Consider This Perspective – Jen Thweatt-Bates

It may be a week or two late, but we are pleased to offer the third installment of our interview series. Previously we heard from Tripp York, and Wesley Hill. This week’s interview is a bit different. Instead of asking a series of questions, we asked Jen to give us her thoughts on anything related to topics of faith and sexuality. And, give us some thoughts she did! Here are five steps in her journey to new understandings about both.

JTB headshot 2011 (2)

Jen Thweatt-Bates holds a B.A. in English Literature from Harding University, an M.A. in Theology from Abilene Christian University, and  a Ph.D.  in Theology and Science from Princeton Theological Seminary. She has experience as a seminary professor, author, mama, resident alien, a G.R.I.T.S. (Girl Raised in the South), an un-domestic-ated goddess, and, of course, a cyborg. Check out her book Cyborg Selves: A Theological Anthropology of the Posthuman.


So Jen, tell us something about faith and sexuality.

Faith and sexuality. Just the phrase itself suggests that we can/should assume that God has a specific intent for the expression of human sexuality. It’s that assumption that lies at the heart of the most repressive Christian convictions about sexual morality—and it’s that assumption that was the key for me in unraveling all of that.

First baby step: Learning to Love My Sexy Body

I grew up absorbing the lessons of “the cult of purity” that gets pushed so hard in conservative youth groups. You know, promise rings and stuff. Questions like, “what’s a more dangerous temptation, holding hands or backrubs? What about friendly tickling?” I sat in a room and answered those questions earnestly—all the while, like many others I suspect—deeply involved in a relationship whose physicality would have stunned those well-meaning adults. I was such a good girl in so many ways…no one, I think, including me, imagined that such a good girl, quick with all the right answers, was also a sexual being to her core and was learning the hard way that this was not something so easily locked away under an imaginary chastity belt and symbolized with a promise ring to Jesus.

So my first tiny baby step out of all of this was coming to acknowledgment the reality of my own body. That was a very long learning curve and truly, didn’t finish until years and years later, when I realized I’d never truly loved my body until pregnancy and the experience of birthing my first daughter. (And now, I suppose, I’m learning to love my post-partum body, which my spouse tells me is still very sexy, so I’m not really finished at all. But I digress.)

Second baby step: Identifying the Misfit

Anyway: the second baby step, for me, was realizing how very much I didn’t fit my church’s definition of a woman. Now, I’m a straight married woman with two kids—and *I* don’t fit? What the hell is wrong with me—or with that? But in a church that has defined preaching and theologizing and teaching as “masculine” activities—as if something about male anatomy is involved in executing these things properly—I don’t fit. I’m a woman who does man things.

So in terms of the categories of gender operating here, I’m “queer.” I haven’t used that word until recently to describe myself—and I used it with some trepidation and gut-checked it with some trusted friends—not because I’m afraid of how straight people will hear that claim but because I was nervous that LGBTQ people might hear it as a hijacking of their perspective, which I very much don’t intend. I don’t know what it feels like to be gay or lesbian or transgender, and I can’t speak to that and don’t mean to; I’m straight and cisgender and at the same time, in my church context, queer. Because of the narrowness and frank falseness of the gender categories at work there.

Third baby step: Questioning the Arbitrariness of God

In grad school for my MA in theology I finally had the time and space to dig into some of the questions about who I believed God to be. And one of those questions that turns out to be key for this discussion is, why is sin, sin? Or to put it another way, what makes something a sin? Just because “God says so” somewhere in the biblical text? I found that this answer was unsatisfactory in its arbitrariness—not to mention that there are plenty of things, as we know, in the Bible called sins or even abominations that we pay absolutely no attention to, so again—what makes some of these things salient and some irrelevant? How are making these distinctions between what still counts as sin and what doesn’t? I wrestled with this for some time, and even ended up writing a thesis on sin and evil, and came out of that process with the conviction that what makes sin a sin is that it harms people—and God is concerned to call out as sin those actions that wound others, because God is love. That’s not novel or anything, but it does mean that sin is sin not *just* because “God says” but assumes that God says something is sin for a reason, and that reason is love of humanity.

Applied to questions of the expression of human sexuality, of course, then this means sexual sin is something that harms others. And for awhile, being basically totally ignorant, I held on to the possibility that, well, same-sex relationships and sexual expressions must be sin because they are somehow harmful to people. Even if I couldn’t identify precisely how they were harmful—I thought there must be some way that they were. Psychologically or something.

