Sexual Healing

September 28, 2004 | 35 comments
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What is it? Well, it’s:

A) a wonderful, groovy (and, well, yes, “dirty,” but in a good way, if you know what I mean) soul tune by the late, great R&B and pop artist, Marvin Gaye;

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.

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35 Responses to Sexual Healing

  1. [...] their husband) that better marital communication can be the result. And I do believe, as Russell suggested previously, that sex can be about more than simply gratifying one’s ow [...]

  2. Ben S. on September 28, 2004 at 3:33 pm

    You can also get this in .mp3 (direct link) and various other formats from the great byu speeches site with tons of good stuff.

  3. danithew on September 28, 2004 at 4:12 pm

    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.

    That is true. Here’s mine:

    My ward used to have a night once a year where they’d invite the adolescents to come hear lessons and instructions directly regarding the topic of chastity. You’d hear practical instructions like “Never lie down with a girl” or “Don’t be alone with a person of the opposite sex in a car for an extended period of time, especially late at night.”

    I’ll never forget one of those evenings because my mother, being the great proseliter that she is, invited two of my non-Mormon friends to attend. They accepted — more out of curiosity I think than anything else (What will these Mormons say about sex?) I was so unbelievably self-conscious and embarassed, mainly because I had no idea what my friends were going to hear.

    On that particular evening, as part of the instruction, they split up people by age and gender. So a few of my non-Mormon friends and I were in a room with an older mature married male instructor who promptly told us that he was glad he had waited to have sex until after he was married because sex was really incredible. How incredible?

    He said (we were living in Westchester, NY) that if each of us could imagine playing for the New York Yankees (my friends and I were all New York Yankees fans) that we should imagine how awesome it would be to hit a home run in Yankee Stadium to win a game. He said we should imagine what that would feel like.

    Then he proceeded to tell us that having sex was even a greater and more sensational experience than if we were to play for the Yankees and hit that home run (how would he know?).

    At least one of my friends who was there became sexually active shortly after that … and I’ve always wondered to this day if this lesson at a ward “chastity night” had anything to do with it.

  4. Kaimi on September 28, 2004 at 4:12 pm

    Russell,

    I suspect that the comment silence so far stems from fear of embarrassment. Your post is beautifully written and expressed, and any comments, no matter how good, will almost certainly look pale by comparison.

    Either that, or everyone is busy guiltily hiding their copies of Da Vinci Code, which you’ve now made thoroughly uncool.

  5. Braden on September 28, 2004 at 4:29 pm

    Russell,
    I just want to say Bravo! I think this is a fantastic post. It seems to me that to counter the openness about sex in the world, we have to be equally open, though clearly reverent. I was blessed to grow up in a home where my parents had a wondeful relationship that included physical passion and we were taught that it was a good thing. One of my favorite treatments of this subject is a talk I read long ago by Elder Bruce Hafen and his wife Marie in which they said something to the effect of that we wait for sex not because it is bad but because it is good and employed the old analogy, which was then original, of saying to the youth that one could have a cookie today or a bakery tomorrow.

    I don’t have anything original to add, but I appreciate your post.

  6. William Morris on September 28, 2004 at 4:37 pm

    I will admit to some embarrassment over my ignorance of the whole “Mary Sue” thing. I like to consider myself on the leading (if not cutting) edge of pop culture memes, but somehow this one had escaped me — and I even read quite a bit of science fiction and fantasy (although I’ve avoided Marion Zimmer Bradley).

    Other than that — yeah, this: “Your post is beautifully written and expressed, and any comments, no matter how good, will almost certainly look pale by comparison.”

  7. don on September 28, 2004 at 4:46 pm

    Indiana Jones in Tweed is a great description of Langdon. The book is becoming a movie so the controversy will continue. The upside is the discussions it produces among our Christian friends. Just think how much fun it will be to tell them that Jesus really was married to Mary. (tongue in check)

  8. don on September 28, 2004 at 4:48 pm

    Oh, Russell one more thing…great post, you’re completely right.

