These are the very graphic verses where Jesus talks about …
…cutting off your hand, plucking out your eye, and hell.
I want to talk about this. Not just to understand what the passage might mean but also because I think we should have a feel for how to approach these verses in the first place.
It’s not like they’re the only New Testament verses where Jesus uses this imagery; you’ll find similar in Matthew 5:29-30, right after the verse about how looking at a woman lustfully is adultery. The thing is, no one genuinely believes that men should pluck out their eyes after they lust. So, if we’re ever to going to get traction with the idea that men are responsible for how they look at women, then we also need to reckon with Mark 9:42-49.
What’s more, Mark’s account is longer and lays it on thick with references to the ‘worm that does not die’ and the ‘fire that is not quenched’. Out of the two then, Mark’s rendering of Jesus’ words is the more difficult to tackle.
I reckon one of the biggest chasms between Christian thought and sex-positive thinking comes down to how we understand the word “flesh” in the New Testament. Or in the Greek, σαρξ.
The word appears 147 times and in the NIVUK translation it gets rendered 53 times as either “flesh” or “body”, 23 times as “sinful nature”, and a further 58 times with other meanings, translated either on its own or in conjunction with other words. These uses refer to something associated with humanity or earthliness, ranging from neutral terms like “human ancestry” to loaded terms like “perversion”. (And untranslated 13 times for those who want the maths.)
Of the times that sarx is rendered as flesh or body, the context is often negative, emphasising weakness or mortality.
What’s more, the NIVUK repeatedly translates sarx as ‘flesh’ in Galatians 5. That’s the passage where Paul writes this:
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (NIVUK)
Upshot: it’s very, very easy to come away from the New Testament thinking that flesh is bad, bodies are bad, and anything to do physical pleasure is very, very bad. This is particularly the case for Paul, whose letters account for 20 of the 23 times sarx is translated as “sinful nature”.
One of my bugbears about the church in the UK and US, is the strong emphasis of non-conformity.
We’re told to be like Daniel and show our distinctiveness. We have to be bold like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who would face the fiery furnace sooner than bow down to the Babylonian king. As Paul put it in Romans 12:2, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world.”
Last week, I met up with a good friend, also a blogger, whose areas of interest overlap with mine particularly in regard to consent and feminism. Though she’s not a Christian, a few months ago I had asked if she would read chapter 6 of Tim and Kathy Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2013). For those less familiar, this is where Kathy Keller squarely sets out her complementarian theology and how she found joy accepting the ‘divinely assigned’ role of her gender by submitting to her husband Tim.
I asked my friend Amy to read it because I wanted a second opinion. I felt Kathy sounded eerily like a woman who’d been conditioned to believe she was a ‘submissive’ in the BDSM sense, even though she wasn’t one – much like Ana in Fifty Shades of Grey (click here for what I mean by ‘BDSM’ and ‘submissive’).
Amy had been through an abusive 24/7 dominant/submissive relationship and she blogs regularly about BDSM, so I was interested to know her thoughts. Also, as someone who isn’t in the church, and who hasn’t exited the church, she didn’t have any theological axes to grind.
I got a flavour of her reaction when she messaged me the day before we met up:
So… it’s okay that my notes on this book contain a lot of RAGE CAPS, right? 😀
When we met she read her comments to me a little hesitantly, in case she was being too scathing in her criticisms. She needn’t have worried. From my perspective it was satisfying to hear her name several of my key complaints against this chapter and complementarianism in general.
But what surprised me was her take on the Trinity.
1 Corinthians 11:3. Ephesians 5:22. If you’ve been anywhere near the arguments about complementarianism you’ll probably know what these verses say about women without having to look them up. Even if you don’t, you’ll definitely be familiar with what people have said they mean.
Several of my reads in 2017 were about the role and place of women. There were moments I was ready to write very long thank you letters to the authors; other times, I filled the margins with angry scribbles. Here are some short reviews of:
The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity
It is 500 years to the day (well, sort of, if we don’t worry about the shift to the Gregorian calendar) since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses onto the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenburg, on 31 October 1517. His actions kicked off the reformation – a movement during which the protestant denominations split away from the Roman Catholic church.
Coming from a protestant background, this seems a fitting time for me to write 95 short statements on the themes of this blog. Of course, they don’t cover everything! But you’ll find in them thoughts and theologies that either have been, or will be, very much an integral part of my writing. (And when I’m cribbing someone else’s work, I’ve put their name in brackets.) I’ve split them into ten categories:
I just remembered that I can reblog from other sites. So, here is part 2 of the modesty series I’ve been writing for Ezer Rising.
by Christine Woolgar It might have escaped your notice, but Hogwarts has a dress code. In having a uniform, Hogwarts’ follows mainstream practice in UK primary and secondary schools (that is, those for pupils up to the age of 16). Uniforms certainly differ, but regardless of how a school is funded, they all have […]
So… the fabulous Sierra White has asked me to share some thoughts on modesty for her Facebook page Ezer Rising (and blog: Ezer Rising), which (if you didn’t know) is committed to sharing content about women’s equality from a Christian perspective.
First thing I’ll say is that I’m going to approach modesty in a way that I haven’t seen done elsewhere. Not because other ways are necessarily wrong or flawed, but because different ways of looking at things work for different people. And sometimes a different perspective can help us appreciate things that we hadn’t seen before.