Baby step 4: Science is Real

But this crumbled pretty quickly. I’d never held to an evangelical version of the RC stance on sex for procreation only, and thanks to my slow but ongoing process of learning to love my body and appreciate that God also loves material creation, the pleasure of sex seemed to me to be part of God’s intent for human sexuality. So, that was out as a possibility of identifying concrete harm. And I was quickly disabused of the notion that in gay sex someone was having pleasure at the expense of the other—thanks to a remedial lesson in male anatomy in a dinner conversation with a friend. So, that was out. I was left with this fuzzy notion of possible psychological harm, but there were two problems with that. First, as I was finally getting to know that I knew LGBTQ people, they certainly didn’t feel that way about their relationships—of course, I could contend that they were delusional, but that seemed a stretch, especially since what I could see of their relationships seemed often a bit more stable and healthy than my own at times. Second, the notion of psychological harm depended on a complementarian view of gender that I’d already given up, because it didn’t even fit me. And so the final move for me was being willing to grant that basic biology and the facts on the ground didn’t support this contention that somehow being LGBTQ was intrinsically harmful to people.

All of this is probably very familiar as an ally-coming-out narrative. It’s not that exciting. If it were a novel it wouldn’t have a plot (also my problem with writing novels, alas).

Step 5: Turning Cyborg

And, all of this seems to have been covertly at work as I worked my way toward a dissertation topic, researched and wrote and defended and published. The image of the cyborg is an image of hybridity, a constantly moving and shifting and realigning merger of the biological and mechanical. It’s a way, in short, to think about the impermanence and permeability of the boundaries of our categories—human and machine but also human and animal, and also male and female. These pure binaries descriptively miss so much about material reality that they become empirically false. And we spend a lot of time maintaining selective blindness to certain bits of material reality in order to preserve the sanctity of these categories—when, of course, what God is really calling us to do is live in the world that God actually created for us, a world that these pure categories don’t describe very well at all. Men aren’t actually “masculine” in the narrow way that our culture, including our churches which on the topic of gender are absolutely *not* countercultural, defines it and neither are women “feminine.” We’re just more complicated than that. The first step is admitting that. And the second step is to stop assuming that God wants you to somehow reduce complicated self, and other people’s complicatedness, to the simplicity of these categories that don’t describe God’s real creation.

It’s a beautiful and beautifully complex world we’ve been given. Beautiful and complex creatures live in it. We spurn that gift, rather ungratefully, when we turn our backs on reality in favor of a 1950’s cartoon version that lives only in our collectively warped imagination. And worse, we hurt people: by telling them repeatedly that God can’t love them until they become something else, someone other than who they are. And that, remember, is my basic definition of sin. There’s a lot to repent of, but embracing reality and giving thanks to God for this beautiful and complex world isn’t it. It’s the opposite.

Consider This Perspective – Wesley Hill

Welcome to the second installment of our new interview series. Last week we heard from Tripp York about sex and violence. This week we here from Wesley Hill. This interview is bound to be provocative, and likely to strike a nerve with some of you, so please remember to comment with kindness and civility.

Wesley Hill (Ph.D., Durham University, UK) is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Zondervan, 2010), a book exploring what it means to be a celibate gay Christian.

You have chosen celibacy. Why?

The short answer is that I believe Jesus’ reaffirmed what God had established in the beginning — that marriage was created as the place for sexual intimacy, and marriage is for one man and one woman (Matthew 19:4-6, quoting Genesis 2:24). Those of us living outside that marital state are called to abstinence. It’s not because I have amazing willpower or am interested in asceticism for its own sake; I believe, rather, that those whose lives have been transformed by God’s grace in the gospel are enabled and called to walk in a manner worthy of that gospel (Ephesians 4:1).

How has that decision affected your relationships with folks in the church and in the LGBT community?

It has made me much more desirous of and intentional about pursuing friendship. Celibacy isn’t really doable apart from a hospitable, supportive circle of brothers and sisters in Christ, at least in my case. And my choosing celibacy, as a gay man, out of fidelity to the gospel, has attuned me more to the sufferings and struggles of other gay men who aren’t necessarily Christians. It’s led to greater relational sensitivity, I think.

What advice would you give to Christians who experience SSA and are trying to resolve that with their faith?

First, I would encourage them to remember that they’re not alone. Struggling with coming to terms with one’s own same-sex attraction as a Christian can be a very isolating experience. You can fall prey to thoughts that you ought not talk about it or that no one else is going through what you’re going through. But that’s simply false. Second, I would encourage gay Christians to look for practical ways to remind themselves that they aren’t alone — i.e., by talking with their fellow Christians about their experiences. This can be quite a scary thing to do — coming out to one’s fellow believers in a church setting, say — but I think, despite the pain, that it’s the path to truest community. Look for what a counselor friend of mine calls “circles of appropriate transparency.” You don’t have to share the story of your sexuality with your whole congregation or parish, for instance in a formal testimony. But you can probably find a handful of “safe,” trusted friends who will enable you to process your journey and give voice to your doubts and complaints and fears and joys and hopes and victories.

