I do not want to be reflective any more
Envying and despising unreflective things
Finding pathos in dogs and undeveloped
And young girls doing their hair and all the castles
Flushed by the children’s bedtime, level with
The tide comes in and goes out again, I do not
To be always stressing either its flux or its
I do not want to be a tragic or philosophic chorus
But to keep my eye only on the nearer future
And after that let the sea flow over us.
Come then all of you, come closer, form a circle,
Join hands and make believe that joined
Hands will keep away the wolves of water
Who howl along our coast. And be it assumed
That no one hears them among the talk and
I’m addicted to the ’80s station on my XM satellite radio, which (like so many of my vices these days) I justify as research for my novel. The combination of too-happy beats and kinky, alienated lyrics never fails to provoke my creativity. Also in the name of research, today I switched to the ’90s station to refresh my memory of what bands my Generation-Y heroine might have enjoyed.
As I listened to the lyrics of Jennifer Paige’s hit “Crush“, it seemed to me that I was hearing something new, a genre that really only took off in the 1990s and beyond: the feminist anti-love song. Not a breakup song (like “I Will Survive”), but a girl bragging about her lack of emotional investment in a relationship she still intends to enjoy. Jennifer sings:
It’s raising my adrenalineOther popular examples are Britney Spears’ “Oops! I Did It Again”, and Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women”. In the latter song, from the Charlie’s Angels soundtrack, the trio challenges their potential mates:
You’re banging on a heart of tin
Please don’t make too much of it baby
You say the word “forevermore”
That’s not what I’m looking for
All I can commit to is “maybe”
So let it be what it’ll be
Don’t make a fuss and get crazy over you and me
Here’s what I’ll do
I’ll pay loose
Run like we have a day with destiny
It’s just a little crush (crush)
Not like I faint every time we touch
It’s just some little thing (crush)
Not like everything I do depends on you
Question: Tell me what you think about meDespite the hundreds of hours I’ve spent rediscovering the guilty pleasures of Belinda Carlisle and Laura Branigan, the only analogous song from the ’80s that I can think of is the Eurythmics’ “I Need a Man,” which is a little different because it sounds like it’s being sung by an experienced older woman, not a teen girl. And even there, you can tell that Annie Lennox really needs that man. She’s not taunting him that he’s slightly less important than her new shoes.
I buy my own diamonds and I buy my own rings
Only ring your cell-y when I’m feelin lonely
When it’s all over please get up and leave
So, gentle reader, am I right — is this a new way of being a girl? What does it mean? Is it possible that we’ll be looking back on the decade of Madonna’s cone-shaped bra and saying how innocent it all was?
Here are some more excerpts from my recent correspondence with “Conway”, a prisoner at a supermax facility in central California who’s serving 25-to-life under the state’s three-strikes law for receiving stolen goods.
Dec. 7, 2006
This young black man down the tier. He’s been ostracized by his folk, has been asking me for help in his songs he’s been writing, and a story — it’s very ghetto murder rampage story gangsters in the hood and what not but his songs have some serious merit — he sang two of them to me in the cages, I’m not the one to judge but I see the talent in his words, so I gave him my opinion and offered a direction. He said it helped him take it into another direction he hadn’t realized.
Isn’t it funny how talking with another creative person can give you a new perspective on your own creativity?
The odd thing is in here we are totally segregated and then separated by cages (dog kennels) but I get a chance to converse with characters I would never even speak to on the mainline or in society, it is such a severe microcosm of the world and we’re all out there in our boxers + shirts and state issued tennis shoes, no pretentious clothes or jewelry just personality, and everyone is in search of conversation respectfully. Oh there are the few that are forever hateful, or just broken husks of humanity, but the cops don’t allow them out too often to disrupt the congeniality of the cages if that sounds absurd, it probably would to the outside observer, but I’m starting to enjoy freezin in my boxers in the rain and meeting all these crooks 🙂
The cold thing is I’m not sure if they are aware of the monsters they are creating in these dungeons. It’s hard to watch a man you’ve conversed with and related with, all of a sudden break down, and it reminds me of a scenario, of a scene I saw on TV.
