The Pope and James Baldwin’s Joy of Love

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Two big things happened last Friday. There was the obvious one: Pope Francis released Amoris Laetitae, “the Joy of Love,” his exhortation on love, sex, marriage, and the family, and a follow-up to the two-year Synodal process he inaugurated in October of 2014. Maybe you missed the other one: Literary Hub announced that the near-unanimous winner of its “Tournament of Literary Sex Writing” was James Baldwin, for a passage from Giovanni’s Room.

Those might seem unrelated to you. But try reading the end of Baldwin’s passage next to the words of Pope Francis.

First, Baldwin:

I started to move and to make some kind of joke but Joey mumbled something and I put my head down to hear. Joey raised his head as I lowered mine and we kissed, as it were, by accident. Then, for the first time in my life, I was really aware of another person’s body, of another person’s smell. We had our arms around each other. It was like holding in my hand some rare, exhausted, nearly doomed bird which I had miraculously happened to find. I was very frightened; I am sure he was frightened too, and we shut our eyes. To remember it so clearly, so painfully tonight tells me that I have never for an instant truly forgotten it. I feel in myself now a faint, a dreadful stirring of what so overwhelmingly stirred in me then, great thirsty heat, and trembling, and tenderness so painful I thought my heart would burst. But out of this astounding, intolerable pain came joy; we gave each other joy that night. It seemed, then, that a lifetime would not be long enough for me to act with Joey the act of love.

Now Francis:

A healthy sexual desire, albeit closely joined to the pursuit of pleasure, always involves a sense of wonder, and for that very reason can humanize the impulses. In no way, then, can we consider the erotic dimension of love simply as a permissible evil or a burden to be tolerated for the good of the family. Rather, it must be seen as a gift from God that enriches the relationship of the spouses. As a passion sublimated by a love respectful of the dignity of the other, it becomes a ‘pure, unadulterated affirmation’ revealing the marvels of which the human heart is capable.

What’s more, Francis writes that sex is “a kind of spontaneity” in which “the human person becomes a gift,” an “interpersonal language wherein the other is taken seriously, in his or her sacred and inviolable dignity,” leading to the kind of joy that is “an expansion of the heart.”

Is there a better illustration of Francis’ vision than Baldwin’s words? For Baldwin, sex is filled with spontaneity, wonder, joy; it’s both spiritual and frankly physical, an occasion for humor and vulnerability. It calls us to something better, even if we usually fall short of that call. In short, it’s an encounter of the most human kind. Exactly as Francis describes it.

Of course, Baldwin’s narrator, David, is remembering an experience with his (male) friend Joey, while Pope Francis dutifully recites the Synod Fathers’ insistence that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plans for marriage and the family.” But Baldwin’s writing echoes the examples of so many of our LGBT friends and neighbors, and, in Amoris Laetitae, Francis tells us that the examples of our friends and neighbors—more than general rules—are what precisely what we should be paying attention to.

It’s pretty easy to see why William Saletan writes that when Catholic teaching on homosexuality collapses, even if that’s centuries from now, “the church will quote passages from ‘Amoris Laetitae’ and documents like it.” Next to examples like Baldwin’s, the Synod Fathers’ words are weak as straw.

If You Want To Understand Modern Sexual Ethics, You Have to Talk About Prostitution

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My latest post at the Ploughshares blog focuses on an encounter I had in a Havana taxi with a middle-aged European sex tourist and his jinetera, or bought girlfriend.

It’s a story I’ve thought about telling on this blog several times, because we talk about natural law a lot here. And, sitting in the backseat, watching that fat, fatuous, hairy-eared old man paw the girl next to him, and knowing they would soon be in bed together because he was paying to make it so, one word came to my mind: unnatural.

I think that reaction is pretty normal. When I tell the story to friends, their response usually starts with a shiver of disgust. I think it’s fair to say that prostitution is less socially acceptable today than it has been in the past. There’s evidence, for example, that men are much less likely to pay for sex now than they have been in the past, and Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner have argued that falling demand for bought sex has drastically reduced prostitutes’ earnings over the past century.

We see this in cultural expressions, too: today’s lit world is hardly the same as the one where “Norman Mailer told Updike he should get back in the whorehouse and stop worrying about his prose style.”

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If folks on the religious right are going to stick to the idea that the Sexual Revolution has reduced our sexual ethic to consent, they need to reckon with that shiver. Denny Burk, for example, just responded to Belinda Luscombe’s new Time piece on the dangers of porn by lamenting, “We are at a place in our culture in which sexual morality has been reduced to consent.” Further, he says, it has “delivered to us a generation of men who think of women as objects to be used and abused for their sexual pleasure.”

