Tag Archives: sex

The Shape of Water: Enough already!

The Shape of Water Poster

My one-line review of The Shape of Water for Facebook

I went for the beautiful. Stayed for the overlong, derivative, pig in lipstick movie. Del Toro snoro.

I suppose daring to put out negative reviews on Facebook invites conflict. I did it anyway, since I rarely leave a movie so irritated. Maybe I was just in a bad mood. But probably not, since I usually even like the bad ones (like Downsizing!). But I needed to say something lest everyone run out expectantly when it wins some Academy Award.

A lot of reviewers think this movie is great.

The most welcome and notable thing about The Shape of Water is its generosity of spirit, which extends beyond the central couple. Full review

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water elegantly blends whimsical fairy tale with a fresh spin on classic monster movies for a delightful experience. Full review

However, the Observer called it

A loopy, lunkheaded load of drivel.

It won two Golden Globes and was nominated for five more.  Like the foreign press noted, it does have a wonderful score and it is a feast for the eyes. I think the acting is a credit to the actors, who were given one-dimensional characters to play. I almost decided to suspend my criticism when [spoiler alert] the souped-up creature from the black lagoon mimicked Fred Astaire in black and white. (I am one of those people who brakes for Fred and Ginger on TCM). But I guess I was already homaged to the breaking point.

Instead, I ended up with two reactions:

Enough already with the magical alternative family!

Del Toro with cast. Watch out for the plaid dude, family.

Once again we have lonely lost souls creating an alternative family. Wasn’t this done to the saturation point with Friends? We’ve had fourteen more years of saturation since that show ended. OK, we get it. There are a lot of brave, lonely souls out there who can’t seem to be accepted for who they are. We are all like that and society stinks. But here we go again anyway.

The family clings together in the middle of a rotting 60’s city, rundown apartments and an overwhelming, secretive, cold war, government installation. The villain is not only a bureaucrat, he’s a suburban lunkhead and a Christian fundamentalist. I share your prejudices, but enough already!

Beauty and the Beast made $1.2 billion dollars last year. Weren’t we saturated with that story when the Disney gave us the first movie in 1991? (I was). But here we go again. Del Toro wants to take it a bit farther so his nonhuman monster becomes the romantic hero. Even they are worthy of love and acceptance. The audience is invited to kiss that beast.

I am down with love, acceptance (and I will add the crucial forgiveness). They are basic to the message of the gospel. And I understand alternative family, I have been living in Christian community since I began to follow Jesus. I never submitted to silly men and the damaging institutions they create, at least not for long. I appreciate artists expanding my vision. You’d think I’d love this thing. But this redundant messaging from filmdom borders on propaganda and us autonomous souls relating to the screen are its victims.

Enough already with the magic of romantic (mainly sexual) love!

Surely everyone interested in this film knows this, so I won’t consider it a spoiler. At the end of the movie there is a violent scene in which the lovers, mute girl and amphibian, are shot. The creature heals, gets up to slice the shooter’s throat, picks up his dying lover and dives into the water with her. In his natural element, he not only revives her, he gives her gills.

To be fair, Del Toro, steeped in religion as he is, says of this ending, “A very Catholic notion is the humble force, or the force of humility, that gets revealed as a god-like figure toward the end. It’s also used in fairy tales,” which he loves. “In fairy tales, in fact, there is an entire strand of tales that would be encompassed by the title ‘The Magical Fish.’ And [it’s] not exactly a secret that a fish is a Christian symbol.” That should make me feel better, shouldn’t it?

But I missed that symbolism completely. If you go see the movie, it will probably help to see it in that light. What I got was the final, summarizing voiceover from the narrator.

When I think of her, of Elisa, all that comes to mind is a poem. Made of just a few truthful words… whispered by someone in love, hundreds of years ago…:

Unable to perceive the shape of You,
I find You all around me.
Your presence fills my eyes with Your love,
It humbles my heart,
For You are everywhere.

That would be a great prayer, wouldn’t it? Instead, it was pictured as a moment when the male sea creature gives his mate the capacity to become one with him after she saves him to do it. That’s one problem. More generally, it is a moment when love becomes all. It shows us that the magic of our love is beyond us; it is where we find our shape. When it is actualized, we are created. The words could be straight from a Christian mystic, which I appreciate. But the visual container is free of God content. It reinforces the repetitive teaching that we must find a lover who accepts us as we are and magically makes us who we can become. They are god-like. Their presence fills us. Enough already!

I have a good marriage, but as godly as my wife is, I know she is not God. I am glad we know we are not gods and love the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ so we do not kill our relationship with expectation and despair. This movie would be a great reason to never get married.  Because we know the beasts do not always get beautiful enough to look good at the ball. The monsters do not all turn out to be healers. Magic does not begin with or reside in sexual attraction. Life is not really the way the movie taught us AGAIN.

Like the movie, this short post brings up more to talk about than it attempts to answer all the questions. The film tells a story. It is a love story on many levels, which is nice. I have a story of my own in response. And I link my story to Jesus, not hidden in the fine print, not symbolized in the fish, but Jesus right out there for everyone to see, the one who can truly remake us into the shape to love and who is present with us when we can’t or don’t, too.

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Cut off and screwed over — learning reconciliation and communication

I’m kind of enjoying the geekiness (no offence) of Pentatonix these days. So let’s start out with them. They do a cover of Gotye’s big song of 2012: Somebody That I Used to Know:

Apart from telling a good story, Gotye and Kimbra summarize in song what so many people experience every day: being cut off and screwed over. Those are common ways NOT to relate. But a lot of people have experienced so much abuse and have had so little opportunity to recover, that they don’t know how to relate another way. They’d like to love, but they are always getting cut off and screwed over. Let’s talk about that.

