Monday, November 30, 2009

Writing sensitively on sexuality

Peter Ould of An Exercise in the Fundamentals of Orthodoxy posts a (long) comment made on the Fulcrum Forum by a man called Ken Petrie. I cannot locate that comment on Fulcrum so the link below is to Peter's posting. I offer the post here (i.e. excerpt and link) not so much to endorse all that is said (though my own sympathies are very much in the direction of what is said) but to offer an example of how one can write sensitively yet directly about a controversial matter.

"Because marriages, like everything else human beings touch, will always bear a certain amount of taint from human sin, it follows that a certain humility is necessary in our approach to this divine institution which we mar through our involvement.

"Sadly, the Church has not been very good in its witness to these two truths. For whatever reason, bishops and clergy are too keen to celebrate marriage only as the good gift of God and to ignore the shortcomings of human beings. Therefore, when it was suggested there might be some penitential element when a marriage was celebrated for a couple, one of whom had a previous spouse still living, the General Synod rejected it. I believe the ordained members felt that if a marriage could be seen as sinful it shouldn’t be happening at all, and to make provision for a flawed marriage was somehow to undermine the ideal itself. But the contrary is true; it is only by acknowledging our failings that we uphold the ideal which, for us, is unattainable.

"I wonder whether this is because the English Church is quietly absorbing the sentimental over-expectation of our host culture, or because it has never been able to grasp the implications of Luther’s slogan, Simil justus et peccator. We live in the tension St Paul decribed in Romans 7.21-25 and it is only through Christ that we can amount to anything worthwhile at all. The warning at the end of verse 25 is also apposite. If we seek to enslave ourselves to God’s law we will only become slaves to sin."

The whole may be accessed here.


  1. The drift of your last three posts on this blog might well be highlighted by considering the case of Abishag the Shummanite with which the first book of Kings opens its treatment of royal prerogatives.

    The writer clearly takes a very non-judgmental approach to sexuality, David's sexuality anyway. If it works for you,just do it! Sexual titillation and arousal outside of marriage is fine if used for medicinal purposes? However you read this little story, it seems to express a radical degree of moral pragmatism, and even to celebrate the king's vestigial raunchiness. The sexual codes of Torah don't seem to intrude at all, apart from "but he didn't know her" (the Clinton clause?)

    All of which brings us the place of this story within the canon. For those who maintain the moral clarity of the Bible, where is the scriptural commentary or clear interpretive structure that would enable us to evaluate the behaviour of David, his courtiers and Abishag, without relying on moral norms drawn from our own social contexts? I am not saying that principles derived from other parts of scripture cannot be applied to this story, but that any such application involves interpretation and is contestable. The moral "clarity" of the Bible is my issue: how does it work in cases like this?

    All of which amounts to a case for the unavoidable place of biblical scholarship for Christian faith. Unless you cope with such stories by ignoring them (the default option for many Christians) the only way to integrate them into a wider understanding of scriptural truth, whether that be liberal or conservative, is to call on some combination of interpretive techniques informed by wider reading,
    personal reflection, and a sense of social responsibility - the very opposite of what that quote from the Great Dane is used to allege.

  2. What are implying, Howard? That I should allow advertising for Viagra on this site? :)

    Seriously: I agree that a 'biblical' approach to sexuality must reckon with all the Bible says ... but that would include the NT and I am sceptical, myself, that the NT would not intrude upon our understanding of the possible 2009 applications of Abishag's role modelling.

  3. Howard Pilgrim sent this comment which, long story short, I mucked up the moderation of. Here it is with my response:

    H PILGRIM: No Viagra for David! If that had been available for him back then, there is no way he would not have transgressed .... And 2009 possible applications of Abishag's role modelling? I would put the number somewhat lower, maybe even zero once we take account of a feminist analysis that sees her as social victim rather than role model.

    Of course the NT "intrudes" as we read this story, alongside feminism and all our other modern influences. My question then is whether there is a univocal NT intrusion providing biblical clarity without us needing to take responsibility for interpreting it. Obviously I think this is not so, but would like the proponents of "biblical clarity" to give me their take on this.

    My first preference though, in reading a text like this one, is to let the narrative have its own clear voice. In this case, as in many others, the result is that I hear a healthy insistence that moral strictures must take into account the full reality of human experience. The unruly sexual drive ascribed to David as Israel's greatest and most loved king was at the same time heroic, destructive and at his end life-giving ... a counterpoint to much that Torah had to say about ideal sexual purity. So when we seek to identify clear biblical rules to govern sexual behaviour, the scriptures are also telling us to make sure we take the complex reality of human sexuality into account.

    The general hermeneutic principle I am arguing for here is that narrative is not necessarily trumped by legal and didactic components of scripture, from which we derive our appetite for clarity of interpretation. Maybe we should take more responsibility for finding clarity within ourselves, and allow scripture its rich complexity.

    P CARRELL: Perhaps. But what about exceptions and rules. Is it more or less helpful to have general rules re sexual behaviour with acknowledgment that exceptions may occur* than to have a rule which (as I read you) permits individuals to set their own standards on sexual behaviour?

    *As you acknowledge, David's "exceptional" behaviour was not without its destructive consequences!

