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Posts Tagged ‘marriage’

One thing I’d really like to look at more is theology and sexuality. More evangelicals are becoming gay and lesbian affirming, at least in the sense that everything is all good within the bounds of a mutual, monogamous relationship, i.e., marriage. Now I’ve only read what’s come across my path here, not having done a lot of research on this specifically, but I am aware of the position(s) that “marriage equality” doesn’t mean a whole lot for equality or justice really at all. It’s gradualist in the sense that it allows those previously excluded from certain privileges to attain them in some sense, but it’s not radical because it doesn’t go past the basic framework that is already offered. It wants into marriage rather than reimagining relationships, sex, love, etc from the ground up, creating new alternatives. Moreover, same sex marriage focuses on including lesbians and gays into a historically heteronormative system, but it becomes more problematic when considering bisexuals, pansexuals, transgender persons… If that’s ambiguous it’s because I’m trying to generalise a whole lot of vaguely recollected reads which also each probably frame the issues differently.

Anyway, this is just one factor that has got me thinking about some questions to pursue around theology and sexuality, specifically marriage. Some other factors include the high numbers of evangelicals especially who have had pre-marital sex (yes this includes oral and manual), in relation to this evangelical purity culture, pornography, people getting married later, increased divorce rates, and an increasing amount of people (mostly outside the church as far as I know) exploring alternatives to monogamous relationships, such as various approaches to polyamory. I want to pose the question, what does this mean for our theology of marriage? I can think of three main approaches:

(A) A “traditionalist” approach which seeks to maintain traditional evangelical/Christian understandings of marriage (whatever they are!) while acknowledging the difficulties people have maintaining this as a reality, like in pre-marital sex and getting divorced, and supporting them accordingly, another kind of love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin-approach. With any approach there will be ongoing failures and exceptions which cannot be accounted for. However, these need to be addressed through understanding tradition as dynamic, creating new tradition, and remembering as good Protestants that our source is not first tradition but the person of Christ.

(B) This leads into a “retrieval” approach which would seek to draw on the sources of Scripture and tradition, engaging with both critiques of marriage from within and outside of the church, to attempt to restate what marriage has been and what it might be today. For example, I’ve been thinking a bit about Paul’s frequent use of porneia, usually translated as “sexual immorality” in the New Testament. While I’m sure that because Paul didn’t understand sexuality, gender, etc in the same way that we do he would have provided some very different answers to ours, it also needs to be asked what connection early Christians such as Paul saw between life in Christ and the Spirit and their sexual decisions and how this should relate to contemporary Christian practice. Nonetheless, this approach has not yet heeded what it might look like to imagine and affirm new relationships and sexualities outside of the concept of marriage altogether.

(C) The final would be a “liberation” approach which understands Christ as coming to liberate creation for a completely new order which is new creation. So, Jesus, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matt 22:30; cf. 1 Cor 7:25-31). This also concerns undertaking theology not from the perspective of those who benefit from marriage (or benefit from promoting and defending it) but from those who are in different senses excluded from marriage, so LGBTQI persons, and in a different again yet still important sense the never-married-but-lived-as-in-a-relationship-which-in-many-ways-was-marital, the widowed, the divorced, the forever alone/never-got-married-but-wanted-to. Obviously such an approach would both need to engage critically with the married (though I’d like to think many who are happily married would provide some kind of support for this approach) but also acknowledge in what senses marriage has and continues to be a source of love, growth, support, healing, strength, etc, for so many people.

I began writing this post as I had until recently thought only in terms of B, though suddenly I found my self considering the value of C. This is all provisional and a sketch. Others will have given this more time and thus more thought and probably considered a lot more things than I have in this post.

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The biblical call to love

Although I wrote an earlier post this year on Christian love, it remains a little clumsy and I’d like to do a lot more thinking on the subject. One thing that seizes me about biblical love is that it is characterised by other-oriented, self-giving. So although Jesus cites the second commandment as “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Matt 22:39), suggesting some basis in self-love for neighbour-love, the temptation is to hastily set this up as the standard by which all acts of self-giving are measured. So Jesus also calls us to “do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matt 7:12), rather than “as they do to you.” He states paradoxically that “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt 10:39), that life and security are found not in seeking but forsaking. Perhaps this forsaking is what Paul has in mind when he places it in the context of the church: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Phil 2:3; cf. Rom 12:10; 1 Cor 10:24).

These are all based on Jesus’ own example. So, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Paul also notes, “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Similarly, it is only because of God’s love that our love for one another is possible. So “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). And “Rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).

Trinity and reciprocity

A problem, however, arises. God is God and people are people. How can the latter love as the former? I consider the Trinity. Good theology will have us know that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have dwelt in reciprocated love from all eternity. The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Spirit and the Spirit loves the Father (and all the other combinations), based not on any feature of the beloved Trinitarian person but each of the lover’s free decision to love. So the idea expressed in the last verse above (and throughout the Old Testament), that God loves the sinner regardless of their qualities, would be an oddity if in the Trinity one person’s love of another depended on its being reciprocated. But, is it an either/or? Having only done the rudimentaries, my reading on the Trinity is yet limited; nonetheless, allow me this: God is not a binity. Perhaps it is this not-so-superfluous third that makes all Trinitarian love possible. Is it at all acceptable to suppose that the Father’s love for the Son “enables” the Son to love the Spirit, regardless of that love being reciprocated?

