ICYMI: Nadia Bolz-Weber, an iconoclastic Lutheran pastor out in Denver, Colorado, of whom some of you may have heard, made a vagina sculpture (had it made, actually; she’s not a sculptor) and gifted it to feminist icon Gloria Steinem. She did this partly to promote her new book Shameless, and partly as a protest against the damage caused by evangelical purity culture, one of the themes in her book. She invited women who had come out of evangelical purity culture to send in their “purity rings” (these were a thing back in the late 90s and 00s when young people would wear them as a public display of their commitment to not have sex until marriage), for which they would receive a certificate of destruction. She had them melted down and used to make the sculpture.
Ironically, the Church has been doing vagina sculptures long before Bolz-Weber ever came on the scene–as in, like, all the way back to the 4th century–but for different purposes. More on this later.
I like Nadia Bolz-Weber. I read one of her earlier books and found it to be a compelling tale of unvarnished Gospel grace in her own life and the lives of her congregation, a motley band of misfits drawn together by a common dependence upon Jesus Christ.
But the current project falls squarely, and disappointingly, in line with the progressive sexual ideology of the age in which it’s all about consent baby and consent is all you need!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Consent as a sexual ethic is woefully inadequate. For example, how to tell if you know someone well enough to gauge whether or not you feel or should feel uncomfortable about consenting to his/her requests for sexual intimacy?
But there is a more fundamental issue with consent and it is this: Sex is an act of intimacy and self-exposure so intense and profound that it requires the protective fencing of marriage. Imagine exposing yourself on that level to another person, knowing full well that he or she could ghost you the next day. Lasting damage has occurred in the lives of people to whom that very thing has happened. The ideology of consent does not account for this.
As noted above, the Church has been doing vagina sculptures since long before Bolz-Weber. There are examples going back all the way to the 4th century of baptistries designed to look like a human vagina. The reason for this choice of imagery is found in the gospel of John: In John 3 there is an exchange between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus in which Jesus tells him that “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5). Drawing upon this, Christian artists, architects, pastors and theologians wanted baptism to look like an actual birth–like you were literally emerging from a human birth canal.
As a consequence of this birth, you have died to your old life and been raised to a new life. When you enter Christian community via baptism, you submit to a whole new way of doing things and are integrated into realities much bigger than yourself. You are no longer your own, no longer an autonomous, disembodied unit. You are now part of the Body of Christ, and you should conduct yourself accordingly.
Sexually, this means you are called to an ethic much greater than mere consent. Your sexual ethic should be based on love–doing for others what love requires of you. The New Testament authors, especially Paul, are excruciatingly clear on what this looks like.
But while the inadequacy of consent-based progressive sexual ideology is so glaring as to make for easy pickings, the much harder, and necessary, task for us as evangelicals is to take a good long look at our own failings and see how they have given a book like this such a powerful appeal. Towards the beginning, Bolz-Weber recounts how two of her parishioners grew up in evangelical purity culture, believing all the promises that if you follow God’s blueprint for sexual purity you would have more exciting and fulfilling sex than those who have sex outside of marriage. When they found that not to be the case, they experienced disappointment, frustration, and self-doubt.
I have argued before in this space that while the Bible is clear in its sexual demands, evangelical purity culture is a distortion which goes way beyond anything in Scripture. It places impossible burdens upon people, the weight of which fall disproportionately upon women, while making empty and unrealistic promises. Stories just like the one Bolz-Weber relates are all over the place among those who have left evangelicalism, and even among some who remain.
Jesus is universally recognized, even by those who do not believe in him, as one of the holiest people ever to walk the face of the earth. Yet his appeal and his following were the exact opposite of what you would expect: The holiest people (as they defined it) in all of Jewish society wanted nothing to do with Jesus and indeed he reserved almost all of his harshest words precisely for them, while those who were the exact opposite of holy, as the Jewish society of the time defined it, were attracted to Jesus and he seemed to relish their company.
Luke records an occasion (Luke 15) in which Jesus was teaching before just such a crowd. Some Pharisees, representatives of the religious elite of the day, were at the back of the crowd, murmuring in discontent. Picking up on their discontent, Jesus tells three unsettling parables, which I am sure at least some of you have heard. The underlying theme of all three is that, as Jesus says, there is “more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (Luke 15:7). The third and most over-the-top is about a son who squanders his father’s fortune in dissolute living, is reduced to utter destitution, and eventually returns home to beg for a position as a servant in the household. Astoundingly, the father welcomes him back and throws a huge feast for him: “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:24).
In Jesus’ parables, one lost sheep/coin/son is cause for immense anguish, searching, and effort to find. But in our day it is not just one; it is an exploding number of young people who want nothing to do with evangelicalism, or even with Christianity at large.
Many of these have been impacted by evangelical purity culture. As noted above, stories like the one Bolz-Weber relates near the beginning of her book are all over the place. These are the lost sheep/coin/son in Jesus’ parables, and Jesus has made it abundantly clear that God’s #1 priority is to bring them back.
That needs to be our #1 priority as well.
I am not talking about returning to evangelicalism. For many who have left, returning to evangelicalism is simply not an option. That ship has sailed.
What I am talking about is doing the hard work of honest, contrite self-reflection. Why do we promise mind-blowing sex to those who do the right thing sexually (as we define it) while ignoring, scolding, or even blaming those who do not? We need to grapple head-on with questions like this and come to terms with our own part in the sexual brokenness we prefer to offload to others.
The son in Jesus’ parable had gotten about as low as it was possible to go. As soon as the money was gone, a famine hit the land where he had relocated. He had to beg for work and finally found work with a farm where he was allowed to feed the pigs. And he wasn’t just feeding the pigs, he was living with the pigs. Eating their food. Or wanting to eat their food, at least. Pork is unclean according to Mosaic law so this touch was an excruciating insult to Jewish sensibilities.
It was easy for those in the crowd to see the son in that position and believe that he had brought it all upon himself. After all, the manner in which he asked for his portion of the estate was astounding, as was the manner in which he squandered it. But that is not the attitude that the father had. The father was watching for him and saw him from a long way off, and was astoundingly enthusiastic in his welcome.
At least Bolz-Weber is out there trying. She has created a community that is immensely attractive to the very people who are leaving evangelicalism in droves, a safe space where they can hold on to faith in Christ, living in community with each other and dependence upon Christ. Even though the progressive sexual ethic to which they subscribe is woefully inadequate.
You see, the parable does not end with the father throwing a scandalously huge feast when his profligate son returns home. There is another brother in the story. This brother had stayed home and remained faithful to the father. He was still out in the fields that day when he heard the noise of partying inside. He asked one of the servants what was going on inside, and when he found out, he became more than a little upset and refused to go inside. So the father went outside. “Look!” said the brother. “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” (Luke 15:29-30)
The father responded thusly: “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:31).
We can talk all day long about the inadequacies of the consent-based sexual ideology of progressive Christianity. And we would be right. But in this cultural moment, we would sound a lot like the other brother in Jesus’ story. In this cultural moment we need to recognize that God’s sympathies are with the lost sheep/coin/son in the parables and whoever would fall in that place. Finding them is His #1 priority, and it needs to be ours as well. We need to do the hard work of repentance for our complicity in the damage caused by purity culture, and then prayerfully discerning a way forward in reconciling these people to Christ.