Following the death of Jesus (and the questionable circumstances of said death), the Early Church begins to multiply and form communities around the teachings of Jesus and his assistants.
How is that possible? How could a man who many assumed to be their savior, only to die on them, influence so many? And what is worse – people not only believed he lived on (when he died), not only followed his teachings (which clearly weren’t that great since he died) but propagated them because they now believed some part of him rested in them (what. a. bunch. of crazies.)?
Here’s why – the message was greater than the man. Those people were no more crazy than the people who watch old movies or old music. Sure, Marilyn Monroe is dead. It doesn’t mean she wasn’t a good actress or that the movies weren’t any good. Sure, Elvis Presley is dead. Doesn’t mean he wasn’t a gifted singer with great songs. And yes, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, and Gandhi died. But that doesn’t mean their lives were any less inspired or stopped influencing us. Robert Kennedy died before I was even born, yet I have read several biographies of the man simply because I believe in what he stood for – equality. And as for Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi? I’m convinced their teachings will see a resurgence within the next six years. Have you read MLK’s letters and essays? The man was gifted and knew his theology. His ethical structure was decades ahead of his time and, I openly admit, have influenced me greatly.
And so the Early Church founds itself with an absent leader and revolutionary teachings and principles. Among those teachings, as discussed in the last article, was this idea that men and women could be friends because they were more than the composition of their genitals, chemical influence, and socially-defined labels. Women were not chattel to be traded for social status any more than men were locked down in a 9 to 5. Take note man, Jesus spent the last years of his life outdoors with people not stuck in a cubicle, not working out his daddy issues in the toolshed, not watching sports getting buzzed on wine complaining about a “high school injury,” and not abusing women. Shocking. He created new social roles for men and women.
Then there was Paul.
Many modern commentators put forward that Paul was against women, against sex, against… well… anything fun. Postmodern theology, picking this up from their parents, has pushed the conversation one of two ways – either Paul was right and women shouldn’t be quiet and submissive, or Paul (as an unmarried man) was continuing the teachings of Jesus, putting more emphasis on community than family, and is – let’s face it – so conflicted on so many issues that perhaps we shouldn’t listen to him at all.
In both extremes, “the average religious person” loses. Paul becomes either a chauvinist and directly rewrites Jesus, reverting to the earlier social system that Jesus wanted to tear down. Or, Paul pushes Jesus’ teachings so far that celibacy is the only option. Again – those are our options. Completely “dominating” women or celibacy.
Those don’t sound like good readings to me. And they seem wildly incongruent with scripture – both Hebrew and Christian. In fact, I think Paul promoted women more than we give him credit for. I’m not saying he did it perfectly or “like god would want it” but then again, neither would he. He was a man who was able to admit his mistakes, but still wanted to push the envelop forward and continue the liberation that Jesus offered as an alternative to society. In other words, Paul began to “flesh out” what the teachings of Jesus looked like for the Early Church. In the absence of strong leadership and “drive,” Paul was the spark plug that fired the engine.
I need to fast forward through time, roughly about twenty and a half centuries. If you are ever curious to discuss the development of sexuality and gender identity, I would absolutely love to talk about that with you but the present purposes cannot elaborate here, nor do I want to gloss over them entirely. Let’s agree “some stuff happened” between the time of Paul (end of the 1st Century) and today (dawn of the 21st Century).
Here’s the next problem in our movement to the present: licentiousness or “sexual abandon.” Before WWII, men and women were making strides towards social friendship and equality. Then WWII came along and changed the playing field. Russia became a matriarchal society, American men returned home to find their wives had taken their jobs, England began moving toward a “liberated” society (can you blame them?) and France did what France did best – had sex. Lots of it. And then that began to trickle over to North America. The British and French were making movements towards a “liberated” (i.e. “sexually free” society) as a way to cope with the aftermath of the war, political tension, and the rise of a new technology – film. In the fifties, a powder keg began to rumble which took almost two more decades to ignite. The sixties and seventies were the tail-end of continental cultural shift, capped by the awareness of AIDs in the eighties and depression of the nineties. In short, “The West” had tried to make good use of sex and sexuality but royally screwed it up.
