Can BDSM be “Redeemed”?

Almost four years ago, I changed direction in life. I had been working with a few churches, doing consulting work and building relationships with the communities I worked for, trying to help both leaders and laity to understand themselves and each other. One of the recurring “issues” I kept running into was over sexuality and sexual behavior. As you know, Christianity has had a difficult decade where it concerns teachings on sexual behavior. But , like the mythological hydra, while the most visible debates have been concerned with homosexuality, other questions and concerns have come to light. Rethinking the role of women in the Protestant Church has led to unprecedented changes in the “voice” of Christianity as names like Beth Moore, Rachel Held Evans, and Joyce Meyer regularly silence the patriarchy. And while some religious leaders would like to dismiss these voices, they have been so strong that – to the surprise of millions – the Church has begun making changes to their theology. What began as a “grassroots” discussion has caused the Latter-day Saints to make significant changes in their missionary protocols for females. William P. Young’s The Shack instigated new discussions about the feminine – even ethnic – qualities of the Trinity. The Catholic Church vigilantly scrutinizes Pope Francis’ verbiage for hints that he may reverse millennia-old patriarchal tradition and allow for a stronger role of women in church affairs. And then there are, of course, the changes to and caused many seminaries (including the one I attended) to camp out with the questions these changes have brought about. Sociologists have already begun to stake out their denominations and cultures to see how these changes might begin to reconstruct communities long-entrenched in misogyny. However, this is not where our survey ends. In fact, it’s not even what this article is about.

As an academic (I have two master’s degrees and am making plans for another “tour of duty” with my doctorate), one of my frustrations with much of cultural survey is the way that it cherry-picks information, isolating all variables to make a point. While I may seem long-winded in finally arriving at my thesis here, what I mean to suggest is that each of these changes as they regard women in the church are one piece of a larger reconsideration taking place on sex, sexuality, and sexual expression. Restricted though this is, I sincerely believe that the discussions taking place about women in visible leadership roles, the welcoming and affirming of gays, and new dialogue about sexual expression is all part of the same conversation. Put another way, I do not believe that any of us involved in discussing one of these topics can divorce ourselves from any of the others.

We are all, I believe, the same and in some very real way, looked at in a certain light. The Shack is the same thing as Fifty Shades of Grey. In another light, while The Shack might cause us to question the gender and ethnicity of the Godhead, Fifty Shades of Grey might cause us to question the providence of God and how it is that the most innocent among us can be aroused and delight in submission, flagellation, and self-sacrifice. To the Christian, these words arouse familiar ideas – if you’ll pardon the play on words. Loving someone enough to endure their violence and cathartically work through their darkest emotional turmoil has been the metanarrative of salvation. Indeed, for most Christians, salvation cannot be conceived of without the seductive pull of a dominant (God) and submissive (Jesus). And, were we to break down the numbers, I don’t think it would be a surprise to see that a large – dare I say majority – of those who read Fifty Shades are Christians; my background in literature positively screams for me to dissect why E.L. James would name one of her main characters Christian and the other Anastasia (Greek for “resurrection”). The story is familiar – a rapturous love that lifts us out of the mundane, helps us rewrite our experiences, and delivers us from evil?