In the song, Gotye’s character sings about how she “cut him off.” That’s a common experience in relationships that is worth noting. We could talk about how someone refused sex or did some emasculating thing (another time, maybe). But I want to talk about how people try to disappear their intimates to manage their fears. [More here]

When Kimbra’s character comes into the song, she’s talking about something just as relevant: how she feels screwed over. She is so glad she got free of his unprocessed manipulation! And she doesn’t mind telling him so. Maybe you’ve been there.

The song demonstrates two relationship traits common to people when they are not safe in Jesus and are not aware of the frailties they need to have healed. These two common traits are sinful ways we kill love.

Getting cut off happens. 

It feels terrible. Gotye paints a vivid picture of it.

  • Make out like it never happened and that we were nothing
  • But you treat me like a stranger and that feels so rough
  • Have your friends collect your records and then change your number

That last line hints that that he may have caused the cut-off himself, since who sends their friends to get their stuff or who changes their number unless there is some kind of weirdness going on? Were there constant texts? I heard about that a few times lately. Friends did have to send their buddies to retrieve their stuff because the ex might go off.

This movie actually exists
This movie actually exists

I have a friend who has perfected the cut-off. She says it – you do me wrong I cut you off, you’re dead to me. Most of us would not say that; we’d just do it [even legally with restraining orders]. When we are threatened, we disappear people. We make them nothing. So a lot of us feel cut off. You might feel like a relationship is bleeding right now and you are emotionally wounded.

I am not going to do a big Bible study to respond. I think it is enough to say that our preoccupation with Matthew 18 around Circle of Hope is important because people have been cut-off and have cut people off. Cutting someone off is the common sinful way to deal with “problem” people and with our own troubled feelings. We cut them off. In an abusive and abused, violent society the laws are all about protecting victims (who are numerous). So the society even teaches us to cut-off.

That’s the problem Gotye’s character has in this song. What he did not do is presume that he was in a relationship in which all the parties are sinners, including himself, and that reconciliation was going to be a constant necessity. He actually says in the song that they discovered that they did not make sense, as if that’s how relationships work – like they are supposed to magically make sense, or the interaction is supposed to be so effortless that they never don’t make sense.  That’s very unlikely.

Christians relate with reconciliation in mind. They know they need to be listening for God to make sense of things. They know that their loved one needs to be loved, not to make sense according to some tiny idea we have of what makes sense. I know so many people, including myself, who have spent entire evenings arguing about how their interpretation of what happened an hour ago makes more sense than their mate’s interpretation! Reconciliation is more important than everything making sense.

Getting screwed over also happens.

It is a terrible feeling and Kimbra paints a vivid picture of it.

  • You “had me believing it was always something that I’d done.”
  • You did not talk so I was “Reading into every word you say.”
  • When we broke up “You said that you could let it go”

That last line has a lot packed into it (which is one of the things that makes this a good song, isn’t it?). Between the lines she is saying, “Now we are broken up and you are still obsessed and angry. That points out how you had been simmering with anger the whole time we were together. I was trying to make that work for you. So I basically screwed myself in your honor. And that makes me angry!”

screw in chipotleSorry to keep using the word “screwed.” But this song is basically about sex. They don’t really get to intimacy. Being used for sex is part of the woman’s pain, I think. “Having sex” in our language right now is not necessarily a term of endearment. “Fuck” is one of the meanest things people say. We “get screwed over” a lot. Sex is often a violation and we are mad about it. A lot of people talk about sex as if they need their rights protected, like they are so shallow that intimacy can be regulated by state law or something – or maybe they feel so hurt they think there ought to be a law.

Kimbra could have helped herself if she had just had one small rule of communication: “Don’t read between the lines.” Clear communication includes the recognition that the other person hasn’t actually said something until they have said it. If you think their body language means something, ask them if it means what you think it means. Don’t react as if you know what they have not articulated. Conversely, communication happens when a person has responded to what you say in such a way that they confirm they heard what you said. Just providing a lot of information and expecting people to find it is not enough. We’re tempted to treat each other like we are websites – “I already laid out all the info, search it.  I don’t need to talk to you because I posted it on my timeline. It’s on my blog.”

There is actually a little incident in John 14 where Jesus has to negotiate this process of communication with one of his intimates. Philip says, “Just show me the father. “ And Jesus is a little exasperated. He says, “Haven’t you heard the words of the father in me? Haven’t you seen the miracles?” I suppose Jesus could have cut Philip off at that point. Or he could have remembered Philip’s cluelessness as an example of all the ways his disciples had screwed him over. Instead, Jesus humbly communicates it again, as clearly as he can. Philip is not required to “read between the lines:” “It is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.” The Lord humbly, clearly communicates.

Christians know that truth and love are hard to communicate because they know how hard it is for them to receive the truth and love of God, who is the source of truth and love! So we are patient with our intimates, and with everyone else. We know we are hard to understand; we know the other person is hard to understand — they don’t even understand themselves! Why get all hacked off when they behave as confused and as detached as they are! Help them! Listen to them! Speak clearly and in love!

There is hope

kimbra unpaintedMy favorite part of the video is at the end, when Kimbra stands apart and loses the paint of this unloving relationship. She kind of returns to the state of being naked and unashamed like Adam and Eve were before sin messed them up and they got separated from God and each other. She gets out of the damaging matrix. Now that they aren’t locked in some sinful way to relate, maybe something better can happen. Hopefully, they both learn to practice reconciliation, not just self-defense. Hopefully, they learn to communicate, not just react in some pre-verbal way.

I don’t think Gotye intended for me to get any hope at all out of his sad song. But I am way Christian. I really wanted that woman’s unpainted self to get out of that messy video, so I took it that way.  Why not? Jesus is doing the best God can do to call us out of the condemned and condemning ways we relate and into real love. If we let him be present and don’t suck up some bogus narrative, if we don’t cut him off, if we let him communicate, we have a good chance of being restored to love ourselves and even having great intimacy — and great sex.

Gotye and Kimbra tell a new Adam and Eve story

You’ve all seen this video, right?

