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Theology of Erotica: Let’s Be Real

So, I was talking with two out of the four other members of my CREDO small group today, and it dawned on me that a lot of the questions that my dear friend Cristopher was posing were the best sort of questions: loving, hard, no-nonsense and very, very real.  And when I asked him, “Cristopher, what are you thinking about all of this?” I knew what I was asking.  I was asking the man who does not like to be pigeon holed into boxes like ‘conservative christian’ or ‘liberal theologian’ but who can fly under just about anybody’s radar and bridge into everybody’s camp, I was asking him what he thought of the discussion that Jennifer had been so vocally supportive during our Skype conference call, and in which he had been largely (entirely?) silent.

The conversation… well, yes.  You’d want to know that, of course.  It’s the whole, ‘I’m a priest, and I write erotica,’ conversation, which was the first time they’d heard it.  Hilary hasn’t at all yet (poor Hilary – we’ll catch you up soon), and Greg’s already read some of the Magnum Opus that is The Day The Earth Stood Still, in which I, after the fashion of every fanfic writer in twidom, right the wrongs of Ms. Stephenie Meyer.  But anyway.  So, I suppose you could say that I came out to another group of clergy colleagues.  And you know, I’m a priest and I want to publish a whole host of things;  Theology, Liturgical Studies, Romance, Biographies, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Children’s books, and yes, Erotica.  But you know, it looks like the erotica is going to get published first.  Maybe.  Possibly.  Who knows, really, but it’s likely.  And then comes the question of integrity: do I use a pen name, or do I publish under my own name?  Do I tell the publishing house that I am, in fact, an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church, canonically resident in the Diocese of Western New York?  My integrity is really clear about what I need to do.  The only question is, am I couragous enough to do it?

And yes, all seven or eight thousand people who have read/are reading The Day The Earth Stood Still are all very aware that I’m a priest, and many of them have written to me and given me more feedback, better feedback, feedback that reflects a deep touch on their life, feedback that reflects a changing perspective on the world that I helped to shape… than I get on my sermons.  It’s clear to me that I already have touched way more lives in a positive manner through this one story than through five years of ordained ministry in the Diocese of Western New York.  And the people whose lives I’m touching?  I don’t have statistics, but I know from the little feedback I’ve gotten (perhaps 8k people have read the story, perhaps more, but on 35+ chapters I’ve only 3500 reviews, so that’s actually a rather small portion we’re dealing with… but I love it – make no mistake, I love it) …from the feedback I’ve gotten, I know that the lives I touch aren’t just people who go to church.  I get feedback from a lot of people who are totally unchurched, church alums, or who bear the scars of their touches with Christianity.  I get to deeply touch the lives of the very people that my church wants to evangelize, at least in theory and on paper.  If we (the Episcopal Church) really wanted to do it, one imagines we would be, all of us, en masse.  Since that isn’t happening en masse, I can only imagine that we’re lying to ourselves… but that is another blogpost for another day.

So, this is the first in my Theology of Erotica series.  Some of you may hear things you’ve heard before.  Really, I’m just trying to engage with these questions in a way that seems to have integrity for me, which also means doing it in the public/semi-public sphere of my blog where all y’all get to weigh in, give your opinion, and ask more questions if you feel so moved.   And today I will be discussing… “Why Erotica?”

I suppose this is the overarching question, really, and I suppose that all of the parts in this series could, in theory, answer this question.  Maybe that won’t be the case, but either way, it seems like this is the place to begin the conversation.

I’ve said earlier that there are lots of things I want to write.  I want to write a biography of my friend, the exorcist from Kansas.  Trust me, she’s only just thirty and it would be a freaking stunning book.  I can only imagine what it will be when she finally lets me actually write it.  Freaking phenomenal is what it will be.  I want to write in collaboration with one of my diocesan colleagues a book on liturgy – ancient, and contemporary/non-traditional that can be used as an idea book for established parishes and emergent churches alike.  (Though honestly, I get it; emergent churches probably don’t need it, bless them.)  I’ve got half written in my head a children’s book that stars my alpha cat, Zuko as cat detective on the case of a rubber ducky stealing squirrel named Jack the Nut.  I want to actually write on the theology of sex and the theology of erotica and the way we are in relation to one another and how we are in relationship with one another… the basis of which I might be preaching next Sunday.  (See Jack Sparrow.)  I write romance all the time, and I look forward to writing something that is publishable.  Ditto sci-fi/fantasy, and for the same reasons as romance – I think it’s a window for how we see and experience God, but more on that in another blogpost, I think.  I want to write novels that just go into that generalized ‘fiction’ section of Barnes and Noble, and of course I want to continue writing fanfic, which I will henceforth refer to as ‘my non-profit work.’  And… and I want to write erotica.  Hah.  I say that like I’m not already doing it. :)  We all know I am.

So, okay. Simplest answer to the ‘why erotica?’ question is: Let’s be real.  This is a harder task than you might imagine.

