This week, Rachel Held Evans published a provocative blog post with quotes from posts by Sarah Bessey and Elizabeth Esther on some of the problems that ensue when Christians idolize virginity. Please see those posts for the context of this post.
To be fair to my mother: my adolescent aversion to knowledge about sex did not come from her. As a teen, I knew my mother was willing to talk with me about anything — sex included. When she discovered how little her sixteen-year-old daughter knew about male and female reproductive organs, she offered to enlighten me with diagrams.
But I wasn’t interested.
“Don’t you want to know your own body?” she asked.
No thank you.
“Don’t you want to be able to introduce your husband to you body if you get married?”
No, I didn’t. My husband could introduce himself. My body was uncharted territory and I was not interested in being a cartographer. My husband could do that when the time was right. I didn’t want to know my body.
In retrospect, I realize that I was practicing a kind of Gnosticism, believing that the body didn’t matter much and that Things Intellectual were far more important than Things Physical. My Creation theology was weak, and I did not then know that the hope promised in Christian scripture is not a future of disembodied existence in heaven, but the hope that God’s people will be be resurrected to live in a re-created, restored earth. I didn’t know that when God became human in the person of Jesus, it meant he would live as a human body for keeps — not as a divine spirit inside a human body waiting to be freed from the chains of physicality. No one told me that when God vested himself in human flesh, it was the embodiment of his promise to the physical world he created that he would fix it, renew it, resurrect it.
I didn’t know that the body mattered. That my body mattered.
Of course, I had my own, subconscious reasons for embracing Gnosticsm. I knew other girls who were obsessed with their weight, hair and makeup. I didn’t want to be like them.
Or did I?
The truth was, I did care about the idea of my body, but didn’t want to believe that I did. I didn’t want to acknowledge that I had fallen prey to belief that the media ideal of beauty was better than the reality of my own body. Deep down inside (in a place I dared not look), I knew that even if I had that unique-extra-special-beauty-that-is-mine-alone (as, we are told, everyone does), I would never fit the easy, stereotypical kind of beauty the media set before me. If my body mattered, I had to deal with my perceived physical inadequacies. If my body mattered, I had to face the fact that physical reality was incongruous with the media ideal in which I secretly believed.
Either way, I was a failure. If the media ideal was the standard, I was a physical failure. If embracing the reality of my body was the standard, I was an intellectual failure because I did not meet my ideal of the perfect-Gnostic-woman-who-is-not-vain-enough-to-think-about-the-body (I’m sure there’s a single word for this in German).
Without realizing it, I had exchanged one (false) ideal for another. I didn’t like way the media portrayed women as disembodied images instead of real people, so I swapped it for a pseudo-Christian ideal of a disembodied, asexual human being. Rather than seeking knowledge of my own body, I wanted to put it away — to pretend that it didn’t matter, to quash the longing that I felt for the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come. If the body mattered, I had to face the fact that the life of the body here and now is in awkward, painful tension with the body of the world to come. If the body mattered, I had to face the fact that it was broken. If the body mattered, I had to ask how I should live now as the body-that-I-am in light of the body-I-will-be.
I was sure that the one thing that wasn’t broken was my body — that as long as I did not have sex before marriage, I was fine. The life in the body didn’t have to be messy or confusing or difficult as long as I stayed within the prescribed parameters. The problem was, the parameters that were set in place had nothing to do with a person — only an idealized image of what I thought sexuality should be. My idea of sexual purity was relation-less — at its root, not all that different from the airbrushed images I saw in the media.
But as soon as you introduce a person into the mix, things get messy. Two imperfect people — imperfect bodies — coming together and sharing the life of the body. When I met my husband, gone were the days of refusing to know myself. I couldn’t refuse to be a cartographer if this whole thing was going to be mutual. And it wasn’t a matter of him charting my body and me charting his. We were one now — two different plots in one promised land and together we had to cultivate and keep all of it. And the promised land was wild and waste; broken and awaiting resurrection. But the reality was better and richer and heartier than the false ideals I’d created.
As Elizabeth Esther pointed out in her blog post, it is understandable that Christians are alarmed by a sexually permissive society and, as a response to this, emphasize abstinence. But insodoing, Esther claims, we’ve created a culture that idolizes virginity (particularly in women) and implies that a woman’s worth is defined by this. She writes: “Ultimately, we implied that a woman’s inherent worth and dignity could be measured by whether or not a man has touched her.” Esther refers to this as reverse objectivization.
Similarly, Sarah Bessey points out that the emphasis placed on abstinence by Christians too often gives the impression that those who have had sexual experience prior to marriage are irreparably damaged (and, conversely, that those who abstain from sex before marriage are automatically destined to have an ideal sexual relationship within marriage).
Here’s where these two blogs intersect: Gnosticism. At first blush, it might not seem like these posts are about aversion to the body, but they are. Elizabeth Esther’s post is about the dangers of valuing the idea of virginity rather than a real, flesh-and-blood human person. Sarah Bessey’s is about how we stilt the message of the Gospel when we give the impression that what we have done in the body (or what has been done to us) are unredeemable. In Christ, we are not damaged goods. As Sarah puts it, speaking to those convinced they are lesser people because of their sexual past: “Darling, young one burning with shame and hiding in the silence, listen now: Don’t believe that lie. You never were, you never will be, damaged goods.”
In one sense, I agree with Sarah — but since she’s already put it so well in one way, I’d like to put it in reverse. The fact is: we’re all ‘damaged goods’. Ignoring our damaged bodies in exchange for an idealized, oversimplified image of our bodies will not change this. Sometimes we are damaged because of things we’ve chosen to do in the body, and other times we’re damaged because of things others have done to us in the body. Living in this present body means that we’re in that messy in-between where we sometimes experience victory and sometimes failure. We vacillate between truth and falsehood, being and non-being, presence and absence. We experience damage. But we also experience healing.
The body matters and we can’t cast it aside and pretend that it doesn’t. A robust Christology (which is, from a Christian perspective, a robust ‘New Creation’ theology) demands that we believe in the redemption of the body as both a present reality and future hope — to affirm the tension of this ‘already-not-yet’ body in which we live. To tell a Christian that (s)he is technically forgiven but destined to remain forever broken is a tragic, truncated version of the Gospel. To preach a Gospel of forgiveness without healing is a Gnostic version of the Gospel.
Our bodies die — it’s true. We become old and incontinent. We lose our sexual desire. We lose the ones we love to illness. All this matters. We know that the body matters because God became human flesh and his body suffered with us. God loved human flesh enough to enter it and become damaged goods. His damaged body died with us.
But God’s body was also raised from the dead. And as the Apostle Paul wrote to the churches in first century Rome, if we are united with Christ in death — united with this God embodied — we will also be united with him in resurrection.