These guys were trying to let this leopard out of a cage it was in the back of a truck they apparently took it on this journey to set it loose after capture. They pulled a string from inside the cab of the truck and it opened the cage the cat leapt out and jumped into the cab with the driver and attacked him. At first you think how ungrateful this belligerent cat is trying to maul his savior. And then you got to realize that cat has probably sat behind those steel bars, or mesh seething, wishing it could lash out at this miserable person who kept it trapped, and when the time comes for its freedom its only thought is revenge, before it even thinks to run, get away from this place.
It’s kind of like that with these guys, they keep them locked in cages, constantly pestering, belittling, making these madmen, and their parole date comes they open the gate and say Go! but they are still behind the fence, so the only ones to lash out at are the unexpecting, unprepared sheep wending their way home after a day’s work in the office, factory or whatever job they use to survive. “The vicious circle” and then the cops point and say See! You need me! Perpetual perpetrators….
Any rage I told you about the “poop stain” [guy] they sprayed him out of his cell with pepper spray after he threw his feces/urine concoction on cops then gave him a tune up in the rotunda, and disappeared. Now they got a guy who kicks his door or did kick his door till he got the “tension cage”. He’s quiet now (somewhat) — he keeps trying to talk to us in the cages they took his shoes so he’s barefoot on the cold concrete. I know he’s suffering but man he tortured us for weeks & weeks before they extracted him I still despise him for putting me throughthat but he tries to catch my eye and it seems he’s pleading with his eyes for someone anyone to talk to him. I know I’m probably out of line to ignore him but we all have decided he’s on the shine for a while — I know I’m probably going to have to be the one to break it down and give him some conversation but not yet, I guess I’m not as compassionate as I’d like to be….
OK now as for you sending books yes please it would be greatly appreciated they allow me to receive 5 books per month….The guy I traded the drawing for Anna Karenina got it from amazon.com — oh you won’t believe this but I just traded that book for Inferno by Dante Alegheri very good book. That guy I traded just ordered The Count of Monte Christo and Cyrano de Bergerac”. I can’t wait to read those when he’s done 🙂 The only thing is we have to tear the books only 50 pages at a time go under the door so we can fish them to each other with lines we spin out of boxer waist band threat so the books even though the binding is ruined then are cherished (if that makes sense at all).
Conway enclosed some poems in this letter, from which I’ve selected the ones below:
Artificial lights create shadows
as the sun’s jealous presence beckons
lingering with dark fingers
into the cracks of Hell.
Fire flickers and peeks for intruders
leading even blindness to warmth
see everything must feed
death be the need for life.
Flame needs fuel, “destruction”
another tool of life’s construction
cast about on the silhouettes
of our passing desire to breathe.
Whether we acknowledge complicity
our signature still lingers
the dying is buying all.
(No matter how big or small.)
So this flickering flame burns brightly
as the moon turns tightly
around earth’s wrist, giving a twist
on the sun’s revolution.
How long till tension becomes too tight
and space reverses in flight
taking back terrific energy spent
while we all went about our way.
Tomorrow or today it must happen
we all become the shadow
darkness wins from the sins of living
how long will your shadow last?
The sonic boom reverberating
in the dayroom echoed in my head
as he kicked the door.
Oh how I wanted to take off his foot
stop his complaining
one day it’s this, the next it’s that
constantly wanting more.
We all were filled with rage
as he stormed about his cage
making a scene, it was his usual routine
until the day they finally got sore.
They came for him that day
filled his cell with pepper spray
good riddance for that I thought,
I smiled as he choked and coughed
wishing him gone
I despised him to the very core.
They dragged him out limp
chained behind his back
trailing the triangle
held by a dozen green suited goons
the ones we all abhor.