Before shouting “heresy!” consider, it is too easy to make freedom the defining attribute of God. Where Western anthropology has often accorded human libertarian agency an honourable seat in the definition of what it means to be human, it was inevitable that the ideal of freedom would also be applied to God. This was perhaps also a response to hyper-hyper-Calvinist (of course, no longer Calvinist) definitions of God which placed the god of necessity above God himself, i.e. God acts this way and he could do no other as he is under necessity. In this case, freedom is much to be preferred. Yet, there remains the danger that freedom too stands above God in defining him. Rather, nothing, not even God’s freedom, stands above him in defining him as he cannot be defined; he comes to us on his own terms. (Ignore the contradiction(s) in that last line of argument). Additionally, God is one. No person of the Trinity acts as a libertarian individual but all act together. So while we say that that Son loved that Spirit, and distinctions are necessary, and this relationship is unique from say the Son’s love for the Father, the Father is not absent from the love between Son and Spirit. If he is, we very quickly divide the Godhead and plummet into paganism. Thus, in freedom the Trinitarian persons love each other, independent of its being reciprocated, but made possible by the very nature of God.

https://i.chzbgr.com/maxW500/4434775040/h4456769B/

This provides context for the call to non-reciprocated love in Christianity. Christians are still called to love their enemies, not based on whether their enemies will reciprocate but on God’s perfection (Matt 5:48). As the love between two persons of the Trinity is non-existent without the third, so also is our call to love our enemies impossible without first being reconciled to God and living in Trinitarian community.¹ So the event of Christ’s death for all and his resurrection which provides the hope for all things finally being worked out, propels the believers to live lives as a part of this story (e.g. Rom 6:3-11). So also, God does not call individual believers but a community to himself: In radically acting as if another believer is better than their self, this believer is part of a whole community which seeks to do this, that, ideally, this believer is not only the giver but receiver of grace from other believers. Finally, the work of the Spirit in the lives of believers means the community actually experiences the Trinitarian love of God. How often have I been enabled to see a forlorn aspect of one of my relationships from a completely different, empowered, loving angle after emerging from prayer!

(Before proceeding, it would be a little ridiculous to set up non-reciprocated love as an ideal. The Bible is testament to the fact that God’s people have always struggled to love God, others, themselves, and their environment. I can only say that notwithstanding the life of Jesus, there are many more beautiful examples out there, and with the help of the body of Christ and the work of the Spirit, I somehow hope to join these!).

The awkward contradiction! (?)

After all that, I finally arrive at the reason for writing this post: To offer some scattered thoughts on Christian dating. My main concern is this: If the church is called to self-sacrificial love, and so too the individual in Christian marriage attempts to look to the other ahead of their self, is there a way to go about dating that puts the other before the self? Or is dating based on self-interest? For one individual to say that their interest in dating another is based on concern for that other above the individual’s self is a bold claim! It assumes either that in dating this other they will somehow benefit from the individual’s offer, or at least that the other is interested in the individual without that other having explicitly revealed it or even realised it. Conversely, dating based on self-interest seems to make a lot of sense. People seek intimacy. The silverscreen and the highway billboard both point to its fulfillment in romantic love.² Go, therefore, and make dinner arrangements. However, other- and self-interest is a false dichotomy; any absolute notion of either deserves rejection. I remain unimpressed with this critique of altruism, that nothing is truly altruistic because, although it parades as other-centred, it is sourced in the individual and therefore cannot exist for any reason other than for serving that individual. Every desire is self-interested, etc. But this assumes a perfectly bounded individual. There is no instance and never will be of an individual existing on their own terms. You cannot say individual without saying individual-in-(and-of-)the-world (chur Heidegger), or individual-in-relation-to-others. We are completely contingent on others for our coming-to-be. We live in the same world and share the same atoms. Thus, our other-centred concerns are never a direct result of our libertarian agency and neither are our supposedly self-interested ones; we live on the line between other and self, discovering otherness sometimes even within ourselves.

At least in a limited sense though, dating is based on self-interest. Is it possible to say that the individual does not primarily enter into dating for the sake of the other but their self? Assume so, because my argument depends on this! If so, though, does it not run counter to the call to other-centred Christian love? I can now think of two reasons why this does not matter. Firstly, if something good comes of dating, i.e. marriage, then the other-centred love worked towards in this context will continually overlook the need for the initial stages of the relationship to be attributed to one party. It is not a matter of whether she liked him first, etc, as their current love is independent of any initiation but based in continually putting the other ahead of the self. She is just stoked that he responded to her and he’s just stoked that she liked him in the first place. Secondly, although I hope that Christian love always seeks to acknowledge and minimise any power imbalance between lover and beloved, an other-centred, non-reciprocated romantic love will inevitably result in power imbalance. In a healthy relationship there will be power imbalances due to the strengths and weaknesses of each involved, and sometimes one party will give more and receive less, but in the course of love these are to be worked out. Yet to seek an other in dating where all their needs are put before the individual’s is actually to do a disservice to that other. Imagine basing a relationship solely on the  desire to honour the other’s feelings towards you despite you having no romantic interest in that other. The other is not actually honoured because their love lacks reciprocation. Of course, much dating will start like this, but you would hope that both individuals would at least hold within themselves the possibility for romantic interest in the other, and if transitioning into a relationship you would hope that at least some of that romantic interest had been realised! So “self-interest” becomes very valid in Christian dating: Is there a possibility that my romantic interest will be returned?