It has been viewed over 440 million times on YouTube. Which kind of made me wonder why I had never heard of it until it was already old news. It was the top song on the Billboard 100 in 2012.

I’m not sure what is better, this addictive little song called Somebody That I Used to Know or the parodies of it. As soon as I got to listening to: “now you’re just somebody that I used to know.” I also heard

People are creative — and this song apparently strikes a chord with them. When Gotye sang it at the University of Michigan, people loudly sang along with him. In an interview he said all that singing was about “Releasing pent up relationship angst,” which he thought was also kind of sad. We could also sing along at Broad and Dauphin.

To hear Wally De Backer talk about the song, it seems like it just kind of happened. He had a story to tell about how a guy is processing a break up. It was such a short song he decided he was missing the other part of the story – how the girl was reacting, so he put her in. He almost gave up on it at different times and then it ended up being his first big hit that made him famous.

The “new and improved” Adam and Eve story

I think it is famous because we are all right there in the video, at least a little bit, as the present generation rushes to “socially construct” their new, improved Adam and Eve story.  I seriously doubt Gotye intended to do this, but his song is channeling the prevailing philosophy that is making relationships what they are today.  The song is like an Adam and Eve story, only this narrative does not have God, Adam or Eve. It has Gotye as the story-telling god, then Gotye and Kimbra in a new narrative that amounts to a revised version of Adam and Eve. In this version there is only Gotye’s “red state” reverie and Kimbra’s “blue state deconstruction” coming to a mysterious, inconclusive conclusion, showing a typically distant ending to a relationship. It is the story of a new normal.

I think we should keep looking at how new narratives are affecting how we think about relationships.

adam-and-eve-rae-chichilnitskyWhat makes this an Adam and Eve song in my mind probably has to do with the fact that I am way Christian. I was at the Sleep-Eze store not long ago laying on beds to try them out and I befriended a rather odd woman who was laying on the bed next to mine. She ended up kind of trailing us as we were making a deal on a mattress. She finally asked, “You must be Christians, right?”  Gwen and I said, “Oh yes, we are way Christians.” I even see bed-buying as a Christian activity. So listening to Gotye is a similar experience for me.

That being said, I think Gotye’s song is an Adam and Eve story, right down to the title lyric. Somebody that I used to know could be titled Somebody that I used to have sex with using “know” the way Genesis uses it when talking about Adam and Eve. Genesis 4:1 says: Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the Lord. The second story of creation in Genesis 2-4 is essentially an explanation of how men and women relate the way they do. It is about sex and marriage, love and children, family and mutual care.

Gotye’s song is about sex and what it is like when the couple is no longer having it, how they don’t get to love and mutual care. They had sex; they got painted into a common picture, in this case, his common picture. Like Adam and Eve were both naked and felt no shame, Gotye and Kimbra are shamelessly naked in their video (which is probably how it got viewed 440 million times). But then the woman wakes up to the fact that he isn’t willing or capable of actually forming something that is mutual, so she gets out, gets unpainted.

The new normal of postmodern relationships

What makes this story so interestingly postmodern is this:

  1. It goes without saying that God is banished from the picture.
  2. People have sex first, then they try to form intimacy. That’s elemental to the relational landscape to which many of us have conformed.
  3. But mainly, the two people in the story are struggling over having a shared sense of what the reality they have created together means. And they don’t agree. They “don’t make sense.” They can’t even talk civilly about it.

Gotye’s audience really relates.

One of the public’s favorite lines of the song is: “You can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness. Like resignation to the end, always the end” — that mysterious inconclusive conclusion that marks this generation’s lives. In some sense, it is relieving when you expect something to happen, even if it is bad, and then it actually happens.  It at least comes to some kind of end. He calls his feeling a “certain kind” of sadness, since he won’t admit to anything really being anything. But this despair is so compelling that he can’t resist an extra lament, “resignation to the end, always the end.” The narcissistic emptiness of this makes me want to cry — which is something the people avoid in this sad little song, even though it is sad. It’s all in his head.

When Kimbra adds her side of the story it is equally compelling. The lack of centeredness, of substance, of commitment is making her crazy. His ambivalence made her feel like “it was always something that I’d done.” Doesn’t the whole society make you feel that way these days? I am always shocked when I call customer service for a problem and they regularly tell me I have caused the problem. When I demonstrate it was really them, they don’t apologize. I’m responsible for everything, but no one thanks me for taking care of things — another way we are like gods. People are enraged by the futility of their relationships in this context. Having sex should imply that we want to know one another but the knowing does not happen. So Kimbra moves over toward Gotye in the  video and yells: “I don’t wanna live that way, reading into every word you say. You said that you could let it go, and I wouldn’t catch you hung up on somebody that you used to know!”

Then they just start screaming at each other musically. She lets him have it. He winces and withdraws, and keeps sticking to his story. She finally moves away, gets unpainted, and they sadly end up whispering “somebody that I used to know.” They apparently think,It’s really sad that the relationship happened to me that way.”

It is an unstisfying narrative

The postmodern narrative about how things work is all there. It teaches us that reality is inevitably made up of what we create together. That’s it. “I was lonely in your company but that was love and it’s an ache I still remember.” That’s it.  But people are angry about that. They want more and expected more.  But everyone is locked in their singularity — defensive, enraged, unsatisfied, intimate without intimacy. That’s happening to people. They think it is sadly normal. Gotye told the story and people bought it — again. And they sang it with him until they knew all the words.

The ongoing Biblical creation story continues to say that it is not good for us to be alone without God and each other. That’s the true normal we were singing about last night at our Sunday meeting. We know we need to get together, but we also need to know that we really need to get with God to get together with one another. God makes reality. We co-create with Him, but we are not lonely gods, ourselves, failing at creating love on our own — at least we are not meant to live like that. If God doesn’t create, if Jesus doesn’t get us back with God, life is just one damned thing after another. A lot of us are really enraged that we end up with people who are resigned to their godless end: cut-off and screwed over. Let’s  talk about that more next time. Until then, let’s be aware of the new narratives that are lying to us about the relational landscape.