But the declining demand for prostitution suggests to me that, today, sexual morality has not been reduced to consent. When it involves adults, prostitution is consensual.

Further, the idea that this generation of men (more than previous generations!) thinks of women as objects for use and abuse is a truly bold and hard-to-defend claim. I’d say the reason visiting prostitutes has become less socially acceptable is because it’s harder and harder now to think of women as objects. I know that’s what got me in the colectivo: looking at the guy, I wondered, Why on earth would you have sex with a woman who’s only doing it for the money? Prostitution starts to become unthinkable when you care what the woman thinks.

IMG_0511In other words, when women have a voice in sexual matters, prostitution naturally tends to decline. The same could be said for other conservative freakout-bait, like incest and polygamy. While you may hear advocates for those things using the language of the Sexual Revolution, culturally, those things are less prevalent in modern societies than in traditional ones.

I don’t expect this to convince many on the right, who have invested so much in the narrative of moral decline that they can’t get their minds around any type of good news. If, for you, data showing teenagers are having less sex is a sign that we’re losing our cultural virility, then you can certainly see decreasing prostitution as a symptom of our porn-addled decadence. But I write it anyway, as a reminder that there is another vision of sexual ethics, and that there are other narratives to explain our world.

Plus, I’ll take any excuse to post photos from Cuba. Pico Iyer is right: it’s the easiest place in the world to take pictures.

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On What Our Ancestors Would Think

IMG_2627Anthony Esolen’s recent article at Crisis, “What Would Our Ancestors Think of Us?” is, well, classic Esolen. He starts by comparing modernity to an open sewer, then imagines a conversation between a modern time-traveller and his ancestors, who despair at the state of things in 2016. “How then shall we live?” Esolen imagines them asking.

In an off-key moment, Esolen notes that now “there are far more women in the workplace than ever before,” and that “we have cracked the back of public racism, so that there are no more segregated hotels or restaurants or schools or businesses.”

I assume Esolen includes these observations as concessions to things modernity has gotten right, though the part about women working might be intended as further indictment. There’s certainly no acknowledgment of the fact that these two (pretty important!) developments would shock and appall many of our ancestors.

If the time-traveler were to show his ancestors a photo of a black family in the White House, does Esolen imagine they would congratulate him? Or would their faces darken as one of them asks, again, “How then shall we live?”

And then there’s this:

There is a country road that straggles its way over a mountain nearby. Lovers go there and pull over at a lookout, where they listen to music and engage in what is called ‘necking.’ It never goes beyond that, because most of them are pretty good kids and understand that bearing children is for marriage, and so is the child-making thing. That understanding allows them to be there in the first place. Innocence – even such compromised and sometimes failing innocence as we possess in a healthy culture – makes for freedom. You will have to tell the audience that there is no necking anymore. You will tell them that, as a rule, it is either sex or nothing. For the worst or the weakest among us, then, there is danger and heartbreak and, eventually, the protective callus of nihilism, even the shedding of blood. For the purest among us, and the most responsible, there is loneliness.

Marvel at that, reader. Seriously, re-read it. Of all the Anthony Esolen paragraphs in the world, it may be the Anthony-Esolen-iest.

As with many of Esolen’s points, it’s mostly disconnected from the real world. In the real world, teenagers are less likely to have sex today than they have been at any point in the past twenty five years. And in the real world, plenty of teenagers were engaging in the ‘child-making thing’ at those lovers’ lanes in the 1950s, when teen pregnancy rates were much higher than they are today.

The problem isn’t just that Esolen is wrong–the problem is that Esolen writes like he doesn’t know a single real, live teenager. Teenagers today don’t ‘neck’? Being ‘pretty good’ means a life of loneliness? I’d love to walk Esolen around the school where I work–a school full of good kids–to see if he could maintain those assertions afterward. Just like I’d love for Patrick Deneen to meet my students and still try to say that they’re “perfectly hollowed vessels, receptive and obedient, without any real obligations or devotions.

But the thing is, Esolen does know real, live teenagers. He teaches at a university; he has a family. He just doesn’t know real, live teenagers. You get what I mean? His hatred for modernity completely blinds him to the world around him. Which frequently makes his writing, well, kind of silly.

Which is a shame because his question, What would our ancestors think of us?, is a crucial one. I’ve been listening to an audio version of Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar literary advice columns, on my drive home lately. Last week, I got to the devastating letter written by a man grasping for reasons to go on after losing his 22-year-old son to a drunk driver. “How then shall I live” is a good approximation of the question at the heart of that man’s letter.