In sum, Jesus calls his disciples to radical, other-centred love, based on his own example. This also is the case with the Trinity, and our inclusion into Trinitarian community allows us begin to love others regardless of whether this is reciprocated. A problem, however, emerges with Christian dating, as it is typically founded on self- rather than other-interest. Yet this self-interest is not ultimate and, unwittingly or no, a necessary constituent of other-centered romantic love.

* * *

¹Of course, there are examples of enemy-love outside of Christianity and these need be examined individually.

²To make matters worse/better, there is some biblical support for this! So the story in Genesis 2 presents God making Eve because Adam would be lonely without her. But this is not the only biblical meditation on romantic love. Jesus notes there will be no marriage in heaven (Matt 22:30). The eunuchs, sexual outcasts excluded from marriage, are accorded a special place in the kingdom of heaven (Matt 19:12). As Paul writes to the Corinthians, the future has come into the now through Jesus and the Spirit, making the eschatological reality of celibacy possible, even beneficial (1 Cor 7:25-38). This is not to say that romantic love is this-worldly and it will have no meaning in the new heavens and new earth. I am of the opinion that it’s value will be affirmed, fulfilled, and redefined. However, as a Christian, my life is continually re-oriented around what Jesus has done, is doing, and will do. The question of marriage of celibacy is monumentally relative to the reality of Jesus.

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Here’s another marketing ploy for readers to continue reading while I fervently try to box a little bit more of reality with language. Enjoy five sonnets written over 2008 and 2009. I haven’t read them for ages. Twenty-One, written on becoming twenty-one, also had Milton in mind when writing it, mainly lamenting the amount of life that’s gone to waste so far. Making sure, written out of my own cynicism in my inability to live up to my own ideals. Maranatha, disillusionment with my lack of compassion for people the world over, and that any desire I had to help others was actually more of a desire to find my own purpose in life. Poker for communists, on celibacy. A better tomorrow, a nice one to close on, as you can see from this miserable line up of other poems, expressing one of those rare moments in life when you grasp the reality of real hope.

Twenty-One

These formative years:
They are passing
with rapidity,
like a rabbit you would
see running from a gunshot. I shot

again, and the cuddle-wrought
fugitive contracted into a ball

of fluff. If an instant were a lifetime,
then in that instant of this life

one last elastic bound
cast my prize to his safety. And
I walked on dejectedly
into possibility; and I walked on
an empty stomach.

* * *

Making Sure

We’re not falling away
due to adversity,
but we are falling as we rise
in our prosperity. Hear this
new something we have

to complain about: life–
it’s too easy. Our excess is emptiness;

there’s really nothing there.
So we buy books

to make sure we’re saved.
Our Christian friends tell us
Christian things
to make us better Christians
so that one day we’ll be really good Christians.

* * *

Maranatha

When leaden souls burden
my shoulders, or if the blood
of the condemned swells
in my heart, then consecrate
this entire individual to the God who is

love. But between desert mosque and isolated
rainforest, though I could search for a niche to love

people, in searching I search for myself.
This skin envelops the multipartite and immeasurable

being: Bones, ghost,
psyche, etc. Give me some time away from
myself! Jesus will save the nations,
albeit my motivations are
a precedent for my procrastination!

* * *

Poker for communists

The pursuit of
happiness is all pursuit; the yellow
brick road concedes
infinity. Arise, dying body! Life within
continue! You may envy the resting

stillborn, who faced neither despair
nor desire, but we exchange fists

with eternity. Tell me how
Buddha, apostate of world and wife,

grew plump on nirvana. Tell me how
Jesus’ disciples could discount
godly union for fear of divorce. Tell me
how a couple could love to the utmost of human possibility
then forfeit it all to death.

* * *

A better tomorrow

The majestic king of beasts, through bringing
death, lives on flesh, and glorifies
his Creator. The humble plankton
perishes in a whale’s belly, yet sings
praises to his God. Eternity is now, forever

is today, and this breath finds its meaning
when breathed for you. Each moment

is just a reason to know you, and you
make each momentous. Although now the world

is lard in our blood and heavy
in our lungs, each choke
anticipates the coming perfection; and
though now we but know you
in spirit and faith, we will see your face.

Look Jackson, you’re too old for piggy back rides now; someone’s going to lose an eye.

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Recently, a flurry of viagra spam has been filling up behind the scenes on my blog here. Consider this post a kind of viagra spam. You might not want to hear about it, but, as in my experience, it’s no longer something you can easily avoid.

* * *

When I first became a Christian, one of the heaviest reservations I held was the denunciation of homosexuality. In school, you could say I was ‘indoctrinated’ to believe that everything gay was a good thing, that same-sex attraction was just as normal as liking girls, so much so that after five years of high school I had no objections, other than my still dismissive attitude towards homosexuality. All that I had a problem with was overtly homophobic attitudes, expressed predominantly by Christians, and old people here and there, and people that lived on farms.

After a becoming a Christian late into my seventeenth year, my views on the homosexual question gradually began to change. My dismissive attitude passed (mostly), as I was more aware of how offensive it could be to refer to something I didn’t like as ‘gay’, yet the underpinning stance, that which I used to understand as homophobic, now became more acceptable to me: It was alright to oppose homosexual marriage and support ideas such as gays being ‘healed’, that is, becoming straight (and later on down the track I accepted the idea of homosexual celibacy), but it was not alright to direct any hate or bad jokes towards homosexuals — only this was homophobic.

My unashamed homophonic enthusiasm for puns, however, never changed.

Five and a bit years later I’m ready to come out of the closet¹: This post will examine two aspects of my Christian worldview, these two which I think many Christian friends will share in common with me, and demonstrate some of the intellectual hypocrisy in my thinking these last years.