More:

Similar idea here [link]

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Let’s look at this cohabitation thing again — You’re married, right?

I heard a common story from a new friend last night. As far as she knew about church people, “living together” was so frowned upon that she and her boyfriend suspected they would be ostracized if they got involved in Circle of Hope.

I said to her, “You guys are married, though, right?” She said, “Yes.” (This is not a transcript of our conversation, but that was the gist).  What stood in the way of the official ceremony was money. They did not have wealthy or supportive parents; they did not have the money for a big party, money for the ring, the dress, etc.; plus, she wanted to feel more established financially before they made a commitment. This story is so common it seems to represent a new rite of passage into adulthood.

cohabitors

Care about people where they are

The “principle Christians” sometimes criticize Circle of Hope, as a whole, for our acceptance of people who are “cohabiting,” like my friend is. The implication is that we should consider these people taboo until they get themselves corrected. Instead, we apparently just let people have sex, willy nilly, and encourage people to sin. (Really, that’s gotten back through the gossip chain).

But, in truth, we’ve come up with an alternative. We care about people the way we meet them. So we usually get to know people who are cohabiting and ask them if they are married. Most of the time, if they aren’t just sharing an address, they say “Yes.”

I think people need to make a public covenant and have the benefit of a church-sanctioned marriage for any number of reasons. I’m not sure they need the government involved in their marriage at all – if they see that as an advantage, fine. But if they have taken one another home, and we all know they are a “they,” I don’t feel out of line by acknowledging their marriage.

Cohabitation facts

Like I noted in a former post, cohabitation has increased dramatically in recent decades in the United States. It climbed from 500,000 couples in 1970 to nearly 6.8 million couples in 2009. It looks like most young adults today will, at some point, live with a sexual partner outside of marriage. The stats say that a majority of couples now cohabit before they marry. Often their parents encourage these “trial runs.” It looks like a generation with so many divorced parents is deciding not to get divorced by never getting married.  It is a new era with a host of new issues to sort out.

Many Christians think the 21st century increase in cohabitation without legal, covenantal or public recognition devalues marriage and undermines its goals. If recent research is a true indicator, Americans, as a whole, have not fully decided whether they agree or not.  Sex is easier now. The capacity to marry for love (as well as be unfaithful) provided by birth control shook old foundations and new foundations are being built in response. Divorce is easier. In 1900, two-thirds of marriages ended with the death of a partner, particularly when women died during childbirth. By 1974, divorce surpassed death as the most common way to terminate a marriage. By the end of the 20th century, divorce was considered both a common and culturally acceptable way to terminate marriage. It is easier to be “abnormal” now. Since the 1960’s, cohabitation, premarital sex, and out-of-wedlock childbearing have become increasingly common and culturally acceptable.

Although the contours of marriage have changed over time, the definition has not.  Americans still overwhelmingly define marriage as being sexually exclusive and lifelong, even though many break their vows. They are pulled between opposites and are still sorting things out. They want the connection of marriage, but they have slowly become accustomed to being individualistic and consumeristic. They want the security and safety of marriage, but they still want all their choices unencumbered. They want to marry or exclusively cohabit, but then have extramarital sex or divorce, even though they no longer have to get married. “Freedom” is the slogan, but they seem to still be pondering with the Apostle Paul: “Yes, everything is permissible. But not everything builds up!” (1 Corinthians 6:12).

What is the best way to marry?

Even though there are very few negative social consequences for breaking former sexual codes by not being married, Americans overwhelmingly choose to marry, eventually. Even same-sex couples want to marry and thirteen states will allow them to do it legally. I don’t think I can answer all the reasons why people mate the way they do, but I do want to respond to what is happening with grace and discernment.

It is an interesting era. I am watching it as something of an outsider, since I and my Anabaptist tradition do not tune our faith to the varying pitches of government music or the society’s dance. As far as I am concerned, state and federal government definitions of marriage do not necessarily serve to increase the integrity of marriage as an expression of faith. I don’t think legislation on sex, finances, or even procreation will protect marriage enough to make it work. It takes commitment. I don’t think couples need an excessive wedding ceremony or a legal document to make a commitment. But I do think they need the sanction and participation of a living community in Christ to make a long-lasting covenant that is centered in the covenant we keep with the Lord.

As a church, we have not fully answered all the questions (including the ones that come through the gossip chain): Do believers need a wedding ceremony or a legal document to make a commitment? Does the covenant need to be made in traditional ways — especially now that many of those mostly-extra-biblical ways are becoming discredited?

A new look at the spectrum of how people, in general, are changing marriage from contract to cohabitation might come up with some advantageous ways to adapt:

  • Maybe we could free some people from the ceremony trap — some people don’t marry because they are saving for the bling and the spectacle! Just stand up during the Love Feast; we’ll marry you and you can have a big party on your fifth anniversary.
  • Maybe we could honor people by acknowledging their cohabitation before they enter their covenant publically. That would be something like the way we embrace people as members of the church community before they make a covenant with the body.
  • Maybe we should more clearly express our understanding that people who have sex are, essentially, married, albeit poorly and dangerously. But then, some of them are better married than some people who live together with a publically affirmed covenant.
  • Maybe we should stop keeping secrets. Why should someone feel like they are secretly married just because they have not jumped through all the sometimes-arbitrary hoops? Why shouldn’t we help people have healthy, godly relationships with the people they are living with?
  • Maybe we can help people who are getting married to relax about it and not try to meet the demands of the wedding industry. That might encourage others to celebrate the relationship they have made with more freedom and less stress.