Strayed uses her own mother’s death to connect to the man’s grief. “The kindest and most meaningful thing anyone ever says to me,” she says, “is ‘Your mother would be proud of you. Finding a way in my grief to become the woman who my mother raised me to be is the most important way I have honored my mother.”

You all know that in the past few years I’ve lost my mother and both grandmothers. I think about them often. Like Strayed, I think about how to be the person they and the generations before them raised me to be.

I think about my great-grandfather, too, whom I never met. Recently on Instagram I shared some letters he wrote, with doodles on the back, to my mom while he was touring Europe. I marvel at his voice, his humor, his knowledge of my mom and her interests. And I try to emulate that. Is my love for my daughter as clear to her as he made his love for my mom?

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So that question, What would my ancestors think of me?, stays at the front of my mind. It guides how I think, how I parent, how I teach.

But remember, Strayed is writing to a man whose life was centered in his kid. For him, she says, the goal is to “be the man [his son] didn’t get to be,” because “to be anything else dishonors him.” In other words, the influence can–it should go both ways. We can’t just ask: What would our ancestors think of us? We also have to ask: What will our children think?

When I make Esolen’s question personal, What would my ancestors think of me?, I don’t see a golden past uniting in a line of moral consensus that breaks down in my mom’s generation (or in mine). Instead, I see major disagreements between every generation. Not rancorous disagreements, but big ones, rifts that touch on the core values of race, religion, sex, gender roles, marriage. And I see that, in many of those disagreements, the elder generation was wrong. My mom’s outspoken opposition to racism upset some of her family’s very traditional southern understandings; my grandmother’s gender non-conformity (she was outdoorsy, tomboyish, independent, and raised my mom on her own) troubled my traditional and status-conscious great-grandmother.

To my ancestors’ credit, in many of those generational rifts, the elders recognized they needed to learn from their children. This happened not because they were weak but because they recognized themselves as fallible, and not because they didn’t care about their moral example but because they knew their moral example included the grace of admitting their errors. “He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own proves the width of my own,” said Whitman. “He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.”

 

Unsurprisingly, Esolen uses LGBT issues as the ultimate measure of how far we’ve fallen. Explain Caitlyn Jenner to your ancestors, he says. Explain gay marriage. The thing is, many of us have done just that. After my sister-in-law’s wedding, my grandmother saw pictures online. “I didn’t know [my sister-in-law] had met a man,” she said when she called. She didn’t, I told her. She married a woman. My grandmother paused, and then replied: “Well, I think that’s lovely.”

 

At Ploughshares: Ornette Coleman and the Color of Fort Worth

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My first piece for the Ploughshares blog is up now. It’s on the complicated relationship between jazz legend Ornette Coleman and his (and my) hometown, Fort Worth. I’ve been thinking about this one since Coleman died last summer, so I’m really glad to see it published. To summarize, I argue that what complicated Ornette’s relationship to the city was the race issue, and I suggest that his story can be seen as another example of James Baldwin’s experience of the “great shock” of watching cowboy movies as a kid, and facing the realization that “although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.”

And the timing is really interesting: just last week I was back in Fort Worth for my annual family trip to the Stock Show and Rodeo, the city’s tremendous, month-long cowboy extravaganza. Guess what greeted Stock Show visitors this year as they looked for parking along University Avenue?

A line of about a dozen old men waving Confederate flags. (Note: I didn’t get a picture of all of them. There were several more just out of view.)

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I hope to have more to say about this in a post or two soon. For now, I would really appreciate it if you’d visit my post at Ploughshares. And while you’re there, please check out all of the great writing on the blog!

 

 

Four Things for Mid-January: My Heroes Have Always Been Episcopalians

1. On Quotes and Tattoos

If this blog had arms, I would tattoo this quote from Michael Curry around its bicep:

“Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.”

For the other arm, I might go with this one from Jim Naughton: “We can’t repent what isn’t a sin.”

Those phrases came, of course, in response to the decision by the Anglican Primates Meeting to suspend the Episcopal Church from decision-making bodies for three years as a result of its support for LGBT rights, including marriage. That decision is disappointing, though, as the Reverend Mike Angell outlines here, it won’t change anything in the day-to-day life of the Episcopal Church. Nor will it result in the church being kicked out of the Anglican Communion, or anything like that.

2. The Episcopal “Consequence” and the Religious Right

The reaction to the vote by American conservatives is exactly why I’ve paused my conversations with the Religious Right. Here’s old favorite Dwight Longenecker, for example, with “Seven Ways the Episcopalians Will React to the Suspension.

