March 9, 2015 / Praxis
On geography, state fairs, and deep-fried nostalgia.
November 25, 2013
I was fourteen or fifteen. She was about the same age, a friend from a local Christian youth organization. After long and oblique flirtation, I finally got up the gumption to confess my attraction to her, in the form of a rhyming Valentine’s Day poem.
Not a week later, I attended a youth group meeting at a rural nondenom church. There I heard a message from the text of 1 Timothy 5. From the seeming backwaters of the epistle, lodged within an exhortation to another young man, one verse loomed large in the youth leader’s exposition. In the words of the NIV, “treat older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity” (5:2).
What was actually claimed that night is, of course, irrecoverable. What I heard—through the muffle of new pubescent sex drives and the stark imagination of juvenile faith—had everything to do with those last words: absolute purity.
I had entered the meeting with a comfortable, dozy awareness of my crush on a girl. But like a thunderclap, a new ideal broke in upon me, vast and radical, Tolstoyan in its ascetic impossibility. I didn’t know what absolute purity meant; it was a staggering, inhuman blankness. But I in a moment’s time, I knew that my fledgling desire for a girl somehow sullied it. That which had seemed innocent grew momentous and sinister. The first tendrils of adolescent attraction, I saw, must lie outside the sheer walls of divine will: beyond that pale, they were revealed as monsters. I sought to uproot them as quickly as possible: I apologized to the girl and spent years in the eccentric exercise of exorcising myself of their influence.
Since then, I have unlearned much.
I treat myself and my desires with less suspicion. I trust more in the grace of God.
I engage the pastoral letters with a seminarian’s learned hesitance, knowing full well their pseudonymity and their history of interpretation, so direly consequential for the oppressed.
I have gained a typically modern sympathy for “ethical religion.” Caring for orphans and widows makes intuitive sense to me. Of course, that’s the will of our God, the liberator, the healer! By contrast, the worlds of law and powers puzzle and enervate: the first feels like a maze of imperatives and untouchable protocols, laced with fears about impurity. The second, the world of powers, seems overwrought and superstitious—to think that our small, embodied actions somehow affect not only the plane of human relations but also a drama of unseen forces!
And yet I wonder if I—and many others like me, the young post-evangelicals and semi-evangelicals—have jettisoned too much. I wonder if we have accepted too flattened a view of the body by excluding these other two logics, of law and powers. We have rejected the restraint of any command that is not reducible to rational principle. We have sealed off our physical selves from the treacherous powers to which they were formerly porous. And we are hence protected from the kind of misguided hysteria I experienced that night at youth group.
Gone are the days, for example, when the Puritan preacher, Cotton Mather, could lather on about the perils of “self-pollution” (i.e., masturbation):
You shall hear how the God of Glory Thunders more Particularly and Articulately in the Voice of His Holy Word, against this Impiety. The Seventh of the Ten Commandments, uttered by the Voice of the Lord full of Majesty, when He came with His Holy Myriads down upon the Burning Mountain, and from His Right Hand there went forth a Fiery Law, by which we shall one day be Judged of the Lord; forbids all Pranks of Unchastity; and certainly this Unnatural Prostitution, is to be numbered among the Pranks of Unchastity. At the same Time, take into your most serious Consideration, the Dreadful Consequences of indulging this Impiety; For there is a Strange Punishment reserved for the workers of this Iniquity.1
Mather enumerates these “Strange Punishments,” including incontinence, emaciation, fainting, and consumption. His discourse about the body invokes both law and powers. That is, Mather appeals to no teleology or principle to prohibit this behavior; he simply invokes Sinai. For him and his contemporaries, the body was not a self-contained unit to be governed by rational dictates alone. Its desires trailed out like dendrites into the world beyond, threatening to latch onto some passing object that could sink a self into the depths. When these desires were misdirected, God’s attention to the individual body would curdle to fury, a force that would literally deform and destroy. Somehow, too, “Holy Myriads” were witness to human conduct down below, even in so intimate a matter as masturbation. Indeed, “every time a young man commits this impiety, he makes a new Resignation of himself unto the Unclean Spirit, and gives the Unclean Spirit a new Invitation to take Possession of him . . .”2
All this is magical thinking to moderns. In place of it, recent theologians such as Lewis Smedes imagine a thoroughly disenchanted body: an inert medium, a kind of set piece for interpersonal relations.3 And, like furniture or drapery, the only way of misusing it is somehow to harm another person by it (whether by commission or omission). Masturbation, if it is wrong, is wrong because it is recursive. It fails to ramify communion between people. Similarly, in Rowan Williams’s famous essay “The Body’s Grace,” the only sexual behaviors that receive criticism are those that are “asymmetrical”: “sexual practices have some claim to be called perverse in that they leave one agent in effective control of the situation.”4 Ethical and relational terms have wholly supplanted the languages of law and powers. There is no excess: actions in the body do not tap into mysterious realms beyond them. They transact between people.
