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Sex & the City of God

How do we respond to a corrupted culture? Two faulty examples and a better one.

Jonah is my favorite prophet, and for no better reason than our uncanny resemblance. I'm bald and I figure him bald—why else his emotional tumult over how shade-dappled or sun-scorched his head? I'm short and I imagine him short: a stumpy, wiry guy, all that peevishness compacted tight as a nail bomb. He loved comfort and resented interruption, and that runs pretty close to my own bias. He was possessive, evasive, defensive, obsessive. Things not unknown to me.

Jonah is my least favorite prophet, and for exactly the same reason. He reminds me too much of me. I long to be Daniel-like in wisdom, Isaiah-like in righteousness, Ezekiel-like in faithfulness. I want the courage of Elijah, the endurance of Jeremiah, the long-view of Zechariah. I dream of standing down kings and outrunning horses, commanding drought and deluge with a word, calling down woe like thunderbolts and blessing like manna.

But I'm plagued with Jonah-likeness.

And here's a deeper worry: so is the church. Not just my church, but the church—especially the church in North America. We're evasive with God, resentful toward outsiders, smug about our own goodness. Prudish, hawkish, lovers of comfort, and nursing a giant grudge against anyone and anything that threatens it.

Just like Jonah.

That's half the story, anyhow.

The other half is that the church is, Esther prior to her awakening: assuming an insider status and willing to disguise her true identity for the sake of it, fearful of confronting her culture. We want to be like everyone else, only more so. We're a people terrified of being peculiar. We'll do almost anything to win a pagan king's affections.

Jonah wants just to be left alone, and would happily let everyone else go to hell. Esther wants just to fit in, and willingly forsakes her distinctiveness to achieve that.

In God's Kingdom, judgment entwines with invitation, and is usually uttered with deep heartache. It's God's kindness that leads to repentance.

Between these two impulses, the kingdom always goes begging.

But this is about sex

And that's exactly where I find these two stories so compelling, and so disturbing. Jonah and, implicitly, his community are threatened by Assyrian exile. Jonah is called as a missionary to the very people who bear that threat. Esther and, explicitly, her community are in the clutches of Persian exile. Esther is called to take a stand against the very people in whose land she and her people dwell but who now threaten to destroy them.

Neither story is about sex per se (though that's a subtext in Esther: the things we do for love), but both are about God's people living amidst pagan culture—a culture that is pervasive, seductive, potentially coercive, and often at deep odds with what God thinks. Both are about the ways God's people try to negotiate their place toward or within that culture. And so both help us think through spiritual and ethical issues, including sexual ethics, for such a time as this.

How then shall we live?

Jonah chooses the way of condemnation. He hates the culture that threatens his own. His attitude is leave-us-alone and damn if you don't. He is prideful of his distinctiveness ("I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land," he smugly tells the sailors whose ship he's boarded, even though he's using these men to escape this God), but he's not the least bit inclined to invite others to share in it.

So when God calls him to confront the people of Nineveh, Assyria's capital, for their wickedness, Jonah flees. He simply doesn't want to get involved. When God forces the issue, Jonah goes—grudgingly—and trumpets the doom of Nineveh, and then waits to behold it and relish it. When the Ninevites repent and God shows mercy, Jonah throws a full-scale tantrum. This is what he long suspected God would do, and he turns surly and self-pitying about it.

Jonah's attitude toward pagan culture is an old standby for the church. Avoid outsiders, and when you can't, protest against them. Lament the sorry state of things. Call God's judgment down. Imagine, with pleasure, the punishment to be visited on the disobedient. Meanwhile, make yourself as comfortable as possible. And if the threatened divine judgment fails to materialize? Sulk. Mightily.

It's hard not to think here of some conservative churches' reaction to the homosexual community. I live in Canada, where recently our government, against the wishes of most Canadians, pushed through legislation that legalized same-sex marriage. A few months prior to that, I attended a citywide prayer meeting where this issue was at the forefront.

Emotions were strong. I expected that, but what caught me by surprise was the tone of the meeting. It had a Jonah-like ring: jingoistic, gloating, self-righteous. People warmed quickly to themes of divine vengeance. They evoked it in vivid imagery.

The problem here is tactical as well as spiritual. Spiritually, we should be careful what we eat. Blood-thirst causes heartburn, severely. But tactically, this is hardly a way to start a kingdom revolution. The church on this issue should be begging God to help us to be "Mark 2" communities: when people find out Jesus is in the house, they're willing to break the roof open if that's what it takes to get themselves and their sick friends inside.

I have talked with gay people about how they see Christians. Generally they see us as, well, you know the drill: bigoted, angry, narrow, hateful, afraid….

It's a caricature, I know. Only, everything about that citywide prayer meeting supported it.

What if God's larger desire is to invite people, all people, into the wideness of his mercy? Somehow the Ninevites were able to respond to God despite Jonah's rancor and belligerence. After all, judgment is real, not to be trifled with. God's wrath is being revealed against all godlessness and wickedness.

