Now, let’s go find the question.
The History Channel is amazing. You know this. I know this. I’ve got about a thousand reasons why I like the History Channel, but the central one is quite simple: Being told a story is always better than being sold a story. I’d rather enjoy a bird’s eye view of the Battle of the Bulge along with supporting documents and pictures than hear Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton shill a particular narrative about what makes America, America. Or, ‘Merica, for that matter.
We ultimately love the History Channel because history itself intrigues us on a variety of levels. The witness of the past is full of heroes and heroines, villains, strategies, conquests, and unforeseen consequences. When you have a moment of uncommon clarity (usually with a cheeseburger in your hand), you may arrive at the familiar philosophical question: Why are things the way they are?
Often, the why’s of a particular historical event result from a long line of preceding causes, like those days before the Internet when a boy could be entertained by building long snakes of upright dominoes through three different rooms in the house. All it takes is the first domino to fall and the rest is … well, history.
In the past, the Christian Church (for better or worse) was a central player in this chain of causes and effects. Its hegemony penetrated all areas of cultural life, from art to politics to community relations. Cathedrals were built on the highest ground of the settlement to not only figuratively point people ‘upward’ toward God and the heavens but to also remind the town of the Church’s absolute authority in all matters, sacred and secular. It seemed like every other domino had a cross scribbled on it.
Now, the Church largely chases a culture that has passed it by, like a dachshund nipping at the heels of an Audi. Wholly reactionary, hopelessly behind. Often relying on confessional texts that the world knows not, the Church’s declaration is meant to be the end-all of discussions related to the matter.
Will this be the way the Church operates into the future, when the pace of technology outpaces any attempt to distribute a position paper that was probably written 15 years ago about a topic that is only tangential to the current issue under discussion?
The Christian Church has the opportunity to confront the future by being in the vanguard, not by being left in the van. With that in mind, I propose a set of simple pragmatic principles that the local parish can do to be ready for the host of issues that will come in the next 20 years. Parishes that implement these practices/values will be better situated to form parishioners who speak intelligently and biblically to the coming age of digital/robotic sex. Hey Church! Let’s:
- Dig below the surface to ascertain the deeper need. This requires something that the Church is not particularly good at: Listening. Every time that the Church pauses to hear the cry of the person, the Church can hear the particular needs that Jesus alone can address. Christians can lead the movement from ‘talking at’ to ‘talking with.’
- Lift up the unique creaturely status of being human. With this comes a simple confession of who we are as the people of God. That is, we are people under authority. We are not unbounded, but submit to the claims that God has on us. Proclaim this to your sons and daughters. Proclaim it from the pulpit and barstool.
- Open your homes to embodied relationships. Food. Neighborhood. Children. Once the castle gates are lowered, Christians can embrace the shared responsibility they have that comes as a part of the baptismal promise. In my tradition, when a child is baptized the community says together, ‘We welcome you to the Lord’s family. We receive you as a fellow member of the body of Christ, a child of the same heavenly Father, to work with us in his kingdom.’ A shared responsibility, a shared creatureliness under the Creator. How is this supposed to manifest itself when we spend more time installing deadbolts into our doors than we do opening them in hospitality?
- Preach the sacraments. Preach the Incarnation. I suppose I could just say, ‘Do church.’ But note the emphasis. The sacraments are the means of grace, located in the material elements. Jesus, the Incarnation himself, is flesh and bones. Embodied throughout. Just like our witness, as outlined in 2 Cor 4: ‘We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.’
The Church can and must confront a landscape that they know relatively little about (at least, right now). Sure, they have plenty to offer on sexual ethics … but that conversation is happening at the level of the elites, not translating well to the troops on the ground. The average parishioner has other things to occupy their minds than downloading the next treatise from the Vatican or some divinity school theologian. But the above emphases can serve as an ongoing litmus test that lifts up the embodied life of the believer over and against those forms of communion (even sexual communion) that deny the fundamental binding of physicality to human identity.
The responsibility rests on all of us. Pastors, educators, everyone. The good news is that sexuality continues to be a topic in which every single one of us is interested. The other good news is that addressing the malaise of the digital revolution in sex does not necessary require reading a 450-page tome, written in something that sounds like English but is impossible to decipher. People just need to talk. To have a simple conversation. Shoot, chat over a meal so you can take a bite if you don’t know exactly what to say!
Try talking to your neighbors, classmates, friends, family about the changing nature of our world. Ask simple questions like, ‘What do you think our attitudes about sex will be like in the future?’ ‘How do you think technology will inform the topic of sex as our children look for answers a few years from now?’ I can’t guarantee success or enthusiastic participation every time, but I imagine that, more often than not, your conversation partner will think about and plunge into the conversation with vigor.
“Being told a story is always better than being sold a story.“
The future state of sex in our culture is a messy swamp; strangely beautiful in some places but largely dangerous for long-term habitation. The effects of exchanging embodied relationships with digital/robotic forms of sexual behavior is malarial, make no mistake. The Church has the opportunity to enter into this terrain, however, before sickness takes hold. Rather than chase after the cultural shifts with cries of ‘OUR DENOMINATION’S POSITION IS ______! OUR DENOMINATION’S POSITION IS ______!’ – perhaps we can ask first, talk second, and articulate a biblical view of the world that is both winsome and full of conviction.
When early explorers were given the unenviable task of clearing out swamps, they found that planting specific types of trees would with time dry the marsh and leave habitable land behind. For example, in Israel, one can find all sorts of eucalyptus trees hanging around, even though their native land is several thousand miles away. Every grove of flourishing eucalyptus trees in the land of Jesus is a natural gravestone for the muck that once made its home there.
If the cultural malaise is a swamp, then consider Christians as trees. The Christian lays down deep roots to grow and flower in a world that only seems to offer mosquitoes. They, by virtue of their vocation as engaged, forgiving children of God, attract the hurting and lost of the world and offer an alternative … specifically, a life of grace and truth, oriented toward the Author of both.
So now, finally, here is the question: How do you make a (cultural) swamp a beautiful place for human flourishing?
© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.