Tag Archives: sexuality

How Did We Get Here?

Where do we come from? Leaving aside the puerile snickers of our younger selves, we eventually learn “the facts of life” and get on with it. The funny thing is, conception wasn’t really understood until the late nineteenth century. Obviously people had been reproducing from the very beginning. Chances are they were curious about the matter even then. Scientific investigation was a long way off, however. Edward Dolnick tells the story of the discovery in a wide-ranging, entertaining, and informative way in The Seeds of Life. The subtitle gives an idea of the range and quirkiness of the account: From Aristotle to da Vinci, from Sharks’ Teeth to Frogs’ Pants, the Long and Strange Quest to Discover Where Babies Come From. I used to tell my students that using the Bible for sexual ethics was difficult because biblical writers really didn’t understand what was going on “down there.” I think Dolnick would back me up on that.

Ancient people generally made the connection between sex and babies, of course. What was actually happening, however, wasn’t understood because sex cells require a microscope even to be seen, and that doesn’t make it obvious what they’re doing. Dolnick’s tale looks at advances in various sciences and, perhaps more importantly, the religious constraints under which they operated. The idea of the atheistic scientist is a fairly new one. Up through most of the nineteenth century scientists tended to share the worldview of others that God was assumed and that religious rules applied to such mysteries as life. That’s amply demonstrated in this book. True insight was slowed down considerably by religious presuppositions.

That’s not to say Dolnick blames religion—this book is much too congenial to do any blaming. A number of ideas had to coalesce, however, before it was understood that both women and men contributed to the developing embryo. Medicine was often looked down upon by science, and religion often crossed its arms and stood in the way. Despite all that, careful observation, and putting unexpected things beneath a microscope, finally led to the answer. It was sea urchins who finally yielded up the mystery’s clue. This book will take you some strange places. The individuals described are a curious lot. For the most part they’re also a religious lot. Persistent theorizing and persistent peering through a microscope and a willingness to question convention all had to combine to answer a question as basic and profound as where it is we come from.

Basic Catholic

One thing upon which we all might agree is that we don’t have enough time. Publishers, eager to find an angle that will help them survive an age when we believe knowledge should be free, have shown a preference for short books. (An exception to this seems to be novels—consumers appear to like getting lost in a long story.) One result of this is the brief introduction format of book. That’s what Michael Walsh’s contribution to The Basics series is. Roman Catholicism is somewhat of a challenge to explain in less than 200 pages. You have to stick to, well, the basics. Having sojourned among the Episcopalians many a year, I felt that I had a fairly good grasp on Catholicism, but as I was reading it struck me that to really understand it, you have to be it.

One thing the Roman church has going for it is direct continuity. Making claims of having been there since the beginning, as an organization they have a leg up over other groups that boast more recent origins. We respect, or at least we tend to, organizations with such longevity. Tracing itself back to Saint Peter, the Catholics have continuity with spades. Or crosses. Of course, one of the things Walsh addresses is how change happens in such a long-lived group. Councils and synods, new scientific information and new Popes. Catholicism today isn’t the same as it was in Pete’s day. Walsh does a good job of guiding us through all that up to the time of Pope John Paul II, who, it turns out, raised global awareness of the papacy in the world as it existed then.

One thing we might agree upon is that Pope Francis has changed perceptions of what it means to be Catholic. The church remains mired in medieval thinking about matters such as gender and sexuality, but since this little book was published there have been steps forward. Even this popular pontiff, however, can’t change the decrees that went against the majority opinion regarding birth control, as Walsh somewhat guardedly notes. Or the ordination of women. He observes at the very beginning of his little book that Catholics know all about and deeply respect authority. This brief introduction helps to get a sense of how things ended up the way they are. We know that Pope Francis has started to speak out on such things, but men like to keep authority, as we all know. And even Popes have just so much time.

Warnings Ahead

As a noun, “freak” is akin to a swear word. To refer to another person in such terms is often considered derogatory and degrading. Still, we all know what it means—an individual who doesn’t conform to expected models. I was a little worried about Mark S. Blumberg’s Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us about Development and Evolution, then. It had the word “evolution” in the subtitle, and that sounded scientific enough. Besides, those of us interested in monsters know, deep down, that they are essentially freaky things. Indeed, Blumberg starts his book with teratology, the study of monsters. And monsters come from religious backgrounds. Their name is related to the root “to warn.” I’m a squeamish sort, though, and reading about freaks of nature requires a constitution I sometimes lack. Especially when it comes to science.