These examples are sexual, but the Christian tradition has exercised wariness toward all the “sensuous” bodily appetites that open us out onto the world: hunger and desire for sleep and curiosity as well as sexual longing. And as with sexual ethics, our modern imagination for the moral dimension of these bodily energies has withered. Only shrill conservatives, we think, cushioned by privilege, can afford to care about such trivialities. The great drama of our time is the struggle for justice! In fact, we transfer our old idioms of disgust for the bodily contagion of impurity onto the contagion of present-day exploitations. We reserve our apocalyptic gusto, our eloquence about light and darkness, powers and principalities, not for the struggles of a single body but for the crisscrossing realities of contemporary oppression and projects of liberation seeking to undo them.
I am not nostalgic for the paranoia of a prescientific age (or my own youth); nor do I wish to divert the fervor of present-day initiatives for liberation into obscure back channels. But I will register a caution: redistributing the conceptualities of law and powers solely to corporate referents is simply inaccurate to the witness of Scripture. Law and powers implicate individual bodies there. Moreover, by leaving only ethical or relational language for envisioning the body, we prevent the great struggles of our time from seeping into our most intimately felt, material selves. And we perhaps thereby inadvertently reinforce our (false) sense of distance from them.
Where in the Bible do we see individual bodies operating by the logics of law and powers? Law serves here as shorthand for some of the “command” materials of the Bible, those that are irreducible in character and oriented toward securing purity. The paradigm texts for law are found in Leviticus and Numbers. Traditional Jewish readings have differentiated between the mishpatim and the chuqqim: the so-called rational and ritual laws, that is, commands that humankind would have invented even if God had not revealed them (e.g., do not murder) and those that could never be anticipated (e.g., do not mix fabrics).5 In this essay, I use the term law to refer to the latter type of commandment: the suprarational.
Anxiety over the unintelligibility of this legislation has attended its interpretation since commentary began. Jewish readers practiced ta’amei hamitzvot, or “explaining the commandments.” Through this process they effectively made the ritual laws a subset of the rational. Philo and his successors rationalized the oddities of biblical law through allegory. In our own time, Mary Douglas’s famous study of ritual law provided a symbolist explanation: dietary and sexual laws that police the boundaries of the individual body symbolize anxieties over the integrity of the societal “body politic.” But more recent work in ritual theory has discarded the “communicative” properties of ritual.6 The ritual laws of the Bible may not mean anything. They just are what they are, irreducible, and they do what they do quite without recourse to any abstraction. The role of these regulations is to remove defilement, to lift an uncleanness that is not a conceptual guilt but a real, quasi-physical pollution. In all cases, the individual body is the basic subject whose actions trigger uncleanness.
The home base of this conceptuality of law is the priestly writings of the Old Testament. But the New Testament, too, evidences this way of thinking. Admittedly, the role of law in the New Testament is a perennial hornet’s nest. But any honest reading must admit that its “command” materials do not always translate without remainder into ethical commitments and that concern for purity persists in various forms. The Jerusalem council reduced but did not relinquish ritual law: prohibitions of blood and strangled food and fornication remained binding (Acts 15:29). Paul uses purity language often, and especially with regard to the individual body. Besides the vexatious text of Romans 1 (full of defilement language and allusion to Leviticus), Paul often exhorts his communities to sexual discipline with “pollution” concepts, for example, in 2 Corinthians 7:1 he writes, “cleanse ourselves from every defilement.” His application of “temple” language to the believing community (1 Cor. 3:16; 2 Cor. 6:16) and to the individual Christian body (1 Cor. 6:19) draws the premier image of ritual purity directly into service of regulating bodily desire.7
The writings of Paul are also the most obvious biblical source for the term powers, which here refers to the manner in which biblical writings implicate human actions in a contest of cosmic forces. A host of twentieth-century scholars have renewed attention to Paul’s apocalyptic worldview: cosmic history divided into two eras, one subject to the superhuman powers of sin and death, and the other subject to the just rule of God. These ages were meant to be consecutive, but in the death and resurrection of Jesus, Paul believed that God had defeated mighty supernatural opposition and inaugurated the final restoration. Nonetheless, in the interval before Jesus’s return, these demonic agencies fight a ferocious rearguard action. Paul and his communities saw communal conflict within their own membership in this light (e.g., Rom. 12 and 1 Cor. 3). But the battle between God’s kingdom and its conquered but unyielding foes extended further, to the individual body. “The flesh” (sarx) in Paul’s writings can refer to that aspect of the human being that, though united with Christ, still colludes with the dreadful powers (e.g., Gal. 5:16).8
Paul may provide the paradigm texts for this conceptuality of powers, but his vision of the individual body as a site of conflict between God and superhuman challengers finds precedents in the Old Testament. In fact, Paul’s belief in supernatural battle represents a recrudescence of trends from ancient Israelite religion. Some of the earliest layers of the Old Testament attest the combat myth common to the ancient Near East: the high god (Yahweh) fights a sea monster personifying the forces of chaos, and by defeating it, secures life and order for the world (e.g., Ps. 74, 89; Job 38).
