Monday, October 10, 2011

Party On!

Most people probably don't know that the members of Monty Python had prepared for quite different careers. The late Graham Chapman was a doctor, though he never went into practice. John Cleese studied law. Terry Jones studied medieval history. And he is the only one who has returned to his academic roots, making a series of quite entertaining TV shows on history. However, I was very disappointed with "The Surprising History of Sex and Love," mostly because his depiction of Christianity and paganism was anything but surprising. Old pagan religions were nothing but a fun sexy party with no concept of sin while the Christians hated sex. It's a mixture of misrepresentation and oversimplification that I would hardly expect from a trained historian. Sadly, it is precisely what most people think today.

Fertility religions may have been a sexy fun party for guys but the attitude towards women was "keep 'em barefoot and pregnant." Women were seen as sex objects, even more so than today, if possible. Oddly enough, women were closer to equality in warrior cultures. Fertility religions featured temple prostitutes and public sex at festivals to encourage the gods to get busy and make the fields productive. Sex acts and sexual organs were depicted in every medium and displayed everywhere in pagan cities, and not just at the times of festivals. Jones shows us a depiction of the god Pan committing bestiality and reveals it was a garden ornament! With such things taking the place of garden gnomes, as well as all the other explicit statues and paintings archeologists tell us were found everywhere, walking through an ancient city would make Duval Street look like Sesame Street.

Human sacrifice was also a part of most fertility religions, with the idea that flowing blood would be followed by a fertile earth. This was one of the practices of Canaanite religion that God condemned but which crept into Israelite practice in dark times. People forgot the lesson Abraham learned when the angel of the Lord stopped him from sacrificing his son Isaac: that unlike the fertility gods of the peoples around them, Yahweh doesn't demand human blood. The animal sacrifices offered at the Temple were understood as vicarious. The sacrifice of the best of their livestock was an expensive way of reminding God's people of the cost of sin.

Like their neighbors, the Israelites were largely agricultural. Their calendar and festivals revolved around seedtime and harvest. But they did not use sympathetic magic to get God to make the land fertile, nor did God do it in a way analogous to how animals and people fertilize their mates. This made the God of Israel a bit abstract to some. The temptation was to make their God more like those of their neighbors.

That's what we see in Exodus 32:1-14. It seems to us amazingly ungrateful for the people to abandon God for a golden calf but Moses has been gone for 40 days. For all they know he is dead. However, they haven't switched gods. If you read the passage closely, what they are doing is reimagining God in a way that is more familiar to them. Aaron says that this is the God that led them out of Egypt. But now that God looks like other gods, as a young bull, strong and fertile. The Israelites are not breaking the first commandment, not to worship another god, but the second, not to make an image and worship it.

Why is this bad? To make an image of anything you have to make choices--yes to this, no to that. To depict God as a bull is to say "yes" to strength and virility but "no" to intelligence and wisdom. In contrast, the Bible uses a wide array of metaphors to describe God--as father, lover, judge, king, fire, storm, fountain, redeemer, provider, protector, shepherd, and more. No one image can encompass all that God is. To make an image of God is to limit the way you see God.

We do that to God all the time. We have favorite metaphors for God that we use often to the exclusion of others. Some people see God only as father, and an indulgent Western one at that, who may disapprove of some things but will never say no to his child if she wants something badly enough. Others see God as simply judge, jury and executioner, a divine Dirty Harry who is more interested in punishing evil than in forgiving and redeeming sinful people. Some see God as mainly a CEO, who is primarily interested in pushing a product, achieving market penetration and expanding the customer base. Some see God as an Eastern sage who is more interested in asking thought-provoking questions with no definitive answers than in laying down basic truths.

When we limit the way we look at God it's like taking one picture of the waters here in the Keys and saying that's how they always look, rather than noticing the way different light, cloud cover, wind, currents and seasons give them different colors, textures, and moods. When it comes to dealing with the different challenges of life, sticking with just one image of God is like emptying your toolbox of everything but a hammer, or a single wrench, or a solitary screwdriver. What good is a God less versatile than a Swiss Army knife or a smartphone? What good is a God who is only guide, but not a healer, who is only a comforter, but not a protector, who is only a lover but not a teacher, who only judges others but does not confront us?

Terry Jones' image of Christianity as nothing but a killjoy is not only erroneous but makes you wonder how it ever would have caught on or endured. In reality, Paul was reacting to an overly sexualized culture, one that makes Fantasy Fest look like Girl Scout Jamboree. But rather than simply ride the pendulum to the opposite end, the way people usually do, Paul counters one extreme with…a plead for being appropriate. As a Jew, Paul is not against sex but inappropriate sex. After all, the first commandment is to be fruitful and multiply. Paul tells married couples not to abstain from sex. He tells wives that their bodies are not their own but their husbands' but then, surprisingly, tells husbands that their bodies are not their own but their wives. Paul is not anti-sex anymore than traffic laws are anti-driving. In both cases, they are merely against their abuses. Only the thoughtless and reckless would characterize them as eliminating the pleasure of either activity.