They pushed him into the cage
in the dayroom on center stage
and hung the chain from the top
He was begging for them to stop
but it was too late now
This time he’d learn his lesson
His arms were lifted chained
behind his back as he complained
The sight was sorry to be sure.
He couldn’t sit he couldn’t stand
His position was bent over
it was called the tension cage
He cried within moments, I laughed
you see he wasn’t kicking anymore.
After the first hour there
I then became aware
he was sobbing, but repressed
trying to hold it in I guessed
I started to identify
with the plight he had in store.
They left him there till morning
after breakfast and I felt dread
he wasn’t even fed
or, curled up on his concrete bed
Just sagging on the chain crimp
in the dayroom sobbing softly limp
it was pitiful and mean
The worst treatment I’d ever seen
just because he kicked the stupid steel door.
Finally they came in
unchained him from the bars within
as his arms came down he cried
They walked him back to his cell bent over and tied
as he sobbed for he couldn’t stand
but they pulled his purple hand and arms
backward to be uncuffed
and stuffed them through the trayslot in the door.
We all watched and listened
till we all felt a little sickened
what a nasty trick to pull
they hurt that sorry fool
more than I could ever want
it was such a wretched stunt
I wake at night sometimes
and wonder how it could be
what if they did that to me
could I take the pain
or would they break my brain
and then one day it happened
as I looked out my window
out the back of my prison cell
I thought oh they can all go to hell
I ran as hard as I could
But before I reached my destination
I stuck out my foot in desperation
I kicked the door…
Everywhere you look you see it:
running by each morning in Spandex,
resting in a hammock sipping tea
most afternoons. From chic magazines,
you cut a Humvee, a log cabin in Montana,
and a sleek, bronzed body.
Your sorrows grow faster than your garden.
The peonies understand serenity better—
you resent their beauty, their quiet knowledge.
Anxiety a dog that always needs walking.
Envy builds a hive in your head. So you read
self-help books, repeat the angelic affirmations.
Then forget it all
standing in line at Wal-Mart, wanting to kill the clerk
because she’s slow, hating the guy in front of you
for buying so much stuff, pissed
because they haven’t discovered a way
to squeeze enlightenment into your shampoo;
because you can’t order it off a drive-thru menu,
get it SuperSized. You’ve seen the life you want pulling fruit
from its orchard, losing weight and making friends,
humming sweetly on the other side of the hedge—
giving freely what you can’t understand. How?
and Why not me? rotting like bruised apples inside your head.
Visit Jeff’s blog here for more great poems and literary links.
The other night I rented the film Idiocracy, a satire by Beavis and Butthead creator Mike Judge that appeared in theaters last year for about two seconds, probably because its critique of the mass media hits too close to home. It’s about an average guy who awakens from a government cryogenics experiment to discover that in the year 2505, the human race has become unutterably stupid because all the educated yuppies stopped having babies while the trailer-trash and ghetto gangstas bred like rabbits.
The humans of the future water their crops with Gatorade because advertisers have told them that water is only for toilets. Television now only has two channels, the Violence Channel (featuring the hit show “Ow! My Balls!”) and the Masturbation Channel. Porn is everywhere (Starbucks offers a “Gentleman’s full-body latte”). If this doesn’t sound too different from today, well, you can understand why the entertainment industry gave this film minimal promotion.
Most Hollywood movies that use broader social/cultural problems as the backdrop for their characters’ storyline are written as if the resolution of the individual conflict means that the systemic problem has also gone away. Think of all the Cinderella stories about one talented individual’s escape from the ghetto (e.g. Good Will Hunting), the endless crop of heroic-teacher movies (Coach Carter, Freedom Writers) or the environmentalist critique of suburbia in the nearly-brilliant Over the Hedge. Idiocracy rejects this individualist escapism, another reason it was less popular than its wit deserved. The two unfrozen people from 2005 may make things better for their cretinous brethren in the short-term, but their three children don’t stand a chance against their idiot buddy’s thirty-two. The gene pool is still doomed.
