Any man that can walk into church on Sunday morning amidst all of these teenage girls all dressed up with their long legs sticking out from short skirts and their hair all done up and keep his mind on the little baby Jesus is a better man than I am.
I used to struggle with how I could be so fascinated with religion and, at the same time, so unapologetically sexual. It wasn’t a matter of religious guilt so much as just a seeming inconsistency that bothered me. But I felt much better about it after I finally read the Bible, to find that it is actually a very dirty book. So at this point I’m resolved to write it off as one of my typical eccentricities- but to me there is something very erotic about religion.
And why not? If religion is going to relate to people at all then it has to address the sexual. Besides, the moral code that we now appreciate as religious really didn’t formulate until shortly before the dawn of the Christian era, except for possibly in the far East where celibacy had been practiced religiously under Buddhism. But as for European paganism and Old Testament Judaism, now there’s some steamy stuff. Enough to keep Alex occupied as he pours over his Bible to impress the prison chaplain in A Clockwork Orange.
Genesis…. whoaaa boy!
Adam and Eve leaves the mind wandering, but never gets exactly sexual. The good stuff is later, when the stories get longer after Abraham. Which do you want- an enticing love story or something a little weird? For absolute desire how about Jacob working for 14 years for Laban to get his daughter Rachel? For plain curious how about when God kills Onan for practicing some coitus interuptus? In the “Hell hath no fury like” category- Joseph gets jailed when Potiphar’s scorned wife falsely accuses him of rape. Tamar’s much smarter about seduction, she gets Judah by posing as a temple prostitute. If you want absolutely perverted there’s Lot’s daughters getting him drunk with the plan to both have children by their father. Sex with extraterrestrials? Exactly who are these “sons of God” who take human wives just before the flood? And for the darkly humorous, I couldn’t help but laugh when I read about Jacob’s sons talking the men of Shechem into a mass circumcision and then rushing in and attacking them three days later when they were all too sore to fight. That was to avenge the rape of their sister Dinah.
Yeah, and you didn’t know that the Bible talked about that kind of thing, did you? Well, that’s just the first book.
King David, now there was a stud. Abigail makes for an innocent love story, but he sure pays for taking up with Bathsheba. In the end he couldn’t complain, with several wives and concubines he still went for hiring the young virgin Abishag to keep him warm in bed in his old age.
For the more poetic among you- the Song of Solomon is intentionally erotic. At the level of the Protestant revision of the Bible some Christians accepted it’s further inclusion only with reserve. It’s a little bit passionate.
In “Civilization and it’s Discontents” Sigmund Freud says that the most basic impulse in man is the desire to go to the next city over, plunder and burn it, kill the men, and take the women captive for… well, you know what. Now I know that it’s not nice to admit it. Certainly we’d all be better off to deny it. Rising to our present civilized standard is, after all, what keeps those Freudian psychologists in business. All the same, world history does dictate that this is indeed the fact.
Some of us would like to imagine that the old pagan societies with their female deities were somehow more “feminist” than the Biblical cultures, but I don’t ascribe to this. The goddesses were still usually male projections made in male-dominated societies, and Greek society itself was actually very misogynistic. At least in my view, most pagan cultures had nothing on the Judeo-Christian world when it came to these things, and I would argue that the Biblical cultures were actually a bit kinder in some regards about women in society. I won’t ramble on too long here about how the demonization of Eve is only interpretive, and not necessarily Biblical, except to say that there have been both Jewish and Christian groups who, quite contrary to the popular notion, have held Eve in esteem as being essentially the bringer of wisdom to mankind, a view which is just as compatible to the actual story. But let’s talk about Pandora, the first woman in Greek mythology. Created by the gods to punish Prometheus, they made a pleasing form and put in her “a shameless mind and a deceitful nature,” according to Hesiod, so that men will “embrace their own destruction.”
Later, switching now to philosophy, Plato wrote in his Creation story “Timmaeus” that the first generation were all males. The second generation were those males reincarnated according to their natures, making the variety of all kinds of animals, and women. It was the most cowardly bunch that became women, the ones who weren’t deserving to come back even as fish, apparently the next worse thing to be. Jewish culture has never, to my knowledge, said anything as critical about women.