These scriptural vestiges of the combat myth do not impinge on the individual body. But their most important biblical reception does, at least in nuce: the exodus. The story of Yahweh’s drawn-out confrontation with Pharaoh may seem distant from Yahweh’s battle with the sea dragons as in Ps 74. Yet both show Yahweh struggling for mastery over a powerful enemy and winning life for Yahweh’s chosen people. What disguises the similarity of the two stories is a decisive theological innovation: the process that Old Testament scholars call historicization. That is, in the plague narratives in the book of Exodus, Yahweh’s cosmic nemesis is no longer mythical, as in the psalm, but has entered the historical plane as a human person. Pharaoh, an oppressive king, now personifies the forces of death and chaos. He is vanquished in the sea, and God’s people celebrate life.
Casting a human, this-worldly being as God’s opponent in this way would have tremendous theological consequences: it meant that God enacted the drama of salvation in the public, historical realm and not only in sequestered cultic space. And it meant that historical persons—in their concrete embodiment—could now participate in the struggle between God and resistant powers. This remains tacit in the Pentateuch. But the exodus story contains within itself the seeds of Paul’s intensive estimation of the individual body.9
Modern metaphysical suspicion may not have room for it, but in at least these threads, the Bible poses understandings of the body that are far different from modern ones: where the modern body is ethical and disenchanted, biblical versions of the body interface with irreducible divine mandate and spiritual powers.
Modern theological polarities may not allow it, but the Bible integrates the individual body into its accounts of God’s liberating efforts toward humankind. The same legal codes that demand mercy for the orphan, the widow, and the alien also put a high estimate on the capacity of individual bodies to disrupt purity. The same epistles that preach God’s cruciform victory over the powers responsible for exploitation also depict individual bodies caught up in that selfsame cosmic struggle.
And these are reasons why, after so many years, I am reconciling myself to this one aspect of that pubescent youth group scare: I understood then that, by its impulses, my body drew me into direct connection with some of the most dangerous and important forces of our cosmos. Of course at that time, privatistic piety limited the scope of those realities. But this intuition about the body’s mysterious, risky interconnectivity with the world beyond it now seems preferable to the flattened body of modernity—yes, because of Scripture, but also because a body that is merely an accessory to interpersonal relations is thereby isolated from the great struggles of our day. The fact is, we still want to speak with Mather’s intensity about some parts of our experience, particularly the political. But if the personal must on modern thinking operate by a wholly separate logic from the political, then that is also a logic that keeps our most personal, felt embodiment parenthesized from the movement for social justice. And yet, if the personal is to be political, then the biblical logics of law and powers may point us forward toward reenchanted bodies standing in far more immediate relation to God’s good will for the whole world.
1. Mather, “Cotton Matther on the Evils of Self-Pollution,” in Voices of the American Past: Documents in U.S. History, vol. 1, 4th ed., ed. Raymond Hyser and J. Chris Arndt (Boston, MA: Cengage Learning, 2009), 31.
3. Smedes, Sex for Christians: The Limits and Liberties of Sexual Living (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994), 139.
4. Williams, Theology and Sexuality: Classic and Contemporary Readings, ed. Eugene F. Rogers Jr. (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), 310.
5. Lenn Goodman, “Rational Law/Ritual Law,” in A People Apart: Chosenness and Ritual in Jewish Philosophical Thought, ed. Daniel H. Frank (Albany, NY: SUNY, 1993), 109.
6. Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (New York, NY: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966); and Christian Frevel and Christophe Nihan, “Introduction,” in Purity and the Forming of Religious Traditions in the Ancient Mediterranean World and Ancient Judaism, ed. Frevel and Nihan (Boston, MA: Brill, 2013), 9.
7. Jonathon Klawans, Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000), 154.
8. Peter Brown writes: “Paul spoke of the . . . stubborn war of the flesh, of the dark counter-Law ‘of sin which dwells in my members.’ These were towering forces for him; but by giving them a palpable face, he could present them as so many ‘enemies,’ who had been definitely conquered by Jesus when he rose from the grave…with Paul we see human beings caught in a hurried instant, as they passed dramatically from a life lived in the flesh, tensed against the Law because subject to the half-seen powers reared in rebellion to God, to a life of glorious freedom, lived in Christ” (The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity [New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1988], 49).
9. Indeed, the very form of Old Testament narrative, with its rapt attentiveness to specific characters and linear time, probably bears witness to this transferal of meaning, from the primordial to the historical: when monotheism evacuated the heavenlies, bodied, human affairs replaced them as the center of God’s struggle; cf. Robert Kawashima, Biblical Narrative and the Death of the Rhapsode (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004).
Collin Cornell is a PhD student in Hebrew Bible at Emory University. He blogs at kaleidobible.blogspot.com.