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Protestant bodies, Protestant bedrooms, & our furious need for a theology thereof
On sex, marriage, the gospel, & a truly bad thing on the internet that's going to sell a lot of truly bad books
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If you’ve read the article at The Gospel Coalition’s (TGC) website, you know the one I’m talking about.If you haven’t, no need to go looking for it; I’ll fill you in.
The article is bad, and I’m going to say so. When something is false and damaging, calling it so isn’t meanness; it’s truth telling. Those teaching this theology are accountable for it. The editors at TGC, an organization that claims to champion the very gospel of Jesus Christ, are accountable. When someone tells lies about the good news of Jesus, it’s theology’s job to call out those lies.
The truly bad article has not come to us out of nowhere; too many Christians are getting similar stuff from church leaders they trust. The article is a loud canary in the mine shaft, but there are a lot of quieter canaries down there too, and while we may be tempted to write this thing off as an over the top aberration, it isn’t. It fits all too well with teaching I hear from complementarian niches of the church, all the time. One friend tells me the rhetoric of the article is downright tame, compared to what she constantly heard growing up. This kind of theology is causing devastating damage for the people of God. Maybe the very bad article can be a wake-up call.
Content notes: This piece includes frank discussion of sex and references sexual and intimate partner violence. It also includes discussion of theologies which are very bad for women.
First, let’s summarize the article. The thesis is that sexual intercourse is a sign of the gospel. (We must ask, what is meant, here, by “sexual intercourse” and by “gospel,” and we must ask what evidence supports the thesis.)
The article’s author (from here on out, I’m just going to call him “the article”) uses Ephesians chapter five as prima facie evidence for this thesis and calls sexual intercourse “an icon” of Christ and the church.
But the piece does not dig in to Ephesians, paying close attention to the text. Instead, it turns into a rhapsody over a very male-centered experience of sexual intercourse; the husband is framed as “generous,” the wife as “hospitable.” This framing is a homey sounding spinoff of part of the late pope John Paul II’s important Theology of the Body, but as badly popularized by Christopher West,figuring men as “givers” and women as “receivers” or “bearers.”
This and other quotes are screenshots taken March 2, 2023
You might need to read that again before you can believe that it said what you think it said. It did. From Twitter, an unflinching summary:
Let me give you one more direct quotation:
Friends, the article wants us to imagine the analogy between husbands and Jesus as explicitly about genitals, semen, and biological reproduction. (Reminder: none of those things are mentioned in Ephesians five). If we imagine the thing this way, I’ll wager most men will insist on continuing to imagine themselves, not as the bride, but as Jesus. And there’s the first problem. If we forget the limits of the analogy, men are going to think they’re like Jesus in a way that women are not like Jesus. And men may also think that Jesus is like whatever sinful twisting of masculinity their culture upholds.
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The second problem is this; reading the analogy in this crude way turns Jesus into a pagan God, a mythological and unholy character akin to Zeus.A friend told me that reading the article made her feel "violated by God." She felt that way, because the article violated the truth about God.
Albert Besnard, Leda Sleeping (Léda s'endort), 1913. A haunting image of the rape of Leda by Zeus, who took the form of a swan, a “god” who is truly a demon.
8 reasons this is truly bad theology:
1. Pornography and the Christian imagination
My husband was reading me bits of the article, when our teen son popped into our room.
“What are you reading?” said he.
“Ugh. Just a very bad article,” said me.
“Sounds like it belongs on some smut site on the internet.”
Out of the mouths of half grown babes.
In fact, my husband had just commented on how much the thing is inflected by pornography. It’s a euphoric ode to the glories of ejaculation, which the article characterizes as “gift” and “sacrificial offering.”
Once, at a chapel service, I heard a preacher say something similar. It was something like, “that’s the essence of masculinity. The man’s self-sacrificial donation of his very body, his very stuff.”
“Ha!” laughed my husband, with his best, deepest, loudest, holy laugh. “A lot of people wouldn’t think it’s that big of a sacrifice.”