Here are some more blog posts and pages about marriage:

The Marriage Story (August 2012) http://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/2012/08/06/the-marriage-story/

Sorting out cohabitation and marriage (August 2012) http://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/2012/08/13/sorting-out-cohabitation-and-marriage/

Keep Talking about How Your Lover Is Doing with Jesus (April 2012) http://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/2012/04/16/keep-talking-about-how-your-lover-is-doing-with-jesus/

Monica and the new marriage (June 2011)http://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/2011/06/06/monica-and-the-new-marriage/

Mating Choices (May 2009)
http://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/2009/05/14/mating-choices/

Love (January 2009)
http://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/2009/01/12/love/

Go Ahead and Marry (2000)
http://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/info-and-articles/go-ahead-and-marry-2000/

Why people might not care to be radical Christians

Who are radical Christians? They may not look as wild as you might expect, or be famous for being “out there.” But they will have some basic characteristics. For instance:

  • They are devoted to being at the heart of the kingdom and to having the kingdom at the heart of them.
  • God is not trying to get them to do things with moderate success; they are trying to get God to do things.
  • Following Jesus is not a side job, it is their vocation.
  • The church is not one of many options; it is their tribal identity.
  • Mission is not a leisure time activity; they will use their money-making work to make it happen.
  • Believing is not exhausting for them; it is exhilarating.

That sounds great. So why wouldn’t everyone want to be radical Christian? Thank God, many people do! But let’s be honest, Christians are feeling on the defensive. They’ve lost their home field advantage in the society. The “cultural” Christians who used to give a high five to Jesus are changing to the “nones” the Pew survey is tracking. Christianity is no longer first choice among many seeking spiritual meaning. You don’t have to identify as a Christian to be accepted in society like you used to. If your faith is squishy, it is better to identify as “spiritual” — Ed Stetzer is an optimistic church expert guy, but even he admits that.

James 1:22-25
James 1:22-25

Circle of Hope was founded on the premise that we could find a group of radicals in the Philly metro who would form the next church as the old one died around them. It is totally amazing that we’ve managed to get together nearly 700 of them and have touched the lives of 1000s of others who have received compassion or just passed through and taken away something good. But being a radical is tough, over the long haul. And these days, it seems like finding more radicals is even harder than it was to begin with.

I think there are eight big reasons people don’t want to be radicals. I don’t enumerate them to be critical, just honest. And, I admit it, I am trying to get God to do something – I want him to draw together the next 700 people God is calling to reveal the kingdom in the Philly metro as they band together as the next church.

What is in the way of that? Here are the first four reasons. The other four will show up next time.

1) People worship at the altar of scientism these days

Ronald Miller says: “We have scientific (psychological) experts giving us moral guidance not because their science allows them to know what we should be doing with our lives but because they cause so much less harm than their religious and political predecessors. Of course, for this moral disarmament to work effectively the scientific experts must be convinced of the truth of their message and the consumer assured that no better advice is available. These are two conditions that are rather easily met. In the presence of oppressive forces stifling individual freedom, self-exploration, and self expression, scienticism as a moral system had a balancing effect within Western society” (in Facing Human Suffering, p. 101-2).

After 100 years of this, the new “priests” of science are firmly in place and have new laws to back them up. But the religion of science has de-moralized the populace and become a spiritual problem, itself. Nevertheless, most 19-year-olds are committed to it and it is hard to convince them to change their no-religion religion.

2) People believe the narrative of human rights

The Jesus story is the ultimate story of human freedom. But the church allied itself with all sorts of colonial enterprises, endorsed slavery, oppressed minorities and women and started wars. The Vatican is a kingdom, for pity’s sake! Much of the church sold its birthright for a mess of pottage. People noticed.

The United States’ narrative is about how political rights bring salvation; it is the gospel of democracy. This philosophy supposedly guarantees freedom to succeed and freedom from oppression. People believe it, even when they don’t succeed and are enslaved! When the church comes through with another narrative based on God, not human freedom, following a suffering servant, not one’s desires, there is an argument.

3) Sex is unleashed from the sacred and from community

For many people, these are the unspoken truths they live by: “If someone will love me, I will trade Jesus for them. If something threatens my orgasm, I will sacrifice that something.”

Too bad the image of sex in Christianity is celibate priests who aren’t celibate and dour Puritans telling everyone to “just say no!”  Paul’s teachings on sexual purity and marriage were adopted as liberating in the pornographic, sexually exploitive Greco-Roman culture of his time, which especially exploited slaves and women, who men valued mainly for their ability to produce children and provide pleasure. Faith in Jesus worked a cultural revolution, restraining and channeling male drives, elevating the status of both women and of the human body, and infusing marriage, and sex, with love. Christian marriage was as different from anything before or since as the command to turn the other cheek.

“Christendom” did not bring in a golden age of social harmony and sexual bliss. But Jesus reformed sexual instinct, embedded it within a community, and directed it in positive ways. The younger one is, the more likely they are to view any restraint or direction as oppression, especially in regards to sex. Even talking about sex probably violates the right to privacy they invented last century. People are done with Christian meddling. The main thing they are getting rid of is Christian nonsense, but they are throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

4) Radicality takes a time commitment

I’m drifting into the more personal and less philosophical area that I will explore next time, but not completely. Questions of time are economic questions, and the people of the world have been forced into “economies” for some time now by the powers that be. We are expected to find our meaning in what we do: what we produce and what we consume. We sell our time for money. Time is money.

Not conforming, Christians do what they do for God’s glory as carriers of that glory. The abiding metaphor is that we were ransomed from sin and death and set free in a safe place under a loving regime. This reality puts Jesus followers in direct opposition to the powers that demand all our time — now machines can contact us and track us 24/7!  Being and building the alternative to that life-sucking regime takes time. Compassion is demanding. Relationships take effort. Mission is preoccupying. Commitment means we do not save our lives in the present system at the cost of our true selves. It is harder than that last sentence might make it seem.

So there are four big reasons why people might be daunted when it comes to being a true Christian. The Bible writers are always quite frank about the problem of being at odds with the powers that be: “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6). We’re honest about that, too.

Read on for some more personal reasons in Part 2.

Keep Talking about How Your Lover Is Doing with Jesus

The biggest impediment to keeping faith with Jesus might be a good man or a good woman — or at least a man or a woman who wants me.

