The Joy of Paglian Sex

By Carl Trueman

Lesbian feminists with a penchant for Nietzsche, Freud, and DeSade are not typically my type.  Nevertheless, I fell in love with one in 1993 and have never quite recovered. I was then (as now) a happily married man and nothing untoward actually happened.  But when I purchased a copy of Camille Paglia’s Sex, Art, and American Culture, a collection of her journalism, I knew that this was to be more than a passing infatuation.  Here was my ideal woman: Tough, thoughtful, well-read, and clearly somebody who could handle herself in a bar-room brawl.  Feisty is surely too small a word.


In the years since I have learned much from the delectable Ms. P.  She modeled for me both a scholarship and a journalism which engaged high culture and pop culture, moving seamlessly from Aeschylus and Freud to the Rolling Stones and Madonna.   She showed me that learning and writing could be fun and iconoclastic and constructive all at the same time.  Her rejection of the histrionics of victim-feminism, her refusal to follow the orthodoxy on date rape, and her demand that individuals take responsibility for themselves forced me to think.  Her contempt for the tone police, those self-righteous enforcers of the status quo, was evident on every page.


Of all her writings, though, the one I love the most – and the one I return to most frequently — is the essay ‘The Joy of Presbyterian Sex,’ originally published in The New Republic but reprinted in Sex, Art and American Culture.   The article does not, as I had hoped when I first glimpsed the title, offer some technical tips for romantically inept Calvinists; Rather it is a devastating critique of the Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A.’s 1991 report on human sexuality. Nothing I have read since has ever done such a successful job of demolishing the pious pabulum which vitiates so much Christian discourse on sex and which has (as Paglia predicted) eviscerated the faith of its distinctive vitality. If ever there was an essay which cut through sentimental bombast that surrounds liberal Christian pieties and cuts straight to the real heart of the matter, it is this.   And in an era marked by a tedious and increasingly intense combination of political correctness and squeamishness about clear communication, it is still a breath of fresh air.


The key paragraph – vintage Paglia — is this: 


The [PCUSA’s} committee’s prescription for an enlightened Christianity is “learning from the marginalized.” This new liberal cliché is repeated so often that I began to misread it as “margarinized.” We are told that “those of us with varying degrees of social power and status must now move away from the center, so that other, more marginalized voices . . . may be heard.” But the report picks and chooses its marginalized outcasts as snobbishly as Proust’s Duchesse de Guermantes. We can move tender, safe, clean, hand-holding gays and lesbians to the center—but not, of course, pederasts, prostitutes, strippers, pornographers, or sadomasochists. And if we’re e going to learn from the marginalized, what about drug dealers   moonshiners, Elvis impersonators, string  collectors, Mafiosi  foot fetishists serial murderers, cannibals, Satanists, and the Ku Klu Klan?  I’m sure they’ll all have a lot to say. The committee gets real prudish real fast when it has to deal with sexuality outside its feminist frame of reference: “Incest is abhorrent and abhorred,” it flatly declares. I wrote in the margin, “No lobbyists, I guess!”


This is admittedly a little dated, at least in its lists of the marginalized.  Sadomasochism, pornography, and prostitution are being mainstreamed, and it seems quite possible that pederasty and incest will not be far behind.   String collectors, foot fetishists, Elvis impersonators, and Imperial Wizards may perhaps have to wait a little longer.  But even so Paglia’s basic point stands and liberal Christians will no doubt join the sadomasochism and pederasty bandwagons if ever they become part of the Mainstream Margarinized.  Why would they not?  Their ethics are merely the tastes of the world around in the imperative voice.  And that means their moral standards are ultimately formed not by the Bible or Christian tradition but by powerful interest groups in the popular media, by clichéd post-structuralist pieties, and by legislators on Capitol Hill whose political culture is little more than a function of the public relations industry


Yet there is another aspect to the essay, and that is Paglia’s barely concealed contempt for the attempts of liberal Christianity and of the gay lobby itself to make homosexuality respectable. For Paglia, sex is powerful and deviant sex reflects that power precisely because it is transgressive, because it breaks the rules.  For her, sex is an erotic, Dionysian force that threatens to shatter civilization as we know it.  Drawing on the later Freud, with distinct tones of Nietzsche, she understands the destructive power of sex and rejoices in it.  To tame it, to domesticate it, to make it respectable, to turn it into merely one more form of pleasurable recreation is to destroy both its substance and significance.