What bothers me about that post?

The pointlessness of it all.

Before reading a word of response from the Episcopal Church, Longenecker decided we’d be wrong.  If we weren’t too prideful, we’d be too hurt. If we accepted the decision stoically, we’d be “false martyrs,” and if we argued against it, we’d be “counter-attacking” with ruthless rage. The guy who complains we’re wishy-washy Moralistic Therapeutic Deists was now predicting we’d be too defiant.

And I don’t even know what to do with this lovely “prediction”: “The African bishops will be portrayed as homophobic gay killers. They will be portrayed as ignorant jungle bunnies who ought to mind their own business. It will get racist and it will get ugly.”

Sigh.

To give you an idea of just how little Longenecker knows about the church to which he once belonged, here’s Prediction 7: “The Episcopal Church of the USA will leave the Anglican Communion and become just another one of the nearly 150 Anglican style breakaway churches.”

And here’s the end of Curry’s statement: “God is greater than anything. I love Jesus and I love the church. I am a Christian in the Anglican way. And like you, as we have said in this meeting, I am committed to ‘walking together’ with you as fellow Primates in the Anglican family.“

As Ruth Gledhill put it, that is “a genuine turning of the other cheek. He is not threatening to walk away, he is pledging his Church to walk together with all the Primates of the Anglican Communion.”

Does Longenecker see that? No. Or, if he does, he writes it off as “false martyrdom.”

See how it works? There’s literally no response that the Episcopal Church could offer that would satisfy writers like him. Apart, of course, from renouncing all of the theology and moral logic that has led it to its current position.

But, oh, yeah. Longenecker says that theology and moral logic don’t exist. See Prediction 1: “Their response will not be with reasoned argument, proof for same sex marriage from the Scriptures, the church fathers and the tradition of the church. This is not only because there is no such proof, but because they have abandoned the whole idea of objective truth long ago.”

Now, everyone knows that’s untrue. The Christian case for gay marriage has been elucidated over and over and over and over again, with reason and with reference to Scriptures and the tradition of the church. Even secular writers, like Damon Linker, and orthodox Catholics, like Marc Barnes and Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, get that the current push for gay rights unfolds from the basic precepts of Christianity.

If writers like Longenecker want to disagree with the logic that reaches the Episcopal Church’s progressive ends, fine. We can have a conversation. But if they want to pretend it doesn’t exist, if they just stick their fingers in their ears and say lalalalala… I can’t hear you, what’s the point of talking to someone like that?

3. What’s the Point of Talking to Someone Like That?

Sigh again. The point of talking to someone like that is that the example of my Presiding Bishop demands it. Seriously, how can I read Curry’s words and not feel a responsibility to stand with him in rebuke, and both forcefully with all the compassion I can muster, make and remake the arguments that folks like Longenecker want to pretend are not there?

Curry is a perfect example of why my heroes have always been Episcopalians.

4. A Pattern Language

On a different note, yesterday Rod Dreher pointed out this piece by architect Christopher Alexander. If you’re not familiar with Alexander’s classic book A Pattern Language, definitely check it out. One of my wife’s professors made her buy it in college, and it has been one of my favorite books on our shelf ever since.

Why do I like it so much? I don’t know. A Pattern Language is about, as Dreher puts it, “which architectural patterns produce buildings that please us.” It’s sort of a doorstop-thick Elements of Style for designers, full of bold-type commands like “Wherever paths run along the edge of buildings, build arcades, and use the arcades, above all, to connect up the buildings to one another, so that a person can walk from place to place under the cover of arcades.” Or, “Build waist-high shelves around at least a part of the main rooms where people work.”

I guess what I like about it is what Alexander identifies in this new essay: behind all of these “rules” and commandments is an idea that we can experience the divine in the physical. It’s a sense that Dreher calls sacramentalism, and it’s a notion that always enchants me, whether it comes from Andre Dubus writing about the sacredness of making sandwiches for your daughter or from Casey Cep writing about writing:

One way of understanding the sacraments, perhaps best articulated by liturgist Gordon Lathrop, is that simple things become central things. When Christians refer to the bath and the table, they refer not only to the specific sacraments of bathing and eating, but they point also to the sacramental character of every bath and every table. The setting apart of one table and one bath shows forth the splendor of all tables and all baths.

That setting apart is the calling of Christians but also the vocation of the writer. moreThe attentiveness of the writer is shown in how that writer lifts to the level of extraordinary the most ordinary of people, places, and things.