I have often wondered out loud how long it will be before a new follower of Jesus is derailed by a new unbelieving boyfriend or girlfriend. Sometimes it seems like such a person is sent to the newly-faithful to see how faithful they want to be!

Almost everybody wants to love. The newly faithful are good to love. It is ironic that just as they start accessing a deeper way to love, the very thing that faith unleashes is the very thing that can do faith in! Jesus saves a needy person, brings them into community; they get stabilized and processed a bit, and they immediately use their newly softened heart to connect to someone who disconnects them from Jesus! Or if the person is OK with Jesus, in the abstract (in the, “It’s so cute that you are a Christian,” kind of way), they disconnect their sweet believer from the community and mission that is not that cute. This is a significant struggle right now all over our network.

Figuring out how faithful people mate has been a struggle from the beginning. Paul, in particular, talks about it quite a bit in the Bible. He really gets into the subject with the church in Corinth, Greece. He has a lot to say in his letters to his dear friends about how they are relating, and we have been pondering his revelations ever since. This is the group to whom he writes the famous 1 Corinthians 13 about love. This is the part of that chapter which is often excerpted for weddings:  

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

When Jesus frees a person to love like this, they are a very attractive mate! Many people are glad to receive the Jesus-like love of a Jesus follower as long as the lover doesn’t bring Jesus along with His love. And many people who love like Jesus are very hesitant to unhook from a person who doesn’t like Jesus precisely because they have learned to hope and persevere in love like Jesus!

Maybe that is why Paul wrote again in 2 Corinthians 6 about being overly involved with people who are not involved with Jesus. He says not to get “yoked together” with unbelievers, like mismatched farm animals trying to get some plowing done. Animals that are yoked conform to each other’s ways or they constantly chafe under the yoke. When it comes to followers of Jesus connecting with people following something else, it can be a bad situation for both parties. When a Christian is intimate with an unbeliever, it is like inviting someone to defile the “temple of the living God,” Paul teaches, since the Spirit of God resides in His people. Paul is not saying that an unbeliever is all bad or that he or she can’t be loved and redeemed. He’s saying that they don’t know what they’ve gotten themselves into, and they should not be lured into taking it lightly. Likewise, the believer should not try to hide their light so an unbeliever is comfortable in their dark, as if that were possible, anyway. It is not good for either party. Something has to live or something has to die.

Paul has a long discussion about what to do about these situations in 1 Corinthians 7.  The message of Jesus has come to Corinth and there are quite a few marriages and engagements among the new believers that have been impacted, so Paul wants to talk about what to do. His main advice is that if a person can manage to not get entangled in sex and marriage at all, that’s a good thing. But I don’t think he really thinks that is going to happen for 95% of the people, so he tries to help sort things out. He says that people who are married when they come to faith should stay married. Don’t desert your mate just because they don’t come to faith. But if they leave you, don’t feel bound to them; let yourself move on. To people who aren’t married when they come to faith he says it would be just as well to stay unmarried, because if you get intimate with someone, they are going to hold sway over you – heart, mind and body; who they are is going to make a big difference in who you can be. So if you need to get married (and that is a good thing), make sure that Jesus can live with the person you marry. It is better to stay single than to be yoked to someone who is uncomfortable being yoked to Jesus.

Like Paul feels the need to talk to his loved ones about the specifics of making love relationships, about marriage, and about how they are having sex, we need to keep talking, too. The love of God poured out on us in Jesus is making us whole and setting us free to be our true selves. It is also making us very attractive to people who need our love, and many of them have no clue about the bondage they are in and the false selves to which they are committed. We need to be honest with ourselves about the limits of who we are in Jesus. We need to be honest with our lovers about what relating to us really means. We’re going to love them; that is what we do. But so is Jesus, and they need to let him be in the relationship, since He’s not going anywhere.

Ravi and Clementi — Let’s watch out for one another.

Poor Dharun Ravi and poor Tyler Clementi! It is like evil swooped in to their dorm room and carried them both away.

In case you have not been following this tragic case that has been played out in the press for over a year, Ravi found out how to use his webcam remotely and spied on his roommate having an intimate encounter with another man. Days later Clementi told his FB friends he was jumping off the George Washington Bridge with a few words and, “Sorry.” He never read the text Ravi had sent him asking for friendship. The jury found that Ravi’s intentions were not to intimidate, but the impact of his actions did intimidate, just the same, and convicted him on fifteen counts. [Get the whole story in the New Yorker]

Let’s watch out for one another.

1) Even though the TV has shown people being watched on camera to see what funny things they might do for your entire life, it is still not right.

Even though there is a TV show (Person of Interest) that makes a point of noting how we have a camera watching us constantly, their point is that such an invasion of privacy is horrible, not inevitable. Let’s not take pictures of people if they don’t want us to. And let’s never post them without their consent, especially to make fun of them.

2) Everyone is probably more fragile than we know.

Clementi instant-messaged a friend “[I]ts not like he left the cam on or recorded anything. He just like took a five sec peep lol.” But then, after a second encounter with his older sexual partner (after draping Ravi’s camera and preventing another peep), he jumped from a bridge. We’ll never know if he was bullied into it, or if he had other significant problems that no one will ever know. Let’s take one another seriously. Humor is good when it is based in joy and mutual acceptance; heartbreaking when it is based on contempt.

3) The younger we are the more we seem liable to research someone rather than get to know them.

Ravi had a lot of information on his roommate before he moved in to Rutgers with him. He had already researched him and discussed his research with his friends. It did not make for an intimate relationship. Granted, 18 year old men are not known for creating a lot of intimacy, but treating people like they are things is deadly. Let’s be careful with Google, Facebook and all the other ways we impersonally collect data on each other. Loves covers people with grace.

4) We are all having struggles with sex.

