Can BDSM be “Redeemed”?

male-submissive-bdsm

by Randall S. Frederick

Almost four years ago, I changed direction in life. I had been working with a few churches, doing consulting work and building relationships with the communities I worked for, trying to help leaders and laity to understand themselves and each other. One of the recurring “issues” I kept running into was sexuality and sexual behavior. As you will already know, Christianity has had a difficult decade when it concerns their teachings (plural) on sexual behavior. Like the mythological hydra, while the most visible debates have been concerned with homosexuality, other questions and concerns have come to light. Rethinking the role of women in the Protestant Church has led to unprecedented changes in the “voice” of Christianity as names like Beth Moore, Rachel Held Evans, and Joyce Meyer regularly silence the patriarchy. And while some religious leaders would like to dismiss these voices, they have been so strong that – to the surprise of millions – the Church has begun making changes to their theology. What began as a “grassroots” discussion has caused the Latter-day Saints to make significant changes in their missionary protocol for females. William P. Young’s The Shackinstigated new discussions about the feminine – even ethnic – qualities of the Trinity. The Catholic Church vigilantly scrutinizes Pope Francis’ verbiage for hints that he may reverse millennia-old tradition and allow for a stronger role of women in church affairs. And then there are, of course, the changes to many seminaries (including the one I attended) to camp out with the questions these changes have brought about. Sociologists have already begun to stake out their denominations and cultures to see how these changes might begin to reconstruct communities long-entrenched in misogyny over the following decades. However, this is not where our survey ends. In fact, it’s not even what this article is about.

As an academic (I have two master’s degrees and am making plans for another “tour of duty” with my doctorate), one of my frustrations with much of cultural survey is the way that it cherry-picks information, isolating all variables to make a point. While I may seem long-winded in finally arriving at my thesis here, what I mean to suggest is that each of these changes as they regard “allowing” gays into local churches or women in leadership are pieces of a larger reconsideration taking place on gender, sex, sexuality, and sexual expression. Restricted though this is, I sincerely believe that the discussions taking place are all part of the same conversation. Put another way, I do not believe that any of us involved in discussing one of these can divorce ourselves from the other conversations taking place. They are all, I believe, the same and in some very real way The Shack is the same thing as Fifty Shades of Grey. While The Shack might cause us to question the gender and ethnicity of the Godhead, Fifty Shades of Grey might cause us to question the providence of God and how it is that the most innocent among us can be aroused and delight in submission, flagellation, and self-sacrifice. To the Christian, these words arouse familiar ideas, if you’ll pardon the play on words. Loving someone enough to endure their violence and cathartically work through their darkest emotional turmoil has been the metanarrative of salvation. Indeed, for most Christians, salvation cannot be conceived of without the seductive pull of a dominant (God) and submissive (Jesus). And, were we to break down the numbers, I don’t think it would be a surprise to see that the majority of those who enjoyed reading Fifty Shades were and are Christian. Indeed, my background in literature positively screams for me to dissect why E.L. James would name one of her main characters Christian and the other Anastasia (Greek for “resurrection”). The story is familiar – a rapturous love that lifts us out of the mundane, helps us rewrite our experiences, and delivers us from evil.

More than anything, what Fifty Shades indicates to me is that something is missing in the Church’s teaching on sexual behavior. This is a loaded statement, of course, and bound to be misunderstood in a hundred different ways but I think that might even be a good thing. I must decline to say what that “missing piece” is as there are ways in which even I do not understand what that piece might be.

Still, with the popularity of these books and the changes we are seeing in the Church comes an awareness that traditional teachings on how sexuality should be lived out are severely lacking, even out of touch with sexual behavior. Those who wish to hold on to the “traditional” view of sexuality (male and female, within marriage, facing one another for “intimacy,” going as slow as the slower partner needs to feel comfortable, male satisfied first, always with the awareness of and intention for procreation) seem to be shockingly out of touch with the history of Christianity or the historical contexts that they idealize.