  9. danithew on September 28, 2004 at 4:55 pm

    It’s probably not entirely a coincidence that you mention music, religion and sexuality all in one post. And Motown certainly played a critical role in merging American religious culture with American popular culture. How many of the greatest African-American musicians started out as great gospel singers? I’ve been planning to somehow get my mitts on the recordings of the Soul Stirrers so that I could hear what Sam Cooke was singing about before he turned to pop music. I have really come to love R&B music in recent years.

    I wonder if Mormon music or musicians would be allowed to play a significant role in helping us to deal better with complicated and sacred issues such as sexuality. Would it be possible to have a Mormon version of a Marvin Gaye, a talented musician with a fantastic voice who could sing a song like Sexual Healing? I think Mormon audiences would require something that is much more subtle than that. But a little innuendo and a respectful musical message for mature Mormon marrieds could be a very good thing. (Ouch, too much alliteration there)

    It seems that certain modes of art (or perhaps all of them) are designed to help break down the walls between the prohibitions and the allowances in the law to express the sacred and sexual simultaneously in a way that can’t often be accomplished over the pulpit. Poetry also can do this (I’m thinking of John Donne for some all of a sudden) but I’m fairly positive poetry does not have a huge contemporary audience as music does.

    Maybe we should ask John Hughs of KZion radio what’s available.

  10. Bryce I on September 28, 2004 at 5:10 pm

    Great post, Russell (although there’s rather too much to talk about, so I find myself strangely at a loss).

    Having read The Da Vinci Code, I will remark that I can’t fathom how it has managed to stay at the top of the bestseller lists for so long. I mean, it’s ok, but really now.

    There’s a 95% chance that I was at the standards night that danithew describes. I’d say 100%, but I have no memory of it. I guess that’s because I didn’t have any non-member friends with me.

    One problem with talking about sex to people who haven’t experienced it is that one invariably ends up with poor metaphors like hitting a home run at Yankee Stadium. It’s like having kids — you can’t possibly understand what it means until you have your own. I imagine pregnancy and childbirth are the same way.

    The problem, of course, is that it is possible to lose the ability to experience sexuality in its full blossom by improper practice of it (here I’m thinking of actions taken over a period of time, and not of singular instances of sexual sin) . If you can’t effectively communicate directly what the potential payoff of a mature, committed, spiritual sexual relationship with a spouse is like, then inevitably there will be some who do not understand what they’re missing out on, who choose a different path, and who experience sex as just sex, and who will therefore conclude that because they have “had sex” they know what sex is all about.

    My dad used to teach this as the principle of mutual exclusivity (in general terms — I’m applying it to the law of chastity specifically): You can either have the experience of abstaining from improper sexual activity before marriage (and presumably during marriage as well) or you can have the experience of not abstaining. While abstaining, the option to choose the other path is open, but once you choose to indulge, you can’t go back. The irreversibility is the problem that we face as teachers and parents.

    Now, this is a pretty simpllisitc view of the world, which does not allow for repentance, and I don’t mean to imply that if you make a mistake you”ve lost all chance at having a good sexual relationship. But the problem remains: how do you teach someone to delay gratification without being able to effectively communicate what the true value of the costs and rewards are?

  11. Rusty on September 28, 2004 at 5:31 pm

    Danithew,
    Your first comment reminded me of a youth and parents “chastity fireside” given by my bishop (someone close to both me and Russell). As he addressed the youth he blatently said, “you don’t want your son lifting up a girl’s shirt and fondling her bare breasts…” It sure woke a few people up. I thought it was entirely appropriate, as I knew a few of those young men the bishop was talking about. Before then the idea was that as long as it’s not sex it’s okay (becuase what the heck was petting anyway?).

    Russell,
    Wonderful post, although I’m still not ashamed to admit that I found the book a nice piece of entertainment.

