Purity Balls, Mark Driscoll and a Hermeneutic of the Obscene

IMG_1465I am on a temporary reprieve from editing extremely dry law work. I am going to write this continuation of my thoughts on the hermeneutics of the erotic in a free flowing, rambling train of thought. Please do not hold me to these things too firmly. I may have lost my wits and sent them seven hours across the world in an email with my editing work.

So here I go on the hermeneutics of the erotic:

There are three particular instances, which having come across my peering and provoked peepers, having caused me to wonder about the nature of the obscene in a text, or a cultural event. The first happened last week. It was a photo shoot of fathers and their daughters at a “Purity Ball.” Daily Mail, Huffington Post, and a host of blogs and news sites were highlighting the photo shoot, which was making the rounds on Facebook. Many people I know were responding to the pictures with negative responses about the perversion of the event, which placed father and daughter in what looks like romantic settings. Others simply stated that though it seemed peculiar, they could see the potential positive power of the event.

The second instance capturing my attention happened some time ago, but the Purity Ball photo shoot brought it back to my attention: Mark Driscoll’s NYT bestseller (well, kind of a best seller, but that’s another issue) Real Marriage, and all his talk about anal sex.

The third instance was a call for poetry. I was asked to present a piece on the Green Man – a medieval carving found in gothic cathedrals, abbeys and chapels, and that began this set of posts on the subject of eroticism and hermeneutics, because I was writing about a wild and lusty creature called the Green Man, and wondered about the manner in which Biblical prophecy and the erotic collide, and how people would interpret what I wrote.

I feel a parenthetical thought jumping in: Just to be sure you understand, I am not specifically talking about Biblical hermeneutics, although that is included. I am stretching the word, as you will see into poetry, prose of all kinds, and even art, and in this case – current events. I am wondering how we interpret the things around us, especially as it relates to the erotic. (erotic – defined as “relating to sexual desire or excitement”, and I extend it just a smidgen beyond that to include that which references the sexual by illustration or allusion.)  Back to regularly scheduled rambling…

The interesting thing about both the instances of Purity Balls and Mark Driscoll is that they come from the right wing of American Christianity, and they have created a scandalous stir in very different ways. I have been trying to find a way to describe the dynamics of perversion (that which creates the obscene) and these events help to at least begin to form a basic outline of my thoughts, which until now have been felt more than they have been defined.

Yesterday evening I was walking home from downtown Salem thinking about this topic, and it dawned on me that there was a necessity of utilizing at least four examples, two from the right, and two from the left to describe how I see the hermeneutics of the erotic in our culture and in the ongoing fracturing development of Christianity. (Whether we think of these as the left and right of politics, or the left and right of the theological doesn’t matter much, since the distinctions may end up being quite similar as it relates to this issue.) So, here are four examples on the spectrum of our cultural erotic hermeneutic (how we interpret the erotic, when we are faced with it.)

To the right I will place Mark Driscoll’s Real Marriage, and the Westboro Baptist Church, with their “God Hates Fags” (and just about everybody else) campaigns.

To the left I will place Queer theology, and the responses of horror to David Magnusson’s Purity Ball photo shoot.

I personally find Mark Driscoll’s Real Marriage, and the emphasis on anal sex from the pulpit repulsive. In some sense, I have made it obscene. Is it possible that it is not? Perhaps. Driscoll is a conservative pastor who believes in the “sanctity of marriage” and all that entails in the conservative Christian circles. The liberation of anal sex into a place in the marriage bed is not what I see as obscene. Rather it is a conservatism that demotes women to sex servants for their husbands. This appears to be a hermeneutic of obscenity, which uses sex as a tool of oppression, or so it seems to me, but with what I am going to say in the next paragraphs, I have to be willing to challenge myself, and say that I may be the one “perverting the text” or in this case the event.

Fred Phelps died recently. He was the founder of the infamous, yet tiny Westboro Baptist Church. I pastor a rather well known little church, but nothing compared to the notoriety of the Westboro clan. They picketed Gay Pride Parades, and funerals of soldiers, and children killed in school shootings. They are hated by a nation for their activities, which began with the declaration that God hated people because of the sexual perversity of the nation. Could it be that the obscenity was found less in the sexual practices of our nation, and more in the heart of the individual who saw “perversion” in everything around them, and twisted the erotic to a preeminent evil position in the text? Was their hermeneutic of the erotic a hermeneutic of obscenity?

Queer Theology is a variation on liberation theology. It is a Biblical hermeneutic, which reads the text in the light of gender and sexual liberation. It exceeds Gay and Lesbian rights issues, by seeing in the text of scripture freedoms things which cannot easily be placed there. The Trinity has been defined by Queer Theology as a menagé a trois, and the practice of hospitality in the early church has been redefined to include “body hospitality.” In Queer Theology “coming out” has been established as rite of the church equal to baptism. This is a strange hermeneutic of the erotic, which is perceived by most Christians as obscene, and we must ask who is creating a hermeneutic of the obscene? Is it the Queer Theologian or the one who looks in with horror? Or could it be both?

The Purity Ball photo shoot was met with voices decrying the obscene nature of fathers and daughters posing like boyfriend and girlfriend at a prom. These photos, which are strange to our eyes, answer the questions I am asking above about each of the four scenarios. For one person, the Purity Ball photos looked perverse, to another beautiful. Maybe the answer to the above questions is found in the interpreters themselves. Perhaps the Purity Ball photos are our Rorschach test. We are faced with a growing commercialization of the erotic, and with the defining of all things including the scriptures in the light of the erotic. Perhaps our responses to Mark Driscoll, Queer Theology, the Westboro Baptist Church, and Purity Ball photo shoots tell more about ourselves, than about the culture we critique. Maybe a hermeneutic of obscenity resides in our hearts, and we are all responsible to find a hermeneutic of the erotic we do not turn into a hermeneutic of the obscene.

Listen to voice of the photographer who shot the Purity Ball pictures:

“When I first heard about the Purity Balls I imagined American fathers terrified of anything that might hurt their daughters or their families honor. But as I learnt more, I understood that the fathers, like all parents, simply wanted to protect the ones that they love – in the best way they know how. It was also often the girls themselves that had taken the initiative to attend the balls. They had made their decisions out of their own conviction and faith, in many cases with fathers who didn’t know what a Purity Ball was before first being invited by their daughters.  

The more I learned, the more I was surprised that I had been so quick to judge people I knew so little about. I was struck by the idea that what set us apart wasn’t anything more than how we had been influenced by the culture we grew up in and the values it had instilled in us.

In Purity I wanted to create portraits so beautiful that the girls and their fathers could be proud of the pictures in the same way they are proud of their decisions – while someone from a different background might see an entirely different story in the very same photographs.  To me, Purity is about how we are shaped by the society in which we grow up and how we interpret the world through the values we incorporate as our own.”

I have much more to say about the four examples above, but presenting them as a simple Rorschach test, which says more about me than about the actual events I interpret is my starting point for thinking through a hermeneutic of the erotic. I am wanting to find a place where I do not swing into fear, judgment, license, or lust so that I find a balanced hermeneutic of the erotic, and not a hermeneutic of the obscene.

This is part two of my thoughts on a Hermeneutic of the Erotic.

Part One of a Hermeneutic of the Erotic: When the Erotic and the Prophetic Collide: Green Man, sonnet #42
Part Three of a Hermeneutic of the Erotic: Traumatized by the Erotic


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