Her basic thesis is that liberal Christianity cannot cope with sex as it really is.  Instead it has to make into something anodyne and inoffensive as defined by the aesthetics of the wider world.   Cultural tastes trump biblical teaching and historic Christian ethics.  This is the problem of liberal Christianity in microcosm.  Make Christian doctrine merely an expression of religious psychology and, as sophisticated as that might seem, it leads in only one direction: the assimilation of Christianity to the world.   


Ironically, Paglia here is more Christian than the liberal Protestants she lambasts so mercilessly.  Traditional Christianity, with it various sexual taboos, its physical discipline of celibacy for those who are not married, its view of marriage as lifelong and sexually monogamous, and its refusal to make sexuality and sexual behavior a matter of bland personal preference, acknowledges sex as precisely the dangerous, atavistic force that she too sees it to be.   Paglia and orthodox Christianity are two sides of the same sexual coin.


But here is where Paglia differs with the sexual attitudes of the permissive society.  When (almost) everything is permitted and when all social and legal prohibitions and restraints on sexual behavior have been stripped away, society has made sex safe. Too safe. In enfranchising the deviant, it eliminates deviation.  And when nothing is forbidden, sex actually loses its meaning and becomes just one more bland form of entertainment, pleasant but of no social significance, rather like consuming a vanilla ice cream. 


So why do Christians capitulate to such nonsense so easily?   Here Paglia and I are on the same page: Because the Christian church is too often not satisfied with being the Christian church, with all of its austere dogma and demands, but prefers to be merely an insipid and derivative mouthpiece for modern emotivism.  Liberal churches do what they always do: In an effort to remain credible they dutifully turn up to baptize whatever sentimental mush the world wants to promote on the trendy topic of the moment.  Of course, it always does this a day or two late, but that’s what happens when your ethics are simply a response to norms which the world has already embraced.   No longer is it ‘Thus saith the Lord!’ so much as ‘Now, now, poor dear, you just do what feels right for you.  Oh, and please, whatever you do, don’t feel guilty about it.’


Given her polemic against the therapeutic drivel and middle class mores of modern sexual liberalism, could it be that Camille Paglia has a better grasp of Christian teaching than the pope? Even as it has sought to make sex the central component of human identity, sexual liberalism has evacuated it of any real significance through its ruthless destruction of taboos.  In Paglia-speak, liberals, secular and religious, have turned Eros and Dionysius from volcanic deities into quiet suburbanites with a mini-van, a mortgage, and a bottle of hand sanitizer on every surface.   In traditional Christian language, they have turned sex from the mysterious, powerful, terrifying and procreative source of life into just one more pleasurable hobby, like stamp collecting but with more orgasms.


Liberal Christians seem to have a compulsive need to overthrow the traditional teachings of Christianity, and sexuality and human identity now provide the present battleground for this Oedipal struggle. Tendencies that Paglia observed in 1991 are much, much worse today, but such continue to perplex those of us – believers and atheists — who have no problem with historic Christianity being historic Christianity.  As Paglia declares towards the end of the essay:


As a lapsed Catholic of wavering sexual orientation, I have never understood the pressure for ordination of gay clergy or even the creation of gay Catholic groups. They seem to me to indicate a need for parental approval, an inability to take personal responsibility for one’s own identity. The institutional religions, Catholic and Protestant, carry with them the majesty of history. Their theology is impressive and coherent. Efforts to revise or dilute that theology for present convenience seem to me misguided.