I will not burden you with details of research on the content of pornography, but I will say that pornography is full of recognized tropes, misogynist tropes. One of those tropes is an obsession with ejaculation.
We need to talk about the pornification of the Christian sexual imagination. The New Testament word for sexual sin is porneia (usually translated, in English, as “fornication”). The word refers to a variety of sins and can’t be reduced to one meaning.
But it is interesting to know that, outside the New Testament context, porneia referred mostly to prostitution, a thriving industry in the ancient world. It continues to thrive, fed by the explosion of internet pornography. Both prostitution and pornography are built on greed and violence. Buyers of sex replace mutual relationship with selfishness. Both pornography and porneia wrench sexuality out of its healthy, holy, mutual, relational context and into a transactional context, one in which the user gives (money, attention, time, eyeballs on ads) and the provider of pornography receives.
The tropes of pornography have no fitting place in the Christian sexual imagination. And the reduction of male/female to giver/receiver is as much one of those tropes as is a fixation on ejaculation.
Christian writing should not read like porn or trade on the tropes of porn to give it erotic power.Perhaps we should return to Ephesians 5:
But sexual immorality and impurity of any kind or greed must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints. Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk; but instead, let there be thanksgiving. (Ephesians 5:3-4)
2. Power and abuse
The giver/receiver paradigm carries dangerous baggage. Giver/receiver can easily be rephrased as “active/passive” or “Lord/subject.” This can be weaponized; we're sinners, after all. The built-in asymmetry of power lends itself to abuse, too often telling women to submit in inhuman situations.
The article and similar theologies are over-fond of the term “penetration,” which also maps active/passive onto maleness/femaleness.The word is never invoked in scriptural sexual ethics.
If anything, one of the most startling moments in scriptural teaching about sex fights against any active/passive asymmetry. Paul instructs;
"For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise, the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does” (1 Corinthians 7:4).
That “likewise” condemns the presumptive agency of the husband. It was a shock in the ancient world just as it should be a shock to the article. Mutuality is basic to biblical sexual ethics.
The article gets very excited about the Hebrew language “go into her,” and then makes fun of the author's poor friend, Karen, who blushed when she read the phrase. The "distinction" referred to in the quote below is the supposed one between male givers and female receivers.
I do not regret reporting that this is not a reference to men giving it to women.
I double checked with an Old Testament scholar friend. Here’s his response:
The verb just means “enter” or “go into.” So almost anytime someone goes to a city, the text says s/he entered the city with this word. Because it’s so common, it doesn’t have a lot of connotations. If it were a rare technical word used only in certain contexts, that would be one thing. But this is one of the most common verbs in the Bible, probably in the top ten most common verbs.
In short, on this point of supposed Hebrew exegesis, the article is making stuff up.
Theologies which place the man in the active role and the woman in the passive role deny the full humanity of both male and female and biblical teaching on mutuality. They are easy to use to legitimate abuse,and both social scientific studies and the testimonies of many, many women show a correlation between such theologies and increased incidence of intimate partner violence against women.
Standard complementarian theology is built on interpretation of specific biblical texts, and it usually denies teaching any difference in value between men and women. This giver/receiver theology goes further, imagining a framework for reality in which men are fundamentally different from women and have agency over women because of that difference in nature. And it connects that view of reality to an idolatrous view of God and a coercive view of the relationship between God and us. But what it proposes is not alien to most complementarian theologies, though they wear more respectable clothes, and if the article bothers you, it’s worth asking how much its errors are woven through complementarianism at large.
3. Pagan idols
The article is fundamentally pagan and idolatrous. It flirts shamelessly with the boundary between Creator and creature, overstepping often, emanating panentheist spirits and demonic Zeus-like false gods. Idols exchange “the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles” (Romans 1:23). Figuring God as a sexualized human male is idolatry. It’s a insult to the glory of the immortal God.
While pagan cults used sex for ritual and worship, Israel and the church condemned the practice. Israel was to be different from its neighbors by refusing the making of idols, and a lot of those Canaanite idols were phallic symbols and fertility goddesses.
