Note to My Readers: Due to the busyness of my summer schedule, in which I'm serving as a camp pastor on top of my normal duties, I'll be putting my ongoing Thursday and Friday series on hold until mid-August. All other days will continue to feature new content as usual, and the Thursday and Friday slots will offer devotional and theological reflections (heretofore unpublished) from my seminary years.

Friday, September 04, 2015

In Defense of Josh Duggar: Has the Church Failed Our Young Men?

"Christ and the Adulteress," Pieter Brueghel the Younger, c.1600
How can one defend indefensible actions? I don't intend this post in any way to intimate that what Josh Duggar and many thousands of other Christian men have done through the Ashley Madison website is somehow OK. It's not. We are quite obviously talking about sin here, sin of the most devastating and dangerous sort. 

But as I've been reading Christian articles and blogs about this series of events, it's struck me that almost all of them are focused on the level of the individual experience: How could he have done that? What a lie my husband, my pastor, my friend, must have been living all these years! How do I as a spouse, as a colleague, as a pastor respond to this revelation? Many of these articles and blogs are quite good and worth reading, making valuable points about personal sin, about the nature of addictions, and about the balance of grace and judgment. Most, however, carry a note of shock that this sort of behavior could have actually been carried out by Christian celebrities, by pastors, by theologians, etc.

"The Garden of Earthly Delights," triptych detail, Hieronymous Bosch, c.1500
I'm not shocked. As a pastor, I get to see a lot of people's standout virtues, but more than occasionally I also come face to face with clear examples of the depravity of human nature. (And, as often as not, the clearest examples of the intractability of human sin come from my experience with myself.) No one is exempt from this experience. But, to hone in more particularly on what we're talking about here, I, as a "millennial" male in a culture awash with sexual media, find it no surprise at all that many, many Christian men are falling into serious entrapments to sinful behavior in these areas. The culpability for those behaviors, of course, must rest with the sinners themselves, but it will help us to understand what's happening to our Christian men if we acknowledge that our world is presenting challenges to healthy Christian sexuality such as no previous generation has ever had to face. The advent of media technologies like color magazines, videos, and movies were bad enough for the struggle for sexual temperance, but the Internet has opened a whole new battlefield--rather, a vast, advancing war-front--in this conflict for men's souls; and what it provides in immediacy, access, and privacy is orders beyond what any other sexualized media has ever done. 

I'm going to use a rather glib and stereotyped analogy here, not to promote any sort of sexist agenda, but simply to help Christian men and women who find themselves shocked and confused at all this to understand the difficulty that these temptations pose for many men. Imagine that you're one of those sorts of women that is thoroughly interested in shoes, who can spend hours clicking through webpages or strolling through stores, browsing the selection of boots and pumps and flip-flops. Now imagine that the world around you is transformed into a rolling, unending supply of the most beautiful shoes you've ever seen, on display for you, vying for your attention, free to try on or even buy at unbelievably low prices. Now, imagine further that someone asks you not to pay any attention at all to the shoes--not to try them on, not even to look at them--simply pretend the shoes do not exist at all. That's a little bit like what we're having to ask Christian men to do in this Internet age. Indulgences and acts which the sheer power of public shame kept previous generations of men from doing are now offered up easily and privately by the Internet. Should our men be able to keep pure from sexual temptations? Yes. But it's an unbelievably hard battle we're asking them to fight, and our reaction to those who fall in that battle should have at least as much compassion as judgment.

I also want to raise a question that only a few people have been asking since this story began. Have we, as the church, failed these men? As I reflect on the upbringing I had, and the one I suspect Josh Duggar had--both, I should note, with the best of intentions from parents and pastors, and always solidly based in biblical ethics--it strikes me that we're asking young men, whose bodies are surging with hormones, to pretend that they are asexual beings, at least until they get
"Paolo and Francesca," (punished in hell for lust), by Ary Scheffer, 1851
married. We're taught that "lustful thoughts" are such a danger that we need to be "bouncing" our gaze immediately away from a pretty girl, a football cheerleader, or a lingerie ad. And, from an evangelical perspective, there are biblical supports for this kind of instruction--the great saint Job boasts that he has made "a covenant with [his] eyes not to look lustfully at a young woman," and Jesus himself tells us that "anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." That's pretty clear. But following it out means that we're asking young men to dam up the whole river of their strongest natural impulse; we're asking them to win victories in spiritual battles that it took the greatest of the desert fathers years of prayer in wilderness caves to achieve.

Perhaps there's a line somewhere that can be drawn between "proper desire" and "lust," but for many Christian parents and pastors, that's too much of a gray area for comfort when it comes down to actual behaviors. Should we tell our teenage sons it's OK to ogle cheerleaders? I'm not sure I would be comfortable with that advice, but at the same time I acknowledge that we're putting our young men into what is, for all but an exceptional minority, a no-win scenario. 

So what's the answer? How do we celebrate the good, God-given sexual drives of our young men while asking them not to use them? I don't think that simply telling them never to entertain a lustful thought is a feasible answer. But I'm not sure I really have a better answer, either. Our culture has backed us into a corner, such that we've become so isolated from one another, so cut off from the old, humble community events that lifted sexual attraction into the realms of the immanent beauty, that we really have nowhere left to go. We've traded most of our honest, person-to-person communal interactions for the individualized isolation of Netflix and Facebook, and so we have almost no places left where men and women can be together simply for the purpose of being men and women together. So what's the answer? The only suggestion I can think of is drawn from historical experience; it will sound a bit ridiculous at first blush, but hear me out. I think we need to bring back dancing in our Christian communities. Not the modern bump-and-grind pornographic dancing of the pop stars, nor the ridiculously individualized "dance moves" that make for instant popularity at middle school mixers. We need to bring back balls and waltzes, contra dancing and square dancing--a way for young men and young women (and married men and women too) to come together and celebrate the "proper desire" of being male and female in a way that does not shame it, but exalts it into something beautiful, something joyful and free.
"The Ball," Julius LeBlanc Stewart (1855-1919)
We need a place where we can permit young men to be "gentlemen," to be able to look at and admire and respect young women as "ladies." Dancing may not be the only space that can allow for such a transformation, but it is the first one that comes to my mind. So, youth groups and private schools and Christian colleges, I put the challenge out to you: make spaces for your young people to be both sexual and pure, because our culture has stolen most of those spaces away from us, and that is one of the greatest tragedies of our generation.

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