I do think this film is worth seeing, but I also found its worldview troubling in some ways. I’m sure its creators took pains to avoid seeming too racist (the ratio of morons is about 70% hillbilly to 30% ghetto). My beef with the film is that decadence isn’t only an IQ issue, it’s a values issue. Are the lower classes stupider, or do they simply have fewer resources to shield them from the effects of society-wide pathologies? The non-breeding elites, after all, own the media companies that brought us gangsta rap and Geraldo. They become lawyers for the porn industry or write memos telling our president how to evade the Geneva Convention. Being “smart” doesn’t make them wise. The elites can distract themselves from their despair by hoarding more stuff; the poor throw bricks through their own windows.
I’ll leave the last word to the inestimable Garret Keizer, from his book Help: The Original Human Dilemma:
Conservative sociologists and the spawn of conservative think tanks speak of “the culture of poverty.”…What, pray tell, is a culture of poverty? I would guess that it is one of waste, ignorance, substance abuse, petty squabbling, random violence, sexual irresponsibility, shabby child rearing, and a sweet tooth for scandal. I would guess it is a culture with no meaningful conception of the future and no ability whatsoever to know the proper value of anything….
In short, I assume that a culture of poverty would look exactly like the dominant culture of America, which more and more resembles that of a tenement or a trailer park. Lu Ann called Peggy Sue a slut. Monica gave Billy a blow job. The poor are with us always because the poor are us….
I grew up during the building boom in housing projects. We had simultaneously declared war on poverty in America and war on the peasantry in Vietnam. I can remember overhearing the barber shop diatribes on what “those people” down in the city had done, how the spendthrift federal government had moved them out of the slums into brand-new apartments where they lost no time yanking out the faucets and the doorknobs and anything else they could pry loose to sell, probably to get money for liquor and dope. You could not help people like that.
Thus I was taught that a culture of poverty is one in which you trash a place that isn’t even yours and sell whatever you can for a quick buck. In other words, you behave like a coal company in Kentucky. Or like the present administration wants to behave in Alaska. When Republicans say that theirs is the true party of the disadvantaged, I have no trouble keeping a straight face. (pp.204-05)
Grace Episcopal Church in Amherst, MA has come up with a creative way to affirm GLBT rights without defying the denomination’s ban on same-sex marriage rites. From today’s Daily Hampshire Gazette (subscription required):
Declaring a “holy fast,” Grace Episcopal Church has decided to stop performing all wedding ceremonies because its bishops bar the blessing of same-sex unions.Grace Episcopal’s solution strikes me as an especially Christian, nonviolent way to take a stand. Leadership through sacrifice, rather than through defiance of authority, is a powerful and peaceful witness. Hirschfeld’s entire sermon is online here.
“We are called to join the fast that our homosexual brothers and sisters in Christ have had to observe all their lives,” said the church’s rector, the Rev. Robert Hirschfeld, in his sermon Sunday.
The worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is a part, has been splitting apart over this issue and the election of a gay bishop. Hirschfeld said that he knows of no other church that has taken the step of abstaining from all weddings.
“Gays and lesbians are the church, as much, if not more, as I am a straight white man,” he said in his sermon. “But this sacrament, and the grace it is meant to convey, is not available to them.”
The reaction of members of the congregation was largely positive at discussions with Hirschfeld after Sunday’s two services. Some members expressed concern that the move might be polarizing, while others said they regretted that people who grew up in the church can’t get married there….
Hirschfeld said he was asked at the deathbed of Victoria White, a Northampton lesbian who died recently, if it would be all right to have her funeral at Grace Church. “The question had poignancy for me,” he said. “We are here for all people.”
Gay and lesbian couples “always feel their relationship is less than holy” when they are denied the right to marry, he said.
“I can no longer hold together my own integrity as a priest who has made vows to minister faithfully the sacraments of the reconciling love of Christ, if indeed to perform such sacrament means deeper, more wrenching, more agonizing tearing of the body of Christ which I am called to support and nourish,” Hirschfeld said in his sermon….