Imagine the Old Testament prophets, having come home from a long day tearing down sacred poles and reading the article. I’d truly love to see their reactions.
Nope. Vaginas are not special sanctuaries, holy places to be kept empty of all but the divine presence in the form of the penis. I can’t believe I had to write that sentence.
Christianity makes no space for temple prostitution. Christianity sets temple prostitutes free.
Let’s talk about the story of special sanctuaries in the Bible. Act I brings us the Holy of Holies, inside the Temple, the location of the presence of God. In Act II, Jesus reorganizes things; the temple curtain is torn in two, and we encounter the presence of God in him, through his death and resurrection. Act III is that of the Holy Spirit, who (analogically) relocates the divine presence, indwelling the body of every Christian, male and female alike. Vaginas aren’t special sacred rooms, awaiting the presence of God; they’re simply parts of bodies, already indwelt by the very Spirit of God. Penises aren’t the divine presence; they’re simply parts of bodies, in need of and dependent on the presence of God.
We don’t have to use gooey spiritual language in order for our bodies to matter. Bodies can matter as bodies. Bodies can just be what they are: good because created by the Good Creator, beautiful, a way to connect to God and to others, hairy or not, fat or thin, freckled or pale or dark or rosy, in need of care and able to give care to others, groaning under the condition of sin, awaiting redemption.
A wise friend texts me:
“I don’t have to be a symbol. I can just be beloved.”
4. It’s terribly reductive
People in healthy marriages know that a sex life isn’t a series of discrete sex acts. It’s a sex life. Better, it’s a love life. A whole life. Yes, it includes sex, but it also includes diapers and paying bills and negotiating knotty questions about who is going to pick up the kid from basketball practice and dinners in the crockpot and sleepless nights unblessed by any sex act but holy, as spouses walk together through shadowed valleys.
Because creation is good, Christianity has taught that Christian marriages are procreative.
Basically, I'm in. Creation is good, and Christian marriages are marked by creative fruitfulness. What I’m not in on is the idea that pro-creativity can be reduced to the giving and receiving of semen.And I’m not in on reducing pro-creativity to number of conceptions.
Reproductive biology is good, and babies are good and important, but I’m also not in on insisting that babies are the only kind of fruitfulness a pro-creation marriage might yield. Babies are always good, but the New Testament makes biological reproduction relative, in favor of evangelism, the family of God, and the fruitfulness of the Spirit. Christian marriage can be generative in more ways than the making of babies.
5. How would we know what the article thinks it knows?
The male/female, giver/receiver, generosity/hospitality business is a piece of natural theology. That is, evidence for it is drawn, not from scripture, but from “nature,” in this case, the nature of genitals.The article flouts traditional Protestant cautions about trusting our own interpretations of the world, apart from the guidance of scripture.
The giver/receiver reading of genitals here has no guardrails in place to protect it from becoming a kind of Rorschach test. I hold up a picture of a penis and ask “what do you see?” My test subject blurts, “giver!” Let’s stick with understatement and simply note that other interpretations are possible.
While the article interprets penises as “givers,” female bodies are frequently interpreted that way too. The thesis of Kate Manne’s book, Down Girl, is that misogyny is a social system in which women are expected to give to men and are punished if they do not.“Give it to me, baby” or “she won’t give it up” are things said about women. In fact, they fit Manne’s theory of misogyny. And many, many girls and women have been taught that female virginity is a precious “gift.” More positively, women “give” birth, and the bloody salience of that fact might make us question any assertion that male bodies can convincingly claim “giver” status over and against female bodies.
While we’re administering this Rorschach test, we theologians would do well to remember that our test subjects are sinners. As are we who are administering the tests.
The article is remarkably empty of readings of scripture. Given that it puts Ephesians right up front, we might expect close attention to that text, but instead the argument runs wildly into other territory altogether. Where is that Protestant bulwark, the doctrine of the sufficiency and authority of scripture?