  12. Russell Arben Fox on September 28, 2004 at 6:06 pm

    Thanks everyone for your compliments; you’re all very kind.

    Rusty: man, did you just give me a serious flashback. Of course, I heard that message (and many more) in a somewhat more intense and intimate setting than a fireside in the chapel.

    Generally speaking, I don’t believe that it hurts anyone to be less prudish in about how we talk about, how we praise, how we interview about, and how we contextualize sex. As an adult, I think back on those flimstrips and videos of my youth, and I’m struck how often the advice about listening to “good music” (for example) seemed to assume that your average young man or woman didn’t (and shouldn’t!) have any sexual desires on their mind before they foolishly allowed themselves to listen to that nasty beat. That’s ridiculous, of course. Sure, talking about, singing about, laughing about sex (and sexual desires, and sexual fears) can debase it, but it can also demistify it, make it normal, and consequently less of a confusing, possibly frightening, scandalously attractive option. I want my daughters to know that Melissa and I have a sexual relationship, and I don’t want them to be intimidated or embarrassed about what that entails. (I’m fortunate that the bishop we’re talking about also never thought it was inappropriate to let others know that his wife turned him on.) I think the ability to warn my daughters and guide them can only be strengthened by such openness.

    I’m not unaware of the power of outright fear, of course. We all know parents and church leaders whose whole approach to sexuality seems to consist of spreading horror stories about venereal disease, blindness, hairy palms, death in premature childbirth, and the scorching hot flames of hell. It probably works, to some extent. I’ve no illusion about the likelihood that playing Marvin Gaye in the home may lead to my children being more, shall we say, “easy going” in their language and actions than some Mormon parents may think appropriate. There may be some costs which come with that. But think I’d rather deal with those costs than those which come from a situation where, for example, a spouse or a child engaged to be married realizes that they can’t think of sex as anything other than a frightful and dubious chore.

  13. Ashleigh on September 28, 2004 at 6:23 pm

    I read the DaVinci Code, and I liked it. I’m a fan of fluff fiction and it was fun, that is usually enough for me. Plot flaws, yes. Lack of deep characterization, yes. Questionable history/philosophy/mathematics/you-name-it, yes. But it’s still a fun story, I don’t know why it has to be more. It’s fluff fiction for Pete’s sake. DB didn’t claim to be writing anything else.

    Personally, I think there is a bit of intellectual snobbery involved in dismissing popular media. Obviously TDC appeals to a large section of the population, and not everyone it appeals to is immoral, stupid, or intellectually lazy. I have a difficult, often boring-ish life, I like to jump into a book that feels exciting, smart, and maybe opens up a new way to look at the world. Something that doesn’t drain too much of my precious and much-strained brain power.

    It’s all very well that some people only read rarified weighty works of importance, but the rest of us like to relax a little. Horrors.

    Certainly if you try to hold TDC up to a rigid standard (Mormon Doctrine on Sex) it will be deeply flawed. But DB was not writing it to that standard, he may not even have been writing it to his own. He explored a moral possibility, and IMO an interesting (if untrue) possibility.

    But something so wildly popular might also be popular because it speaks to a need that people see in their own lives. Honestly I don’t remember the book that well, I read it like fluff fiction and didn’t think about it that much, but the things I do remember appealing to me were not it’s dealings with sex, but it’s dealing with women.

    It appealed to me because I have always felt a pain in my heart at the lack of women in religious thought and practice. In a way men often dismiss as unimportant, perhaps because they don’t understand it. The lack of women role models hurts, it hurts in the bible, in the BOM, in history, everywhere. As though we don’t matter, as though we don’t exist, as though we can be forgotten, that our concerns never mattered, our accomplishments didn’t mean anything. We are ignored. As a woman this hurts me to the very core.

    I think I matter, I think women matter, what women want, what women need, the things that women do, and find important. These things matter.