“I invite us to join in solidarity, no a better word is in communion, with those persons who have been fasting and walking in the desert their whole lives, not by choice, but because the church has forced them to,” Hirschfeld said.
The most recent installment of Saving Jesus, which was about the “kingdom of God,” opened my eyes to the political dimension of the Lord’s Prayer. We say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” and then ask God to meet our personal needs for food, shelter, and physical and spiritual security. I’d always pictured the two halves of the prayer interacting thus: We ask God for those protections, but ultimately accept whatever He sends us —
His will, not ours. And yet we still ask, because we are humble enough to admit that we’re still mortal men and women who need to worry about these survival basics, not angels who can spend all their time (do angels have time?) praising God.
On last week’s DVD, retired bishop John Shelby Spong suggested an additional reading. This prayer was important to the early church, facing persecution and trying to cling to its commitment to nonviolence. Those Christians would have prayed that they’d have what they needed to survive from day to day, and not falter, till they brought about the kingdom, till God’s will was done on earth as it was in heaven.
This reminded me of something the pastor at the evangelical church said in a recent sermon. (I’m not ready to call it my evangelical church, but they’re starting to grow on me….) Forgiveness, he said, is how God sweeps flat the obstacles in our soul so that the winds of the Holy Spirit can blow freely through us. Without detracting from the utter gratuitousness of the gift, it’s comforting to think that God gets something out of the deal as well. We’re set free from sin so that we can be what God wanted us to be, not just for ourselves but for the benefit of the whole world. What God does for me, He does in some sense for everybody’s sake.
Also on the DVD, theologian John Dominic Crossan further demonstrated how the language we use to describe Jesus was a direct political rebuke, really a satire, of the divine titles that Caesar Augustus claimed. To a first-century hearer, “Jesus is God” would have meant that the God I believe in looks like Jesus, not Caesar. He’s a God who brings about peace by doing justice, not through violent conquest. According to Crossan, “Was Jesus divine or not” is a phony question. The real question was “Is Jesus God or is Caesar God?” In other words, which side are you on?
While I actually think the Incarnation is deeply important to our understanding of salvation, I welcome Crossan’s additional gloss on the topic. The strength of this DVD series is its restoration of the historical and political meanings of the gospel; I only wish they didn’t feel the need to play those meanings off against traditional theological and personal ones in an either-or kind of way. N.T. Wright does a much better job integrating the two. Still, half a loaf, etc.
Crossan’s summary of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom is as follows: God has inaugurated a new era, but we are called to actualize His promises in how we treat each other. It can’t happen without God, but it also can’t happen without us. As a solution to those endless “faith vs. works, free will vs. sovereignty” debates, I like this just fine.
A friend who’s been following my endless vacillation over my relationship to my church sent me the following quote from Tell Me Why by Michael and Jana Novak (Pocket Books, 1998). The book is structured as a dialogue between a Catholic theologian and his twentysomething daughter about the basics of the Christian faith. Here, he talks about finding the church and denomination that are appropriate for your spiritual journey:
Judaism and Christianity (and some other religions) are about truth and holiness. In this context holiness means to love the lord your God with your whole heart, your whole mind, and your whole soul and to love your neighbor as you would be loved. The motive of such love is awe for the love that the Creator has poured out upon you.To Novak’s sound advice I would only add the caveat that novice Christians should not berate themselves too much for caring about aesthetics, sociality and the rest. It may be too early to tell what insights and arguments you really need to hear. If the music speaks to you of a God whom your mind still can’t accept, if the companionship of other believers helps you begin to think this God may be real, then go with it. Someday in the future, if you’re starting to love Jesus like a real person but your church is stuck in social club/concert hall mode, you may find it’s time to move on, but be grateful to the folks who took you as far as they could.