What precautions are in place to separate “natural” reactions to penises from sinful, self-interested reactions? In the article, there are none, and so it fails to take sin seriously in its pervasive effects on body, soul, mind, and spirit. It fails to imagine that the way we imagine penises might be tainted by sin. This is a failure to reckon with two of the most central tenets of Protestant theology, which are there to protect us from our own sinful selves and from the sinful lusts of others.
6. We need to talk about sacraments
Thinking of marriage as a sacrament has always been dangerous. In Catholic teaching, the material sign of the sacrament of marriage is consent, and it matters that this is vowed in public, in the church. But consent has to continue, for years, and sexual intimacy, precisely because it is intimacy, is rightly private. This creates intense vulnerability and opens up possibilities for sin and abuse.
This is part of why Protestant theology denies that marriage is a sacrament.
The Protestant Reformation insisted that the sacraments are only two: communion and baptism, because these are commanded by Jesus in scripture and are for the priesthood of all believers (not all believers get married, after all, and calling marriage a sacrament robs single people of a key means of grace, as does writing an article connecting sex and salvation).
I might even be cool if we want to call marriage “sacramental.” But it’s not a sacrament. Because of sin, marriage is a lot less trustworthy than sacraments are. Sacrament requires a sign so central to the story of salvation that no Christian can go without it. Every one of us needs the waters of new birth, the nurture offered at the table. We’ll be ok without sex. Jesus was.
And some Protestants, in their eagerness to re-sacramentalize marriage, fail to see that Catholic theologies of marriage rely on a sacramental framework alien to Protestant thought, teaching that the church, keeper of the sacraments, is the locus of grace in a way that Protestants cannot be comfortable with.
Marriage can be a school for sanctification. Sex can be a delightful, embodied good in which we may learn what it means to be pro-creation. But sex is not the locus of saving grace.
7. The nature of the gospel
The gospel coalition published the article, but the article is not gospel. There’s no mention of sin nor of forgiveness. There’s no cross and no resurrection. There is nothing of the Spirit’s sanctifying power, the mission of the church, or the life of the world to come.
Given that TGC advocates a strongly Reformational understanding of the gospel, we should be very surprised that the article invokes the gospel without speaking of justification by faith or salvation by grace alone. Arguably, it does introduce a positive place for works righteousness with its sex-as-sign-of-salvation framework.
The gospel will not be reduced, certainly not to a sex act. The gospel is good news. If the gospel isn’t good news for women, it isn’t the gospel, and giver/receiver patriarchy is not the biblical good news.
I’m angry that this harmful stuff is parading as gospel. I’m Jesus-with-the-money-changers angry, because selling this stuff is absolutely commericalism in the temple. My face is red with anger.
But I’m not blushing. I’m unashamed. I would never argue that theology shouldn’t talk about genitals. The Bible, after all, tells a very specific gospel story about Jesus’s genitals: he was circumcised according to the law, and he was made like us in every way (including in the way of having genitals) so that we could be made one with him and we would know, in our flesh and bones, that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). It is the fully embodied, fully human Jesus who invites us to “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15).
The gospel is good news, and Christian sexual ethics are good for us humans; they allow us to flourish, body and soul. But reading the article, one may suspect the whole thing isn’t about the gospel at all, for it is “good news” for men at the expense of women and so isn’t good for men or for anybody.
8. The Christ/church/marriage metaphor
Tone matters. Tone is a human thing. It signals the heart. And it’s beyond frustrating to encounter such a hamfisted tone around something that is, actually, a beautiful and nuanced biblical metaphor.
The Song of Songs, for instance, is a romp of mutual delight, with a refrain about the one who is both “lover” and friend,” and often we readers can’t even tell which of the lovers is speaking. We certainly can’t sort the bits of it into “giving” and “receiving.” Whatever else one makes of the Song, Ephesians, or the marriage supper of the Lamb, one must admit the nuance there.
But it’s more than nuance. There’s good reason Christian history has been careful about the marriage metaphor. Scripture does not forget that metaphors (or analogies) have limits. And analogies for God must always respect the bedrock limit of the fact that God is transcendent and other than creation, lest we fall into idolatrous paganism.