What other projects do you have in the works?

I want to think and write and speak more about what Christians throughout the centuries have called “spiritual friendship.” We hear a lot in the Christian world about what God is asking us not to do (“Don’t have gay sex”). We hear a lot less in the Christian world about what God is asking us to do, positively. We celibate gay Christians shouldn’t have to think of ourselves as consigned to lifelong loneliness on account of our celibacy. Rather, we can pour out love for others in the form of friendship. We can practice hospitality and find intimate communion with others, albeit not getting married or having a family in the traditional American sense. But Jesus is very clear: we can have family in a true spiritual sense, as we befriend one another in the body of Christ (see Mark 10:29-31). That’s what I want to think and write more about.

Consider This Perspective – Tripp York

The first installment of our new weekly interview series, Consider This Perspective, is finally here! We chat a bit about sex and violence with theologian Tripp York.

Tripp York, PhD, is the author and editor of ten books including The Devil Wears Nada, A Faith Not Worth Fighting For, and A Faith that Embraces All Creatures. He teaches in the Religious Studies Department at Virginia Wesleyan College in Virginia Beach, VA. He also serves as a Keeper Aide at the Virginia Zoological Gardens in Norfolk, VA where he is routinely urinated on by numerous animals. He considers this to be quite natural as well as intentional (especially among the primates).

Tell us about the projects you are currently working on.

I’m trying to wrap up the third volume of The Peaceable Kingdom Series. I am also working on two manuscripts pertaining to sexual ethics, two graphic novels, and I’m constantly working on my comic, Anarcrow! It’s about a crow that is smarter than all of us because he refuses to buy into our obsession with ‘isms.’

That and I think he, secretly, adores Wittgenstein.

Your humor is one of your hallmarks. How can we approach such serious topics of sex and violence with humor? And why should/shouldn’t we?

I have a hallmark? I’ve always wanted one of those. So far, it’s gotten me nowhere.

Greg Graffin of Bad Religion sings, “I would rather laugh than cry.” When dealing with sex and violence, those seem like the most faithful options we have, so, for now anyway . . . let’s laugh. Otherwise, I fear my liver would not survive the whiskey-spike.

In The Devil Wears Nada you have some comments about homosexual behavior in the animal kingdom as a way of, in part, refuting the claim that gay sex is ‘unnatural’. Would you be willing to expand on this thought a bit?

Part of my doing that in The Devil Wears Nada was to simply show off my lay-obsession with ethology and anthrozoology. I’m narcissistic that way. But it was also an attempt to revel in the incredible diversity that takes place in the natural world–which is such a weird thing to say, isn’t it? The ‘natural world’. I mean, what are our options here? What is an ‘unnatural’ world? What does that look like? Basically, anything that can be done can be said to be ‘natural’. It’s not like we can walk on walls or breathe under water. Now, that would be unnatural.

We seem to be quite careless when employing the terms ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’, and I’m not sure how fruitful their use is in this sort of conversation anyway. I especially find it difficult to understand why, especially when Christians talk about living in a post-lapsarian world, how the term ‘natural’ is synonymous with ‘good’ and ‘unnatural’ (which, whatever that is, is impossible) is ‘evil’. Placing any kind of moral language on these abused terms is nothing more than people’s enactment of their own will-to-power.

Sorry about getting all Nietzschean on you. It happens on occasion.

How have you seen violence used in discussions on sex? How can we practice nonviolence on sexual topics?

I teach a course called Sex & Violence in Christianity as well as a course called, The Ethics of Intimacy. In both of these courses, my students often unwittingly betray subtle forms of violence by the manner in which they discuss practices such as same-sex relationships, heterosexual marriage or, to use an example here, even what constitutes consensual sex. Coming out of a long-winded patriarchal order, in which every single facet of human purpose (much less sexuality) has been dictated by those with the XY chromosome, it may be the case that Catherine MacKinnon is correct to argue (or, ‘more’ correct than we would like to imagine) that consensual sex is not possible. The very reasons we often give for knowing when it’s the ‘right time’ to have sex are so thoroughly embedded in misogynistic discourse that even when we try to resist it, it appears we collude with the object of our protest. The concern is that we have no other language (hence, world) for how to discuss something like consensual sex that has not been determined by those most anxious to get others to say ‘yes’.

This sort of thinking tends to permeate most of my classroom discussions, especially when I hear my male and female students attempting to discuss what is and is not legitimate modes of sex (and/or violence, for that matter).

Okay. Now, I feel like crying.

What do you think are some of the most prevalent contributions to our culture’s continuing desensitization of things related to sex and violence?

Purity balls, virginity oaths, and Mark Driscoll. Though, not necessarily in that order.