    This book appealed to me because it sought to put a reason to this ugly blankness, to show this female void as something other than God’s will. Sure his vision was flawed, not wholly unique, full of moral and intellectual holes, but still I appreciated the effort.

  14. Adam Greenwood on September 28, 2004 at 6:35 pm

    I’m not really sure there are that many people out there with strange hang-ups about sex because of their teenage years being preached chastity. But there are some, and I’m all for whatever helps other people not get into their predicament. If ‘openness’ is it, so be it.

    But–and here’s the point–openness has its dangers. They are twofold. First, as Br’er Fox acknowledges, the standards nights and all that do have a point. Just as what’s justice for the early bird isn’t justice for the worm, what’s good for those who are overly susceptible to Puritanism may be injustice to the other teenagers and young persons. Let’s not make the mistake of taking our own current happy and holy relationship to sex and forget that this is the end-result of a process of development. It may be unwise for the young to go from where they’re at to here in one gigantic step. Love takes time.

    Second, I don’t know that I want sex to be demystified and *normal*. Lots of the reasons for keeping sacred silence about the temple are, for me, reasons for keeping sacred silence about sex. I am afraid your low Protestantism is coming out again, Br’er Fox. I want a world where much goes unsaid.

  15. Aurochs and Angels on September 28, 2004 at 6:36 pm

    What a fine post, no less fine even for us non-Mormons. I’d like to read it as an elaboration on G.K. Chesterton’s line, “The first two facts which a healthy boy or girl feels about sex are these: first that it is beautiful and then that it is dangerous.” It seems we’re always at risk of letting the danger overshadow the beauty (or else the beauty, the danger).

    It’s probably no coincidence that Chesterton was Catholic. Reading T&S over the past year or so, I’ve continually been struck by how in certain ways — though certainly not all, probably not even most — the Mormon view of things fundamentally resembles the Catholic view, at least more than it resembles the Protestant. The importance of some notion of embodiment seems to be one of those.

    Yet I don’t know enough about Mormon theology to know precisely what the Mormon notion of embodiment is and what it entails. If anyone has recommended reading, I’m quite curious. Is the crucial starting point here the physical body of God the father (and of other, higher Gods)?

    In any case, it seems that some of the implications resemble the implications that Catholic thought derives from our belief in the Incarnation — God choosing to become a dying man in all his bloody physicality — and the Catholic sacraments: wine and bread become Christ’s true body and blood; ordinary water is a real conduit of God’s grace in baptism, and so on. Of course these aren’t Mormon ideas, and I’m not trying to gloss over serious radical differences, but they point toward the idea that physical things are good, bodies are good—which means, sex is good. It can be misused—Chesterton’s word “dangerous” is right—but abusus non tollit usum. This contrasts with the prominent strain of Protestant thought that tends toward an almost Gnostic or Platonic dualism in which the soul and spiritual things are good while bodies and physical things are dirty, degraded, bad.

    So despite starting from different premises, I found myself agreeing with almost your whole post. My only quibble, unsurprisingly, came when you wrote that Mormon theology lets you “take sex seriously in a way other Christians cannot.â€? I don’t mention it in the spirit of argument, for I’m just a guest here; but in the spirit of seeking wisdom wherever it appears, it’s worth noting that one of the central theological projects of the current Pope—back in the days when he was just Karol Wojtyla—was to develop a “theology of the body,” an explanation of what sex means and why it isn’t just a fun thing for people to do, like rollerblading or skee-ball. I don’t know how much of it is adaptable to Mormon ontology and anthropology.

  16. Adam Greenwood on September 28, 2004 at 6:57 pm

    You’re very gracious, A. and A. Come again.

    The theology of the body, how shall I say this, –it rocks. If I were a more sophisticated lector I would say it mostly rocks.