It is a shame that more Christians do not think that way.   We do not need to listen to the panjandrums of the wider world.  We need that Paglian attitude: Christian sex should be transgressive and thumb its nose at respectable pieties.  You know – exclusively heterosexual, within the bonds of marriage, with single people remaining celibate.  That breaks all the modern taboos and threatens the comfy orthodoxies that now dominate sexual mores.  Sex is simply too important to leave it to the lobby groups of sexual liberation. Plus, as Paglia knows, breaking the rules makes it more fun too.


And, as I write this and reflect upon the delectable Ms. P, I think that I might be falling in love all over again.

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Luther: The Idea That Changed the World

By Carl Trueman

My inbox has been full of positive reactions to the PBS docudrama which aired last night.  It is now available online here.

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.

Mortification of Spin is a casual conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Mortification of Spin and the mission of the Alliance.

One more thought on Nashville

I respect many of those who chose to sign the Nashville Statement. Some of them are friends. And, as I have stated before, I am in agreement with the substance of the document.

However, any suggestion that those who drafted and/or signed the Nashville Statement are like John the Baptist is, to quote a friend, revolting. The fact is, it would cost me absolutely nothing to sign the Nashville Statement. It costs me nothing in my church or denomination to state publicly (as I do repeatedly) that I uphold biblical sexual ethics and reject any attempt to revise God’s design of male and female as the only two available genders. Heck, I’m even on the conservative wing of this whole thing in rejecting the legitimacy of the term “gay (but celebate) Christian.” I am troubled by the spiritual friendship movement. I believe we ought to reject the term “sexual orientation” in favor of the more biblical “homosexual desire.” And stating all of that will cost me nothing.

And this is true for most, if not all, of those who signed the Nashville statement. That is not a criticism. Not everything we do should lead to persecution. But please spare us the self-congratulatory comparisons to actual martyrs. Such comparisons are a mockery of those who actually suffer for their faith in Christ and commitment to God’s Word. Honestly, some of these men need to get over themselves and stop boasting as though it is especially courageous to be a conservative pastor or seminary prof in a conservative institution. I am thankful that it will not cost me my job to uphold God’s Word regarding human gender and sexuality. But the same cannot be said about some of the men and women I serve as pastor. Pastors like me would do well to give thanks for the covering from which we benefit and go about serving those who will indeed pay a price.

On Not Signing the Nashville Statement

Just as we predicted on the podcast, signing the Nashville Statement has become a measure of one’s commitment to biblical sexual ethics and gender distinctions. These sorts of things are inevitable. One group drafts a statement and opens it up to signatures with all the right people and influencers signing gladly. Suddenly those who do not sign are immediately suspected of going all squishy on the truth. And almost like a reflex action the very thing has happened on social media regarding the Nashville Statement.

The whole thing reminds me of a scene from Seinfeld:

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I suppose I understand why many Baptists believe in the necessity of such statements since they have taken vows to uphold an historic confession of faith (excepting our Reformed Baptist friends). But Presbyterians should know better. We are supposed to take seriously the admonition against binding another’s conscience. Presbyterians also ought to understand why a fellow Presbyterian would not feel comfortable signing a non-ecclesiastical document such as the Nashville Statement. Bottom line: there are a whole host of reasons why someone who affirms the substance of the Nashville Statement would choose not to sign. And to call into question someone’s commitment to the truth because they did not sign is rather detestable.

There are three primary reasons why I am not comfortable adding my signature to the Nashville Statement:

1. It is a product of CBMW.

Why would I sign a document produced by an organization which has embraced Trinitarian error (the eternal subordination of the Son)?

2. It is not particularly useful.

I agree with the theses of the Nashville Statement. But because it is devoid of any substantive development of those theses wherein they are grounded in the biblical doctrines of creation and humanity I don’t see how it can be useful except for those who already believe. In other words, I could not give that statement to any of the university students in my community and expect it to actually assist them if they are skeptics. For the purposes of actually instructing, a document like that produced by the RPCNA is much more useful.

3. It is not necessary.

My views on biblical sexual ethics and gender are quite clear. I have a long paper trail and my sermons and podcasts are easily accessed online. Plus I have taken sacred vows to believe and teach according to the Westminster Standards. Given my first two issues the third naturally follows.