Marriage is an analogy to Christ and the church. At the same time, that analogy cannot work in every single way, because God is God, and we are not. Jesus is like a husband and also not like a husband. And husbands are like Jesus but also, crucially,not like Jesus.
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).
Good, yes! The analogy calls for husbandly Christoform self-sacrifice, a call which is counter-cultural, both in the ancient world and in ours.
But watch, now, as the analogy immediately breaks down:
Christ loved the church,
“in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind, so that she may be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:26-27).
Here it is! The limit of the analogy! Husbands should be like Christ in self-sacrificial love. But husbands are not like Christ in being able to make people holy with a good “washing of water by the word.” Making people holy is for Jesus alone and not for husbands, ever. Jesus is the only savior. How do I know this? I know, because I’ve read the rest of the Bible, which gave me the context I needed to see the limit of this biblical analogy.
I’ve taught classes in Christian sexual ethics for many years, and the tone of the article is not the tone mature Christian men take when they teach or talk about sex. This is the tone of well-meaning 19-year-old virgins, who very much hope to have sex someday soon and expect marriage to be an unfettered sexual playground. (Notice that, in the article, the sexual references keep returning to the honeymoon. But surely the Christ/church/marriage analogy calls us to go in for the long haul.)
I mention, to those sweet undergraduates, that marriage isn’t all about having. It involves a lot of not having. Marriage involves actual self-sacrifice,for both parties, including self-sacrifice of one’s immediate sexual preferences and proclivities. Once, in a roomful of undergrads, I noted that standard medical advice is to abstain from sexual intercourse for six weeks after a birth. The young men blanched in horror. Six weeks!
Graduate students talk about sex differently. They’ve had more time to become acquainted with grief. The married ones know that sex can mean pleasure, even rhapsody, but that it also can mean infertility or miscarriages or poopy diapers or finding energy to help with learning to ride a bike when you have no energy or algebra homework with a wailing teenager at midnight or medical issues which make sex impossible or fighting the specter of past sexual trauma or lots of other hard things, things which the fidelity of Christ to his church helps us to meet with fidelity, because the Christ/church/marriage metaphor can’t be reduced to sex.
The article ignores the complicated and interesting ways the analogy between married partners and Christ and the church actually works. Said analogy does bless gendered difference, but it also upends our gendered assumptions by immediately gendering every single human being as feminine. On this metaphor, males are feminine, females are feminine, every human who is part of the body of Christ is feminine. And that’s a challenge to toxic masculinity, both ancient and contemporary, just as the male Jesus is a challenge to the same.
The metaphor is powerful. It does trade on the good reality of human desire, but it also fundamentally relativizes sex in light of the desire we were made for, that we should know God. There’s beauty in the biblical through-line that is the analogy between the married relationship and our relationship with God. The metaphor is playful and iridescent, catching the light first here, then over there, slipping our grasp whenever we try to pin it down to take its measure. I love that metaphor. I plan to live in it forever.
And then, a gang of guys jumped on the metaphor, dragged it into a smelly locker room, held it down, and tortured it to death.
This is not how one shares the beauty of Jesus, and it is not the way to take a biblical metaphor seriously.
Be comforted, friends, by the fact that the very bad article is, in truth, very bad. It tells lies about God and about humans. God is good, and God is love, and God loves your nuanced, messy, storied body.
Know you’re beloved. Love your body. Love God. Flourish in singleness. Flourish in marriage. Keep the marriage bed holy (Hebrews 13:4), which requires treating women with full human dignity as the beloved daughters of God who we are.
Thanks for joining me for this long read and,
Grace and peace,
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In another post, I’ve answered reader questions about my claims here and complementarianism, thinking Christianly about sex, and making pagan gods:
This piece contains associate links.
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The truly bad article was posted at The Gospel Coalition website, March 1, 2023. TGC has now taken the article down and provided a link to the beginning of the book it was extracted from, with the following note:
“We recognize that the adapted excerpt from Josh Butler’s forthcoming book Beautiful Union lacked sufficient context to be helpful in this format.”
