If, unlike me, you're a loyal Rolling Stone reader, you might have noticed an article a couple weeks ago by Jeff Sharlet, entitled "The Young and the Sexless." Sharlet's article focused on how a "new generation of young men and women are embracing the celibate life."

That's interesting. Its like Christian kids just found out about the ancient practice of abstinence and thought they'd revive it like some defunct fashion statement come round for another whirl. The article was posted in Rolling Stone's News section, I might note.

"Chastity is a new organizing principle of the Christian right, built on the notion that virgins are among God's last loyal defenders, knights and ladies of a forgotten kingdom..."

To Sharlet's credit, by the fourth paragraph he made the admission that the practice of celibacy is one dating at least to the early church, but he quickly moves on to say that its a practice that Protestants are "reclaiming."

I just don't get it. While its a decent article, its quite focused on the sexual aspects (ironically) and written with an air of almost imperceptible disdain. At times, it even touches on some very good points. But how the author or anyone else can wonder and marvel at this crazy new fad is beyond me. I admit there were the very sexual cultural rebellions that took place a few decades back, but even then, is it impossible to think there were young people out there choosing not to engage in what the rest of the world was carelessly experimenting with?

The issue here is that at any time (at least that I can think of, in relatively recent history), the movement for celibacy has been quiet, small, and abnormal. But not new. Very much like scientists discovering a "new" species - its only new to them - how long its been around is, in large part, beyond their ability to determine. Its quiet because it feels no need to laud itself - and perhaps at times its somewhat ashamed of not fitting in with cultural norms. Its small because its not something that's well-taught and admired, sadly even within the church, at certain times. And its abnormal because its not easy to do. Not in the slightest.

As sexually focused as the article is, I found it poignantly sad that it never really even got to the core of what Christians believe sex is: the clearest humanly-possible foretaste of our ultimate heavenly communion with God himself. The virtue of chastity itself was so exalted at points that the Gospel message felt rather left by the wayside. Which, of course, is an easy thing to do - I don't maintain that the Christian message of sex as our ultimate earthly picture of the eternity that awaits God's elect is an easy message to convey.

I suppose it presents quite the lacuna in modern Christian published thought - if society (and indeed the church, first-off) could understand what it is that Christianity understands sex to be, and why, the abstinence movement might not suffer the fate of being continually discovered as such a shocking news item.

We may, indeed, be sure that perfect chastity - like perfect charity - will not be attained by any merely human efforts. You must ask for God's help. Even when you have done so, it may seem to you for a long time that no help, or less help than you need, is being given. Never mind. After each failure, ask forgiveness, pick yourself up, and try again. Very often what God first helps us towards is not the virtue itself but just this power of always trying again. For however important chastity (or courage, or truthfulness, or any other virtue) may be, this process trains us in habits of the soul which are more important still. It cures our illusions about ourselves and teaches us to depend on God. We learn, on the one hand, that we cannot trust ourselves even in our best moments, and, on the other, that we need not despair even in our worst, for our failures are forgiven. The only fatal thing is to sit down content with anything less than perfection...

Finally, though I have had to speak at some length about sex, I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the centre of Christian morality is not here. If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and back-biting; the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither. -- C.S. Lewis

1 comment:

Jeremy Pierce said...

I think you're operating under a false impression. What's new about this and what's got him a little disdainful about it isn't so much the virginity/chastity angle but the merging of that with some pop culture items and the coolness factor. Things like masturbands are new and do not reflect the 2000-year history of the church. They're more like the phylacteries whose misuse Jesus condemned than anything else in the last 2000 years. There are so many features of these cultural tendencies that really are new, and many of them are new since my college graduation 9 years ago. I'm certainly not going to be uncritical about the article. I've said plenty of things about it, some of them critical, but I wouldn't say that the contempt is for the older ideas that you're saying aren't new. It's for some of the pop culture format that these ideas are being portrayed within.