Hookers for Jesus; or, Fundamentalists on Valentine’s Day

Well…didn’t Jesus hang around with tax collectors and prostitutes? Former sex worker Annie Lobert is promoting her new book, Fallen: Out of the Sex Industry and into the Arms of the Savior. She told The Christian Post recently that romance—real romance—should start and end with the love of Jesus Christ. It prompts us to ask a central but awkward question: Are evangelicals really all that different from the rest of us when it comes to love and sex?

To those of us outside the circle of evangelical Christianity, this sort of religion-ized sexual tell-all can seem like a cheap way for sexually repressed evangelicals to get their jollies. Time and again, as an outsider observing conservative religious culture, conservatives’ attitudes seem like nothing so much as a “health” lecture at a strict Midwestern high school in 1953.

But is that fair?

The pages of evangelical magazines exploded recently with comments about Fifty Shades of Grey. Evangelical women were scolded for reading the book, which one writer condemned as “a written form of pornography, plain and simple.” Other conservatives offer visions of what real Christian romance is, what Fifty Shades of Grace might look like.

To me, such huffing and puffing sounds downright embarrassing. Are conservative Christians really still so flustered over sex that Fifty Shades of Grey can cause such hand-wringing? But then I remember that silly flouncing over FSoG is not at all limited to evangelical culture. Americans as a whole seem to share the desire to half-condemn and half-giggle at the goings-on between the covers of FSoG.

Certainly, non-evangelical writers have also condemned the cartoonish sex and romance of the FSoG movie. And who can forget Saturday Night Live’s funny-because-it’s-true parody of Americans’ goofy obsession with the book?

In my current research, too, I’m struggling to figure out how much fundamentalist sexual angst is different from the sexual angst of mainstream culture, and how much it is largely the same. The archival record at evangelical colleges and universities is full of real anguish over questions of proper courtship and sexuality.

You’ll have to wait for the book to read the full stories, but from one college I find a 1950s story of a gay divinity student who faked his own death to escape from the condemnation he felt as a gay fundamentalist. Faked his own death. And escaped to a new life in Texas. From the 1940s, I read a bittersweet diary of a college student who agonized over her choice of future spouses. She did not feel much attraction for one potential mate, but as she wrote to her mother, a campus speaker turned her around. This speaker told of what true Christian romance should feel like. In this speaker’s case, God

showed him that God’s intent is for the man to be a special means of communicating his love to the woman, and vice versa. It is like the offerings of honey and frankincense. The honey is natural sweetness, and is never to be burned. It stinks. It cannot stand the test of fire. But frankincense smells sweeter the hotter the fire. So the natural love and the divine. His natural love for Irene ebbed and flowed, rising and falling with the state of his soul. But God’s love, in Christ, through Bill, to Irene, was constant—a thing of divine origin and purpose, pure and living. What a revelation!

For this young woman in the 1940s, the fact that she did not feel much actual attraction for her future husband became swathed in layer after layer of indecipherable religious enthusiasm.

To me, that seems awfully odd. As does faking one’s own death and secretly absconding to Texas. But I ask myself: in the 1940s and 1950s, how different were these fundamentalist feelings about sex and courtship from those prevalent in non-fundamentalist America?

Certainly, in the 1950s, almost no one felt comfortable living openly as a homosexual. In the 1940s, the romantic experiences of young heterosexual couples on secular college campuses reeked of unhealthy layers of this or that cultural imperative.

And now, conservative evangelicals fuss and fume about proper sex and relationships.  But so do the rest of us.

To put it bluntly, the question is not: How sexually messed-up are evangelical Christians? Rather, the question is: Are evangelical Christians notably MORE sexually messed up than the rest of us?

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4 Comments

  1. FSoG actually seems to have picked up a good deal of moral condemnation from people who are not religious at all. It is even criticized as a dark rape fantasy that valorizes abuse and criminal acts by people who identify themselves as true BDSM experts and practitioners.

    On your closing question, I think you might be able to generalize accurately that starting in the 20th century conservative religious Americans have often been a generation or two behind the rest on sexual literacy and mores, which they well know and prize to a considerable extent. This may however be coming to an end, due to the internet.

    The millenials’ parents and grandparents lived most of their lives in a nation where homosexuality was implicitly and officially a disorder, and sodomy (meaning very precisely anal *and* oral sex) was a crime committed by homosexuals and other deviants. World War II started to change this, the porn industry accelerated that change, and online porn put the pedal to the floor.

    Reply
  2. Amy K

     /  February 20, 2015

    I’ve always been anti 50 shades for many reasons but what troubled me was that – no matter how difficult, no matter how out of our comfort zone it is – I somehow realised that the Christian response to it couldn’t be to just ignore it or simply dismiss it as porn.
    I think Jesus would have gone head to head with it – as He had that knack of doing in all difficult situations – and engage with it on some level that glorified God’s love over the ‘love’ portrayed in the series. I had no idea how to do this though and I like that Christian blogs and writers have tried to do so. The problem was always that – non believers – had no interest in this standpoint and I didn’t have the skill to get over that wall.
    I tweeted a lot about my opposition to it and someone sent me a link to a Christian fiction response that takes the original format of the book and then ‘mirrors’ it with a story about God’s love taking in concepts like ‘doulos’ and salvation along the way. I’ve given it to some friends – the same ones that had no interest in Christian blog posts – and they’ve really been engaged and informed by it and have gone on to engage in real talks about faith underpinned by it. One is (tentatively) attending church. I think it works by simply being a good fiction read in it’s own right but by maintaining a definate focus on God’s awesome love. It certainly doesn’t duck issues like sin etc
    For me that underpins that the key in the debate is – not to preach to one another about it – but to use it as a chance to outreach. The link – should anyone be interested is
    amzn.to/1Ac2x9c

    Reply
    • I doubt it is effective outreach of any kind. 50 Shades is low-quality fiction and film, with both panned by critics. Fumbling with a “taboo” subject and stirring up a very low-brow, unimportant “controversy” is the only marketing trick they have. Dignifying junk with your attention is not being engaging or relevant to anything enduring or worthwhile. Rewriting 50 Shades, Harry Potter, etc. with Evangelical characters and messages definitely does not reach anyone else except those who enjoy it as farce. The only perceptive, meaningful criticism of 50 Shades that I’ve seen is Chris Hedges’ “Pornography is what the end of the world looks like” and this article comparing 50 Shades with its Evangelical “rival” film, “Old Fashioned,” which is evidently just as misogynistic at its core as 50 Shades: http://inallthings.org/50-shades-of-grey-or-clay/

      Reply

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