* * *

As I began reading the New Testament, some deep internal changes were going on. I was totally taken aback by Jesus’ words on loving your enemies, and Paul’s similar exhortations to overcome evil with good. The centrality of love in these writings presented me with no difficulty in affirming their divine origin. On this basis did I read the passages concerning the subjugation of women in the church: The only thing subjugatory about them for me was under circumstances where people would desire otherwise, but if God had desired that men should lead the flock and head the family while women accepted their natural roles as child-bearers and nurturers then why not be obedient? For those unfamiliar with the passages, I’ll cite a few:

“I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ” (1Corinthians 11:3 NRSV).

“Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, in modesty” (1Timothy 2:13-15 NRSV).

“Husbands, in the same way, show consideration for your wives in your life together, paying honour to the women as the weaker sex, since they too are also heirs of the gracious gift of life–so that nothing may hinder your prayers” (1Peter 3:7 NRSV).

With these and other passages in mind, I began to notice discrepancies between biblical teaching and church practice. What gave Christians the right to pick and choose which passages they would abide by? Some Wikipedia funded research here and there, some searching online, and good conversations with good friends began to provide me with another perspective:

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 NRSV — I especially like how the NRSV repeats the ‘there is no longer’). Probably the most popularly cited verse for the egalitarian view, Paul powerfully presents the Gospel as a way of life that transcends socio-cultural qualifiers.

The weaker sex, Ms Truchbull

Because of space, I’ll only summarise the other points. Adam and Eve were created equally (Genesis 1:7) but after sin, gender roles/distinctions came about as a result of the Fall (Genesis 3:16-19). Women in Jesus’ ministry held a privileged place, one of the most commonly cited examples being that a few women Jesus knew were the first to find out he had risen from the dead and then go and tell the disciples the good news (Luke 23:55-24:10) (other examples can be found here). Lydia is the first recorded convert in Europe, who boldly offered the apostles a place to stay, against social norms of the time (Acts 16:14-15). Paul refers to ladies in leadership in a few of his letters, including Junia, whom he refers to as an apostle (Romans 16:7).

Any attempt to harmonise these two very different strands of New Testament stances on women leads necessarily to complementarianism: That is that men and women were created with the intention of playing different roles in society. If we don’t acknowledge that then the first lot of cited verses hold no sway. It must be acknowledged by those who support women in church leadership, as do I, that we give priority to some verses over others. To hold a properly egalitarian view, neither can the words “the husband is the head of his wife” be explained away by appealing to their First Century context: They always meant what they meant and therefore must instead be passed over.

Earlier this year there was some controversy considering Margaret Court, ex-professional-tennis-player turned Australian pastor. Her opposition to gay marriage was in every sense ironic. She clearly ignored Paul’s advice for sound ecclesiology, “Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says” (1Corinthians 14:34 NRSV). Her pastorship was based on the denial of passages such as these. If we allow a Christianity that does not discriminate according to birth, that women who desire to be leaders and have equal standing with their husbands in family matters should be allowed to, then why not allow a Christianity that does not discriminate against homosexuals for desires they did not choose themselves?

Yet, there are many complementarians out there. This argument holds no sway. Let’s move on.

* * *

Catholic theology will always hold a much more justifiable stance against homosexuality, in relation to other Christian worldviews. This is because Catholic theology has a much better understanding of what is natural. It is natural that men lead and women nurture. It is natural that people of the opposite sex are attracted to each other. It is natural that sex leads to babies.

Consider Paul’s words on what is natural, probably the most cited passage supporting Christian rejection of homosexuality:

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

(Romans 1:26-27 NRSV).

Yet, the well-read interlocutor raises this point: Paul’s reasoning may easily be disregarded by an appeal to modern day science: All sorts of animals enjoy all sorts of sexual practices, including homosexuality. How then can it be unnatural? I’m sure there is something we can say to this. Homosexuality in animals is as unnatural as it is in humans, in the same way, as Christians taking note of the Fall would mention, that it’s unnatural for animals to kill each other. Just because something happens in nature, this does not provide evidence for its being natural. But we need to take Paul more seriously. Homosexuality in the bedroom is unnatural precisely because it does not fulfill the foundational natural aim of sex: reproduction. Two horny male rabbits in isolation will always find it difficult to ‘bear fruit’, even if they are rabbits.

The unquestioned sexual practices of many Christians the world over need first be examined before any decisive opposition to homosexuality. Contraception is by this criteria unnatural. It is only possible in various Christian worldviews by a redefinition of the meaning of sex: God’s gift to husband and wife to express their love for each other. Sex as purely reproduction is too old-school. Orthodox Catholic theology is one example of a worldview which still upholds the sanctity of sex and family purely for its reproductive value, for natural sex, and therefore one of the only solid worldviews for opposing homosexuality. If you would like to oppose homosexuality yet are currently using or intending to use contraception then you must consider: Giraffes don’t use condoms².

* * *

The discussion is in no sense yet over. I welcome all comments and will do my best to reply to them, as I neglected to do so last time. One word before continuing though. Just because something has always been accepted, it doesn’t mean it’s rational. When ideas change in society, people have the tendency of looking for ways in which the older ideas were rational. The reasoning seems to be that if people believed something for so long then there must’ve been some rationality behind it, just as there was rationality behind slave trading, racism, sexism, persecution of religious minorities — the list goes on. Issues continually need to be re-examined in a new light.

