Horrors abound in the ongoing demise of Mars Hill’s Mark Driscoll.
Driscoll, 43, stepped down as pastor of the megachurch this August, amidst an ever-mounting tide of allegations regarding his mishandling of just about everything that comes with being a pastor. Through bizarre, vulgar, oddly focused sermons on sexuality and an interpersonal manner that appears to have been nigh intolerable, Driscoll fostered a toxic church culture and environment. His theology outside the church was, it seems, was just as aggressively off-color, including statements such as:
Ultimately, God created you and it is his penis. You are simply borrowing it for a while. Knowing that His penis would need a home, God created a woman to be your wife and when you marry her and look down you will notice that your wife is shaped differently than you and makes a very nice home. Therefore, if you are single you must remember that your penis is homeless and needs a home. But, though you may believe your hand is shaped like a home, it is not … And, if you look at a man it is quite obvious that what a homeless man does not need is another man without a home.
Whether or not you imagine the creation of women to be theologically explicable in terms of divine penile vagrancy, it’s probably clear how statements like this one immediately elevate the status of some readers and lower that of others. It’s almost custom-designed to guarantee inaccessibility to women, a performative measure Driscoll seems to have enjoyed taking in service of his mission to reverse the “Pussification” of Christianity. It’s probably easy to condemn Driscoll for this, and to imagine that this brand of behavior is confined to a relatively small cohort of similar figures. But language on the subject of sex that displaces women readers and contributes to queasy cultures of exclusion and other forms of ill virtue is, depressingly, quite common.
No single writer is ever responsible for the sparking of trends, and of those authors who do participate in the production of a trend, motives and contributions are all (at least slightly) different. For that reason, I’ve chosen not to cite directly from any particular essay in the vein of work I’m discussing. I don’t intend to cast personal aspersions on anyone who might have written in this stream, and I certainly don’t mean to attribute sole responsibility for its outcome to anybody in particular—so I’ll be writing in general terms. But please do take on faith (or call upon your own imagination to verify) that I have specific pieces in mind.
The vein of writing I refer to is made up of a corner of popular Christian writing on sex that aims not so much to lay out what Christian marital or sexual ethics are, or to argue for a specific position on them, but to demonstrate that Christian martial or sexual ethics are good. This isn’t an unworthy project, as one of the chief complaints registered in popular discourse regarding Christianity has to do with its allegedly puritanical, oppressive sexual ethic. So contrary to the image of the Christian life as inherently bloodless and perfunctory, these essays tend to use personal narratives to propose the superiority of Christian sexual ethics to non-Christian ones (typically indefinite and libertine) on their own grounds. That is, these pieces aim to show that living the Christian life is not incompatible with experiencing sexual pleasure or contentment, but actually leads to those things in a more thorough, authentic sense. They tend to focus on the good of fertility compared to artificial birth control; the good of connubial relations compared to porn; or the good of reserving sex for marriage compared to not.
This is a totally respectable goal. Yet it’s worth questioning if it isn’t inflected with a pair of less respectable intentions. In contemporary culture, for example, sexual chastity is construed as a feminine quality, leading folks like Driscoll to try to reclaim a more masculine, virile edge for the faith; secondly, noble motives can quickly lapse into the lascivious when the right subject is at hand. None of these pieces read precisely like Penthouse Forum letters, but it’s sometimes more a matter of where they draw the line on the narrative than how it would play out given its logical conclusion. These points are, I think, enough reason to contemplate the best argumentative tactics before pressing on with essays like these.
But even with the best of intentions, the register of pieces in this stream tends to have unintended impacts on women readers. If the Christian publishing sphere is imagined as a literary, online representation of the Church community itself, then these articles are the equivalent of the winks and glances and whistles women get every day, combined with the vaguely lewd remarks one overhears that produce a slightly disconcerting tenor. Women, in other words, are used to being viewed as automatically sexual regardless of how we might want to engage; the very fact of our being women and present seems to occasion, quite uncomfortably, grounds for considering female sexuality. It’s an unsettling experience to enter into a space or conversation expecting to learn or discuss and instead find the topic of your most personal anatomy and experience up for consideration.
This points us to the chief issue: Essays like these, authored by men, are still principally about women, but only as objects of assessment. Similar pieces by women—say, an article by a Christian woman detailing the loveliness of her husband’s masculine sexual prowess and virility—would probably not get such a warm reception, and, indeed, such pieces are comparatively rare, and don’t get much of a hearing in traditional spaces. This suggests that there is perhaps something questionable at work in the structure of these pieces: are we really arguing that Christian sexual ethics are superior on the merits, or are we arguing that one can maintain the tendency to sexually objectify women while still following the rules, so to speak? The line blurs.
What’s excellent about Christian marriage is that it resists the tendency to view people as means to ends, that it insists on the utter unique personal-ness of marital sex, and that it maintains the same sexual expectations of men and women in both of those directives. We therefore stray a little, it seems, when we turn personal marital sexual narratives into public arguments for the superiority of an ethic that would suggest such things should remain at least somewhat private and unknown to others. Further, and worse, it seems to me that such literary efforts can result in the same sidelining of women via othering and objectification that the Christian sexual ethic, with its restriction of sex to marriage, has the powerful potential to prevent.
When engaging with a secular culture that’s hostile to Christian sexual ethics, it’s tempting to adopt the language of the opposition to win on its own turf. But in this case doing so seems to push Christian women out of the conversation precisely because the language of secular sexual pop culture typically has misogynistic themes built in. A little less heavy then, on the poetically etherealized female form, and a little heavier on the generalizable merits would be a welcome shift in this growing genre of Christian literature.