I have no concrete idea how Christianity will wrestle free of its current crisis, of its distractions and temptations, and above all its enmeshment with the things of this world. But I do know it won’t happen by even more furious denunciations of others, by focusing on politics rather than prayer, by concerning ourselves with the sex lives and heretical thoughts of others rather than with the constant struggle to liberate ourselves from what keeps us from God.
Holy Week reading from Sully’s blog this morning: a reader’s letter about his magical experience hiring his favorite male porn star to have sex with him as a birthday present to himself:
So I got to have sex with my fantasy guy who happened to be someone I genuinely liked. Both my big and little heads got off at the same time. It was one of the most amazing sexual experiences I’ve ever had. I now realize how lucky I really was. It was just as likely that he could have turned out to be a shallow asshole that I couldn’t stand.
That evening, he shared with me that he had a dream to write children’s books some day. I don’t know where he is now, but I hope he’s accomplished that dream. He certainly made mine come true.
Children’s books. Charming.
I don’t contrast the two to be snarky, but to make a point about why I find Andrew’s writings about Christianity to be unpersuasive. To be sure, I don’t know to what extent Sullivan endorses his correspondent’s actions, but I’m a regular reader of his blog, and given the things he does endorse, and write, I think it’s reasonable to assume he approves of his correspondent’s point of view. How is that letter-writer’s actions remotely compatible with Christianity? I cannot imagine how any serious Christian could endorse such a thing. Yet as a Sullivan reader of longstanding, I find it far, far easier to believe that he does endorse it — and that’s why he published it — than to believe he posted it as a cautionary tale, or even as something darkly funny (e.g., a porn star male prostitute who dreams of writing children’s books).
Sullivan praises in his Newsweek essay the selective Christianity of Thomas Jefferson, who famously edited the New Testament to take out the parts he didn’t agree with. Sullivan finds Jefferson’s model to be exemplary, an antidote to the Christianity of our times. Of course, there is no more modish claim than that Jesus didn’t care what we did with our sex lives. Jesus’s teachings weren’t as explicit as St. Paul’s, but then again, if you cut Paul off, you don’t have Christianity. Nevertheless, Jesus did say, in the fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel:
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’[e]28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.29If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’[f]32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Any Christian who claims that Jesus was indifferent to sexual purity had better cut this passage out of their New Testament and consign it to the trash bin. Jesus condemns lust. What is lust? How would Andrew Sullivan define lust? Jesus believes that “sexual immorality” is so serious that it’s the only legitimate reason for divorce. What could Jesus have meant by “sexual immorality”? Clearly, unambiguously, Jesus believes in a right way of sexual conduct, and a wrong way — and condemns the wrong way in serious terms. It is completely untenable to say that Jesus was indifferent to sexual conduct. If we want to know more explicitly what kind of sexual conduct Jesus found to be trayf, we should consult his tradition’s teachings, found in the Hebrew Bible. Or you could trust the rabbi Paul, who was a contemporary of Jesus’s.
If you really don’t want to know, because to know is to be responsible, and to be responsible is to have to change your life and die to yourself in ways you prefer not to, well, then you are fooling yourself. It’s as if the Rich Young Ruler went away from Jesus sorrowful, and then wrote an essay later saying that if we really knew Jesus, we would know that he really didn’t mean that one would have to sell all one’s possessions if one wants to have eternal life.
Look, I don’t exempt myself from this. Every day I resist the radical call of Jesus to detach ourselves from our desires for His sake. The point of the Christian life is ascetic struggle to be perfect, as Our Father in heaven is perfect — and yet knowing that perfection, in the sense of following the Law, isn’t possible. We have to perfect ourselves in Love, but perfecting ourselves in Love does not mean, and must not mean, giving ourselves a free pass to avoid or deny the teachings of Jesus that we find difficult. He told us that if we loved Him, we would keep His commandments. That is the standard. We don’t get a free pass for greed, and we don’t get a free pass for lust, either.
UPDATE: A couple other things from Sullivan’s essay struck me, along these lines.
1. He writes, of St. Francis:
Jesus was without politics, so was Francis. As Jesus fled from crowds, so did Francis—often to bare shacks in woodlands, to pray and be with God and nature. It’s critical to recall that he did not do this in rebellion against orthodoxy or even church authority. He obeyed orders from bishops and even the pope himself.
So he approves of St. Francis, then? But he himself rebels against orthodoxy and church authority, certainly on the matter of sex and sexuality. How can St. Francis be a model when he accepted orthodoxy and authority? If Francis is a model, then why won’t Andrew Sullivan do the same in imitation of him? Or are we only to obey those aspects of Francis’s life that we find easy to obey?
Jesus’ doctrines were the practical commandments, the truly radical ideas that immediately leap out in the simple stories he told and which he exemplified in everything he did. Not simply love one another, but love your enemy and forgive those who harm you … Above all: give up power over others, because power, if it is to be effective, ultimately requires the threat of violence, and violence is incompatible with the total acceptance and love of all other human beings that is at the sacred heart of Jesus’ teaching. … Jefferson feared that the alternative to a Christianity founded on “internal persuasion” was a revival of the brutal, bloody wars of religion that America was founded to escape.
If Sullivan really believes that, then what advice, then, would Sullivan give to the gay organization in Kentucky that filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission there against a Christian t-shirt maker that refused to make gay pride t-shirts for them? Would he say that they should accept this rejection and love the Christian t-shirt makers anyway? Would he counsel them to turn away from the attempt to use the state to do violence to their business, via sanctions and fines levied by the Human Rights Commission? Would he encourage them to retreat from the culture-war battlefield, and try “persuasion” instead?
If not, why not?