I’ve read just about any story of the Trojan War available to me and it seems to me that, at least on the base level, it’s all about the possession of women. Let’s see, it all starts with a fight between Menelaus and Paris Alexandrus about Helen, then there’s the bit in the Iliad about Achilles withdrawing from the war because he’s disgruntled at Agamemnon for taking his slave girl Bresias, then Odysseus has to kill off hundreds of suitors to reclaim his wife Penelope. Of course she’s been a good girl and stayed faithful to him while he was off having flings with Calypso and Circe and every other witch or nymph that he’s encountered along the way.
Now THAT was a man’s world!
For steamy erotica in Greek literature, the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite. After getting all dressed up to entice her lover she walks through the woods to his house. In her presence all of the animals begin to mate. Although a bit outside of the realm of mythology, Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata” is a good sex comedy complete with jokes about erections, and what was even then referred to as an old saying: “Women! Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.”
With the development of Christianity and it’s recommendation of celibacy erotic escapades take a nose-dive. With the new morality nobody was going to think any better of the disciples for collecting hundreds of wives and concubines. But is this the end of sexuality in religious literature? No. In fact, it even gets weirder, and this is where mysticism comes into account.
To begin let’s back up to the late books of the Old Testament. Here we find, in the books of the Major Prophets, Jerusalem under siege by Babylon. The kingdom of the ten tribes has long since fallen to Assyria. “There’s no way out of this mess,” reason the prophets, “we’re doomed. God has had it with us. We’ve ignored the law of Moses and done what we’ve wanted until he’s turned against us.” But look at the poetics of these prophets, using every available metaphor to relate just how God feels and why. The city of Jerusalem takes on the female form of God’s lover, and the story goes like this:
As a baby Jerusalem was found by God. She had been beaten and rejected, abandoned and reviled. He took pity on her, washed the blood from her, nourished her and made her strong. He fell in love with her, and she became his favorite. He lavished her with riches and clothing and adornments, and she became the most beautiful woman among all the nations, and he loved her best. But when she saw her own beauty she took pride in it. She forgot the one who had taken her in. She knew the power that her beauty gave to her, and she used it to seduce the nations. She’s become a whore, prostituting herself with every nation on every pagan shrine, an unfaithful wife to God, who alone has really loved her. Now, is God really supposed to tolerate her? No, they can have the unfaithful whore. If she wants the nations then let them have her to abuse her and do with her what they will. Later, when she realizes the error of her ways, God will still love her, as he always hopelessly will. And he’ll take her back and adorn her again. One day he will make her even more beautiful than she was before. And she will finally love him back.
And there we have in the Major Prophets the overview of the Jewish drama told in metaphor of God’s own bitter love story.
The above is told with variations throughout the Prophets. After that, during the exile period, the writings of Judaism become a little less localized as Judaism adapts to it’s exiled state. But there must be something central to their religion, and it can’t be the Jerusalem Temple now. Besides that, God can’t be deprived of a lover. Now we find a new invention, arriving first in the eighth and ninth chapters of the book of Proverbs, where the Creation story is retold.
It all starts when God creates an emanation from himself, the female embodiment of his own Wisdom. She helps him in the Creation, and they are together to aid and comfort each other. She is both his child and his lover.
There are very few references to her in the Jewish Bible, but in the late Jewish Apocrypha, contained in the Catholic Bible, we find her again in the books of the Wisdom of Solomon and the Wisdom of Sirach. It’s in the wisdom literature of late pre-Christian Judaism that she’s sure to be found, since wisdom itself has now become a female emanation from God. Now it is she who is a mediator between God and man, and the belief of the faithful has now itself been sexualized when it’s said that “Wisdom makes a beautiful wife.” The Genesis stories are retold, now revealing that she has been active among us since the beginning. Most importantly- love Wisdom, for God only loves the man who loves her.
Now it may be noticed that God no longer seems to be the same guy who wandered the wilderness with Moses. In all of this experience God seems constantly further and further from us. But in that distance he becomes more perfect, and the earth, with it’s wars and slavery and poverty, more and more corrupt. And this is where Judaism is when they return to their homeland, only now to become annexed by the expansion of the Roman empire, which is now buzzing with Neo-Platonism, a theory which itself believes the perceptible world to be but a dim reflection of a distant Fullness. And it is at this intersection, a hybrid culture of Judaism and Platonism, that Christianity pokes it’s head up.