TGC and the 2nd Commandment

I had a few spare minutes so I thought I’d ask…

Are the Presbyterian members of The Gospel Coalition Board bothered at all by the fact that TGC’s website employs images of Christ? As Presbyterians they have taken sacred vows to uphold and teach according to the Westminster Standards. If you are not Presbyterian, the Westminster Standards are quite clear that the 2nd Commandment ought to be honored along with all of God’s moral law. So I would be curious to know if they feel conflicted at all to serve on the board of a ministry which holds very different convictions concerning the 2nd Commandment.

I’m not trying to be a pest. I understand that there are some differing opinions among the Reformed which allow, under certain circumstances, for the use of images of Christ for strictly pedagogical purposes. But if any of TGC’s Presbyterian members hold the more restrictive view I wonder how they navigate the ministry’s use of images.

Just wondering.

A Better Way

I was happy to pass along some links to African American voices we ought to be hearing. But because they will sometimes ask inconvenient questions or come to conclusions not sanctioned by the elites they are slandered and ignored.

The voices of these men and women have become all the more important as the sanctioned voices on the subject of race are now openly challenging (denying?) talk of racial reconciliation. One prominent voice in the PCA is now holding forth the liberation theologian James Cone as a voice worth following. It seems someone recently tried to warn about encroaching liberation theolgy in the PCA only to be mocked and called a racist. But I digress.

There is a better way to talk about race than what we are being treated to in the currently approved narrative by the currently approved spokespersons. Randy Nabors, no stranger to the effort at racial reconciliation, has written a measured, gracious, and helpful piece wherein he holds out hope that racial reconciliation will not be replaced by reckless condemnations of white supremacy. His is one of those better voices. May the influence of Mr. Nabors and those like him grow and the voices of division and accusation either repent or fade away.

In which I chat to Tony Payne and talk about Robert Burns

I recently had the pleasure of doing a podcast with Tony Payne, of Moore College, Sydney, in which we talked about the piety of the Reformation and Reformers.  You can find it here.  We also chatted briefly about the greatest literary description of the impact of Protestant piety upon the households of ordinary, rural people: Robert Burns’s great poem, The Cotter’s Saturday Night, a beautiful poetic account of the preparations for the Lord’s Day in the house of a poor crofter.  NB: It is not me reciting the poem or playing the bagpipes on the podcast.  But kudos to TP for including both.

A Few Questions About the New CBMW Statement

I see that CBMW has a new document named the Nashville Statement, calling the church to faithful witness to God’s purposes for human sexuality. I share their concerns for speaking out against the damage and pain caused by the sexual revolution. I share their zeal for promoting holiness and to make known the good news of redemption in Christ available to all. But as I read the 14 articles, I had some serious questions still unanswered. The impact from the Trinity debate, of which CBMW was of central concern, and the teachings on masculinity and femininity that have been taught from their website, at their conferences, and by their most well-known leaders, still hasn’t been dealt with.
One year ago, Denny Burk became the new president of CBMW and wrote a post denying CBMW’s connection with the unorthodox teaching of ESS (Eternal Subordination of the Son). He promoted a “big tent” complementarianism that included differing views of the Trinity. I wrote an article then, hoping to get actual retractions of the harmful CBMW teaching about the Trinity and troubling teaching on manhood and womanhood. It was called What Denny Burk Could Do. I ended with this:
I would love to see CBMW clean house and actually be the leaders they write about sometimes, I really would. But I am not going to accept a veneer of concern without real change. At this point it appears that all the proponents of ESS will still be people of influence there. No one from CBMW has made a statement retracting the teaching on ESS/ERAS/EFS, rather they continue even in Strachan’s resignation announcement to promote his book that teaches it. They continue to assure us that it is orthodox. And none of Ware or Grudem’s writings on it have been retracted either. They are all leaders there still. Nor has there been any explanation or apology for the Sanctified Testosterone teaching or Soap Bubble Submission (although that particular post has disappeared). Nothing. All of that teaching needs to be retracted, with apologies at this point, for CBMW to have any credit in my book. Denny Burk could lead the way in doing that.
Before that, I made a plea to CBMW, asking them to take a firm stance on the Trinity. Here we are a year later with a new statement from CBMW, signed by many of the proponents of ESS/ERAS/EFS, and those who formerly supported this teaching but have now backed away from it. Looking back a year later, I would have loved to see CBMW lead the way in retracting the unorthodox, harmful teaching from their own movement and leaders. I would have loved to see some apologies for leading people in such error and for calling some of us names who pointed it out. I would have loved to see men and women invited to sign off on orthodox teaching that doesn’t reduce men and women to stereotypes. But this was not the case. And now we have this new statement, which makes me ask more questions:
• What do they mean by “divinely ordained differences between male and female” in Article 4? I agree with the words themselves. But CBMW hasn’t retracted their teaching on eternal subordination of women by God’s design. Just last year, sessions from their conference “The Beauty of Complementarity” connected ESS/EFS to complementarianism in an ontological context of authority and submission. Just last year they promoted the release of Owen Strachen and Gavin Peacock’s book, The Grand Design, which taught this very connection (and is endorsed by others also signing the Nashville Statement). 