    You’re very right to draw the connection to the Incarnation. Mormonism is the incarnation on supplements. Christ has a body and God has a body. You and I have a body. Earth–nature–the universe, is in its own way, a body. All that stuff about higher Gods and what not doesn’t really come into play–that’s kinda ‘how many angels can dance on a pin’ for Mormons. But one of the real transformative experiences of Mormonism (which, incidentally, Catholics talking about the Incarnation have expressed better for us than we have) is when you look down at your gut and think, this is the stuff of which gods are made. This is the stuff of which God is made.

  17. Gilgamesh on September 28, 2004 at 7:33 pm

    A and A,

    The best quote I have in describing Mormon’s view of the body is that in the Doctrine and Covenants 88:15 where it is stated that “the spirit and the body are the soul of man.” We are not completed without the union of spirit and body. Taking this back to the sexuality issue – just as the soul is not complete without spirit and body, our godly nature is not complete without male and female (Moses 3:24) and the union is formed around sexuality.

  18. Russell Arben Fox on September 28, 2004 at 8:03 pm

    This is an interesting turn in the discussion: Catholicism, Protestantism, and sex. Let me make a few brief points.

    A&A, regarding my statement that Mormons can “take sex seriously in a way other Christians cannot”: I described that (I hope) as an “idea” which many Mormons affirm; I actually do not. Still, it is a fairly common claim, and (as I linked to) there is a lot of popular Mormon material which at least implicitly assumes that Mormons can or should have a “healthier” view of sexuality than other Christians, in part because of our theology, though also because of our notion of the resurrection, post-mortal family life, godhood as creation, etc. In any case, I only brought it up tangentially.

    Adam, “demistify” was probably the wrong word to use in my comment; after all, my original post used The Da Vinci Code as a hook exactly because I can understand the attraction of a religious perspective which grants sexuality some real “cosmic” significance. So no, it’s not that I want to rob sex of its “mystery,” if that means robbing it of its power; it’s that I think it’s better to understand sexual acts not as a fun and/or dangerous performance that we might choose to engage in, but as something which is a “normal” extension of our self. Since our selves are themselves holy (as Elder Holland put it, our selves have been “bought with a price”), then so must sex also be, in all its sticky, delightsome, “ordinary” details.

    As for your accusation of “low Protestantism”–I think this is actually the one area where I am most willing to leave my usual defense of Protestantism behind. I think you misunderstand (though perhaps I wasn’t very clear) “openness” to mean a leveling of explanations: i.e., “See, this is what sex means to me; what do you think?” That’s not what I have in mind at all. The Catholic tradition provides an important reference here. In my experience, Catholicism’s insistence on holding onto a sense of incarnation, of crafting a theology of the body as A&A point out, has forced them to “openly” talk about the complicated desires, needs and preferences which bodies experience in terms of accepted truths. When I’ve talked to Catholic monks about the choice of priestly celibacy, for example, I’ve come away with the sense that most of these folks know exactlywhat they’re missing out on, and what it’ll mean to them in the long, and why it’s worth it. In a sense, I think knowing all the ins and outs of sex (there I go again), and how they relate to the whole created person, can actually make it easier to appreciate why God, or the church, or one’s partner’s needs, or some priestly or military discipline, might make it necessary to abstain from sex, perhaps forever. It is, again as A&A points out, certain forms of Protestantism that have unfortunately perpetuated the sort of dualism which implies that we aren’t fundamentally sexual beings (which we are, as we are taught God is also), but rather sovereign selves who might choose sex. Thus sex becomes something out there, a threat or a scandalous delight or something we suffer from in going without. It’s none of those things. Sex is what we all want (at least some of the time); we sing about it, laugh about it, talk seriously about it, enjoy in it when we may, abstain when we ought to. Of course, that’s not a principle that’ll be able to get my daughters to understand any time soon. But between (Marvin Gaye’s) music and (Elder Holland’s) spoken word, we hope to make a good start.

  19. Davis Bell on September 28, 2004 at 9:06 pm

    I looove the term “Mary Sue.” I had the exact same impression as I read “TDC.” Dan Brown bugs me for a variety of reasons, but his Mary Sue-ness is cheif among them.

