Thursday, September 11, 2008

Abstinence now and then

In Tom Perrotta's 2007 more-or-less comic novel, The Abstinence Teacher, an odd attraction develops between Ruth, a divorced feminist sex-ed teacher (who hasn't been with a man for two years), and Tim, a married evangelical ex-doper (whose wife attempts to interest him through techniques she is learning from Hot Christian Sex). At his pastor's recommendation, Tim and his wife are reading it together, and
"considering the somewhat puritanical character of the Tabernacle, the book turned out to be surprisingly racy. The authors, the Rev. Mark D. Finster and his wife, Barbara G. Finster, proclaimed the good news right in the Introduction: 'For a Christian married couple, sex is nothing less than a form of worship, a celebration of your love for one another and a glorification of the Heavenly Father who brought you together. So of course God wants you to have better sex! And He wants you to have more of it than you ever had before, in positions you probably didn’t even know existed, with stronger orgasms than you believed were possible!'"(113)
I read The Abstinence Teacher not long after reading Peter Brown's magisterial work, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. Mr Neff had recommended Brown last January when I wailed, "Why did so many Christians quickly switch from enjoyment and thanksgiving to abstemiousness and guilt?" Brown's 500+ densely packed pages, alas, did not produce the godly gourmands I had hoped to find, but over and over Brown reinforced how very different we are from our forebears.

The world depicted in The Abstinence Teacher is depressingly familiar. Marriages fail. Children rebel. Coworkers fight. Most people drink too much. Almost nobody abstains from sex, which is likely to be recreational, impulsive, or adulterous (if other people are involved at all). Marital sex is either sad (Tim can't stop lusting after his first wife) or silly (see Hot Christian Sex above). If, when you finish a book, you like to think that its characters are going to live happily ever after, this is not the book for you.

And yet The Abstinence Teacher is a sweet book whose flawed, wistful characters are looking for, and occasionally finding, love. Though religious people are teased, they are not ridiculed. A Jewish environmental lawyer with a "Don't Blame Me--I Voted for Kerry" sticker on his Audi says to Ruth, "You gotta give credit where credit's due. These Christians turn a lot of lives around. From what I hear, Tim was a complete wreck before he found Jesus."

Back in the first century--and the second, third, and fourth--Christians were already turning a lot of lives around. Christian conversion, Brown points out, meant moving from one mode of existence to another realm altogether. Unlike Tim, who gave up drugs and alcohol and one-night stands but hung on to music and soccer and marriage, early Christians believed that conversion meant passing from death into life.


While their neighbors avoided death by founding families and perpetuating their name from generation to generation, some Christians believed they had already entered the immortal realms and therefore had no need to marry and produce children. For these Christians, abstinence was a sign of their new life.

Other Christians believed that it was acceptable to marry and beget children, but only in one's youth--and even then, the sexual act should be completed without any accompanying passion (I don't recall that any explained how that was to be accomplished).

"By the year 300," Brown writes, "Christian asceticism, invariably associated with some form or other of perpetual sexual renunciation, was a well-established feature of most regions of the Christian world" (202).

Now that's abstinence.

What happened to cause such an attitude shift between the ancient Christian writers and Hot Christian Sex? Peter Brown doesn't say, but he strongly cautions against reading the church fathers as if they were writing to 21st-century readers. "In ancient societies," he writes,
"the body had to bear an oceanic weight of social expectations. These were very different from the expectations that weigh down upon it in our own world.... The humble body was never isolated, as it often appears to be in modern discourse--discreetly left to itself to decide whether to embrace or to abandon intercourse, whether to seek out or to avoid partners, whether of the opposite or the same sex. The body was pushed to the fore through having to bear the symbolic weight of mighty aspirations" (xlii, xliii).
There are no mighty aspirations in The Abstinence Teacher; there is no clear division between light and darkness, and very little intentional abstinence. There is, however, a great deal of isolation.

By contrast, abstinence is the ideal and goal of just about everyone quoted in The Body and Society--yet the would-be abstainers are far from isolated. Most live in families or monasteries, and even the desert hermits live in clusters of like-minded ascetics.

Tom Perrotta enjoys such dichotomies, but I'm still on my quest. I'm still looking for ancient Christians who valued marriage and community, sex and passion, children and animals, good food and wine, all things bright and beautiful. I may have to give up: the attitude I seek may be a result of the Renaissance, not the Roman Empire.

According to Dahlia Lithwick's review of Susan Squire's I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage, a noisy revolution in Christian sexual attitudes began in the late Middle Ages and
"achieved perfection in the miraculously happy marriage of a 42-year-old virgin named Martin Luther. Luther, a monk, had long railed against the evils of celibacy, believing that church doctrine had resulted in corruption and fornication. But he became his own best advertisement when he was dragged out of his monastic solitude by a 26-year-old runaway nun named Katherine von Bora. When his Katy bears and raises six children and four foster children, hauls them to the Holy Land on pilgrimage, tends his garden and makes his home-grown medicines, exterminates the mice in his barn and makes him wine and beer, all while playing hostess to a houseful of reverent disciples and acolytes, Luther is the happiest of spokesmen. And so, as part of his war on the corrupt church, he ushers in a new era of marriage, shunning celibacy and exalting companionship, procreation and fidelity. The 1,500-year-old idea of marriage as a necessary repository for the filth of human desire comes to an end. We will finally begin to marry for love. Some of us more than once."

I have put I Don't on hold at the public library, and I'm first in line to check it out. You can, however, order it from Amazon.

1 comment:

James Sutton said...

great article. I wrote something similar, which can be viewed at I also believe that marital sex is a form of worship to God that brings Him great pleasure. Positions, on the other hand, are limited because I believe God wants us to always see each others face.