Based on my Facebook Newsfeed the latest thing driving many Christian evangelicals to distraction is . . . the Grammys. Apparently, Natalie Grant, who was nominated for two gospel Grammy awards, walked out, because — surprise! — not all of the songs/performances were of the gospel/conservative variety. This isn’t what she said, of course. What she said was that she had “many thoughts” about the awards show, “most of which are probably better left inside [her] head,” and that she’s “never been more honored to sing about and for Jesus” — the implication, of course, is that singing about and for Jesus is becoming rare despite the fact that (1) there are hundreds of thousands of choirs in churches that sing about and for Jesus every Sunday and (2) doing so (i.e. “singing about and for Jesus”) has made Grant a very wealthy woman (i.e. not destitute b/c an unpopular career choice).
Natalie Grant walking out of the Grammys = Christian evangelicals claiming her as their bff. And so begins the speculation about which “shockingly unChristian” performances deserve the loudest protest. Some go straight for the opening number: the “shockingly unChristian” Beyoncé/Jay-Z performance, in which the two performers — a married couple — are very . . . ahem . . . into each other.
In response, Alyssa Rosenberg took to thinkprogress to argue: “if conservatives want to sell Americans on marriage, maybe they have to talk more about the bliss half of wedded bliss, to think about the desire part of making marriage desirable . . . the smartest thing they could do right now is to hire Beyoncé and Jay-Z as a product spokescouple.”
As the always-brilliant Natalie Leppard points out, the argument is null and void, in a way, since Beyoncé and Jay-Z are first and foremost performers. The song doesn’t purport to be about Christian marriage nor does the fact that they’re singing it mean that it’s about their marriage, any more than Robert Browning penning “My Last Duchess” means that he wanted to murder Elizabeth Barrett Browning (I had to explain this to a student once).
Still, I’m simultaneously horrified and thankful that such debates are happening, since they expose slut-shaming and victim-blaming rhetoric (the horrified-part), thereby giving us the opportunity to challenge it (the thankful-part).
Complaint #1: “I’m angry, because my children wanted to watch the Grammys, and I had to turn the channel.”
Response #1: The Grammys aren’t marketed to children. If children are old enough to be up at 8:00pm and beyond to watch the Grammys, they should be old enough to handle the conversations the songs and performances provoke.
Complaint #2: “I’m angry, because Beyoncé and Jay-Z are making people lust and therefore hurting them.”
Response #2: Don’t watch the Grammys if it makes you lust, and you think lust is bad — but don’t argue that because the Grammys makes you lust, it shouldn’t exist in the world.
Complaint #3: “I’m angry, because it’s Beyoncé’s responsibility, as a woman, to be modest and therefore prevent men from lusting.” (Dear Reader: I. kid. you. not.)
Response #3: Note the move to dangerous “blame the victim” territory here, just a step away from: “if a woman dresses ‘provocatively,’ she’s making a man ‘lust after’ her and is partly to blame for her rape.”
Also note: the Taliban makes ^this^ argument for burqas.
Fact: Women in burqas get raped too. You *never* blame the victim.
Even playing by their own rules (e.g. quoting Matthew 5:28), Christian evangelicals are wrong, and their argument (perhaps more than any other I’ve come across) evinces a misunderstanding of both Jesus the man and Jesus’s teachings.
As Matthew Skinner, Associate Professor of the New Testament at Luther Seminary, argues in “The Parables: Understanding Jesus’s Strange Good News,”
“Most of Jesus’ parables include a preposterous element or two. Someone apparently unaware of cost-benefit analysis leaves 99 sheep alone and vulnerable in the wilderness to look for one that got away. The reign of God grows from a tiny seed not into a magnificent cedar but into a mustard shrub, an invasive plant — certain to stick around but a serious nuisance to our carefully planned landscaping priorities. A father whose son has utterly disgraced him not only welcomes the loser home but spots him from a distance and runs to embrace him. (Dignified men did not run in antiquity. At least, not unless they were in athletic contests. Or something was chasing them.)
That is, there’s always something a little off in these parables. The parables are not mere moralisms, exhorting people to tidy up their lives. They are ways for Jesus to announce realities about life with God that are at once familiar (his listeners knew well how it goes with losing sheep) and radically different (absurd, from the perspective offered by conventional wisdom). Those are the places for our imaginations to linger and consider what kinds of comparisons the parables encourage us to draw between our status quo and the desires of God.
A shepherd who walks away from 99 sheep in the wilderness to locate one is irresponsible, a fool. Could it be that God’s commitment to humanity is so all-encompassing that it appears recklessly obsessive, utterly frustrating to our typical methods of moral and religious calculation?
A parent eager to forgive a wayward child is a welcome sight if you’re the one who’s returning home, but the neighbors will grumble about the dangerous consequences stemming from authority figures who behave so indulgently. Could it be that God’s willingness to forgive and restore is so overwhelming that God will risk the chance of being made to look like a chump?
Jesus’ parables are supposed to be weird. Their atypical elements are supposed to rattle us — not simply because strangeness possesses motivational shock-value, but because what Jesus announces is genuinely unsettling.
The parables, like a poem wielding a poignant metaphor, rouse our creativity from the patterns imposed by normal expectations, especially religious ones. Jesus’ parables make us consider life and our place in it differently. They make us dream of outcasts getting seats at lavish banquets, and the trouble this can cause.
Their point isn’t to summon us to the heights of a single, otherworldly meaning. In lively and even uncontrollable ways, Jesus’ parables prompt us to imagine how God, in the here and now, surprises and even subverts our regular perspectives and convictions about what’s possible.
And all this usually strikes people as rather absurd.”
In this particular Facebook debate, Christian evangelicals use Matthew 5:28 to argue that “anyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. So . . . we as women shouldn’t make it so easy for men to lust after us.”
Here, Jesus is doing what he does best. According to the context, the religious leaders of the day were wanting to stone women for adultery and allow men to divorce their wives on a whim (thereby leaving them destitute). Jesus turns their judgment on its head by saying that if you so much as *think* lustfully, you’ve committed adultery.
This would have struck his audience then and should strike us now as absurd. To be condemned not for action but thought? It’s Minority Report:
Sexual desire is essentially human, and Jesus knew that. He was making everyone “guilty,” thereby exonerating accused women. In creating a situation where no one could throw stones, he was defending women, protecting them, saving their lives — NOT condemning them.
Fast forward to 2014 and his acts of compassion and mercy are being used for condemnation and judgment of women and their sexual choices — the very thing that he, in a brilliant rhetorical move, defended publicly.
In the sermon “Getting in Line Behind the Prostitutes and the Traitors,” Dr. Roger Ray admits: “I realized many years ago that the Jesus of the gospels was tolerant of everything except intolerance. He was a friend to tax collectors and sinners. He hung out with prostitutes and the rejects of society but the only people he ever insulted, yelled at or condemned were religious leaders who passed judgment on others and that is a consistent element of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.”
So, dear Christian evangelicals: if you want to be offended, fine. Be offended that people go to bed hungry, that children in countries devoid of child labor laws make your clothes, that an obsession with cheap meat has made animal cruelty the norm.
Otherwise, get over yourselves. After all, as my Natalie (Leppard, not Grant) says: “unlike [you], the Grammys are being gracious and not coming into [your] churches and saying, hey, you look sexually repressed, so here’s some overtly sexy stuff for you to wear now or you’re going to burn in hell. It’s all Puritanical bs.”