For example, by the time of Jesus, several rabbis had already begun committing their ideas to print in the Talmud, stating that those who desired a celibate life (like the Essenes and, at least for particular seasons, the Nazarites) were going against God’s will. Sexual congress should take place on the Sabbath, if not every other day (and night) of the week, because it was the holiest of days when one was closest to God. Historians believe that the Jewish thrust for regular sex had more to do with racial issues – wanting a “pure” and continued Jewish race, even a majority of the population –  than it ever did with having sex “unto God.” Whatever the case, whether of God or man, Jesus challenges this idea of regular sex being a good thing. One of his most radical asides was when he said that some people would be sexless in the kingdom of God, but they would still be a part of the kingdom nonetheless (see Matt. 19 and Rev. 14). Paul would go even further in his first letter to the Corinthians, saying he wished “all” were celibate like he was. Shockingly, in Galatians 5, Paul (humorously?) suggests that castration brings a devotee closer to God – a line of thought which will go increasingly askew in the centuries that follow.

Leaping forward and across the machinations of movement, by the time we arrive in America at the turn of the 20th Century, Christian communities are in a new tension. Celibacy is no longer the moral dilemma, the reinstitution of polygamy is along with a growing awareness of what Freud will name “homosexuality.” The Oneida community of New York practiced “complex marriage” (sharing of spouses). Joseph Smith marries a 14yo girl; she is not his first or only wife, and these instances of “aberrant” sexual and relational behavior are causing people to rethink the interpretation of scripture. Should it be taken literally or figuratively? Just how far can we explore before God prohibits us? These ideas of sexual exploration, to be sure, caused our foreparents to pause because of the ways that America was indoctrinated to believe in divine providence. God wanted us to explore and conquer America, and surely God would want the same thing in our bedrooms, right? All of this to say that the “Christian” idea of sex, sexuality, and sexual behavior is a percolating pot of dogged misunderstandings and half-understood truths and we don’t have to look very far to see glaring “issues” with the traditional (i.e. “Christian”) ideas of sexual expression.

Which brings me to my primary concern – can BDSM be “redeemed” by Christianity?

This may seem a bit of a leap. What I mean is, by acknowledging the ways that our current forms of spirituality condemn us for what we are already doing (sex that is not “traditional”) and acknowledging the ways that Christian history is more diverse than we might have thought. Naturally, what I am suggesting is a broader form of “Christianity” than traditionalists might allow for. It is a safe statement that the Oneida community was “cultish” but what of Joseph Smith, the prophet of Mormonism? Should we cut off large segments of Christendom because of the actions of their leaders? And where do we stop – should Pentecostals be dismissed because of names like Charles Parham or Jimmy Swaggart? Or what of Martin Luther King Jr., whose “social gospel” was so out-of-step with his white ministerial colleagues? In welcoming these names to the tapestry of Christianity, we welcome a hurricane of questions that make our systematic theological structures increasingly difficult to keep bolted down. And this, I propose is a good thing because when we consider sexual behavior (even the sexual behavior of our leaders), we have numerous precedents set that allow for diversity.

Put another way, yes. It is possible to enjoy being cuffed to a bed and called names on Friday night and not have to repent come Sabbath. It is not iconoclastic to suggest (and I might suggest this quite strongly) that Christians have readily taken to the Fifty Shadesmarketing campaign because it is familiar to them. It either implicitly “allows” them to do what they are already doing because it follows familiar tropes of submission-to-satisfaction or because it encourages Christians to rethink their behavior, to discuss it, to be given permission to exercise creativity that has been suppressed for so long. And, what is more, where applicable, Christians might be encouraged to explore their sexuality to “redeem” it from those who would shame them or cause them to believe that anything other than the traditional is profane.

The implications of this are astounding. When Christians are empowered to think for themselves – to use the mental and emotional faculties they have been bestowed with by God, rather than following the dictates of a local religious potentate – they are part of a long tradition theologically as well as sexually. There is no reason to be afraid of this endeavor. Contrary to the pessimistic readings of the Barna Group and Pew Research Center, Christendom is pioneering what can only be called a Renaissance, reconsidering how best to orient themselves in light of new contexts. Christians, whatever their personal faults, have excelled at adaptation and reacculturation. Much like Jesus predicted, “greater works” are taking place every day as they “redeem” or “repurpose” those areas that once seemed so threatening, foreign, even sinful. These changes are not without cautious hesitation. The Garden of Eden’s great myth is that we can be seduced by great ideas, and the “advances” as they regard sexuality are not to be taken casually, but where we see holistic congruence in the life of a believer, male or female, straight or gay, dominant or submissive, we see the work of God taking place.

Be sure to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s