    Beyond that, interesting and well-written post. As a celibate single, I plead ignorance and abstain from commenting (among other things).

  20. maria on September 28, 2004 at 9:39 pm

    Ashleigh:

    Thanks for your comment. While I did find many aspects of TDC to be very annoying, I enjoyed (for a short moment) the theory of the suppression of the feminine divine (and its myriad underlying assumptions/implications). I share many of your frustations about lack of feminine role models in scripture, church manuals, etc. I’m not really sure where I should look for such role models.

    But this is digressing from the topic at hand….

  21. Julie in Austin on September 28, 2004 at 10:02 pm

    Ashleigh and maria–

    I’ve been home from teaching my Women in the Scriptures class for about an hour. Your comments make my heart heavy.

  22. Ashleigh on September 28, 2004 at 10:21 pm

    Julie,
    I know I was over-simple, we do have some examples. I wonder what your heart is heavy about? Does the female void bother you as well, or do you think I don’t give enough weight to the few female examples we do have?

    One hour of Women in the Scriptures is a wonderful thing. But how much does it weigh against the thousand upon thousands of hours of Men in Scriptures classes? Maybe I’m too girly, but the truth is I’m not as interested in boy stuff as I am in girl stuff. And most of the scriptures is flat out boy stuff.

  23. Julie in Austin on September 28, 2004 at 10:29 pm

    I don’t think there is a female void in the scriptures. Perhaps quantity, but not quality.

    I think there is a female void in the stories that we choose to use in our lessons, talks, etc. I will do all I can–from coming up with flannel boards of the daughters of Zelophedad for Family Home Evening to submitting proposals to teach women in the scriptures classes to using predominately female examples in talks/lessons that have nothing specific to do with female topics (such as, using Deborah and Hannah as examples of integrity)–and that will be enough.

  24. Jim F. on September 29, 2004 at 12:57 am

    Russell, I’ve come late to the choir, but let me join in the chorus: this is one of the best things to have appeared on Times and Seasons. Thanks.

  25. Keith on September 29, 2004 at 2:29 am

    Thanks for the post, Russell.

    I think one of the reasons Elder Holland’s address is so powerful (I was also there when he gave it and in its setting it was powerful and continues to be in its other forms) is that it puts sexual relations in context and demonstrates how both the context and the relations have a genuinely religious meaning–something more than dos and don’ts, something more than mere ethics or morality. Healing and wholeness (as Pat Holland pointed out) have a related etymology and the gospel is nothing if not for making whole and bringing about oneness. Elder Holland’s talk points to how, in a gospel life of integration and religious wholeness, sexual relations play out as something more than the lawful meeting of mutual pleasure seekers. He points to genuine lovers who can give themselves wholeheartedly because there is no impediment (of selfishness or fear or other kind), and who can love fully (love itself being a gift), having been sent on their way with God’s blessing.

  26. GAF on September 29, 2004 at 10:36 am

    I, too, am coming late to this discussion and this blog.

    Ashleigh, I identify so very closely with your comments about the lack of women role models in our religion. I have struggled with it so long and so hard. I wonder about the lack of female divine too. Where is there ANY word about that? Not just women in the scriptures, but what is woman’s role in the eternities? The priesthood is eternal, but RS is completely temporal. My questions and concerns are many, and cannot be laid out in a forum such as this, but I just wanted to say that I’ve never met anyone who admits to the same problems I have and has worded it so succinctly.

  27. Adam Greenwood on September 29, 2004 at 10:49 am

    Br’er Fox,
    I didn’t think that when you talked about ‘openness’ you meant ‘this is my sexuality. If that’s your sexuality, that’s cool too. Amen.’

    Perhaps an example would help clarify my objection to openness. I think I might feel the same way about having Marvin Gaye sing ‘sexual healing’ for my daughters as I would having him sing ‘washings and anointings.’