Poor Tyler Clementi sounds like he was being as brave as he could be with his struggle. He had a tearful discussion with his parents about his same-sex attraction. He was acting in a risky way by commandeering his room for the night for sex. What hasn’t been widely talked about is that he was part of a church youth group before he went to college. The general repression Christians have in regard to sex may have made his explorations even more difficult. Let’s remember some of the things we think about sex. It is not just a personal expression; it is about partnering and it happens in a context full of relationships. It is almost never kept private. Like everything, it relates to God.

5) We need to keep clear of the authorities.

Not only are they watching us, citizens can be killed abroad [link]; the government has given the go-ahead to fly remotely-controlled drones in our airspace [link]; Dharun Ravi was convicted of fifteen charges of spying for watching a three-minute kiss and unsuccessfully trying to do it again. He didn’t even know it was wrong. He didn’t take a plea bargain because he didn’t think he could be convicted. He underestimated the power of Lambda Legal and other enraged advocacy groups that tend to fuel litigation. I think he also underestimated the reality of being a brown person from India in the United States [comments from India in The Hindu]. I imagine I underestimate just how much trouble I could get into by writing this blog post. In Ravi’s trial they put up instant-messaging trails and chat streams on the screen to validate some point of law they were making. Many of us have not forgotten how our unstable but well-connected neighbor on Tenth St. managed to get us under a five-year injunction for making too much noise when we worshipped. There is not a lot of justice out there, even though there is a lot of money spent on procuring it. Quoting one of Clementi’s favorite musicals, “May God bless and keep the Tsar (Russian for Caesar) far away from us!”

During Lent, if we are with Jesus in the wilderness and not just trying to cram Jesus into our wilderness, we can notice evil better.

Just like Jesus was confronted with the destructive delusions of evil and tempted to join in, we can notice how we are being tempted ourselves. It looks like the poor young men of Rutgers had too few resources to deal with what they were handed, even when society handed it to them with the full expectation that they could, and then came down on them with full social and legal ramifications when they couldn’t. They needed a Savior, and so do we.

The Language of Sexuality

Depending on how I feel any given day, one of the benefits or banes of doctoral studies is learning a new language. One of my professors calls it part of my “socialization.” The implication is that we are growing up into “doctorhood,” so we’d best learn “doctorese.” The goal reminds me of the Wizard of Oz taking his unexplainable balloon trip to hobnob with the other wizards.

This past week the topic for my socialization was new language about human sexuality. I found myself in an unexpected but helpful “encounter group” for most of the class time. But there was also an interesting lecture on sexual “identity.” The guest lecturer was something of an evangelist for the latest science that defines who we are sexually. I haven’t sorted it all out yet, but I thought I’d let you in on the language, since it is bandied about all the time.

One can start with biological sex. When Solomon Schnapf was born Sunday, the doctors immediately took a look at his parts and announced his sex; they probably tagged him “baby boy Schnapf” and wrapped him in blue. Most of the time knowing one’s sex is easy,  but people do come out with a variation on parts.

Our gender is less obvious. Gender is how we feel, male or female. We all get socialized by our families and others to be men or women, but it is important to feel the part. Now that we have the science, wealth and politics to change, Chastity Bono can become Chaz.

Orientation is the morality hot-button territory these days. Regarding sexual orientation This used to be named preference. Most sexuality scientists insist that who-we-are-attracted-to is a built-in feature, not a choice. However, the Kinsey scale of hetero-homo orientation offers a lot of discussion about the science, since it appears that most of us are sexually attracted to most of us, at least a little. Christians who are solidly on the preference side of the definition often argue that God’s transforming power is greater, no matter how we come equipped. We insist that it is how we are oriented in relationship with God that is the heart of any other orientation problems, sexual or otherwise.

Then there is behavior. Biologically and psychologically, some things are hard-wired. But humans do what they decide to do and can be forced to behave in all sorts of ways. My teacher thought it might be a bit foolish not to act out one’s sexual orientation, and thought it was a Christian duty to help people be themselves. But people can and do act sexually in ways that go against their orientation and their morality all the time. They have seasons of behavior that come and go. They behave how they choose and they often behave according to definitions and roles people require of them.

I think some Christians get derailed in the discussion of sexuality because they are too hung up about orientation and get it confused with behavior. I think it is safe to say that God thinks everyone’s orientation is a mess. Everyone has sinned; everyone has experienced a broken relationship with God; everyone lives in an environment that is fallen; everyone needs a savior. We have orientation issues.

Obviously, not everyone sees it that way. Scientists and  philosophers from the beginning have tried to normalize a universe that does not include God, certainly one that does not include God-with-us leading us into fullness. They’ve tried to find ways to explain, justify and redirect our orientations. Scientists of sexuality (at least the few I have learned from) can be evangelists for respecting someone’s orientation as good, right, and theirs. If the scientists are Christians, then they can insist that “who you love” should be protected by the great Lover. Orientation meeting sanctioned behavior is their goal. I feel the love. But I don’t think our orientation issues get solved by making them normal.

Upon learning this language there were just a few howls, in our class full of Christians, from the biological side of the identity argument. A sex is a sex. But there was more grumbling from those who did not leap to the same morality as the presenters. An orientation is not a behavior. For one thing, singling out sexual “orientation” for their reasoning seems unfair. There are a lot of “orientations” that can land someone in prison if they are acted upon. For instance, society kills murderous psychopaths (at least in Texas) and has an elaborate system to protect children from pedophiles. This does not mean that homosexuals are the same as murderers; it means that society is passing judgment that might not warrant allegiance.

Even more irritating to some people, perhaps, was our lecturer quoting Sergeant Friday saying, “Just the facts, ma’am.” She claimed to be enumerating the facts; the implication was that the classmates who did not go along with her interpretation of them were wrong — and even more damning to Christians: unloving. But, in fact, the “facts” are a little squishy in the language of sexuality, and the interpretation of the facts is not that clear if one’s commitment to the assumptions of scientific rationalism is squishy.