Only, Jonah doesn't know anything but judgment. He is a Johnny-one-note. In God's kingdom, judgment entwines with invitation, and is usually uttered with deep heartache ("Oh, Jerusalem, Jerusalem" … ). It's God's kindness that leads to repentance. That kindness needs to be visible in the church. The consummation of the church's missionary role will be that day when ten people from every tribe and tongue—Nineveh included—take hold of the hem of the robe of one believer and say, "Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you" (Zechariah 8:23).

But Jonah is not interested. He doesn't want his enemy's repentance. He doesn't want them in church, singing the songs of Zion. He certainly doesn't want them coming to his church and bringing their own strange music with them. He wants them to pay, to suffer. He wants judgment, not mercy.

Jonah's moral dogmatism, I think, hides his theological ambivalence. That's usually what dogmatism does. Jonah is wary and begrudging, not just toward Ninevites, but toward God. He's boastful of his knowledge of God but cagey in his relationship with him. He finds God both too hard and too soft—hard toward his chosen ones, soft toward the enemy. God, in his view, lacks an appropriate sense of favoritism.

I wonder if this isn't the hidden motive of churches that take up Jonah's style. Maybe the angry, accusatory stance is mostly a mask for our own misgivings about God.

"Fanaticism," Carl Jung said, "is overcompensation for doubt." We can trace this theological trajectory in the Pharisees. They disapproved of whatever they did not initiate. But Jesus identified their problem as a broken relationship with God. They overcompensated for doubt.

Jonah wants to condemn the culture. He would love to see it destroyed. The idea that it could be reclaimed, redeemed, invited to share in the goodness of God—such thinking is anathema to him. After all, he can hardly invite anyone, friend or foe, to taste and see that the Lord is good when he has not tasted and seen such things himself.

That's only half our problem

The other half is being Esther, prior to her moment of reckoning. When it comes to pagan culture, Esther moves in precisely the opposite direction.

Jonah avoids it, caricatures it, condemns it. Esther accepts it, embraces it, extols it.

Many early interpreters and Bible commentators viewed Esther (and/or the Jewish community depicted in the book) as a type of the church in compromised, semi-pagan form. Modern interpreters generally dismiss typological readings of Scripture (with good reason), but as one who adjusts to a hostile culture, her example can be instructive.

She conforms to whatever standards the culture sets—dress like the reigning pop queen, subscribe to whatever attitudes are au courant—in order to look like everyone else, only better.

And here, it's hard not to think of many mainline churches. In the recent controversy over same-sex marriage in Canada, entire denominations have aligned themselves with the spirit of the age. They want to be deemed beautiful in the eyes of the pagan king. The Anglican Church in Canada is even ostracizing dissenting churches and defrocking their ministers. The idea that the church should do anything other than endorse the culture's current thinking on sexual matters is, in the minds of these denominational leaders, a throwback to medievalism. We're in a new millennium now, is the rallying cry. We must move with the times.

If Jonah's theological ilk were the Pharisees, Esther's were the Sadducees. They valued expedience above faithfulness (or, more to the point, equated the two). The worst sin was to be out of kilter with the culture's dominant values. Their highest goal was to reduce the lag time between the latest trends and their blessing thereof.

Of course, Esther eventually awakens from this. She realizes, in the nick of time, that the culture whose acceptance she craves is laying ambush for her and her people. And then, with savvy and courage, she finds a new way of living in exile.

But before that happens, Esther immerses herself in pagan culture. The idea that she should confront it, or refuse its wares, is unthinkable. She wants to be left alone, too—not by the culture, but by any sense that her primary loyalty lies elsewhere.

Both Jonah and Esther define two of the church's reactions to today's sexual values.

Shun and denounce.

Embrace and extol.

In my own church, I see both attitudes. Recently, I made a comment from the pulpit that the starting place for Christians to uphold the "sanctity of marriage" is not the courts but our own households. I cited statistics on divorce rates among evangelical Christians that put us pretty much in a dead heat with society at large. I talked about the high incidence of spousal abuse within conservative churches. I spoke about the widespread estrangement that prevails among many church-going couples. I mentioned the hidden plague of internet porn that is withering intimacy between husbands and wives.

Some people came out swinging: stop meddling with matters in here, they told me. Start condemning what's happening out there.


On the other side, the statistics on premarital sex among evangelicals hardly distinguish us from all the other people on the face of the earth. And yet whenever I address this, a few folks take me aside and say, in effect, what's the big deal? Aren't there more important issues? A few kids are mixing it up between the sheets—well, so? Why fuss over that when we have a crisis of global warming, when the Amazonian rainforests are disappearing, when the sperm whale faces extinction? Recently, the Christian parents of a girl from our church tried to convince her to go on the pill. She sat them down and told them, in no uncertain terms, that she had no intention of having sex until she was married. They told her that was unrealistic, and she should go on it anyhow.


What's the alternative?