Paul was celibate, though as a member of the Sanhedrin he must have been married at one point. In view of his insightful advice to married couples, I imagine him to be a widower. And even he realized that his contentment with celibacy was a gift and an uncommon one at that. The early church fathers understood that and did not endorse celibacy as a general rule. It took 200 years for the idea to spread from various small groups, some of which were heretical, and become considered an special and highly desirable kind of holiness. Nevertheless, we know of several honored bishops in the 3rd century who were married. And while in the 4th century pressure was put on clergy in the West not to marry, or if married not to have sex with one's wife, it was not mandatory. In fact, the last married Pope was Hadrian II, elected in 867 AD. Marriage for clergy was not absolutely prohibited in the West until 1123. In Eastern Orthodoxy, married men can still be ordained to the priesthood.

Another thing that bothered me was Jones' attributing one of Paul's quotes to Jesus and implying that Christ was against sex. One wonders how he would reconcile that with what Jesus really said. Jesus saves a wedding banquet at Cana by providing more wine. He defends marriage against the extremely lax rules of the day that allowed men to divorce their wives for the most trivial of reasons. And Jesus' favorite metaphor for the consummation of sacred history was a wedding banquet, something that both Paul and the Book of Revelation also use. Paul picks up one of the metaphors from the Old Testament, that of God as the husband of Israel, which justified the inclusion of the "Song of Songs" in the Hebrew Bible, and applies it to Christ and the church.

In view of salvation being depicted by Jesus as a big wedding celebration, and noting the frequent emphasis on rejoicing in the Lord, as we have in Philippians 4, where did the idea arise that Christianity is dour arise? Some of it is definitely the fault of believers who saw the Christian life as one of grim dedication to duty. And they were aided by those who go beyond Scripture, or even go contrary to it, by adding rules on what is and is not permissible. The Pharisees would do this, making a Scriptural law more stringent in order to put a "hedge around the Torah," keeping people from even getting close to violating God's precepts. It's like those rules schools used to have when I was a teenager, judging whether one was dressed decently by how long one's hair or hemline was--morality measured in inches. The problem is that if you elevate such additional precautions to the level of what God's Word actually requires, you make it easy to confuse the two. And should the extra rule appear to be excessive or ludicrous, you discredit Scripture. You also take away all flexibility and discretion. Eventually the original purpose of the rule is forgotten and it is no longer served by the added restrictions. This is the kind of thing Jesus regularly denounced.

But another reason that Christianity is depicted as a killjoy is that people don't like to be told what they should and shouldn't do, especially when it comes to sex. Many people think freedom means doing whatever you want to. But freedom is never absolute. As my 8th grade teacher said, your right to swing your arms ends at my nose. In any society, individual freedoms have to be limited in certain aspects for the common good. I have a license that gives me the freedom to drive; it does not give me the right to speed, drive recklessly, drive drunk or impaired, or break traffic laws. And few would argue that I should be able to drive any way I wanted.

But there are those who think that sex is different than any other area of life, despite the wreckage that has been wrought in terms of broken homes, broken lives, STDs, crimes of passion, incest, child abuse, human trafficking, pornography, rape, sexual harassment, sadism, addiction and millions of children growing up without both parents. This is not because sex is bad but because sex is powerful. Anything powerful has to be handled properly to avoid harming people.

As C. S. Lewis said, God likes sex. He invented it. Used properly it is as close to a transcendent experience as anything physical can be. Misused, it can be hell. You can read of the ruined lives in any of a thousand biographies or hear it the sad stories of friends betrayed by a spouse or by their own urges. Despite what some think, studies show that married people not only have sex more often than others but are more satisfied. In the final analysis, doing something the right way is the most fulfilling way to do it.

Doing things the right way is the point of the last part of Jesus' parable in Mathew 22:1-14. It is understandable that the king would punish those who not only don't respond to his invitation but murder his messengers. He is unusually magnanimous to invite everyone on the street to his son's wedding feast. But why would he balk when one of these last-minute guests is not properly dressed? If the king had offered everybody a robe, why didn't Jesus say so? On the other hand, if the man had a good reason, why didn't he say so? Why didn't he ask for a robe if he hadn't one of his own? Evidently he is the only one not properly attired for the royal wedding. His speechlessness when asked about this is what condemns him. He hasn't got a single reason not to have entered into the spirit of the festivities.

The moral of Jesus' story is still clear. Paradise is a party and God opens his doors to all--sinners, Gentiles, people you'd never expect to see in God's kingdom. But that doesn't mean they are free to do as they wish. Clothes are often metaphors in the Bible for a person's character. Changing one's clothes means changing what one used to be. God may invite one and all but those who accept his invitation need to, in turn, get cleaned up, make themselves decent and clothe themselves in righteousness. We're not talking priggishness but becoming an upright person. And when they need help with that, they can ask God to provide them with what they lack. His inviting everyone in the first place demonstrates his generosity. As Thomas Merton points out, our very desire to please God pleases him.

God wants us to have a good time. And since he invented good times, he knows how best to go about having them. The idea that good times mean no rules is that of shallow and selfish people. Someone has to referee the game or it will likely end in an argument. Someone has to enforce the traffic laws or the result will be smashed cars and shattered lives. Someone has to tell party guests to refrain from juggling the wine bottles like Tom Cruise in "Cocktail" or a lot of good drink will be lost and someone may cut themselves on the broken glass. If everybody follows the basic rules the party can go on. But God's not going to let anybody spoil it for the others. They can leave. Those who can get into the spirit of things can stay. Paradise is a party and God wants the party to go on forever.

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