Our theme for the month of June is “sex and the church.” To read posts from our first pass at this theme, check out our June 2018 archives.
“Eh, you didn’t miss much,” a friend joked, or half-joked, recently. I had been asking him about his experience in small groups branded for young Christian men, a topic that I, unrepentant Calvinist Cadet Corps dropout that I am, know very little about. Grinning lopsidedly in response, he had leaned forward in his seat.
“A lot of it boiled down to the same message,” he continued. Then he wagged his finger at me, his voice bellying down into the sonorous frequencies of biblically sanctioned denunciation. “‘Stop jerking off. We know you’re doing it. Stop.’”
I open this post here, with a mildly vulgar anecdote, for a couple of reasons. The first of course is that I find it amusing. For all that polite society, and especially polite Christian society, has equipped me with more delicate elocutions—vaguely clinical words like masturbation and sniffy abstractions like self-pleasuring—jerking off remains, if nothing else, much more direct, much more viscerally frank, about its relation to the body, and particularly to the body in sticky, messy motion. And that makes me giggle. At the same time, it also occurs to me that my friend’s crassly casual parody of conventional Protestant sexual ethics is perhaps not so very different from the insights that underlie a lot of the post calvin’s recent, as well as not-so-recent, essays about sex and the church. I’ll try to explain.
At this point, I’m part of the old guard of the post calvin. Not only am I nearing 30, but I’m also part of the original cohort that wrote about sex and the church back in 2018. And one of the things that strikes me most when comparing this cycle of essays to the last is how little, really, has changed. My friend’s unsubtle jab at traditional Christian sexual ethics, which claims to celebrate sexuality but retains an exceedingly narrow view of the concept, is one I’ve seen repeated in various forms across essays both past and present. Courtney Zonnefeld for instance has recently approached this critique via the church’s impoverished imagination about singleness. Similarly, Gwyneth Findlay has pointed out how ableism implicitly shapes the church’s teachings about sex. In these and other examples, what emerges time and again is not merely a profound disconnect between, on one hand, the sexual vocabulary that the church promotes and, on the other, how people actually live their own bodies and sexualities. What also emerges is a very clear sense that the church’s sexual vocabularies are, in the main, primarily aimed at reinforcing a particular kind of bodily and sexual experience, while excluding, or even just waving away, those that don’t fit the norm. In the case of the Christian Reformed Church, this disciplining tendency has come powerfully into view for me in a couple of ways these past few weeks.
For readers familiar with Synod’s recent decision on the Human Sexuality Report, the first of these examples will be unexpected. Recently Jes and I visited a Christian Reformed Church that we hadn’t previously attended—and won’t attend in the future. We were stunned. In contrast with every other CRC sermon we’d ever heard, ranging from those that were broadly welcoming of gender and sexual difference to those that were tepidly oblique about their opposition, the sermon we heard at this church distinguished itself in its pettiness and cruelty. I don’t use those words lightly. The sermon felt less like an exegesis of scripture than an anti-abortion and anti-queer rant lifted straight from Tucker Carlson or Laura Ingraham. Explicit in the pastor’s message was the assumption that bodies that don’t conform to the conventional teachings of the church on gender and sexuality are sinful. Implicit was the further confidence that such bodies don’t exist in the first place—or anyway don’t exist anywhere within the four walls of the church’s sanctuary.
Compare this sermon, then, to Synod. There the overwhelming emotion was, if the delegates are to be believed, lament—lament, but also an overriding desire for clarity. Delegates lamented division. They lamented the suffering of queer Christians. In just about every way, the proceedings of Synod cut a perfect, respectable contrast to the bigotry Jes and I heard from the pulpit at this other church. Yet in the end just how different are they?
My wager: not that different. While delegates of the denomination might be inclined to condemn this CRC pastor for how he expressed his theology, the decision they ratified nevertheless makes space for him to continue saying exactly the same thing. It’s a problem, the denomination has effectively argued, of tone, not of substance. Or to put it differently: it’s the difference between jerking off and masturbating. Meanwhile, according to Synod, professing queer Christians and allies do not merit the same forbearance. Per the denomination’s decision, affirming queer sexualities and relationships is now, theologically and in the name of so-called clarity, beyond the pale. It’s out of the question.
Or is it? Indeed, as much as the denomination has tried to shutter conversation about human sexuality, the disjuncture between received theological vocabularies and embodied experience—the fact, in other words, that it’s been four years since the post calvin’s last “sex and the church” theme and writers are still italicizing the same frustrations and complaints—gives me a modicum of hope. The denomination would like for things to be settled. It would like its decision to be final. What I see on the post calvin, however, and what I see in conversation with friends suggest anything but.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.