My one conclusion to share today is this (really, this is all I have, the rest was meant to be open-ended): I don’t think God wants our orientations to define us. Making decisions based on the drives we feel or the feelings that have come to drive us often leads us to sin as much as it does to satisfaction. Our orientation is not God. Our so-called “orientations” in relationship with God, subject to the love and truth in Jesus, become aspects of our character that lead us to our renewed identity. Our sexuality is so deep in us that it might be the most difficult territory of all to explore. But all of us are exploring many territories and many layers of orientation that challenge us. We are all  deciding what to do about the facts of our lives. When people try to socialize us to submit to facts that don’t include God, his people, creation and revelation, the facts aren’t factual enough yet.

Companion posts:

“Identity” and What the Idea Is Doing to Sexuality

More Thoughts on Identity

Principle Christianity Is Too Easy to Choke

But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop. Luke 8:15

The Lord’s parable of the sower is a hopeful story. But no more hopeful than creation itself, in which a single seed actually does result in many more seeds, even hundreds of seeds.

But the parable is also a starkly truthful story, and that can feel very discouraging. Because some seeds don’t take root, some are eaten by birds, and some, even when they take root, can die from lack of water or by being choked out by weeds.

I’m thinking about seeds that are getting nowhere this morning. I’m the kind of farmer to whom every seed counts.

People in the weeds

A matter of principle?
Parable of the Sower
Lisa Snow Lady Acrylic on canvas 2010

I am especially thinking of the much-loved friends I have who have been effectively choked out by weeds, or, by now, have faith that has been so ill-watered for so long that it is about dried up. Even more specifically, I am thinking about my friends who have what I call a “principle faith”. They received “the seed” of the word of the kingdom of God as a set of thoughts, a system of belief, even as oral tradition from their parents. When they took their faith on the road, when it encountered a world hungry for their allegiance, when it was surrounded by the jungle of desire and demand, it did not have the stuff to withstand the weeds of opposition.

A faith based on principle alone has a hard time standing up against other forces demanding allegiance on a more visceral level. But many people were persuaded to rely on principles at an early age. I’m not sure why Christian parents and teachers did this, but they sat their children in classes to get their training for a life of faith. I know, I went through some of these. Among the first things a child learns from such classes is that Christianity is about learning things in a class! In our classes, we were taught stories from the Bible which all had morals — sometimes more like Aesop’s fables than the Bible. We learned principles of faith, which were extracted from scripture. For instance, from the parable of the sower the following principle might be derived, “It is God’s will that I should be good, productive soil and bear a very fruitful crop for the storehouses of the kingdom.”  Advanced students might argue that they had a more accurate principle to propose. And so it started. Every paragraph, even every clause, in the Bible had a secret meaning that correlated with all the other meanings in a rather intricate system of right thinking that one needed to master to be a good Christian.

Do we really need to be better students?

As most children in school do, a lot of the students of Christianity didn’t listen too well. They were like most of the of the students of 11th grade math who never mastered higher math skills and certainly never used them after 11th grade! Hopefully, they aren’t all like me, but I became much more adept at cheating than at higher math skills as a result of trigonometry. If the principles of math are hard to convey, the “principles” of life in Christ are much harder! Math can be reduced to some principles, perhaps. But life in Christ needs to grow among weeds. The inorganic approach to teaching about Jesus needs a classroom to live in, not real life. So there are many problems with the teaching that a lot of my friends received. They ended up with a smattering of good thinking (or disputable theology) and that’s about all they have of the word when they are facing the weighty issues of their lives.

Does everything happen for a reason?

The friends I am praying for this morning have a “principle faith” that took them quite a distance on the pilgrimage of faith, but eventually it got them lost. For instance, a couple of these friends had very disheartening break-ups with people with whom they had been having sex for a year or so (and so the break-up was a no-marriage divorce and felt like one). The only faith they could apply to the situation was the common, unshakeable assurance a mother or teacher had taught them that, “Everything happens for a reason,“ which is an application of a faulty principle based on an interpretation of Romans 8:28 among other things. It wasn’t enough. Their faith started to wither.

People are more compelling than principles

Another main thing that I’ve seen choking out the weak little seedlings of principle faith in many people is the demand for allegiance from an unbelieving mate (usually one they are prospectively marrying). That demand is a virulent weed. Once you have sex with someone, it is hard to have what is always an intimate discussion about faith based merely on a set of morals or principles and not on a relationship with God that is as intimate as a sexual one with your lover. But in the cases of the dear people I am remembering, their relationship with God never got that intimate — it was all on paper, it was all in their head, it was all a theory they were applying and not a life growing in their redeemed heart.

They were never good soil. “Good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.” One can’t hear the word of Jesus like it is more classroom material to be boiled down to the couple of things one can remember — not if it is supposed to withstand robust competition. Noble hearts hear the word from the Word in an ongoing, well-developed, Spirit to spirit relationship that is rooted in eternity — deeper than any human relationship. One has to retain the word of the kingdom of God like good soil retains water – much more than one strains to maintain a relationship with a mate, even. One must hear the word like a call from a master to direct one’s energy to the task of the day – it can’t be the background philosophy that lightly colors what one is really doing.

What does God think?

My friends did not have the faith they needed to stand up to their circumstances. They still have the same thoughts their mother or a well-meaning teacher taught them, but whatever they needed to hear in their heart got choked out by whoever they finally hooked up with. That connection was probably the noblest aim they could come up with, since their faith was merely theoretical and their love/sex relationship quite real. If they were married to the job, instead, as so many are, the job likely parched their scrawny thoughts about God, and the world at large rewarded them with something tangible for that. They may end up great parents and co-workers. But they are not going to be Jesus-followers unless something drastically changes.

Well, they may think they are Jesus followers. But if they don’t open their heart to hear with their heart, if they don’t retain what the Spirit of God implants, and if they don’t doggedly produce the crop of faith, hope and love that their master bought the farm to produce, will God think they are Jesus followers? What would make Jesus think that?