* * *

¹I recommend that every Christian heterosexual male (you don’t need to be white or middle-class) entertain some mystery concerning their sexual orientation, as a kind of living sacrifice. If every ready, willing and able, Spirit-filled female thinks you’re gay then every effort you have hitherto made to secure the ideal marriage is now effectively in God’s hands.

²Admittedly, my assertion lacks the academic research to support it. I acknowledge that their could be contraceptive practices out there in the wild, but these must be subjected to same criteria as homosexuality in the wild, that is it has no natural reproductive value.

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Five sonnets here I wrote over the course of 2010, now slowly rotting on my USB drive. If you choose to read one or two, bear in mind they need to be read slowly. They look long but poetry is really short. If you would like to appreciate them then you may even read one over more than once. They are written with some loose chronology in mind.

i.

To see Eden in its first spring
would inspire life
in the wintriest soul, warming
to its Creator from merciless
grey. The freshwater trickle down

an arm’s length of rocks is a torrent
upon the heart; faint starlight through the forest

canopy illuminates each beat.
On some soft buttercups in Paradise,

Adam lay and gave audience to a pair
of sleeping doves. No previous
offshoot of naïve rationality had so much
as inclined him to the hole
in his being, the edge of which he now slept.

ii.

Dawn arrived
earlier. Ample shards of sun
pierced the shade, broke on
the gossamer, heavy
with dew, and flitted about Adam’s eyelids.

He stirred a little. She,
circumspect, withdrew her step and waited,

as one eye, then another, slowly discerned morning
on moss and bark, to discover her feet

and stop.
There! Wildly, over Adam rolled! And ran to outrun
his pounding chest – and beautiful
God he challenged when his gaze
fell about Eve’s face.

iii.

As the jackal grinds her teeth
to twilight, she whets
her muzzle
downwind. Ecru mountains
flank the dimming horizon. If the huntress

had sniffed him in her territory, it was his
raw passion that let on, though Adam

would have her
skin. But soon the sable hour and desert

air will smooth the sand and cool
his lust better
than sweat can. The constant, steady heartbeat
of a distant other will lull this weary spirit to
rest. And El Shaddai’s smile will wrinkle in dust.

iv.

Some figure stumbles across
the dirt, and skips a step over some
misplaced pebble. Another trails
at a distance, in inadvertent pursuit. From the highest
point above them, the sun burns

like a curse. When the throat starts
pulsing, the body needs water, and sleep

when the sultry day relents. Two
stragglers crossed a wasteland

and settled with the sea.
And as the tide pushed inland, Eve pushed
toward the only other she knew. Her tired
eyes remained open. Adam drank no water.
But they sat very close.

v.

With night looming silently
above, the shore inched up
the sandy incline. Up sprang Adam
from the bite that nipped his toes,
and left his companion’s side. In his arms

he carefully gathered her to
the higher ground, then lunged with a fist of sand

at the haughty wave that tried to snatch
his Eve. But in that moment, the first man saw

the first time he, with deadly curiosity, spied
her face and had longed just to meet her
eyes again. And he saw
the embers edging the carcass of the goat he
first slaughtered. He was jealous that the sands

would one day take his Eve. And he held her
as if holding eternity.

Lilith, Adam’s first wife in Jewish mythology

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Before reading, you may find it exceedingly helpful to know that I’ve provided a large number of glosses just after the poem that you can refer to throughout for understanding. It’s not that different from English though and you can usually figure it out!

When the sheep are in the fauld, and the kye at hame, (1)
And a’ the warld to rest are gane,
The waes o’ my heart fa’ in showers frae my e’e,
While my gudeman lies sound by me.

Young Jamie lo’ed me weel, and sought me for his bride; (5)
But saving a croun he had naething else beside:
To make the croun a pund, young Jamie gaed to sea;
And the croun and the pund were baith for me.

He hadna been awa’ a week but only twa,
When my father brak his arm, and the cow was stown awa’; (10)
My mother she fell sick,–and my Jamie at the sea–
And auld Robin Gray came a-courtin’ me.

My father couldna work, and my mother couldna spin;
I toil’d day and night, but their bread I couldna win;
Auld Rob maintain’d them baith, and wi’ tears in his e’e (15)
Said, ‘Jennie, for their sakes, O, marry me!’

My heart it said nay; I look’d for Jamie back;
But the wind it blew high, and the ship it was a wrack;
His ship it was a wrack–Why didna Jamie dee?
Or why do I live to cry, Wae ‘s me? (20)

My father urgit sair: my mother didna speak;
But she look’d in my face till my heart was like to break:
They gi’ed him my hand, tho’ my heart was in the sea;
Sae auld Robin Gray he was gudeman to me.

I hadna been a wife a week but only four, (25)
When mournfu’ as I sat on the stane at the door,
I saw my Jamie’s wraith,–for I couldna think it he,
Till he said, ‘I’m come hame to marry thee.’

O sair, sair did we greet, and muckle did we say;
We took but ae kiss, and we tore ourselves away: (30)
I wish that I were dead, but I’m no like to dee;
And why was I born to say, Wae ‘s me!

I gang like a ghaist, and I carena to spin;
I daurna think on Jamie, for that wad be a sin;
But I’ll do my best a gude wife aye to be, (35)
For auld Robin Gray he is kind unto me.