I read the “context” provided. The chapter is called “Sex as salvation,” a very honest title, even if the author elsewhere denies that such is what he is teaching. The “context” gave me the sense that the author is a nice person, with good intentions. It did not convince me that the theology he presents is any less bad. A few parts of it convinced me the theology is worse. Most egregiously, this bit, which accuses women of making up headaches and churlishly closing off their vaginas. This trades on untrue stereotypes, suggests men deserve sex whenever they want it, and gels perfectly with the abuser who thinks he has a right to admittance to that room:
The “context” also introduces two “heresies,” both feminine: the “lie there and take it heresy” and the “go before the groom danger.” And it frames prostitution not as buying sex but as selling sex.
TGC hosted the article, and Tim Keller’s name is attached to it, via the author’s fellowship with the Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics. Some of you will never have heard of TGC or Keller, but to attach an article to both is to be taken very, very seriously by a great many Christians. TGC states that it “supports the church by providing resources that are trusted and timely, winsome and wise, and centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Many people trust it, because it claims to be about the gospel. Keller has half a million followers on Twitter and wears all the respectable badges of an elder statesmen of a respectable—and cosmopolitan!—church. I’m not saying that Tim Keller is personally responsible for the bad article, but he is absolutely bound up in the complementarian system that published it with his name attached, and he has not responded to important concerns.
In the piece I refer to in footnote 2, Catholic theologian Schindler notes wisely that, “orthodox intensions” can “make a theology ‘appear more credible than it is’” and that “good will is not synonymous with sound thought.”
If you decide to take a look at the TGC link, here’s a broken link you can paste back together: https://www.thegospelcoa lition.org/article/sex-wo nt-save-you/
Christopher West ‘significantly’ misrepresents JP II’s thought, leading theologian says; “…David L. Schindler has said that despite West’s fidelity to the Church …, his approach significantly misrepresents Pope John Paul II’s thought and is ‘too much about sex and too romantic’ … Schindler cited several instances where he said West was not only ‘vulgar and in bad taste’ but also suggestive of ‘a disordered approach to human sexuality.’” Protestant theologies like that of the article seem very drawn to West.
Content warning: account of rape.
The first lines of the W.B. Yeats sonnet, “Leda and the Swan,” denouncing the rape of Leda. The poem is in the public domain.
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill, He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
Because I had a teacherly role in this context, I tried to talk with the speaker and with others with authority about the theological problems. My expertise and concern for my students were dismissed.
And by “provider of pornography,” I don’t mean the vulnerable people caught up in the industry or the ancient slaves forced to prostitution. I mean the people who are making the big profits. Culpability for prostitution rests on those who buy sex and those who violently use the bodies of the vulnerable to profit from it.
I am not suggesting that Christian teaching on sexual ethics can’t be clear. For instance, children should know the correct names for body parts, and vagueness doesn’t help Christian teaching about sex.
Christopher West titles a section in his Theology of the Body for Beginners, “Penetrating the Mystery.”
Some thinkers have asked, what if we imagined sexual intercourse in terms of “envelopment” instead of “penetration?” What difference would that make for women? I don’t particularly care for either word, but the question makes a point about the things we assume are true descriptors.
Here, the classic article “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles” by Emily Martin is well worth a read (Signs, Vol. 16, No. 3 (Spring, 1991), pp. 485-501). I’ll quote a few bits to give you an idea of the arugment;
“As an anthropologist, I am intrigued by the possibility that culture shapes how biological scientists describe what they discover about the natural world.”
“Part of my goal in writing this article is to shine a bright light on the gender stereotypes hidden within the scientific language of biology.”
“The imagery of sperm as aggressor is particularly startling… [given that] the main discovery being reported is isolation of a particular molecule on the egg coat that plays an important role in fertilization! … By allocating the passive, waiting role to the egg, [the author of the scientific article] can continue to describe the sperm as the actor, the one that makes it all happen…”
Another OT scholar friend offers the following; “Yes, the OT uses the phrase ‘he went into her’ to communicate coitus. It also uses ‘he laid with her’ or ‘s/he knew’ another person … Also the ‘one flesh’ passage in Genesis 2 is quite likely stating that the two have become kin through fictive kinship, NOT that they had sex.”
