Welcome to another installment of LOVEboldly’s interview series. Previously , Derek Webb (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), Logan Mehl-Laituri, Tripp York, Wesley Hill, Jen Thweatt-Bates and Peterson Toscano offered their perspectives on a number of issues related to faith and sexuality. Now we are privileged to share some wisdom from Jenell Paris.
Jenell Paris is professor of anthropology at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She is author of four books, including “The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex is Too Important to Define Who We Are” (IVP, 2011).
You are an anthropologist. What led you to become interested in exploring sexuality from that lens?
Personal encounters between Self and Other – friends of various sexual orientations, people from other parts of the world, and text-based encounters with Others in anthropology books, Scripture, and fiction – prompted my interest in the cultural dimensions of human sexuality. It never fails to invoke wonder and appreciation, when I experience the simultaneity of deep difference and universal human similarity.
Anthropologists study the human condition in the broadest view possible. From a cross-cultural perspective, it is obvious that concepts such as “heterosexuality” or “homosexuality”, or even “sexual identity” are culture-bound concepts. Like genealogists, anthropologists track down the ancestors of these concepts, seeing how they have developed over time.
How do you think a view of sexuality with an understanding of the effect of culture changes the conversation for Christians?
Taking culture seriously means taking our own humanity, including our inherent limitations, seriously. There is no a-cultural vantage point from which any human being can view the world. Christians sometimes claim the Bible is such a vantage point, and use it to mask, or trump, their finiteness as readers and interpreters of Scripture.
Taking culture seriously means we’re all in this together; none of us are above, beyond, or exempt from delighting in, and disciplining, our sexuality. Perhaps that seems obvious, but in practice, the concept of heterosexuality often provides a categorical exemption for some (a person may occasionally sin, but is, in their sexual essence, moral), whereas homosexuality is a categorical condemnation.
We make sense of our sexual feelings by using the language, metaphors, and concepts available in our society. As Christians, both the Bible and the global, historical tradition of Christianity can broaden our cultural range, offering different concepts, words, or metaphors that can help us live in our own context with greater discernment. Just a brief example – in modern English we speak of “doing it,” “having sex,” “making love” or “getting laid.” Those verbs – doing, having, making, getting- are some of the most powerful verbs available in a capitalist, industrial context. In the Old Testament world, the Hebrews spoke of “knowing” another person; sexual intimacy was a special way of knowing. The Hebrew approach can help us see the many ways we reduce the wonder of human sexual connection into an object to get, action to do, or thing to be had.
What do you think is wrong about the current gender-binary in most cultures, rather than seeing gender on a continuum? What do you think is right about it?
Gender binaries are deeply engrained; often, the very first thing said to a newborn is a declaration of gender: “It’s a girl!” or “It’s a boy!” Gender binaries reinforce and reflect the importance of sexual reproduction, and this is good. Despite vast cultural difference in our species, every human group needs men and women to reproduce in order to survive into the future.
One problem is the tendency of binaries to exclude, erase, or stigmatize those who don’t fit the categories. There are a small number of people who, for a variety of medical reasons, aren’t exactly male or female. There are many others who don’t fit with the normative behavioral roles for their gender categories. Whether gender is conceived as a spectrum or a binary, Christians should be especially attentive to those whose humanity may be disrespected because of their difference. The creation story is helpful here; while it certainly emphasizes the importance of men and women in the work of stewardship and reproduction, Gen 1:27 mentions first that God created humans in God’s image; second, that they were created male and female.
The second major problem is that in the West, strict gender binaries encouraged similar categorization of sexuality. Human sexuality is more idiosyncratic, and for some people malleable and fluid, than current social and religious categories recognize. Contemporary science recognizes this, that human sexuality really is better pictured as a continuum.
You push the envelope in your book with conservative Christians when you say that you don’t want to be defined as heterosexual because “I don’t want to get life, secure my moral standing or gird my marriage with a social identity that privileges some and maligns others on the basis of inner desires and feelings.” You go on to say that “Heterosexuality is a concept riddled with problems. I’d even call it an abomination.” What has been the reaction from the conservative Christian community towards comments like this one?
In my experience, dialogue seems less fruitful with those for whom homosexuality is an “issue” or a “problem”, especially one that threatens institutional resources, leadership roles, or long-established theology. Those threats are real, and should be addressed, but in a straightforward way. It’s a shame when we claim to be talking about loving others, or interpreting the Bible, when we’re mostly just strategizing about protecting ourselves.