Auld Robin Gray by Lady Anne Lindsay

The bonny lass who wrote this poem

* * *

(1) kye: kine/cows, hame: home; (2) a’: all; (3) waes: woes, fa’: fall, frae: from;

(6) saving a croun: apart from a croun, a unit of Scottish currency; (7) To make a croun a pund: metaphorically, to make more money, as a pound, a British unit, was worth more, gaed: goed/went; (8) baith: both;

(9) twa: two; (10) brak: broke, stown: stolen;

(19) dee: die; (20) This should be read with quote marks: why do I live to cry, “Woe is me”?

(21) urgit sair: literally, ‘urged it sore’, although sair functions as an adverb so it can be read as ‘urged me sorely’; (23) gi’ed: gived/gave;

(26) stane: stone; (27) wraith: ghost;

(29) sair, sair: sorely, sorely, greet: cry, possibly also a pun on the English word, muckle: much; (30) ae: one;

(33) gang: go; (34) daurna: dare not; (35) aye: always

With huge thanks to the Scots dictionary.

* * *

You have just witnessed one of the most heart-rendingly beautiful occurrences in English literature. Some guy necessarily put it to song a wee while after it was written. I came across this singer when I was trying to figure out how to pronounce the words authentically.

Lady Anne Barnard wrote the poem in 1772, her early twenties. It is unique in the English poetry tradition in that it’s a published work of a female writer (not that there aren’t others, just that others are more exceptions than the rule). Francis Palgrave, the editor of the classic Golden treasury of English verse, was sparse in his notes, yet he tersely records, with unwitting condescension, “There can hardly exist a poem more truly tragic in the highest sense than this, nor, perhaps, has any poetess known to the editor equalled it in excellence” (emphasis mine). Possibly Lady Anne’s success had something to do with her nobility, although the poem is also written in the Scots language, a Germanic origin, close relative of English, which although having a rich literary history bears the burden of being sourced in a people historically oppressed by the English.

The poem was written leading up to Romanticism, when literary figures started placing more emphasis and value on folk traditions. Scots-English relations were on the up and up, as the beginnings of the United Kingdom had been initiated about 65 years earlier. And Robert Burns, Scotland’s most celebrated poet, also wrote around this time.

Check out this site (scroll down to Lady Anne) for more information on context.

* * *

The poem opens similarly to Thomas Gray’s foundational melancholy, Elegy written in a country churchyard, published earlier that century:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Both contain images of the stock settling down for the night as the world goes to rest, with the narrator, Jennie, left alone to contemplate the sorrows of life. It’s possible that Lady Anne borrowed from the classic, whether intentionally or no, as Elegy was an immediate and ongoing success when released 21 years earlier. In a more holistic sense, the two are similar in that they are both written by well-to-do people, reflecting on the sorrows of the rural underclasses.

Mickey and the Beanstalk, a slightly more modern example

Whatever the case, the blatant irony of Jennie’s situation is doleful: She is alone crying in her bed while her gudeman lies sound by me. As we progress through the poem, we discover the term gudeman does not so much represent an authentic feeling of Jennie towards her new husband. More so she refers to Auld Robin Gray as a good man out of reluctant resignation to her circumstances. He can give Jennie and her family security but he cannot give her the emotional engagement, even ‘love’ that she needs, because her heart was already given to another. Is it possible that this is a reflection of some subtle going-on in Lady Anne’s real life, a subject matter to which she was attracted to write with much more bombastic despondency?

In the second verse we are introduced to the young and hopeful Jamie. He knows nothing of the sorrows that will befall his intended bride-to-be while at sea, and therefore engages in his work with hope marrying her when it is complete. I think it’s almost bad form to speculate who has it worse off here. But I would say Jennie still takes the cake as she must spiral downwards into sadness as she progressively finds it difficult to care for her family and must resign to marriage to someone she doesn’t love, whereas Jamie is actually moving happily closer towards something he desires, albeit deceptively, and is let down all of a sudden when he is reunited with her after going to sea.

In the third verse we get a further glimpse of auld Robin Gray. His age is something that immediately distinguishes him from Jamie. Perhaps he has had some more time in life to ‘get ahead’ and make some financial successes, thus providing a good base for marital/familial support. Note the humour in his last name, Gray. He is given a title, with a full name, whereas Jennie and Jamie are only referred to on a first name basis. Doesn’t this show Jennie’s emotional distance to him, maybe even auld carrying a tone of scorn? The use of a last name could also denote some respectability on Robin’s part, as he is a bit older and carries financial/societal sway. Perhaps we need to be sympathetic to Robin’s situation as well. Was he a lonely old man, rejected in his youth, who was just seeking companionship? Yet he pursues someone who he will not successfully emotionally engage with, making clear the universal tragedy of the poem: No character receives what they sought, perhaps only Jennie’s mother and father, yet at the expense of their daughter’s happiness.

How seriously can we take Robin’s sincerity? In the fourth verse when he pleads Jennie marry him, wi’ tears in his e’e, what does this mean? He had clearly reflected upon the hopelessness of her parents’ situation. But how necessary was his marriage to her? If he really cared for Jennie as much as he did for her parents then maybe he could have continued to provide financial support and let her alone to await the homecoming of her man to be. Robin Gray comes onto the scene just when he needs to, when he knows that Jennie cannot say no. Why didn’t he come a’courtin‘ her a little earlier, when he could’ve given her heart a chance, instead of taking advantage of the position of power he was in? To Robin’s credit, if he was genuinely concerned about Jennie’s parents welfare, and made the necessary steps to provide for them, this may have aroused concern in the neighbourhood that there was some under the table trade-off going on, ie. Jennie. His imploring her to marry him allows him to more blamelessly support her and her family.