Therefore, choose the communion that is most likely to oblige you and nudge you to be faithful to truth — to inquiry, insight, and the hunger for evidence and sound argument — and to become holy. Resist the temptation to join the communion that offers you only comfort, sociality, and nice company. (Look for that in a good club.) Resist also the appeal of aesthetic pleasures at the services — music, poetry, visual stunningness (whether splendid or spare).”
[Here a brief footnote goes into the relationship of beauty and truth, with Novak concluding that “To rest in beauty rather than in truth is to sow seed in thin soil. That said, I concur that beauty is a sign of truth.”] (pp.159-60)
I sometimes forget how very recent my faith commitments are, and how only a couple of years ago I was passionately skeptical about some of the same doctrines that I now can’t live without. A reason to hold those commitments more lightly? I don’t think so. Just a reason to be charitable. To care about whatever I believe, but not to be proud of myself for believing or doubting — that’s the goal.
Distinguished theologian Walter Wink is a professor emeritus of Biblical interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. His books include The Powers That Be, a discussion of Christian nonviolence and social justice. (Unfortunately, he also thinks Jesus was only human, but then, so is Walter.) In this article from the Soulforce website, he offers a provocative critique of the Biblical case against homosexuality (boldface emphases are mine):
Paul’s unambiguous condemnation of homosexual behavior in Rom. 1:26-27 must be the centerpiece of any discussion.Read the whole article here.
For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
No doubt Paul was unaware of the distinction between sexual orientation, over which one has apparently very little choice, and sexual behavior, over which one does. He seemed to assume that those whom he condemned were heterosexuals who were acting contrary to nature, “leaving,” “giving up,” or “exchanging” their regular sexual orientation for that which was foreign to them. Paul knew nothing of the modern psychosexual understanding of homosexuals as persons whose orientation is fixed early in life, or perhaps even genetically in some cases. For such persons, having heterosexual relations would be acting contrary to nature, “leaving,” “giving up” or “exchanging” their natural sexual orientation for one that was unnatural to them.
In other words, Paul really thought that those whose behavior he condemned were “straight,” and that they were behaving in ways that were unnatural to them. Paul believed that everyone was straight. He had no concept of homosexual orientation. The idea was not available in his world. There are people that are genuinely homosexual by nature (whether genetically or as a result of upbringing no one really knows, and it is irrelevant). For such a person it would be acting contrary to nature to have sexual relations with a person of the opposite sex.
Likewise, the relationships Paul describes are heavy with lust; they are not relationships between consenting adults who are committed to each other as faithfully and with as much integrity as any heterosexual couple. That was something Paul simply could not envision. Some people assume today that venereal disease and AIDS are divine punishment for homosexual behavior; we know it as a risk involved in promiscuity of every stripe, homosexual and heterosexual. In fact, the vast majority of people with AIDS the world around are heterosexuals. We can scarcely label AIDS a divine punishment, since nonpromiscuous lesbians are at almost no risk.
And Paul believes that homosexual behavior is contrary to nature, whereas we have learned that it is manifested by a wide variety of species, especially (but not solely) under the pressure of overpopulation. It would appear then to be a quite natural mechanism for preserving species. We cannot, of course, decide human ethical conduct solely on the basis of animal behavior or the human sciences, but Paul here is arguing from nature, as he himself says, and new knowledge of what is “natural” is therefore relevant to the case….Clearly we regard certain rules, especially in the Old Testament, as no longer binding. Other things we regard as binding, including legislation in the Old Testament that is not mentioned at all in the New. What is our principle of selection here?
For example, virtually all modern readers would agree with the Bible in rejecting: incest, rape, adultery, and intercourse with animals. But we disagree with the Bible on most other sexual mores. The Bible condemned the following behaviors which we generally allow: intercourse during menstruation, celibacy, exogamy (marriage with non-Jews), naming sexual organs, nudity (under certain conditions), masturbation (some Christians still condemn this), birth control (some Christians still forbid this).
