Our theme for the month of June is “Sex and the Church.”
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed. – Genesis 2: 24-25
[God’s command disobeyed
The forbidden consumed
Then, the LORD God said, “See, the man has become like us, knowing good and evil . . .” – Genesis 3:22
I don’t know about you, but I’m still waiting for the day I come into my totally depraved inheritance of the knowledge of good and evil. I fantasize: my prefrontal cortex develops, my moral compass aligns; I act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.
The knowledge that Adam and Eve gain, however, is crude. They know their own nakedness. They know shame.
I know shame. Enough to stop stealing fruit snacks from the field trip supply closet at the office? Nah. And I suspect acquiring an ethical framework is not as simple as taking or abstaining from a bite. Knowledge rarely comes as a flash of insight. Rather, it is a slow process of learning, exploring, doing wrong, making right. Under some conditions, it begets wisdom.
Adam knows Eve and Eve bears a child.
I’ve been pondering the link between sex and knowledge: sex as a fact that many of us are shielded from until we reach what is deemed a suitable age for knowing, sex as a mystery until it’s been had, “knowing” as procreation, and how sex might lead to deeper knowledge.
Jamie Quatro, whose talk I attended at this year’s Festival of Faith and Writing, meditates on such carnal knowledge in Fire Sermon. Equal parts epistolary novel, psychotherapy session, steamy romance, guilt trip, and theological epiphany, Fire Sermon is fragmented, unchronological, salacious, overwrought, brief. Simply, it is about longing for knowledge.
Maggie Ellman is a middle-aged, two-time English grad school dropout partial to the Christian mystics. She longs for an erudite Christian mind, unequally yoked as she is to Thomas. Agnostic at best, his work involves business and numbers and IPOs. Maggie is quick to say that he is a caring and dependable husband. But they seem more like strangers to each other and Maggie dreads sex.
After reading a collection of poems by James Abbott, a professor at Princeton, Maggie writes to him that his writing “unlocked,” “cleansed,” and “bolstered” her faith when she had not the words for it. Her fan email sparks an intellectually titillating correspondence re: Bach, apophatic literature, C.S. Lewis sermons, poem edits. They delight in their shared knowledge and want to know each other in the deepest ways. They agree they’d rather not discuss their spouses.
In I Corinthians 7:9, Paul reluctantly concedes:
it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.
Maggie, however, is married to Thomas and aflame with passion for James. Spoiler: in the very first pages of the book we see them deciding to do it, to pursue carnal knowledge of each other. Maggie struggles to make sense of this knowledge and her longing for the rest of her life. In the climactic fire sermon, she preaches to herself that this is precisely why God has given us the institution of marriage:
Apart from the Law we are all addicts.
Apart from the Law there is no Eros.
But obediently to the Law—faithful inside it—we learn to long acutely. And longing, unsatisfied, lifts the gaze. Flesh to spirit, material to immaterial. Forbidden love as tutelage. As if God wants us to feel it, requires it in order to reach us.
Maggie recommits to her marriage to Thomas and concludes, “So let me burn.”
Sex, as a secret, is out. The sexual revolution, frank conversations, accessible contraceptive methods, the Internet, and apps like Tinder and Bumble offer all sorts of knowledge. The church (if I may speak of it so monolithically), even as it laments the “sexularization” of society, is shifting accordingly. It is giving us more ways to think about sex beyond procreation—the easiest analog for image bearers seeking to emulate their Creator—and exploring what sexual pleasure and intimacy can teach us about the love of God.
Maggie’s preoccupation with adulterous longing as a way to know God remains, in contrast, unsettling. I don’t think the romance novel genre is as well-established as it is because readers are trying to draw closer to God. I don’t think porn is prayer. If it were the other way around and Maggie cheated on James with numbers guy Thomas, she might have thought of it more transactionally. James is the rare foil who, with his Christian intellect, seduces Maggie to a more profound understanding of God.
And yet, I think I find Maggie’s wrestling more compelling than a simple moral judgment and repentance of sin. It is a parable of the weight of the knowledge of good and evil and what we glean from our failings and I am daunted. Daunted by the rightness of wrong, by the wrongness of right, by the thought that this is the nature of knowledge we inherit.
India Daniels graduated in 2017 with majors in history and English literature. Her first year out of Calvin, she moved home to Chicago to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA at Turning the Page, a nonprofit promoting parent engagement and literacy in North Lawndale schools. She now assists Turning the Page’s used bookstores and coordinates a citizen-reporter program for City Bureau, a civic journalism lab on the South Side.