-fighter Jesus. (2010, February 25). Retrieved March 13, 2016, from http://crosscut.com/2010/02/the-antimark-driscoll-resisting-cagefighter-jesus/

[12] Martin, D. B. (2012). New Testament History and Literature. Yale University Press.

[13] See John 3:29, Mark 2:19, Matthew 9:15, Luke 5:34, Matthew 25.

[14] Marie Noel Keller, Priscilla and Aquila: Paul's Coworkers in Christ Jesus (Paul's Social Network: Brothers and Sisters in Faith; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010).

[15]Bell, R. (2011). Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (Reprint edition). HarperCollins e-books.

[16] Lewis, C. S. (2013). The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press.

[17] Avila, S. T. of. (2010).Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications.

[18] Rebidoux, M. (2014). Deeper than the Entrails is That Great Love! A Phenomenological Approach to “Spiritual Sensuality” in Teresa of Ávila. The Heythrop Journal55(2), 216–229. 

[19] A play on Revelation 3:20.

[20] O’Connor, F. (2007). Wise Blood: A Novel (Reissue edition). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

[21] Grace, J. (2014). Beautiful Day. Recorded by Jamie Grace. On Ready to Fly.

[22] Chesterton, G. K. (2009). Orthodoxy. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

[23] Ibid.

Posted on September 2, 2016 .