In the fifth verse we discover that Jamie’s ship is a wrack. Nature has made a mockery of Jennie’s last inhibition. She now has no reason not to marry Robin. Yet, I think it’s unclear whether or not Jennie knew Jamie was dead. In the next verse she evidently is still reluctant to marry Robin. Perhaps she is holding onto the hope that Jamie is still alive. The main contention comes with her question, Why didna Jamie dee? Is this a present reflection on something that happened not too long ago? Or is this evidence that at the time of hearing about Jamie’s accident, she also heard he was ok? I’d say the former, as it was probably used as a point of argument from Robin and Jennie’s parents to persuade her to marry. Also, when Jamie comes home not too long after, Jennie appears to think it his ghost (wraith). The question is worth more than that though. She seems to say that it would have been better her beloved die than for him to live and the two of them be apart.

In the sixth verse there is a repeat of gudeman, alluded to also in the closing line, For auld Robin Gray, he is kind unto me. As mentioned earlier, this signals Jennie’s resignation to her circumstances. She mourns the loss of marriage to her beloved, yet she must take some consolation, however unwillful, in the fact that Robin is a good husband and provider.

Jamie’s boat

For me the seventh verse is the most tragic of the whole poem. Imagine Jamie, after his hard months at sea, come home to claim Jennie as his wife. Imagine his hopeful smile as he cuts straight to the chase, I’m come hame to marry thee. But at what moment does he realise something is not right? Does Jennie break into tears encountering his wretched deception? Worse, is he blissfully unaware, thinking rather that his forward proposal was received with such joy and emotion that Jennie couldn’t withhold from weeping? Surely he must have an inkling upon seeing her once again, as she is mournfu‘ when he arrives. Perhaps he is so unprepared for her sadness that his assertion of marriage is the only thing can think of to say. He proposes to her out of weakness. Or maybe he is trying desperately to cheer her up?

Now we are left with Jennie in her life without love. It has lost all meaning and colour that her previous affection afforded it. Even simple tasks like spinning are difficult. She has too much of a conscience to dwell on her lost opportunity. And she only desires her death. Well! I hope you enjoyed the analysis! There’s something strangely, deeply appealing to me about the poem. If you have any further questions or speculations, please let me know in the comments section.

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Depending on how seriously you take the story of Adam and Eve, singleness can legitimately be understood as a form of malnourishment. I appreciate the way we can use the Genesis story as a symbol for the human condition (it’s almost like there’s an invisible gradient in the bible that as you go further towards the end you can take it more literally, with a sudden dip at Revelation), but how far should this symbolism go? Are we to say that it’s just a wee parable for something like human depravity, free will (or quite the opposite), or our need for redemption? Or should we embrace the depth of its meaning so the words, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18 NIV) be taken seriously?

One idea I haven’t yet managed to take seriously is that some people look at the tasting of the forbidden fruit as a euphemism for sex, which can be disregarded in light of the fact that the first commandment that appears in the Hebrew bible seems a little impossible without so doing, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28 NIV). This positive affirmation of reproduction has often been overlooked.

Papaya, I learnt when in India, means sin (pap-) came (-aya) in some Indian language (Hindi? Marathi?) so it’s a wee joke that Eve tasted papaya.

If, however, we do take God’s observation of the lonely Adam seriously then the context in which he says it should have even greater bearing on our understanding of singleness. In the early chapters of Genesis, Adam and Eve participate in their act of disobedience against God, resulting in the Fall, and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Mainline Christian theology supposes that before the Fall mankind had everything; Eden is a metaphor for heaven, for perfection. When sin entered the world through disobedience then with that came suffering, death, etc. Since this time God has been restoring his creation through Israel, the coming of Jesus, and the Church, etc. I’m not at this point going to explore some of the problems with this theology, but I do want to examine what it says about singleness when we hold to it. It was in the Garden of Eden, the perfect world, before sin, suffering and death came that God observed something in his creation he could improve on. Adam’s loneliness was a need that had not yet been met, and for Eden to be perfect, there needed to be an Eve.

This is where singleness becomes a form of malnourishment. If health entails good eating habits, then, according to this reading of the Genesis story, it also entails relationship. It was before the Fall, before everything went wrong with the world that God said, “It is not good for man to be alone”. Celibacy is a fast. Celibacy is a forgoing of something essential to healthy existence.

* * *

A danger with the idea of celibacy is a confusion as to its function. Some adherents¹ of monastic orders wear wedding rings to symbolise the exclusivity of their being as wholly Jesus’. They enter into a marital relationship with their Saviour. I really don’t want to mock the sincerity with which they do this, even the positive function that it may have, but I just don’t think the practice is consistent with the idea of biblical celibacy.

The Carmelite monastery around the corner from where I used to live in Christchurch

The apostle Paul’s vision of celibacy is simple, but it gets confused amid his need to address a specific situation. He writes to the Corinthian church at a time when a few of them have problems controlling themselves sexually: “If they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1Corinthians 7:9 NIV)². The Corinthians had written to Paul in praise of celibacy (v.1), but Paul basically writes to them saying that singleness is not all bunnies and rainbows. Some of you really need to get married before you cause any more trouble.

Paul’s vision for celibacy is purely practical. He himself knows marriage is a good thing but he makes no use of it so that he can better serve the Lord³. He wishes that all those he is writing to could be celibate like him (v.7), and as he begins to conclude he gives some reasoning behind it: “I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided” (vv.32-34; cf. Jesus’ similar, but more ambiguous, words in Matthew 19:12). In a practical sense, God can use the single person more widely as they are less hindered by external commitments.