• And if this is not the case, then I have to wonder why include CBMW proponents of ESS who used this teaching in conjunction with masculinity and femininity such as Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, and Owen Strachen, as signatories?  I looks to me like this is still the accepted teaching. How else should I read it?

• CBMW also hasn’t retracted any of the hyper-authoritarian, hyper-machismo teaching about manhood and their hyper-submissive and stereotypical teaching about womanhood. Instead, I have seen much more of the same by some of their popular leaders. So once again, I wonder if this is what applies to their “divinely ordained differences”?

• Are these divinely ordained differences ultimately expressed in sex and marriage and authority and submission? The statement says nothing about friendship. God didn’t design the two sexes only for marriage. What about how we were designed for the new heavens and the new earth? Where’s the brother/sister language? This is an important part of our sexuality that carries over into our eternal bodies when we will not marry. The church needs to speak more into how we were created for communion with the Triune God and with one another in platonic—intimate but non-erotic—relationships. This too is a faithful witness against the sexual revolution and for promoting one another’s holiness. And a great hope for those who suffer with same sex attraction.

There are people whom I have much respect for who have signed this Nashville Statement. I am not trying to bash anyone or insinuate that everyone who signed or was involved in writing this has some sort of ESS agenda. But I am concerned that so much has been overlooked. CBMW wants to be our leading voice in what they call biblical manhood and womanhood. A year ago, I was hoping CBMW would lead the way and make things right. Now, I just see rebranding. You can’t pretend that there were no problems with your whole movement and then continue to try and lead the way with a new statement. If you continue to teach harmful stereotypes and promote unorthodox teachers that are not in line with Nicene Trinitarian doctrine, you can’t be a trusted name for me no matter how many good signatures you get. Thankfully, I belong to a confessional church that already has statements to which I subscribe.

A Little Ol’ Fashioned Diversity

It seems that in the Reformed(ish) world there is only one approved narrative regarding race and racial reconciliation. Indeed, any voice which dissents even mildly from the approved message is ignored and/or vilified by the great and the good.

Perhaps the recognized white leaders of big reformed(ish) evangelicalism are under the impression that our African American brothers and sisters are a monolith with one voice and one perspective. Either that or their hostility toward dissent keeps them from acknowledging the diversity of views among our A.A. brothers and sisters. I have seen a white pastor refer in writing to an African American sister in Christ as “ignorant” because she dared dissent from the obsession with race so in fashion today. This white pastor, it seems, knows more about racism than she does.

If you are interested at all in hearing some of the diversity among our African American brothers and sisters I would encourage you to check out the following:

Gabriel Williams (Here and Here)

Darrell Harrison

Lisa Robinson (Here and Here)

B.A.R. podcast

I do not supply these links because these men and women all agree with each other (or with me) all the time. I direct you to them because the current gatekeepers of the discussion surrounding race and racial reconciliation are ignoring them.