This harms women of color in disproportionate ways. White women are told to submit based on gender, women of color based on gender and race. For this reason, womanist theology has been especially suspicious of active/passive language.
For example; Christopher G. Ellison and Kristin L. Anderson, “Religious Involvement and Domestic Violence among U.S. Couples,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 40 (2001): 269-286; Merlin B. Brinkerhoff, Elaine Grandin, and Eugen Lupri, “Religious Involvement and Spousal Violence: The Canadian Case,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 31 (1991): 15-31; Christopher G. Ellison, John P. Bartkowski, and Kristin L. Anderson, “Are There Religious Variations in Domestic Violence?” Journal of Family Issues 20 (1999): 87-113; W. Bradford Wilcox, Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 181-183.
One example, Ruth Tucker’s Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife: My Story of Finding Hope after Domestic Abuse.
Reducing the thing from a love life to a series of discrete sex acts can, kind of, be traced to Augustine of Hippo. Augustine is one of my favorite theologians, and I maintain he got a lot of things right here, but his legacy has been interpreted and codified in reductive ways.
In brief: Augustine spends some years hanging around a sect called the Manichees who believe: matter/bodies/physicality = bad, while spirit/souls/immateriality = good.
Thus, they are against making babies, who are writhing balls of gross materiality. The Manichean elect are celibate, but fringe folk, like Augustine was, are permitted sex, provided they use contraception. Augustine’s Manichean years correspond with a long monogamous relationship. We don’t know the woman’s name, but she and Augustine had a son, Adeodatus. Just the one kid, though, which leads to speculation that they, being good Manichees, were practicing birth control.
Fast forward: Augustine embraces orthodox Christianity, which requires rejecting Manichean dualism in favor of the Christian claim that God made all things, including both matter and spirit, and thus all those things are good. From the material Jesus, he learns to be pro-creation. See his story in his Confessions. My favorite translation is Maria Boulding’s.
He worked out the details of his pro-creation teaching against a backdrop of regret over the Manichean years, and he condemned all use of contraception, a stance not required for Christian pro-creation-ness, unless we get reductive. Ironically, natural family planning is the one form of contraception now permitted under Roman Catholic teaching, and it is probably the means of contraception used and later condemned by Augustine. Augustine also writes (beautifully, I think) about the goods of marriage. Here, he’s being sort of sex-positive, against Christian teachers who said only virginity could be good and marriage was always bad.
Suppose a couple is married for 20 years. Let’s grant them a sexual encounter 1.5 times each week. That’s 1560 discrete sex acts. Suppose the couple have five children. That seems like a respectable amount of openness to life to me. I have four children, so I’ll grant them a one-up. In this case, twenty years of marriage yields five discrete sex acts ending in the conception of a new human being. If “life” is counted in terms of discrete births, this couple’s sex life has been successful 0.3 percent of the time. This is surely not the most human way to think about what openness to life might look like. But what if their whole life together is generative? All the sex and all the abstinence and all the loving and missioning and growing together in the fruit of the Spirit?
And urging Christians to have many, many babies so that we can win the culture wars is often urging white Christians to make white babies. Perhaps the culture wars have more to do with white supremacy than we’ve been willing to admit.
Often, Roman Catholic theology is happy so to rely on natural theology, being more confident than is Protestant theology about the ability of the church to interpret nature rightly. In a world where we’ve seen such heartbreaking sin come from the church itself, I cannot share that confidence.
I think of the episode of the sitcom The Office in which Phyllis is accosted by a man exposing himself, and the bumbling Michael Scott ruminates; “A penis, when seen in the right context, is the most wonderful sight for a woman. But in the wrong context, it is like a monster movie.”
Manne uses philosophical and sociological evidence to support her thesis, which, I think, even Karl Barth would admit as stronger theological evidence than a Rorschach test.
If you scrolled down to look at this footnote in order to see if I intended that crucial pun, I did. And thank you.