More than anything, what Fifty Shades indicates to me is that something is missing in the Church’s teaching on sexual behavior. This is a loaded statement, of course, and bound to be misunderstood in a hundred different ways but I think that might even be a good thing. I must decline to say what that “missing piece” is, as there are ways in which even I do not understand what that piece might be. Still, with the popularity of these books and the changes we are seeing in the Church comes an awareness that traditional teachings on how sexuality should be lived out are severely lacking, even out of touch with sexual behavior. Those who wish to hold on to the “traditional” view of sexuality (male and female, within marriage, facing one another for “intimacy,” going as slow as the slower partner needs to feel comfortable, male satisfied first, always with the awareness of and intention for procreation) seem to be shockingly out of touch with the history of Christianity or the historical contexts that they idealize. By the time of Jesus, several rabbis had already begun committing their ideas to print in the Talmud, stating that those who desired a celibate life (like the Essenes and, at least for particular seasons, the Nazarites) were going against God’s will – sexual congress should take place on the Sabbath, if not every other day (and night) of the week, because it was the holiest of days when one was closest to God. Historians believe that the Jewish thrust for regular sex had more to do with racial issues – wanting a “pure” and continued Jewish race, than it ever did with having sex “unto God” but going a step further, Jesus challenges this idea of regular sex being a good thing. One of his most radical asides was when he said that some people would be sexless in the kingdom of God, but they would still be a part of the kingdom nonetheless (see Matt. 19 and Rev. 14). Paul would go even further in his first letter to the Corinthians, saying he wished “all” were celibate like he was. Shockingly, in Galatians 5, Paul (humorously?) suggests that castration brings a devotee closer to God – a line of thought which will go increasingly askew in the centuries that follow.

Leaping forward and across the machinations of movement, by the time we arrive in America at the turn of the 20th Century, Christian communities are in a new tension. Celibacy is no longer the moral dilemma, the reinstitution of polygamy is. Along with a growing awareness of what Freud will name “homosexuality.” The Oneida community of New York practiced “complex marriage” (sharing of spouses). Joseph Smith marries a 14yo girl; she is not his first or only wife. The “Christian” idea of sex, sexuality, and sexual behavior is a percolating pot of dogged misunderstandings and half-understood truths.

Which brings me to my primary concern – can BDSM (Bondage Discipline Sadism Masochism) be “redeemed” by Christianity? That is, acknowledging the ways that our current forms of spirituality condemn us for what we are already doing (sex that is not “traditional”) and acknowledging the ways that Christian history is more diverse than we might have thought. Naturally, what I am suggesting is a broader form of “Christianity” than traditionalists might allow for. It is a safe statement that the Oneida community was “cultish” but what of Joseph Smith, the prophet of Mormonism? Should we cut off large segments of Christendom because of the actions of their leaders? And where do we stop – should Pentecostals be dismissed because of names like Charles Parham or Jimmy Swaggart? Or what of Martin Luther King Jr., whose “social gospel” was so out-of-step with his white ministerial colleagues?

In welcoming these names to the tapestry of Christianity, we welcome a hurricane of questions that make our systematic theological structures increasingly difficult to keep bolted down. And this, I propose is a good thing because when we consider sexual behavior, we have numerous precedents set that allow for diversity. Is it possible to enjoy being cuffed to a bed and called names on Friday night without having to repent come Sabbath? Is it not iconoclastic to suggest (and I might suggest this quite strongly) that Christians have readily taken to the Fifty Shades marketing campaign because it is familiar to them? It either implicitly “allows” them to do what they are already doing because it follows familiar tropes of submission-to-satisfaction or because it encourages Christians to rethink their behavior, to discuss it, to be given permission to exercise creativity that has been suppressed for so long. And, what is more, where applicable, Christians might be encouraged to explore their sexuality to “redeem” it from those who would shame them or cause them to believe that anything other than the traditional is profane.

The implications of this are astounding. When Christians are empowered to think for themselves – to use the mental and emotional faculties they have been bestowed with by God, rather than following the dictates of a local religious potentate – they are part of a long tradition theologically as well as sexually and there is no reason to be afraid of this endeavor. Contrary to the pessimistic readings of the Barna Group and Pew Research Center, Christendom is pioneering what can only be called a Renaissance. Much like Jesus predicted, “greater works” are taking place every day as they “redeem” or “repurpose” those areas that once seemed so threatening, foreign, even sinful. These changes are not without cautious hesitation. The Garden of Eden’s great myth is that we can be seduced by great ideas, and the “advances” as they regard sexuality are not to be taken casually, but where we see holistic congruence in the life of a believer, male or female, straight or gay, dominant or submissive, we see the work of God taking place.