  28. danithew on September 29, 2004 at 11:01 am

    I think for many LDS people (men and women) there are many great women role models to choose from — but I’m talking about local and live role models. No doubt more needs to be said to publicize great LDS women.

    The scriptures don’t really change much unfortunately, so we have to dig quite a bit but there are fabulous female role models there. I gave a talk at church a few weeks ago (about being a stalwart citizen) and found myself commending the daughter of Pharoah who took care of Moses despite her father’s commands to kill Hebrew babies, Moses’s sister who overlooked the floating cradle to make sure all went well with her brother and Moses’s mother who was obviously eager to fulfill her nursing duties as a mother. It occurred to me that somehow as he grew up in Pharoah’s household, Moses came to understand and appreciate his Hebrew heritage and when he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, he identified with the slave rather than with the Egyptian taskmaster.

    The text does not come out and say this, but it’s obvious that this only could have happened because the women in Moses’s life played an active role in his growth and instruction. Some of these women are not named at all in the scriptural text. Moses is such a pivotal figure in scriptures, history and religion and it’s plain that extraordinary women played a fundamental role in directing him so that he became that great person. I know it’s a cliche to say that behind every great man is a great woman or a number of great women … but hey, it’s true.

    I use this example because it shows how sometimes to arrive at the female role models we have to fill in the gaps that we find in the scriptural narrative. It is frustrating that the scriptures are so male-dominated but with some dedicated analysis and thought we can flesh out many wonderful female role models. And obviously some are documented much more than others.

    The more that I think about it, the more I realize that the Hebrew Bible is chock-full of female personalities that we can study and learn from. One just has to look for them. The fun part is that these aren’t stereotypical saints on a pedestal or whores on a street corner either. The women of the Hebrew Bible are complicated personalities and independent thinkers with diverse motivations and interests — and the texts portray them as such.

    I’ve often liked to think of the scriptures as a history of dysfunctional families and their relationships with God. Maybe I should start thinking of the Hebrew Bible as a feminist handbook. It could be interesting if one looked at it as such in that light. I really do think there’s plenty of women role models to choose from there.

  29. Russell Arben Fox on September 29, 2004 at 11:10 am

    “I think I might feel the same way about having Marvin Gaye sing ’sexual healing’ for my daughters as I would having him sing ‘washings and anointings.’”

    Excellent example, Adam; it helps me understand your point much better. And yes, we do disagree then. While I wouldn’t allow my daughters (currently 8, 4, and 10 months) to listen to Marvin Gaye right now, I won’t have a problem with them doing so some years hence; while, by contrast, I’d never be comfortable with a “washings and anointings” song. So no, though I do appreciate the power and appropriateness of Elder’s Holland’s description of sex as “sacramental,” I don’t think it’s helpful to imagine intercourse as that kind of (secret) sacrament. Yes, the marriage bed may be holy, but I just don’t think it’s a temple.

  30. danithew on September 29, 2004 at 11:10 am

    Whoa, somehow I managed to enter a comment on the wrong thread. That is really stupid and I’m scratching my head to figure out how I managed to do that. :) Can someone please erase that comment and this one and I’ll go put it on the right thread?

  31. danithew on September 29, 2004 at 11:17 am

    Then again, I didn’t post that on the wrong thread. I was trying to figure out how I was writing about women in the scriptures when the post was about Marvin Gay’s Sexual Healing song. Then I really started to get paranoid and thought I had entered a comment at T&S that was meant for a BCC: post. Nope. I guess the comments just got around to another topic — the possibility that a void of women characters exists in the scriptures. So I was ok after all in posting that comment. All is well in Zion, except for my brain.

  32. Russell Arben Fox on September 29, 2004 at 11:26 am

    Danithew, I don’t think you put your comment in the wrong place; Ashleigh, GAF and Julie have brought up the issue of female role models and feminine spirituality here.