Which brings us today. Coming out of such a sexualized economy, is it any wonder that we’re not able to relate to one another? Our parents either hypersexualized or repressed and we are stuck in the tension of once again having to rebuild.
I am myself on the more liberal end. My parents raised me keenly aware of sex. Nudity in the home was a not-infrequent thing, and I was able to give a secretive and hushed anatomy lesson to my kindergarten class “with the correct names.” At six, my parents caught me “in bed” with a Barbie doll and when a neighbor tried to proposition me with candy at the age of seven, I knew what he was asking for. At twelve, I went with my 13yo girlfriend to buy “monthly products” and found it strange that I knew more about them than she did. And yet, when I got to college, I felt the “hook up” culture wasn’t for me. Knowing so much about sex, I did not feel it necessary to “sling it around” as they say. In short, I knew a lot but was also repressed – a condition that it took me the entire college experience to overcome, and one in which my stabilized status as “just a friend” moved more towards “wow, he used me.” I am not proud of that period in my life, and yet I feel it is symptomatic of many other people in my generation – periods of sudden sexuality and periods of guilt/ repression. And then there are curious manifestations on the horizon – sexual expressions like polyamory which has gotten a lot of positive attention with the influx of LDS shows like Sister Wives, Big Love and the Showtime documentary Polyamory: Married and Dating or the research of David J. Ley and lecture tour of Jenny Block. Fictional serials like Fifty Shades of Grey chronicle the submission of women to men, just like Amazon has seen a boom in femdom erotica. So I’m not convinced we’re any more liberated or educated than we were in the height of our liberation. We’re still sexual beings unsure of how to relate well to one another.
Which is why I want to pick up from where I left off in my first part of this series – Is it possible for men and women to be friends outside of sexual expression?
I would say, Yes. Absolutely. But, as with any relationship, communication is key. I’m reluctant to say there can never been too much communication because I think there can be. You can beat around the bush, beat the bush, and then just do a whack job without ever caring for the bush. And I love the bush. So let’s take care of the bush because it is beautiful. Sometimes you just need to relax and do something instead of talk. And that too is okay.
A friend of mine, Syd Shook, recently wrote an article for The SEMI in which she argues that other men saved her marriage. The article has come up numerous times since its publication since it challenges the narratives many in religious circles grew up with. The article comes off the heels of a Dan Brennan interview with Kathy Escobar which is worth mentioning too. In Shook’s article, she notes that “as is too often the case, we find ourselves focusing on what we are against instead of what we are for” and I wonder what that looks like. That is, I know what “works” for me in my own relationships with the Hughes. Yet, this is more descriptive than prescriptive. I cannot forecast what will work for others, only for immediate circle.
Still, I know that love, trust and non-sexual relations are the foundation. Once we remove the pressures of our context, things get much easier. In religious circles, we must begin to move away from seeing one another as sexual partners for the purpose of procreation. In non-religious circles, we must stop seeing one another as a temporary “tool” for our sexual and/or emotional satisfaction. Harmony rests somewhere in the middle between these extremes but it takes honesty to get there. Honesty about the ways that we use people, the men and women we say we love, the people we presume are safe and so stop paying attention to, the emotions we roll right over. It will take introspection and a great deal of work but we can be friends. We can get there. We can achieve the ideal that Jesus and Paul started to move us towards of friendship, and yes, we can still have great sex. The two are not mutually exclusive. Our options are not either/or no strings attached, friends with benefits, and ridin’ solo. But, again, what that looks like is anyone’s guess not because it’s never been done before, but because relationships require a high degree of attention. There is no manual to this kind of thing, as proven by the numerous books on “how to do” a relationship. If anyone had the key, we wouldn’t need 15,000+ books, 15,000+ podcasts, and countless “girls nights” and “guys nights” to help us get a handle on the topic!
Here’s what I propose: A small step in this direction. Sit down with one of your best friends of the opposite gender and talk about these things, alleviate the tension however you see fit, and begin building families instead of marriage prospects.