For the Christians reading this, this also means I’m not going to start with Bible passages to make my case. I love the Bible, but if we start with a question like “What does the Bible say about modesty?” then it’s very easy to look for the word “modesty” and find ourselves constrained to considering only a few passages. Instead of doing that, I’ll step back and ask “What is modesty?” You can then go away and weigh my ideas against what you find in the Bible. (Or not, if the Bible isn’t really your book.)
I recently had the privilege of being able to guest post on the blog of Ashley Easter. She asked me to write about how I understand consent – what it is and what it isn’t. Over 5,500 words later (and more hours than I counted) the essay was complete. I hadn’t meant for it to be that long, but it roughly breaks down into three segments:
Understanding sex and consent in context
Giving and receiving consent
Bad consent and withdrawing consent
I will repost the contents of it on this blog in a few months time, but meanwhile I wanted to post this picture. It’s a zoomed-out version of the full essay and everything highlighted in red is something my husband and I didn’t know when we married. Seriously!
I was recently asked if the idea of ‘the One’ was biblical and I decided to blog about it as I think it’s essentially a question about how romance relates to hope.
The very boring short answer is No, for the simple reason that many modern romance narratives (including the idea of ‘soul-mates’ and the ‘One True Love’) have literary origins which are much later than the Bible.
But that doesn’t answer much more interesting questions like whether God intends everyone to experience romantic affection or whether a Christian can expect to meet their ‘One’ miraculously.
So, I’ve put a few thoughts on the boring short question in an appendix, and have written a post that tries to address those questions instead. Also, because the original question asked about the Bible, I’ve framed most of my answers using examples from it.
So: is the idea of ‘the One’ consistent with the Bible?
I’m going to say more no than yes.
It’s not that God never does bring ‘the One’ into a Christian’s life (he does), but specifically expecting that God will do this makes too many assumptions about life and how God works. And it encourages too many unhelpful behaviours.
Only hope that is robust enough to engage with the reality of death is worthy of the name. 
I’ve always loved science fiction and fantasy for its way of playing with ideas – and there are plenty that play with dystopian alternate realities from which heroes and innocents are saved.
Three such SF&F stories have stayed with me over the years: from Star Trek: Voyager, Xena: Warrior Princess and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (And consider this your spoiler alert if you carry on reading.)
With their different qualities, each story says something about hope – a topic that I keep coming back to and whose mention was no accident in my Twitter name @hope4greyplaces. However, what is also intriguing about these stories is some of the ways in which their understanding of hope differs from the Christian understanding and the theology of Juergen Moltmann. And, I dare say, the implications are far-reaching.
The way I see it, if you’re looking to have great sex with the same person for the rest of your life, there are three strands to work on:
Being a decent human being
Understanding the body
Using your imagination
Much sex advice focuses only on one or two of these, or (worse) focuses too much on detailed points or ideas without first asking other questions to give context. But the “key” to a lasting and satisfying sex life is never “just this” or “just that”. It’s the combination of many positive factors working well together and the absence of negative factors that would hinder it. So let’s have a look at these three strands and some of the sex advice given in relation to them.
I recently wrote a post in which I mentioned that my husband and I went for psychosexual therapy (you can find it here: On the receiving end of sex – why it’s not just about giving). Much to my surprise, I was soon contacted by someone asking about the therapy – because they and their spouse were also thinking about it. Our correspondence was only brief, but in that time I learned that they, like my husband and me, were Christians and that they came from an evangelical background. Now, I don’t currently identify as an evangelical, but evangelicalism certainly influenced how I was brought up and how I thought about sex. So perhaps it was unsurprising that I felt for this person and ached to tell them something that would be of benefit to them. So I went away, thought about it, and wrote this (quite long) collection of thoughts. (If you’re after something short and sweet on what sex is about in the first place, try this: The key to lifelong sex? Get the right advice.)
It’s no secret that the majority of named people in the Bible are men. As a woman brought up in a Christian household, it was important to me to be informed about the women in the Bible, including Esther. She is, after all, one of only two women who has a whole book named after her.
I read the story as a child, lapping up the arrogance and doom of the “vile Haman” who plotted to destroy the Jews, as well as the beauty and courage of Esther who spoke up for her people. I didn’t really get why chapter 10 was all about her uncle Mordecai and I didn’t think too much about the vengeance massacres in the later chapters. I knew that the book didn’t mention God but only because my mother had told me it didn’t and the children’s versions I read talked about God a lot.
All in all, I thought I knew the story pretty well, but the truth is I didn’t really know it at all. What brought me to this realisation is what I would call the best book I read in 2015: Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought, by Aaron Koller (Cambridge University Press). It is an academic book and comes with a pricey price tag, but I cannot recommend it enough to anyone who’s serious about in-depth Bible study. Here are some of the things it taught me.
EDIT: this post is aimed at people who feel guilty about being pleasured. If you want to read about consent and negotiating for mutual enjoyment as part of a long-term sex relationship, I recommend this post on Ashley Easter’s blog.
The ‘always be giving’ myth
Every now and then I read something that suggests that if you’re not on the giving end of sex, you’re doing it wrong. The argument follows a few leaps of logic:
It is better to give than to receive;
Therefore, to desire your own pleasure is to put yourself before your intimate partner;
Therefore, if you’re not giving, you’re abusing.
If you’re in a sexual relationship and you’re never or rarely at the giving end of sex (or not nearly as often as your intimate partner), then that points to an imbalance and imbalances raise questions about the overall health of the relationship.
But I cannot reconcile myself to a model of sex where the expectation is that you must always be giving. Or, to put it another way: I cannot reconcile myself to the idea that a healthy sexual relationship means you should always be contributing to the pleasure of your intimate partner.