One of the books from the Bible is a hot, heavy, erotic love poem called “Song of Solomon.” Since the poet uses veiled sexual metaphors such as “the vineyard is in blossom,” many religious leaders have claimed that the poem is simply about the tender love between God and humanity. But this argument breaks down in chapter five, when the man in the poem puts his “hand” through a “hole” and the woman’s insides “groan” and she “opens” for him.
I believe that erotic passion and the delightful connection between spirituality and sexuality are biblical themes. Tragically, the institutional church has systematically masked, smothered and twisted this connection. This cover-up bears significant responsibility for toxic masculinity, homophobia, rape culture, pervasive sex scandals in the institutional church and billions of sexually repressed Christians. For what it is worth, as a clergyperson, I want to say: I’m sorry. We have been the worst. The institutional, dominant-culture church needs to acknowledge and try to make amends for the havoc we caused around sexuality.
One way to make amends is to develop and proclaim a sex-positive, body-positive spirituality and theology. Perhaps the best place to begin is … at the beginning, with the story of Adam and Eve. The mainstream narrative goes like this: God created people, put them in a garden, told them not to eat from a certain tree, they disobeyed and everything fell apart from there. The mainstream theological takeaway is that God is a rule-maker, people are selfish rule-breakers and disobedience is the root of all suffering and evil. This narrative justifies the creation of clerical hierarchies that take the place of God, create lots of rules and dole out punishments for disobedience. But there is a very different, much healthier, much deeper way to interpret the Garden of Eden story. It begins by noting that when God made humanity, God said that we were “very good.” We were naked and all was well. Humanity did not simply decide to break a rule. They were influenced by the voice of a serpent, that essentially told them that they were not complete as they were, but would only be complete if they ate the forbidden fruit. In this analysis, it is not selfish pride that caused everything to fall apart, it is the voice of shame. Shame is the belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with you. Perhaps it is shame, not selfishness, that is the root of all suffering and evil. Perhaps the Creator made us, our bodies and our sexuality beautiful and lovable just as we are, but we listen to the voice of the serpent (shame) and it drives us to make terrible mistakes.
Lizzo sings a song called “Scuse Me” that celebrates masturbation as an act of self-love. She filmed the video for it in a church. I watched it expecting it to be a Madonna-esque video made for shock value, but instead discovered an authentic expression of what church could and should be: a space to experience grace, to discover that you are lovable and beloved. The church has a long way to go to develop a liberating sexual theology, but with artists like Lizzo paving the way, just maybe there is hope after all.
Rev. John Helmiere is the convener of Valley & Mountain.
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