Mary Magdalene- the hottie of the gospels. Actually very little is said about her Biblically, although other early Christian scriptures picture her as the favorite disciple of Jesus. Catholic legend suggests that she was a converted prostitute, and this is generally how we conceive of her. But is there any religious significance to imagining her as the lover of Jesus, which, although not Biblical, we all really kind of want to do?
Well, Christianity was not the only strange little offshoot of Judaism at this time of religious redefinition. Another Messianic group to spring up was the gnostic Samaritan group called the Simonians. Their messiah, Simon Magus, who’s mentioned in the Biblical book of the Acts of the Apostles, had a similar sort of love affair. Apparently this guy, believing himself to be sent from God, went to the whorehouse and bought himself a wife. Her name was Helen and, boy, was she ever corrupt. She was the reincarnation and culmination of every deceitful woman that has been written about in both Jewish and Greek literature from Delilah to Helen of Troy. She’d really done it all.
But why would such a nice guy as Simon want to do such a thing? Well, it’s a symbol. God, represented by Simon, is again hopelessly in love. He’s in love with the world, represented by Helen, corrupted as she may be. In an act of redemption, God wishes to purify her and reclaim her for himself, represented by the marriage of the two. Now, as for the Christian parallel, I believe that the tendency to want to make of Mary Magdalene a redeemed whore springs very much from this same symbolism that was prevalent in Jewish mysticism and Messianism of the day. It is a development from that story in the Major Prophets of God’s love affair with that adulterous wife Jerusalem. In viewing Mary as the converted prostitute, we have a gospel character which has become a representative of the redemption of the world, a symbol which would have easily been recognized as such in the early Christian era.
But leaving Jesus and Mary Magdalene to do whatever they did or didn’t do, if we check back with God’s love affair with his own Wisdom we see that things have taken a twist there as well. In the Jewish wisdom scriptures the figure of Wisdom was pure and undefiled, not like that whore Jerusalem. But now, largely under the influence of the Platonic view, she has turned out to be other than what we thought as well, at least within the context of Christian mysticism.
In the gnostic scriptures of early Christianity much is written about Sophia, the Greek term for Wisdom, and it’s in this literature that we see her most clearly. At one time entirely lost, many of these scriptures have resurfaced in Egypt and are now readily available at the book store or on line. With many variants the story of God’s relationship with Sophia goes basically like this:
Before the existence of the cosmos God existed in his perfection in the Fullness, along with several male and female emanations of himself. Wisdom, by her own nature, was curious, and caused a ruckus wanting to know things that weren’t for her to know. She had to be ejected. Being alone now she began to create from herself and through whatever course the world came into existence. Naturally, it wasn’t perfect. Becoming involved with it she, as would be expected by now, becomes corrupted. And so here we find her, drunk and abused.
But what about things in the Fullness? Now there is a deficiency created by her absence. To restore the balance she must be redeemed and reinstituted. And so here comes Christ, sent by God to open her eyes to her own spiritual nature so that she may return home. But that Sophia is essentially our souls, having become blinded to our spiritual nature by our imprisonment in the flesh. But as we become aware of our spiritual nature and convert, this is the process of the redemption of Sophia. In the end, as spirit becomes disentangled from matter, she will become the bride of Christ and their union will restore the deficiency of the Fullness. This drama was enacted in a gnostic sacrament known as the Bridal Chamber, in which the convert’s earthly soul (feminine) became united with it’s spiritual counterpart (masculine.)
Now, as I’ve said, that’s gnosticism, which, as can be seen, was a very Platonised form of Christianity. But does the basic parallel exist in New Testament scriptures? Many of the parables of Jesus refer to a God who is in need of something that he’s lost and plans to recover, and the purpose of the coming Messiah has become so that he may claim his bride. In the letters of Paul there is the fundamental view that the collection of converted, the Church, mystically constitutes one body, who is the intended bride of Christ.
And so you see, even Christ has got his eye on somebody, and the redemption of mankind has been put into terms of a universal skirt-chase. So now, having considered the above, I feel much more comfortable to express my previously stated opinion- There’s just something erotic about religion.