Let’s be real: What are the two things that can give movies a higher rating?  Sex and violence.  I think that is a good summary about what our culture understands as taboo, sensitive, delicate, unseemly, and inappropriate for those lacking maturity – meaning, in the strictest of senses, requiring a certain level of emotional and intellectual maturity to handle gracefully, responsibly, and respectfully.  Now, we can debate the fact that I know 60 year olds who aren’t actually mature human beings, and I mean that in every honest sense of the phrase, but let’s table the ‘what makes someone mature’ discussion for a moment.  Another blogpost, I promise.  But back to sex and violence, let’s focus it in even more.  What can get a move kicked up to a higher rating, faster?  It isn’t the violence, baby, it’s the sex.  The one notable exception to this is violent speech – violent speech, both blasphemy and obscenity can kick up a film into a higher rating, but two of the three most taboo words in the English language at this point in time are actually related to sex.  To be explicit: fuck and cunt.  Nigger is the other.  So, we can kill each other on screen, we can torture one another on screen, we can watch unfolding before our eyes our worst nightmare of horror and violence, we can see scenes of realistic horrific violence and it’s rated R… or we can see scenes of violence that is simply shocking and it’s only rated PG-13, but we cannot see two naked bodies graphically engaging in a scene of sex without an X, or NC-17 rating?

Let’s be real: Am I the only person here who thinks that our priorities are hugely skewed?  We can, as individuals, make decisions of conscience not to watch violent movies or TV, and that’s fine, no one bothers us about that, and we can and do hear cries of ‘TV is too violent for our children!’  And we can choose to turn the TV off, and no one will come into our homes and turn it back on again.  That’s all well and good, but what I don’t see (perhaps because I am not looking, I’ll grant you that) is a cry to change the way we rate our movies, our television – why?  Because it adequately reflects how our culture actually views the relative ‘badness’ of violence and the relative ‘badness’ of sex.

Let’s be real: As a priest, I suppose most might suspect that I would take a naturally non-sex view on life.  An anti-sex view, if you will.  Quite the opposite.  I choose to take a non-violent view on life, mostly because there was a time where I embraced the violence and I didn’t like who I turned out to be.  Instead I choose a yay-sex view, which is not quite pro-sex, but more like being a cheerleader for the concept that sex is actually neutral.  Certainly I don’t embrace the view that sex is in any way evil, immoral, or bad.

Let’s be real: I absolutely acknowledge that people abuse power, exploit others, cause harm and use sex to do it.  They also do it with food, but you don’t find me villainizing food.  Food is inherently neutral.  We require it to live, but we can also abuse our bodies by consuming too much of it, we can self-medicate with it and live in denial of our deep suffering, we can abuse our power over others by refusing them reasonable access to it (see concepts like urban nutritional desert), we can plow under crops ready to be harvested because it’s cheaper to do so and in some cases our farmers can’t actually afford to harvest while people on another continent starve.  We require low paid and under paid and often illegal migrant workers to harvest our crops because our own citizens refuse to even take such jobs.  We abuse power, exploit others, and cause harm to ourselves and others, all through food, but no one is calling food evil.

Let’s be real: Neither is sex evil.  And if sex isn’t evil why can’t we talk about it without all the hoopla?  Why indeed… because many still understand sex to be… dirty, nasty, low, common, evil, bad, disgusting, wrong, improper, unmentionable, impolite…  Many Christians functionally understand sex to be a sin if performed outside of marriage and some Christians understand sex to be a sin if performed outside of marriage and the intention to procreate.  I won’t even begin to bring up other religions.  We’ve all got hangups about sex.  But the thing is, even outside of these two types of Christians, this understanding that is held by a portion of Christians (please note, not all) has utterly pervaded mainstream American culture.  Meaning: Even if we don’t at all or in any way identify as a Christian, or the sort of Christian who thinks sex outside of marriage is a sin and there’s a handbasket headed to hell with your name on it, we still have this sometimes unconscious association of sex with all that is dirty, nasty, low, common, evil, bad, disgusting, wrong, improper, unmentionable, and impolite.

Let’s be real: You might be surprised at how many writers of erotica that I have seen write in ways that make it clear this is how they, too, understand sex.  Perhaps we’ve all bought into the self-hate to a certain degree.  Perhaps not.  I will admit that I did, before I started to intentionally discern whether or not sex was evil, an assumption that I absorbed from my own family and religious upbringing.  (Why yes, I did start out this world as a conservative christian.  See?  Personal growth is possible.)

Let’s be real: It is my view that we seriously need to heal our understandings of sex.  How do we heal our understandings of sex?  Well, first of all, seriously now people, we need to talk about it.  And while it’s true that I, like many of my clergy colleagues, can talk extemporaneously on any subject, at length, and in a reasoned, intelligent, and reverent manner at the drop of a hat (and in fact, that’s part of the GOEs we have to take), I’m much more of a storyteller, so watch me tell stories about how sex isn’t evil…

Oh wait.  We have a word for that.  Erotica.

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