I think Daniel is our best guide for such a time as this. He stands between the extremes of Esther and Jonah. He, like Esther, lived in a time of exile—Babylonian, then Persian. He lived among people mostly indifferent to his own convictions but who, when put off by those convictions, grew swiftly and menacingly hostile. He had to sort out his place within that culture: what could he, without violating conscience, say "yes" to? What must he, regardless of the personal risk, say "no" to?

Daniel had neither Jonah's surly, haughty ways, nor Esther's coy, accommodating manner. He had simple clarity and quiet integrity. Some things about the pagan culture—their education system, the political structure, their habit of naming you after one of their gods—no problem. Go to their schools. Work in their government. Bear their god's name.

But one thing especially was taboo: king's food. Of that Daniel would not partake. The food wasn't wrong in and of itself. But it had been dedicated to pagan deities. To partake was to submit. To eat was to worship. So better to subsist on a diet of raw vegetables than eat the king's rich meats and richer sauces, his wines and confections.

But Daniel and his companions did not merely subsist on vegetables: they thrived. They ended up more healthy and bright-eyed than all the other young men being trained with them.

We can sit under the teaching of our culture, and emerge shrewder in our own convictions. We can participate in the government of our culture, and bring glory to God by our diligence and integrity. We can be named after our culture's deities (Mark—god of war!), and not suffer diminishment to our faith.

What we can't do is eat king's food.

But what is king's food now? What is that element within our culture that, if the people of God participate in it, will ruin us?

I think it's our culture's sexual ethics.

What this culture lacks is purity. The church—especially Jonah—has not helped here much, because always we want to impose morality. Purity is to morality what intimacy is to acquaintance, what love is to tolerance, what oneness is to equality. Purity is not just a higher thing: it is a category unto itself.

I think we should stop preaching morality and start preaching purity. After all, no one wants to drink merely sterilized water, chlorinated water, water with a drop of iodine.

What awakens and then slakes thirst is pure water.

Daniel embraces the way of purity. He will not taint his body with what has been dedicated to another god. And if there's a clear lesson from his story, it's this: that is the one true way to win a pagan king's heart. Everywhere Daniel goes, the king ends up acknowledging that God alone is God.

At our church, we call young people to the way of purity, not morality. We call them to be Daniels. Far from languishing, they thrive.

Not long ago, I was invited by an Esther-like church to do a one-day seminar on worship. I was surprised by the invitation—I don't get many like it. The pastor who invited me told me that most of his colleagues were deeply wary of me, some openly hostile. He told me of one fellow pastor who phoned him to denounce me. He denounced evangelicals as a breed. "What has this man in common with us?" he demanded to know.

"Why don't you come and see?" the host pastor said.

I came with a team of worship leaders and dancers, men and women in their late teens or early 20s. Only a handful of people had registered. Even in the church's tiny sanctuary, they seemed thinly scattered. I kept watching for the man who hated me. Though I never met him, I knew him the moment he entered. He walked in like he was hunting vermin. He sat down, his arms locked across his chest. When we started singing and asked the people to stand, he remained seated. He scrutinized the words on the overhead.

After lunch, we led seminars. The dancers taught basic choreography. The musicians taught basic song writing. And I taught a basic theology of worship. The man came to mine. He sat beside me, spoiling for a fight.

Ten minutes into it, he erupted. A woman commented how the mainline church had compromised the gospel, and he started trading blows with her. He had a litany of evangelical crimes against humanity. The argument escalated, and the host pastor jumped in.

"Well," he said, mild-mannered. "I think the mainline tradition is perhaps somewhat narrow in its ecclesiology and broadly tolerant in its theology. Whereas the evangelical tradition is rigidly narrow in its theology, and somewhat loosey-goosey in its ecclesiology."

A brief moment of silence followed. I seized my opportunity. "Who here are pastors?" I asked. A few put up their hands, including the angry man.

"Let me ask you this," I said. "The young people I brought today, do you like them?"

Everyone did, including the angry man.

"Are there many young people like that in your own churches, who are that passionate, that in love with God, that committed to the church and her mission?"

No, they all said.

"Do you want young people like these in your churches?"

Yes, they all said.

"With all due respect," I said. "I think you don't have them exactly because of your broadly tolerant theology. That theology helped abort a third of their peers. With all due respect, it assisted in a creating a sexual ethic that robbed this generation of intimacy and hope. It has driven most of them out of the church.

"My opinion? If you're really serious about seeing this kind of young people in your churches—not just warming the pews but leading—you might consider being less broadly tolerant."

I went on to speak about how we don't teach our young people to be moral. We teach them to be pure. We call them to be Daniels.

"You can see for yourself," I said, "the difference that makes."

I looked over at the man who hated me. He was stricken. I thought he hated me even more. I thought he would walk out. But to my surprise, he came back for the last session.

To my delight, he stood when we sang. To my amazement, he opened his arms and held them like he was catching rain.

And he sang with gusto. "Great is thy faithfulness," he declared. I think he meant it.

Daniel tends to have that effect on people.

Mark Buchanan is an Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Ambrose Seminary in Calgary, Alberta.

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