Yet I couldn’t put the book down. To begin with, the concept of developmental evolution (devo evo, for those in the know) is utterly fascinating. If you grew up, like I did, being taught that genes govern evolution solely, this book will surprise you. Evolution can happen at the level of the phenotype, based on environmental pressures. This is well documented and hardly a matter of dispute. Bodies can change according to what they need. Blumberg offers case after case where this dynamic may be seen. The idea that we are “programmed” falls, ironically, at the feet of biology itself. We, and all animals, are adaptive creatures. Humans may not be able to regenerate lost limbs, but many amphibians can. Sometimes it’s a matter of age, and sometimes it’s a matter of matter. I found such a quantity of astonishing stuff here that I overcame my queasiness to see what the next page might reveal. When I hit the chapter on reproduction I realized once again that nature does not agree that “man plus woman equals marriage.”

This must be one of the most threatening areas of science to Fundamentalists. The sheer variety of ways that “genders” interact in nature, and appear in human bodies, will have purists calling out for heavenly clarification. Reproduction, in other words, isn’t in the service of conservatism. Fish, for example, that change “genders” instantaneously after mating, taking turns being female and male with a mating partner, must surely call for theological justification of some sort. And female lizards that don’t require males to reproduce, but are helped along by being mounted by another female so as to jog some ancient reptilian memory, require us to rethink our rather simplistic terms of endearment. Not for the the faint-hearted, but amazing for those who dare, this book takes our appreciation for “life finding a way” to a whole new level. Even if it’s a little freaky.

No Place to Hyde

“I was driven to reflect deeply and inveterately on that hard law of life, which lies at the root of religion and is one of the most plentiful springs of distress.” These words occur near the beginning of Dr. Henry Jekyll’s confession, the very manuscript that closes Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Upon reading the book, along with the preface and afterword clearly meant to pad out the thin volume, I realized that I was not alone in having known the story all my life but never having read it. Western culture is steeped in the idea like so much strong English tea. The story of the divided self. The eternal question of who I really am. Like Frankenstein’s creature, Jekyll and Hyde found immediate resonance in the pantheon of monsters. Here was something with which we could all identify, but which we all would deny. Or would we?

Jekyll notes that the root of religion—proper behavior, moral living—is a source of distress. And this before the era of Nones and non-believers. Religion has that reputation. “Be good or else!” Or fire insurance, as some call it. Religion, in the popular imagination, isn’t so much about sublimity any more. Or transcendence. Somewhere along the way it got fixated at about the level of our genitals and what we should never, ever do with them. Hyde’s sins, as commentators frequently note, are anything but explicit. He tramples a young girl and kills an old man. Beyond that we know nothing of his monstrosity. Is it so hard to believe the restraint concerns his sexuality? After all, his friend Utterson—well, Jekyll’s friend Utterson—enjoys his wine. Both respectable men seem to have hearty appetites. Apart from violence, what other dissipation is there?

Like many first-time readers I can’t recall how I first learned of the mad scientist and even madder thug that make up the namesake of this story. For some reason I never made—even remotely—a religious connection with it. It was a monster story, after all. Innocent fun for a Saturday afternoon. The experience of reading the book was a bit more jarring than that. Jekyll’s confession isn’t exactly easy to read. It is like going to the confessional with the curtain drawn and all the lights on. And yes, the implications are religious after all. It is a little book with a big point to make.

Banned Truth

bluesteyeBanned Book Week is one of my favorite holidays. Don’t worry—you haven’t missed it—it occurs the final week of this month. I’m not very good, however, at guessing how long it will take me to finish a fiction book, so I start early, just in case. My banned book of choice this year was Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. It’s not easy to read a novel which is so close to the truth. As any writer of fiction knows, just because something didn’t happen precisely as described doesn’t mean that it’s false. Indeed, fiction is often factual. It’s not easy to read because the “race”—a dubious distinction at best—to which I belong has often throughout history victimized others. While I’ve never knowingly participated in this criminal action—and despite what politicians might say, it is criminal—it’s never comforting to hear from the victim’s perspective. The Bluest Eye is about African American experience in the land of the free. At least in name.

What becomes clear from the beginning is that the families around which this story revolves are pushed to their limits. In an affluent society they are forced to live with less than their “white” neighbors have. Slavery may have ended, but the superiority mindset that permitted it in the first place hasn’t. I grew up in poverty but I didn’t have the added burden of being treated badly because of my “race.” Stories that remind us of that reality are never comfortable places to be. We’d rather think that since slavery ended prejudice went away with it. In reality, however, it is still here. Interestingly, the culture portrayed so vividly by Morrison is deeply biblical. Indeed, surveys of Bible reading in North America show that African Americans tend to actually read the foundational book more than their oppressors. The biblical worldview spills easily across the page.