When God takes the place of significant other then, it distorts the practical function of celibacy. The celibate are those who can more fully express their relationship with God — they can love God — because they don’t have to give so much of themselves to another person. But really, Adam was alone when he had God in the Garden of Eden. We need each other. The part of yourself that loves God is not the same part of yourself that loves another. This is the sense in which celibacy is a fast: When you fast you go without something you cannot physically live without, which is food. We use our fasting as a way to say that God is all we need, although physically we would die if we went without it. Celibacy can be a way to say that God is all you need, but are you also going without something essential? The call to love God above all is not just for single Christians. The call to love God is a form of universal celibacy, celibacy for everyone, whereas those who are called to singleness are called there for practical reasons.

* * *

“Come be the fire inside of me,
Come be the flame upon my heart.
Come be the fire inside of me
Until You and I are one.”

— Misty Edwards, Jesus Culture, You won’t relent

* * *

The temptation in loneliness is to seek in God what we actually find in people. Note that this is a complete reversal of the warning of seeking in people what we should be seeking in God. I’m not sure if either have the power to fulfil the function we expect of them, unless we move beyond our present condition of humanity. Jesus Culture songs have had a profound effect on me. I have desired to have the same passion for God as I do for ‘worldly’ things such as reading, eating and good company. But my desire for God has been of an altogether different sort. Jesus Culture is made up of people who seem to actually love God (like I’m not mocking them; they probably really do) and they write songs that create the emotional environment for me to  experience feelings of loving God. Jesus Culture is attractive to me because it allows me to bring God into that place where he hasn’t occurred for me naturally.

To confront the state of your heart is, in reality, heartbreaking. I have desire for eternal life as some barely graspable, distant abstract possibility, but the idea that I could live in the Italian countryside, grow my own olives, and make red wine and become old is a lot more appealing. I have desire to know God as a wise life choice and existential experiment, but to woo, spend time with and bear my soul to some idealised form of human perfection is the fantasy that makes my heart beat. You can speak with God but you can hug a human. That these desires come more naturally and intensely to me than spiritual desires creates disillusionment: I signed up for Jesus and I still love the world. Jesus Culture allows me to experience desire for God.

Sigh…

* * *

Contraception and the 20th Century have largely taken the place of celibacy in the West. The monasteries are slowly emptying (not that the monastery is the only place for the monastic). When I lived in Christchurch, the Carmelite monastery round the corner (pictured above, not directly though; that’s Italy) said they were being reduced to about one new sign-up every ten years. If you’re not procreating, then this isn’t a very sustainable alternative. But with reforms (?) in family planning and gender roles, the celibate are all married. You have the benefits of celibacy (practicality because you don’t have babies just yet and both you and your wife are equals), enhanced by the fact that you can have a partner to work together with, as well as the benefits of marriage (companionship, sex, etc — I really don’t know). Marriage is the new celibacy.

And if you think that celibacy is harder than marriage then you missed Jesus’ response to his diciples’ own marital insecurities:

Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given”.

(Matthew 19:8-11 NIV).

It’s as if Jesus’ disciples are saying that all that stuff around adultery and divorce is just so much that I’d rather not risk it. And Jesus affirms them! In celibacy you’re accountable to God, who easily forgives and our experience of him is open to a lot of subjectivity. In marriage you’re accountable to the physical reality of another person in your life, someone weak and irritable like yourself, someone whom you can’t just say, “I bought us a new motorbike with our shared income because I know we’ll both get a lot of use out of it and God was leading me; it was on sale”. If you’re only accountable to God and not another person then you can easily say, “Whoops, that Xbox was a mistake, please forgive me; I’ll sort it out”. Marriage requires more of you. Marriage is the new celibacy.

* * *

Before I conclude, maybe there’s something I’ve missed. Notice that throughout the bible the people of God are referred to as in marital relationship with God? One of my favourites is where God asks the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute as a symbol of his love for an unfaithful people. James echoes this sentiment when he refers to his readers as adulterers (James 4:4). Isaiah makes use of the marriage metaphor to speak hope to the post-exilic Jewish community (62:2-5), as does Paul to illustrate Christ’s love for the Church (eg. Ephesians 5:25-33), as Jesus also does when speaking on eschatological events (Matthew 22:1-14; 25:1-13).

Maybe this is just a loosely balanced observation, but in these examples the marriage is between God and a people, rather than an individual. It is only as part of a community that we experience the marital love of God. God’s love for us in this sense is not love for you, but you all, us. If Jesus is my boyfriend then I don’t experience him as I would experience a boyfriend (girlfriend), because someone does not experience their boyfriend as part of a community. Human relationship holds a private sphere for human desire. If this aspect of human desire enters into the spiritual, it is not between God and I but God and us. The dating-the-deity is unnatural in the same way it is natural between humans because it is always in a communal sense that the marital metaphor is used with God. The words, “It is not good for man to be alone” take on a whole new level of meaning when community is necessity.

I now leave you with Jesus’ words to protect us from getting to attached to the idea of fulfilment in relationship: “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30).

* * *

¹A friend told about this and I have no proof of its veracity. Even so, the anecdote makes a good point I think!

²Interestingly enough, Paul maybe should have gotten married too, according to his rule (see 2Corinthians 11:29).

³”Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?” (1Corinthians 9:5). In this passage Paul lists his rights as an apostle as an example of what he forgoes so that he can better serve the Lord.

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