What is it? Well, it’s:
B) an essential gospel principle.
I started thinking about writing this post after Melissa (who’ll read anything) picked up and read a copy of the super-mega-ultra bestseller, The Da Vinci Code. If you haven’t read it, don’t; you’ll want those hours you waste on it back before you die. Rather than actually addressing the plot, let’s just say that Dan Brown presents his readers with an adventure story mixing art, history, conspiracy, Christianity, death, and lots of symbolic (and some actual) sex. The main character, Robert Langdon (and talk about a Mary Sue–Mr. Brown clearly imagines himself as Langdon…and imagines Langdon as “Harrison Ford in tweeds” to boot), gets caught up in a murderous struggle between various secret societies to either hide or expose the “greatest conspiracy of the past 2000 years”: namely, that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were lovers; that Jesus’s teachings (both the ethical and the “mystical” ones) were premised upon His recognition that the sexual act is a transformative and empowering union of the male and female principle, thus enabling individuals to experience the mysteries of the universe; that the blood descendents of Jesus and Mary live on, unknowingly possessing the key to humanity’s ultimate enlightenment; and that the whole history of Christian church (or at least the fun parts–you know, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Knights Templar and the Rosicrucians, etc.) can be boiled down to a struggle between those who wish to oppress the holy, peace-loving, feminine sexual principle in favor of a repressed, violent, aesetic and patriarchal one, and the actions of certain mysterious insiders (such as Leonardo Da Vinci) to keep this secret principle (and the bloodline which embodies it) alive. Enlightenment, of course, triumphs in the end.
Anyone who has ever wandered around the New Age section of a bookstore knows about all this. It’s the gnostic gospels, retrofitted to match modern feminist concerns; it’s a haphazardly reconstructed bit of neo-paganism, with the Hunter God and Earth Goddess and all the rest. (My personal favorite example of this has to be The Chalice and the Blade, a fascinating bit of pseudo-Celtic/Mithrasist theology which Brown helpfully cites several times in his book, the point being that plainly Jesus knew what the druid priestesses and Egyptian pharohs knew. It’s all contained in ancient Christian symbols, see: women have a chalice, while men have a blade. Get it? I knew you would.) If you haven’t gotten your Goddess stuff from New Age spirituality, than maybe you’ve gotten it from fantasy: Marion Zimmer Bradley is a guiding light here.
I’m a skeptic as far as the history goes, to say the least, but I recognize the attraction which this particular perspective on sexuality has for many. Not that it necessarily provides license to disregard all sexual mores and restrictions (though for many it may well do that), but that it makes sex cosmically significant. I’m not particularly sympathetic to those who criticize historical Christianity for making orthodox a disembodied, passion-less conception of God; I doubt the Christian tradition can be so easily reduced to a bunch of supposedly desiccated Greek and/or modern philosophical principles. Still, the fact remains that if one’s religious world isn’t a fundamentally embodied one, then what one does with the body (especially the fun, if sticky, stuff) isn’t likely to seem particularly important. And we humans want sex to be significant; or at least we feel like it ought to be. Because Brown–and the gnostics, and Marvin Gaye, and whomever else you want to throw on that pile–is right: the sexual act is, or at least can be, a healing act. Sexual intercourse, assuming at least a minimal familiarity with some basic elements of human physiology as well as a simple respect for one’s partner, is almost always going to be pleasurable; when experienced in a context of giving rather than taking, of loving rather than gratifying, it is something more, something which paradoxically relaxes relationships while also strengthening them. It is, in short, for most people, most of the time, simply great, and most everybody knows it, pious Christians included. Hence the popularity of heretical claims like Brown’s.
As Mormons, as believers in embodiment (even if we still struggle to understand what that means), presumably we don’t have all those theological hang-ups, and we can take sex seriously in a way other Christians cannot. Or at least that’s the idea. Certainly our popular literature is filled with examples of people attempting to emphasize how important and wonderful sex is without undermining the command to adhere to the scriptures’ relatively restrictive sexual teachings. The fact that certain LDS scholars have felt it necessary to actively “contextualize” the claims of The Da Vinci Code suggests, however, that the confusion and longing remains.
We can all tell funny or horrible (or funny and horrible) stories about how our Sunday School teachers attempted to warn us away from forbidden sexual activity without making us think that sex itself was something best transcended or avoided; my guess is that there’s a lot more erring toward the former side than the latter. Given the omnipresence of secular sexual messages in our media today, that’s not surprising. I suspect that what we have here is a pendulum that will always swing back and forth: you have to be fairly selective in your treatment of the historical record not to realize that instruction in the gospel had a somewhat more, shall we say, earthy character when it came to sex back in the days of pioneers and polygamy; then again, at least a few people reading this blog were young during the presidencies of David O. McKay and Harold B. Lee, both of whom suggested that they’d rather see their children in a coffin than unclean, and during whose time many conservative sexual preconceptions and preoccupations came to be commonplace among most American members of the church. The most perfect balance I know of between treating sexual sins with great seriously, while also treating sex as something worth treasuring in all its messy details, has to be Elder Holland’s superb sermon “Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments”. This has justly become famous (and hence oft-reprinted) in LDS circles, and Elder Holland has substantially repeated it on several occasions. Some might look at this sermon and see nothing more than the usal warnings about sexual sins, but honestly, it’s much more. Its power isn’t, in fact, so much in what Elder Holland says but in how he says it. I was present in the Marriott Center as a BYU freshman when he gave it for the first time, in one of his last firesides as university president. It was a powerful, intensely memorable experience. Rather than telling us in typically strained language what to kiss and what not to kiss, he spoke to us with the (correct) assumption in mind that not only did practically everyone within the sound of his voice desire and/or enjoy sex, but that we also understood its ins and outs (sorry!) pretty well. There were nervous, quiet giggles throughout the Marriott Center* as he fixed us with his kindly stare, his jowels slightly shaking, and read off such great lines as “I trust your maturity to understand that physiologically we are created as men and women to fit together….In this ultimate physical expression of one man and one woman they are as nearly and as literally ‘one’ as two separate physical bodies can ever be”–or, even better, “most people…as a rule do not run up to friends, put a loaded revolver to their heads…cavalierly pull the trigger…[and] when there is a click of the hammer rather than an explosion of lead…be so stupid as to sigh, ‘Oh, good. I didn’t go all the way.'” If I could give a sermon half that good before I die, I’d be a happy man. More to the point, if I can communicate anything like it to my children as they grow–that is, if we can teach, by Melissa’s and my example if not by our words, that sex is a healthy and healing and significant thing, making it all the more important to understand how it can be misused and go bad–I think we will have done our job well. I want my daughters to understand that Marvin Gaye wasn’t just making stuff up when he sang longingly about “sexual healing”: that’s the real truth there, girls. I just want them to understand it in the right way, in Elder Holland’s way. Between listening to Motown and reading the scriptures (and tossing Dan Brown in the trash), maybe we’ll be able to pull it off.
*Many of which emerged from my Deseret Towers roommate sitting two rows away from me: he’d brought a date, with whom he’d been rather skanky (by BYU freshman standards), to the fireside with him. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she waited for him while he was on his mission, and they married about two months after he came home. I doubt they were the only couple listening to President Holland who received his words with a feeling of spiritual as well as sexual intensity.