Although the Bible made it onto the list of top ten banned books last year, The Bluest Eye was challenged because of its sexuality. That’s another defining aspect of the novel. It’s a frank exploration of the human condition. The protagonists are not only African American, they are also all female. Their perception of sexuality is, in many ways, inherently that of victims. Not that love doesn’t enter it, but rather that poverty often leads to a state where sexual gratification is held up as one of the few positives in a life that includes regular mistreatment, poor pay, and jail time. It isn’t an easy story to read. Morrison’s deft hand, however, prevents the story from becoming gloomy. It is like spending a sunny day knowing there’s something you shouldn’t see in the basement. Banned Book Week may be some time away yet, but it is always the right season to read about the truth.

God’s Rain

Photo credit: Micahmedia, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Micahmedia, Wikimedia Commons

Music has been in the news this week with the death of the artist formerly and forever known as Prince. Also, in a lesser covered story, Bono’s friendship with Bible translator Eugene Peterson. This post will focus on the former former artist. I’ll have to circle back later to pick up Bono and Peterson. I have to admit that I haven’t listened to Prince much lately. I saw “Purple Rain” when it came out, and some of his songs have resonated with me throughout the years. What makes him such an intriguing figure is his view of sexuality. My source here is the Washington Post, specifically, an article by Michelle Boorstein stating that Prince was, beneath the sexy exterior, a conservative Christian. Specifically a Jehovah’s Witness. He would not be alone in this role since Alice Cooper is famously also a conservative Christian. Life upon the stage is that of the actor. With Prince, as Boorstein points out, the question goes deeper: he wrote about religion, but he also wrote about sex.

Those of us who indulge in creative writing know that poetry is perhaps the only place where dishonesty is impossible. Song lyrics are true. Prince often cites Christian tropes (see Boorstein’s article for samples), but his material is deeply sexual as well. This leads to the suggestion that he saw sex as a means of worshipping God. Once again, Prince doesn’t find himself alone in this place. Scholars brave enough to examine both religion and sexuality often find a connection there, and not just a tangential one. Both are about communing with something greater than the individual. Thinking back to my first viewing of “Purple Rain” I can say it wasn’t the religion part that stood out to me.

Histories of Rock-n-Roll are rife with stories of performers’ untamed sexuality, so that’s hardly news. What really strikes me is that with recent deaths—David Bowie, and now Prince—the media seems intensely interested in their views of religion. We don’t often look to artists for advice on how to live our lives, but as the polar opposites of scientists and rationalists, they are in touch with and willing to share their feelings. And we the people want to know what they thought of God. Often because it is so surprising. It’s easier to put someone in a box. Religion, however, is way more complex than most non-specialists think. It has room for creativity, for sexuality, and for exploring the meaning of life. I many not listen to Prince much, and when I do it’s not for religious advice. I am, however, inclined now to think in new ways about colorful rain.

Taking God to Bed

SavingSexThere are varieties of evangelical experience. It is so convenient to put people into neatly labeled boxes that we tend to forget religious experience can be very different, even to conservatives. This point is made very clearly in Amy DeRogatis’ Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism. The title of the book requires some further disclosure. DeRogatis is offering an academic study of evangelical sex manuals and teachings about sexuality. If you’re anything like me, the very concept sounds strange. I grew up in an evangelical household and we would’ve been scandalized to learn that such things as godly sex manuals existed. In fact they did, but we didn’t know about them. Although evangelicals share a common idea that there are appropriate and inappropriate varieties of sexual experience, they disagree, according to the evidence, over what some of those boundaries are.

DeRogatis’ book offers some fascinating insights even within this circumscribed field of study. For example, some writers of such manuals give rather permissive instructions as to what might happen in a heterosexual, Christian boudoir, while others keep to the basics. Some suggest that the very practice of sexuality opens its participants to demonic infestation, so much so that they consider STD to be Sexually Transmitted Demons. This is an intriguing and frightening world to enter. Many of the writers of such books suggest that women should indeed be under the authority of their husbands in all things. No room for Lilith there! Others, however, are surprisingly broad minded. More so than some Episcopalians I’ve known.

This brings me, as a former evangelical, to my concern about academic studies of such groups. It seems to me that to truly understand what are undoubtedly irrational beliefs, you must have had the experience of truly believing. If I might be excused of the pun, are you experienced? As much as we wish it were, evangelicalism isn’t a neat packet of propositions that people simply accept. It is a complex, emotional, and, in its own universe, logical response to the belief that the Bible is the owners manual. Sola scriptura gone wild. How individuals deal with this impossible truth is widely divergent. We’re taught not to discuss sex in polite company, but we just can’t help ourselves. For some that’s good news indeed. For others it is the very definition of wickedness. As Saving Sex shows, there is more than one position to be taken.