Reading the various reactions of Christian bloggers to the Mark Driscoll book, two in particular stuck with me. The first was by Matt Anderson, who I think described the correct way to think about the event of an evangelical sex book, and also nailed the essentially legalistic character of the Driscolls’ explicitness.
The second was actually a series of posts reformed pastor and theologian Douglas Wilson. When it comes to addressing the specific issues raised by the Driscolls’ much-debated “Can We____?” chapter, he’s no Tim Challies. He’s the sort to see the potential benefit of a frank discussion of sex acts, and to promptly get the ball rolling. At least on the surface, he seems to disdain prudery and to be aware that many evangelical communities approach sex with an air of Victorian shame. His acknowledgement that “silence is dangerous” when it comes to the church and sex is to be commended, even as his pontificating about the “central sin of Manhattan” (guess) should spark outrage.
But despite his ostensible frankness, the moment Wilson takes up one of these issues in particular, he almost immediately reveals himself to be bound by the rigid Victorian dichotomies he elsewhere places himself above. He bases his rules for married sex in dubious arguments from nature, selective quotations from scripture, and a series of dichotomies that falter under even a modicum of scrutiny. There’s a lot to respond to, but since Wilson focuses specifically on anal sex, so will we.
“Anal intercourse within marriage is unnatural, unhealthy, unclean, and unnecessary,” Wilson announces before treating each category with a brief discussion. His justification for these massive categorical judgments is comes mostly from a few verses in the New Testament, to which we will turn presently.
First, let’s take “unclean” as an example. I choose it for several reasons, including that Wilson and I are likely to have unbridgeable disagreements about “unnatural,” which also seems likely to be too similar to already-tedious gay marriage debates; “unhealthy” is at very best unsupportable; and a case, though admittedly an irrelevant one, can be made for “unnecessary.” “Unnatural” probably has the most interesting philosophical implications, but “unclean” has cultural and religious baggage that gives us plenty to work through. As my friend Emily just showed in an excellent post relating tampons to her theological work, labeling something “dirty” is a classic smear tactic particularly suited to the marginalization of categories of people—women in her case—who represent “threats” to established hierarchies.
It goes without saying that there is no universal human agreement about what is clean and unclean. But there is also local disagreement within “homogenous” cultures, to the extent such things can be spoken of, and even disagreement within each individual. That’s true of all discussions of the opposed human conceptions “clean” and “dirty” (just watch Babies), but let’s limit it to the sexual. In an individual mind, it is an overwhelmingly common aspect of sexual fascination for something to seem erotic one moment and filthy the next, or erotic in fantasy and “shameful” in reality. I would call this a “chiasmic unity”—a case of opposites which define one another are held uncomfortably but inseparably together, a phenomenon that baffles the conceptual human mind. The concepts “clean” and “dirty” have no meaning apart from each other. But of course, Wilson sees one side of the chiasmus as normative (within God’s natural limits) and the other as disordered (Outside God’s natural limits: “The yearning gonads of a man who does not know God is at war with limits…”). I would never claim this internal play of sexual selves is part of human nature, but it is something we can identify as part of the irreducible complexity of the human psyche that plays itself out in the complexity of communal understandings of things like “clean” and “dirty,” and especially over long stretches of history.
“Clean” is problematic in this context because it is deployed as a weapon to deny difference, not a definition that can be defended with any type of rigor. There is always someone out there whose sexuality is “dirtier” than your own, and the temptation is always to locate normativity in one’s own experience. (“I may be a little racy, but that, that is messed up.”) Wilson’s biblical, heterosexual married intercourse is “clean,” but this other act that arouses his disgust, an act normalized by the “homosexualized culture,” is dirty; homosexuality and its supposedly pervasive influence are a threat to all natural, clean sex, and therefore must be declared dirty, dangerous, off-limits. Wilson’s blunt, reductive language is intended to underscore the dangerous outsideness of anal intercourse: “Sex is clean, but feces are dirty.”
It’s not difficult to see the weakness of this distinction, and not just in its empirical falsity. If we taking dirty to mean “icky,” as he seems to be doing, then it’s impossible to argue “normal” sex is somehow “clean.” It is a full-body experience that almost always involves the bodily fluids that have the highest concentration of pathogens, and I’m just talking about the sweat and saliva. Wilson’s invocation of shit—sorry, but sometimes the dictionary term is the most squirmy—is a dirty trick to distract us from what we’re actually talking about, which is not in fact shit but a different sex act performed with a different part of the body that has the potential to be a different kind of dirty from the dominant, regular dirty of heterosexual vaginal intercourse, and, as is almost always the case with biblical literalists, different is bad. The only thing we have here is a banal little argument from disgust, the oldest, weakest trick in the anti-gay book.
I could go on about the misleading nature of clean vs. dirty all day, but that wouldn’t be enough for Wilson, because he sees them not as concepts created unequally by different people, but categories undergirded by scriptural authority. If we must play on that turf, and I’m afraid we must if engaging Wilson is to have any point whatsoever, I think we can at least raise significant doubt that eliminating difference is what the New Testament is about. It’s not terribly difficult because Wilson is just doing some lazy proof-texting. So let me do some lazy proof-texting of my own.
If we are going to talk about dirty and clean, and what the Bible, specifically St. Paul, says about dirty and clean, we should look just a few chapters further. Romans 14 seems to affirm the fact that “clean” and “unclean” are shifting concepts shaped by individual conscience and taste, and that this variety of interpretation is good. “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” (14:5). Paul then directly confronts Wilson’s dichotomy: “I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean.” (14:14). The last half of the verse concludes that dirty is matter of interpretation, but it’s the violation of conscience that is wrong, not whether the act—eating meat sacrificed to idols, doing it up the butt—is objectively “unclean.” (Because nothing is objectively unclean.)
Of course, what I’ve done here is not real theology, nor is it a very rigorous scriptural reading of clean and unclean. But I’ve done it in hope of illustrating Wilson’s slapdash hackery, that amounts to little more than bolstering his prejudice with faulty categorical weapons. I may be tacking on verses to prove my point, but they are as much there as his scraps about the “natural use of women.” For good measure, Wilson adds a healthy dose of fear by placing his argument in the context of “homosexualized culture” where medical information about the “dangers” of anal sex are systematically repressed. You can’t even call this biblical literalism, since it clearly has little to do with the actual contents of the Bible, and, as usual with evangelicals and butt sex, everything to do with protecting the “clean.” Which also always happens to be the dominant.
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