The first thing you should probably know about me is that I’m a bit of a prude. I don’t mind admitting that. When I received my iPhone 4S in the mail last year, the very first thing I did was launch Siri. I had been reading all day about the hilarious questions people asked her and the equally funny answers she gave — all kinds of requests for sexual favors and queries about escorts. I wanted in on the fun.
I pressed down the iPhone’s Home button, listened for the double ding that told me that Siri was paying attention, and asked her where to find the nearest pizza restaurant. That was all I could muster; I just couldn’t say something dirty, aloud, to a robotic rendering of a female voice. So, yes, I’m a prude.
The next thing you should know is that I’d never heard of Dan Savage until about a year ago. I’ve never read his writing, not first hand anyway, nor heard his essays on This American Life or watched his MTV show. Though, I have seen his “It Gets Better” video, and earlier this year, I googled “santorum.” Needless to say, I blushed.
The fact is, everything I know about Dan Savage I learned from Mark Oppenheimer. First, from his excellent NYT Magazine piece and, more recently, his short ebook profile of Savage. And, though I remain convinced that I wouldn’t necessarily enjoy Savage’s column — or, that if I did enjoy it, I’d feel guilty about it — I’m intrigued by Savage and I even admire what he does, even if I often don’t agree with his specific advice.
What he does, if you don’t know, is write a sex and love column for “The Stranger,” a Seattle alt-weekly newspaper. This is interesting not just because he’s funny and fearless, but also because he’s gay. But the column isn’t just for gay people. In fact, as Oppenheimer points out, most of Savage’s interlocutors are straight. And a lot of the time they’re asking questions about sex, but sometimes they’re just asking about relationships. Most often, their questions consider both.
Savage’s answers, though still blush-worthy for my fellow prudes and I, favor the health of individuals and their relationships, even if they often seek to encourage exploration in the bedroom.
In fact, Savage, like his friend Andrew Sullivan, has been accused of being too conservative. In the 90s, when he and Sullivan were among the earliest to speak up for marriage equality, they were lambasted by fellow gays who thought they were trying to reign in the behavior of their promiscuous peers.
This is the paradox of Dan Savage. He’s gay and the advice he gives infuriates conservatives, and yet he is kind of conservative himself. All that advocating for marriage rights wasn’t for nothing, he’s been married for years and he and his husband even adopted a child.
Savage, I think, is a perfect example of the new morality I discuss in my soon-to-be-released ebook “Not Your Mother’s Morals.” Clearly he is guided by a moral compass, and there is much overlap with traditional (your mother’s, if I may) morality, but then Savage’s morality opens wider to include new categories that, frankly, our parents would never have considered.
I spend a lot of time thinking what this means for Christians; our morality, in a lot of ways, necessarily aligns with traditional morality since that tradition was, though not completely, largely built on Christian ethics. And yet, doesn’t Christian morality expand to cover new categories, to answer new questions?
I think it does. This may be difficult to see at first, but consider some of the ethical dilemmas that the 20th and 21st century presented us. Atomic weapons, modern abortion, gender reassignment, internet comment sections, Hitler!
Which leads me to my last point about the category of Christian, or traditional, morality. We might like to think of it as set in stone, the old ways that everybody knows but not everybody follows. But, of course, this is not the case. For some people, many of the above ethical dilemmas I cited may not be dilemmas at all. Take Hitler for example. I’ve argued for pacifism long enough to know that most people think there was no question as to what to do with Hitler. And yet for many people of the day, including Bonhoeffer, who famously attempted to assassinate old Adolf, whether it was right to kill to stop the killing of others presented a moral quandary.
But back to Dan Savage. He will always exist outsides the boundaries of Christian morality. That’s okay, he’s not a Christian (as far as I know). We live in a pluralistic society and trying to make everyone conform to Christian ethics is unreasonable and, under the moral code of a pluralistic society, wrong. But, even if you think Savage goes too far, be encouraged that one of, if not the, most popular sex (and love) advice columnists in the country is guided by a strong moral code. There was a time, and that time will probably come again, when making claims toward a moral code was considered outmoded. I’m happy for the renewed emphasis on morality that the 21st century has brought us.
It’s funny how moral codes work, though. I’ve long outgrown many of the aspects of the especially prudish code I grew up with. Specifically, as a married person, I’d like to think I’m open to “exploring.” And yet, even as I typed the word (and inadvertently put it in quotes to distance myself from it), I made myself a little nauseous.
Maybe I should write a letter to Dan Savage. I’d sign it, Still Prudish After All These Years.
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