And the Bible regarded semen and menstrual blood as unclean, which most of us do not. Likewise, the Bible permitted behaviors that we today condemn: prostitution, polygamy, levirate marriage, sex with slaves, concubinage, treatment of women as property, and very early marriage (for the girl, age 11-13).
And while the Old Testament accepted divorce, Jesus forbade it. In short, of the sexual mores mentioned here, we only agree with the Bible on four of them, and disagree with it on sixteen!
Surely no one today would recommend reviving the levirate marriage. So why do we appeal to proof texts in Scripture in the case of homosexuality alone, when we feel perfectly free to disagree with Scripture regarding most other sexual practices? Obviously many of our choices in these matters are arbitrary. Mormon polygamy was outlawed in this country, despite the constitutional protection of freedom of religion, because it violated the sensibilities of the dominant Christian culture. Yet no explicit biblical prohibition against polygamy exists.
If we insist on placing ourselves under the old law, as Paul reminds us, we are obligated to keep every commandment of the law (Gal. 5:3). But if Christ is the end of the law (Rom. 10:4), if we have been discharged from the law to serve, not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit (Rom. 7:6), then all of these biblical sexual mores come under the authority of the Spirit. We cannot then take even what Paul himself says as a new Law. Christians reserve the right to pick and choose which sexual mores they will observe, though they seldom admit to doing just that. And this is as true of evangelicals and fundamentalists as it is of liberals and mainliners.
The crux of the matter, it seems to me, is simply that the Bible has no sexual ethic. There is no Biblical sex ethic. Instead, it exhibits a variety of sexual mores, some of which changed over the thousand year span of biblical history. Mores are unreflective customs accepted by a given community. Many of the practices that the Bible prohibits, we allow, and many that it allows, we prohibit. The Bible knows only a love ethic, which is constantly being brought to bear on whatever sexual mores are dominant in any given country, or culture, or period.
The very notion of a “sex ethic” reflects the materialism and splitness of modern life, in which we increasingly define our identity sexually. Sexuality cannot be separated off from the rest of life. No sex act is “ethical” in and of itself, without reference to the rest of a person’s life, the patterns of the culture, the special circumstances faced, and the will of God. What we have are simply sexual mores, which change, sometimes with startling rapidity, creating bewildering dilemmas. Just within one lifetime we have witnessed the shift from the ideal of preserving one’s virginity until marriage, to couples living together for several years before getting married. The response of many Christians is merely to long for the hypocrisies of an earlier era.
I agree that rules and norms are necessary; that is what sexual mores are. But rules and norms also tend to be impressed into the service of the Domination System, and to serve as a form of crowd control rather than to enhance the fullness of human potential. So we must critique the sexual mores of any given time and clime by the love ethic exemplified by Jesus. Defining such a love ethic is not complicated. It is non-exploitative (hence no sexual exploitation of children, no using of another to their loss), it does not dominate (hence no patriarchal treatment of women as chattel), it is responsible, mutual, caring, and loving. Augustine already dealt with this in his inspired phrase, “Love God, and do as you please.”
Our moral task, then, is to apply Jesus’ love ethic to whatever sexual mores are prevalent in a given culture. This doesn’t mean everything goes. It means that everything is to be critiqued by Jesus’ love commandment. We might address younger teens, not with laws and commandments whose violation is a sin, but rather with the sad experiences of so many of our own children who find too much early sexual intimacy overwhelming, and who react by voluntary celibacy and even the refusal to date. We can offer reasons, not empty and unenforceable orders. We can challenge both gays and straights to question their behaviors in the light of love and the requirements of fidelity, honesty, responsibility, and genuine concern for the best interests of the other and of society as a whole.
Christian morality, after all, is not a iron chastity belt for repressing urges, but a way of expressing the integrity of our relationship with God. It is the attempt to discover a manner of living that is consistent with who God created us to be. For those of same-sex orientation, as for heterosexuals, being moral means rejecting sexual mores that violate their own integrity and that of others, and attempting to discover what it would mean to live by the love ethic of Jesus.