I love talking with conservatives for whom the stakes are high, but in a different way. When the gay person is a son, daughter, friend, parent, or student, the relationship takes center stage, and problems and issues certainly don’t go away, but they are cast in a different light. A conservative woman said, about her lesbian sister, “I had to stop trying to change her. I had to stop judging her. I just had to stop.” She wanted a loving, real, mutual relationship with her sister, and while she still believes in a very conservative biblical sexual ethic, she learned to put into practice Jesus’ command to “Judge not.”
Sometimes I find conservatives are eager to betray heterosexuality; they feel stuck in a category of privilege that puts barriers between them and their LGBTQ loved ones. It’s not about playing make-believe; sometimes speaking up as a heterosexual is a way to do justice. It’s very different, though, to see heterosexuality as a social construct that can be used strategically, like a tool, than to see it as a God-created, taken-for-granted, morally privileged category that is part of a person’s essence.
Is identity rightly ordered around sexuality, faith, neither, or both?
My encouragement is for people to understand their sexuality in light of God’s love for them, rather than understanding their identity in light of their sexuality. It’s a decentering of sexuality in human identity, not a dismissal of it. Telling sexual minorities to have no sexual identity, rather just be “Christian,” can be simply another form of religious repression that encourages people to deny, ignore, or minimize their drive for intimacy and relationship.
Finding your identity “only in Christ” sounds like a great idea, but really, it’s neither practical nor possible. I am a Christian, but there are many other dimensions to my identity: national, professional, family, regional, linguistic, just to name a few. We’re human, created to have deep ties to other people and groups. But also, if I listed off every identity category with which I affiliate, there would still be a remainder; the mysteries of individuality that are never fully known even by oneself. Following Christ opens a person up to a lifelong journey toward love; it doesn’t nail down self-knowledge once and for all.
The sexual identity framework – the idea that one’s sexual feelings are indicative of self – is a modern, western social construct. But that doesn’t mean it’s not real; it’s a social reality, like our political affiliations, or the nation-state boundaries we live within. Romans 12:1-2 encourages us to “be not conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” This helps us recognize what is “good, pleasing and perfect.” We should use sexual identity categories with discernment, not take them for granted. This means that for some, claiming a sexual identity is an important way of having a recognizable social role, and for people who have lived closeted, this is no small thing. For others, divestment of sexual identity may be freeing, allowing them to honor the idiosyncracy of their sexuality, and detaching their personal identities from political strife.
More important than any label is the knowledge, known less by mind and more by body and soul, that we are loved by the God who made us.
What is on the horizon for evangelical institutions that avoid or react negatively/violently to the sexual identity issues in society?
American Christianity has shifted from an era of relative consensus to one of internal pluralism. This is evident with respect to homosexuality, when even in conservative institutions, people are questioning traditional biblical interpretation and theology, especially in response to lived experience and relationship with sexual minorities. But it’s broader than that; premarital sex, pornography, and even abortion aren’t condemned as universally or as self-evidently as in the past.
This is, perhaps, simply a new context for the perennial challenge to find Christian unity. Can the church be unified, despite differing views of sexual ethics? Can we be one in Christ, without being one in our ideas about Christ?
While they don’t necessarily need to change their points of view, conservative people and groups who were the spokespersons, leaders and standard-bearers in the era of relative consensus need to reposition themselves in a new landscape of religious pluralism. Ignoring the shift, or trying to push backwards toward consensus, probably isn’t the path forward. They also need to reconsider how their theologies articulate with new social realities such as gay marriage and parenting. For example, if a gay family comes to Christ, should they divorce? Is it even possible for them to follow Christ, or to take leadership in a church, or to be involved in the lives of other children and families in the church? It remains to be seen how conservatives will hold together their very high value on family, as family forms change.
I see intelligent, compassionate conservatives trying to maintain traditional theology, but with more proactive kindness than in the past. This is demonstrated sometimes by using Westboro Baptist Church or other violent extremes as points of contrast, or by building strong interpersonal and evangelistic relationships with sexual minorities. This approach is valuable to an extent, but if successful, it will bump up against questions of true equality and regard; are sexual minorities worthy only of outreach and second-class church status (restricted from certain domains), or can they fully belong?