  4. PS Using the "V" word sent your comment to spam rather than to my Inbox as an alert ... :)

  5. A few points to clarify my thinking ...

    1. I don't think the Deuteronomic history ever holds David up as a moral exemplar. Sexually driven, yes, and sometimes sinfully to the point of tragedy. Nevertheless, at this endpoint to the story of his life it seems to be making a point that as his vital spark was running down, his sexual response to the intimate presence of a beautiful young woman could be counted on to get him going again. Nudge, nudge, chuckle. The story is told to celebrate David's remarkable life rather than to demean it. The moral tone of the author seems to be non-judgmental, an example of the attitude recommended in your post where at the same time as we make moral judgments we also take into account the fullness of human experience, including the reality of sin.

    2. However, the author doesn't seem to regard this incident as sinful at all. By remarking "but he didn't know her" he seems to be countering any suggestion that David was morally culpable for his sexual response. They didn't get past base one, so that is OK.

    3. That moral judgment seems rather at odds with the Israelite code forbidding an unmarried man and woman to lie together unless they intend to marry and subsequently do so. The writer either doesn't know of that prohibition, or doesn't hold it to be binding in medical(?) cases such as this, or believes that kings have more latitude, or something else. He may be arguing for an exception or a general rule, or else he may just not consider it of great value. If we are looking for moral clarity, we have to look beyond this text.

    4. The text is also rather at odds with the principle later laid down by Jesus that lustful feelings constitute adultery. By this measure, David's sexual arousal (implied in the story) means that the he did not know her" clause would not keep him sinless. Would such a later NT viewpoint provide "biblical clarity"? Some might argue that way, but this is where I would want to respond that the non-judgemental moral framework of the narrative serves to protect David's character from such a subsequent charge. What I mean here is that it is not a simple matter to divide scriptural texts into a simple descriptive/normative dichotomy, and that while narrative texts are often not normative in intention (the author here is clearly not trying to set up a new medical procedure), they may carry some inner narrative protection against external moral judgments.

    5. I am not arguing that we can set our own standards of sexual behaviour: as Christians, we are accountable to God and under no law only as we are led by the Spirit. My belief that my behaviour is OK with God has to be checked out against holy scripture, and I am more than capable of deceiving myself about the Spirit's leading.
    Nevertheless, try rephrasing your question to see how it applies to non-sexual sins. In what way may I set my own standards on gluttony, pride, covetousness, fearfulness, and so on? Does the Christian community need to get as "clear" and prescriptive about these matters as it does on sexual behaviour? If not, why not?

  6. Hi Howard
    I agree the Christian community should be as prescriptive about one area of life as it is about another.

    (PS Off to the ANZABS conference for a few days ... )

  7. "That moral judgment seems rather at odds with the Israelite code forbidding an unmarried man and woman to lie together unless they intend to marry and subsequently do so. The writer either doesn't know of that prohibition, or doesn't hold it to be binding in medical(?) cases such as this, or believes that kings have more latitude, or something else."

    Abishag was effectively chosen as a concubine for David, if not technically so. This is clear from 1 Kings 2:17. Polygamy and concubinage were common (practically the rule) for OT kings and no violation of the Mosaic law but have no place for NT Christians, as the Lord affirmed (Matthew 19:4) and his apostle Paul amplified in various places. Dispensationalist? Maybe, but that's part of what we mean by Heilsgeschichte, type/antitype, promise/fulfillment and other intrepretative approaches - the difference between BC and AD. Using the OT as a basis for Christian ethics without reading it through a Christological lens will always lead to strange results. There are always discontinuities as well as continuities - whcih is why I think 'Reconstructionism' is a mistaken approach.
    I've never read David in Sam-Kgs as an unambiguous moral exemplar. He is a 'man after YHWH's heart' but hardly sinless. His hypothermia and impotence in 1 Kgs point to his weakness and maybe make him look just a bit ridiculous: an shivering, old impotent man holding a beautiful young virgin. Ethically interpreting a narrative when the author doesn't specify his outlook is an uncertain task, but maybe we can guess at this from the outcome of a narrative.

  8. I find myself largely agreeing with the approach taken by Anonymous above, at least in these aspects:-

    1. He properly uses the larger narrative context to determine the basic significance of the story I cited:- Abishag fits loosely into the ancient social role of concubine. Her role within the historical narrative is that of a political pawn in Adonijah's subsequent bid for the throne. So the story is not really about her, nor even about David, but an introduction to a struggle for power and legitimacy within David's household.

    2. The political focus of the narrative explains its amorality, by which I mean its apparent lack of concern for what is best for either David or Abishag. So the best explanation of "but he did not know her" may be that this fact left the door open for Adonijah's bid, by avoiding incest taboos.

    3. However, once we accept that holy scripture can depict an intimate personal relationship in amoral terms, we should also recognize an implication that the sexual and personal dimensions of human relationships are not always paramount. More important things were happening there... and now!

    4. We clearly agree that we need to bring an interpretive framework to the story if it is to work as Christian scripture. The question then is whether these arise "clearly" (ie unambiguously) from the wider biblical context, especially from the NT), or must be imported as extra-biblical "interpretive approaches" as you suggest. For my money, we should own our theological biases and live with them, without appeals to "biblical clarity".

    5. "Reconstructionism" is an abomination, no argument ...

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