Arts & Culture
The minister jokes that there are three topics guaranteed to draw a big crowd to church: sex, the End Times, and "Is there sex in the End Times?" The sex premise isn’t the only reason that I’m sitting in church … Read More
The minister jokes that there are three topics guaranteed to draw a big crowd to church: sex, the End Times, and "Is there sex in the End Times?" The sex premise isn’t the only reason that I’m sitting in church along with a rather large crowd on a Sunday morning in my hometown in Indiana with two of my sisters and my seventeen-year-old daughter, Anna. It’s also an opportunity to be with my sisters in a more meaningful context than yard sales, and to experience again attending church together, as we did many years ago. Anna came along out of curiosity, to bond with her mother and aunts, and because my husband and sons were playing golf. Secretly, I hope that my Jewishly-raised daughter learns something – about me within a Christian context, about Christianity in general, and perhaps about sex being a more spiritual undertaking than it’s portrayed in the media.
Today is the last of a three-part series entitled "Sex by the Book," the Book meaning the Bible. The previous two sermons had been: "What the Playboy Wants You to Think" and "What God Wants You to Know." This sermon, "What Your Spouse Wants You To Figure Out," is conducted as a dialogue between the two young, clean-cut ministers who sit on stools at the front of the large, modern, non-denominational church, which draws Catholics, Lutherans and unaffiliated Christians from the county. It’s a far cry from the church in which we grew up, with its lack of sex, and excess of End Times.
The ministers open by pointing out that everything that we use comes with a set of instructions formulated by whoever created it. Sex is no exception. God the Creator gave us instructions on how to use sex in order to get the most out of it. Those guidelines can be found in the Bible, specifically in the Song of Songs, a model for sexual intimacy in marriage. "God felt strongly that this book should be in Bible," the minister says, as if he’d personally conferred with God as to which books would make it into the canon. Having studied the Song of Songs, (whose characters are not specifically described as being married, a fact which would wreak havoc on the "sex only within marriage" argument) I know that it had been a tough sell, as there is no mention of God at all in the book. It wasn’t until the second century when Rabbi Akivah argued that the book was in fact a love song between God and Israel that it was cleared for canonical status. Christians borrowed the idea that it was an allegory, and touted it as representing Jesus’ relationship to the Church.
I can’t imagine that they’ll quote the poem’s erotic and explicit language – "Let my beloved come to his garden and enjoy its luscious fruits!…I have come to my garden, eaten my honey and honeycomb." In my experience of Christianity, sex is viewed as being at odds with spirituality, perhaps because Jesus, whom Christians strive to emulate, is assumed to not have had sex. I never understood why having sex would undermine his credibility as the son of God. If the guy could talk and walk and eat and have bowel movements and still be regarded as God, why couldn’t he have sex?
The words from the fourth chapter of the Song of Songs are projected onto the huge screens in front, and a sonorous, male voiceover reads the biblical verse: her lips like crimson, neck like the Tower of David, breasts like two fawns…(This is the ancients’ version of "She’s so hot.") The minister concludes from this that women need communication – the man in this poem took time to excite his wife with words and poetry. The quote ends with, "You have captured my heart."
"Women want to be cared about," the second minister continues. "Women want men to leave their world and enter into the woman’s world, just as Jesus left his world and came into this one." The three things that women want from their spouses, they conclude, are: communication, care, and cuddling– with no strings attached.
Men, however, have other sexual desires which they wish their wives could figure out: creativity, frequency and affirmation. As if we are teenagers sitting in church and passing notes with the deacon lurking nearby, I scribble in a notebook and tilt it toward my sister, Wanda: "Creativity=blow jobs…Affirmation=That was so great! You’re so BIG!" We smirk together.
Our other sister, Liz, is a devout Christian and she is listening attentively to the sermon. I am drawn to the ministers’ passion and belief, to the way that they preface almost every statement with, "God wants you…God created…God’s plan is…God forgives you…" I feel comforted by the familiar feeling that God is ever-present in my life and has a plan for me, individually. Yet, conversely, their certainty that they know what God thinks and feels makes me emotionally back off. Certainty makes me nervous. I’m far more at ease with ambiguity.
Anna is intently focused on the ministers’ back and forth discussion about how, even as God wants us to enjoy sex, Satan is out there trying to get a foothold in our intimacy, tempting us to go outside the boundaries. Satan is confusing this society with hypersexual images and trying to reduce sex and make it common, but God intends it to be used for a holy purpose: To intimately bond two people together. So don’t buy into the lies that Satan, that ancient serpent that led Adam and Eve astray, feeds you. We’ve all taken fruit from the tree. We’re all sinners who fall short of the glory of God.
Satan-speak isn’t so popular in the Upper West Side synagogues of Manhattan, where Anna and I usually spend our time. The rabbis tend not to refer to either God or Satan as if they are sitting on the edge of your bed and fighting over the decisions you make with your body. God and Satan, good and evil-these binaries are just not part of our language.
Sometimes I wonder whether my children understand how much of this language they are missing. After all, as one of the world’s 14 million Jews, Anna is decidedly in the minority, though it may not seem so in New York City. My children can tell you the date of the destruction of the second temple, but would be hard put to identify one of the apostles. I doubt they know what an "apostle" is. Their Christian illiteracy is sometimes shocking to me, and I worry that as non-Christians, they don’t understand "inside" Christian references in popular culture.
I’m not suggesting they need to know that "go the extra mile" or "reap what you sow" are Christian phrases, or that the title of Shakespeare’s "Measure for Measure" is lifted from a line in the book of Matthew. And they can certainly appreciate U2’s music without being aware of the many allusions to the New Testament that suffuse the lyrics. Yet, knowledge of Christianity would enrich their lives and deepen their understanding of the world they live in, which is largely a Christian world. It would also have helped my son to write his paper on churches in his art history class. He had no clue why churches were built on an east-west axis.
On our way to the parking lot, I shake my head sadly and confess, "I don’t think I’ve ever had sex by the book." Wanda and I cackle (we are great cacklers) but my daughter says, as expected, "Mom, you’re so gross!" Then, Anna tells us that in Judaism, there are rules as to how often a man has to have sex with his wife, depending on his profession. "Like what, for example?" I inquire. She mutters something about how a merchant or sailor has to return home a certain number of times a month. This is, I vaguely remember, in keeping with a passage in I Corinthians that says a wife and husband shouldn’t deprive one another, so Satan won’t tempt them because of their lack of self-control. I refrain from mentioning this.
I can see how the End Times and sex are crowd pleasers. Both subjects touch on many of our hopes and fears of mortality and immortality. Our children are our immortality (God willing), and of course, in order to bring those children into this world, you have to have sex (okay, in vitro aside). The French psychoanalytic world dubbed orgasm "la petit mort", the little death. Sexual oblivion – losing control, and losing one’s grip momentarily on this earthly reality – could certainly seem as if it might be what that final, big, End Time death will look like.
Christianity is paradoxically based on sex and death: Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born; Jesus died a virgin – but didn’t die. And if you can only believe that, you can have everlasting life. My rabbis don’t talk about the End Times, the afterlife or if there will be sex in the End Times. They’re more concerned that we live in this world and transform our present into the Garden of Eden in whatever ways we can. Yet whether you’re Christian or Jewish, the Book continues to influence how we view sex, and how we believe that God views it. As restrictive as the Book may regard sex, it worries me less than the soulless notion of sex that permeates society.
The minister ended the service with a prayer that we leave different than when we came in. I hope that this hour and a half has demystified Christianity for Anna, and that perhaps she has a better understanding of Christians, and of me.
For the record, I was teasing my daughter. I have had sex by the Book.