    One thing I didn’t get into in my post is the degree to which certain marginal elements Mormon theology–marginal in the sense that they are discussed on the margins, not the sense that they are unimportant–also seem to suggest plausible match-ups with The Da Vinci Code. There’s Mother in Heaven, of course, then the persistent rumors that Elder So-and-So of the Seventy once spoke about Jesus’s wife at the MTC, plus the whole matter of the eternities being a time of everlasting procreation, FARMS-level ruminations about Asherah and the lost “feminine” principle in ancient Judaism, speculations about the gender of the Holy Ghost, etc., etc. I can’t really speak to any of this stuff because, frankly, it doesn’t interest me much, I haven’t studied any of these issues, and I think most of them slip easily into a sloppy kind of gnosticism anyway. Still, to the extent that many women feel (often rightly) that their experiences, talents and perspectives are being marginalized at church and in their religious life, then a book like Brown’s, which claims that the “divine feminine” is both a real principle and has been actively suppressed, will probably have a lot of appeal to many. Melissa has found that quite a few of her friends were really entertained by the book. (Some claim to have been enlightened by it as well, though I’d question that.) Insofar as the general complaint goes though, I’m a lot more sympathetic to Julie’s apparent approach–namely, working to recognize the sexuality, and the femininity, inherent to the scriptural record and the revelations themselves–than one which urges us to discover some long-ignored secret.

  33. Ashleigh on September 29, 2004 at 4:28 pm

    RAF wrote: ” I’m a lot more sympathetic to Julie’s apparent approach–namely, working to recognize the sexuality, and the femininity, inherent to the scriptural record and the revelations themselves–than one which urges us to discover some long-ignored secret.”

    I never meant to say that I disagree with this approach. I think, at the moment, it’s the best we have. I only meant to point out (as you just did) why so many people may find DB’s ideas about the female divine so appealing. And it is just fiction, I’m really not sure why people have such strong reactions to it. Perhaps someone can explain.

    I do deeply appreciate attempts like dan’s and julie’s to uncover and highlight our female scriptures, it’s an important task. But call me a pessimist, it still doesn’t do all that much to fill the void, it feels like a band-aid on a couple of missing legs, maybe the arms too. The message still is that women are un-named, behind the scenes, and at-best minor support players. I don’t think any of us really believe this message. We all believe that the female role is a divine, important, fundemental, equally important role. I hear this, I believe it, but so little of what we do, how we teach and preach supports this belief.

    And one wonders why.

  34. greenfrog on September 29, 2004 at 5:04 pm

    And it is just fiction, I’m really not sure why people have such strong reactions to it. Perhaps someone can explain.

    I suspect that for at least some of the people moved by TDaVC, the change results from considering ideas that their prior world views had never incorporated — like the concept of a divine aspect to femininity or the idea of a married Jesus. Those are pretty revolutionary concepts for lots of those who might have assumed previously that the four Gospels are the definitive accounts of Jesus’ life, and if it isn’t in one of the four, it didn’t happen.

    Of course, there is also, for the art lovers, the notion that DaVinci might have been doing more than just drawing what he was paid to draw. There is, after all, an extra arm in the painting of the Last Supper. It provided a fun springboard for the speculative notions of TDaVC, though I think that it was a pretty poorly executed story.

  35. Rosalynde Welch on September 29, 2004 at 10:07 pm

    Is it merely coincidence that all the paeans to great sex have been written by men? Perhaps, since there seem to be more male than femal participants here. Still, though, I think there may be a slightly wishful idealization of sex in the original post. For women, even given a wonderfully sensitive partner, there can be long periods of time when sex is not so great–during pregnancy, after childbirth, during breastfeeding for some. Sex is indeed an intense physical union, as Elder Holland suggests, but I’m not sure it’s always a wholly symmetrical experience for the partners, which would seem necessary for the kind of consummate and surpassing utopia of mutuality that has been described. It can be, of course, and since some of you here know me, I hasten to add that my bed is a happy one! Still, I wonder whether for most women sex is the ultimate expression of godly union.

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