Open Mic Thread 38


The open mic thread is where you have the floor and can raise or discuss issues of your choice. There is no such thing as off-topic here. The comments of this thread are free for you to:

  • Discuss things that you have been reading/listening to/watching recently
  • Share interesting links
  • Share stimulating discussions in comment threads
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  • Draw our intention to worthy thinkers, charities, ministries, books, and events
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  • Suggest topics for future posts
  • Use as a bulletin board
  • Etc.

Over to you!

Earlier open mic threads:
123456789101112131415161718192021222324, 25, 26,27, 28,29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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63 Responses to Open Mic Thread 38

  1. Chris W says:

    I left this comment on your Evangelicalism series post, but it didn’t appear in the feed for some reason.

    You may enjoy this piece from a Southern Baptist, which basically argues that evangelicalism (in its modern form) is essentially the most successful form of Christian capitalism:

    There is some overlap with your thoughts, but obviously his treatment is from a much more mainstream evangelical perspective.

  2. Hi Alastair. Appreciated your thoughts in the last open-mic thread about the compromises we may have to make in choosing churches in our locality. On a related topic, you’ve said quite a bit about the “fighting shepherd” pastor, pastors needing more backbone, greater ability to deal with oppositional discourse, etc. You’ve also suggested that the traditional expository sermon should be modified somewhat (sitting down, table-talk w/ eucharist, less dependence on rhetorical devices, etc.). For all that you’ve said on that, I’m either persuaded or highly sympathetic and persuadable (I need to hear you out more about the nature of the sermon).

    If we were going for something like that as a goal, what would we need to do to prepare future pastors (or perhaps, what would we need to do to better select potential pastors prior to education)? My guess is that even traditional theological education would need some changes. Anyway – would be interested if you’ve given this some thought. Thanks.

    • I just noticed that I never responded to your comment. I haven’t given your important question enough thought. My instinct would be to encourage a form of pastoral training that is far more concentrated in the local church and on apprenticeship. I would argue that churches should play much more of a role in selecting candidates and that they should select them primarily for themselves. They should be apprenticed as deacons to the elders. The primary training of the pastor should be training in wise dealing with people; doctrinal knowledge is important, but secondary to this. Pastors and elders should primarily be older men (50+), with the authority that comes with age. Pastoring should be more clearly distinguished from teaching: many people are equipped to be good teachers but aren’t equipped to be pastors. Such teaching can be a deaconal role, under the authority of the overseers and pastor. We need to distinguish more between the skills of the scholar and the skills of the pastor. The pastor should be a student of Scripture and theology, but he is not primarily a scholar. Giftedness as a scholar is not sufficient to make one a good pastor.

    • Ha! I have MANY thoughts on that whole kerfuffle, but few that I am happy to share in a public setting.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        “Frankly, despite my many frustrations with Pastor Wilson—frustrations I have expressed forcefully and repeatedly in appropriate forums—I have much more time for him than for many of his critics.”

        Totally agreed.

        More generally, Christianity, all branches, has had problems dealing with physical beauty. On the one hand the worth of a person is not dependant on how physically beautiful they are; on the other hand, human physical beauty is one of the great gifts of God and one of the prime pointers to God. Put that together with the fact that we are not separate from our bodies, and we have various theological conundrums which have not been dealt with well.

      • I presumed that Wilson was presenting two extreme caricatures representing contrasting tendencies among unbelieving women. The ‘either-or’ aspect of his statement is a caricature too, one founded on the notion that, when people reject the natural order that is upheld by Christian principles, there are primarily two different ways one can go. That said, I think he is vulnerable to a charge of ‘worldviewism’ here. Even if one doesn’t hold to Christian principles, most people still have a sense of the natural order and continue to express it to some degree or other. Worldviewism just has a low view of natural law.

        The underlying point of the piece is one that deserves more careful expression and not light dismissal, though, even though Wilson’s framing of the issue might invite it. There is a sort of radiance that living as a loved, forgiven, hopeful, faithful, and joyful person will grant a person and this will often register in their physical appearance.

        To this point I would add that Christian cultures bring many other benefits for physical appearance. For instance, fewer unhealthy habits (heavy drinking, smoking, drugs, etc.), fewer daddy issues (leading to bodies that are much less likely to be extensively tattooed, heavily pierced, etc.), less exposure to mass media (greater confidence in bodies, fewer hang-ups about food, leading to healthier skin, appearance, etc.), healthy family culture (shared activities, greater sociability and playfulness, greater self-assurance, good communal eating practices), higher happiness levels and lower susceptibility to cynicism or anger (smiling always helps appearance), greater modesty in dress and less neediness for male sexual attention, etc., etc. Those things alone will do wonders for a woman’s physical appearance. However, these advantages are also enjoyed in many non-Christian cultures and are clearly lacking within certain evangelical sub-cultures.

    • Cal says:

      That’s the thing with a self-important demagogue, even truth becomes vile in his hand. And of course the martyr-complex is quite becoming of a man who goes looking for fights. He is an internet circumcellion.

      • Frankly, despite my many frustrations with Pastor Wilson—frustrations I have expressed forcefully and repeatedly in appropriate forums—I have much more time for him than for many of his critics.

      • Cal says:

        My harshness comes from certain theological sympathies.

        Comparing him to his critics is sort of being caught between a rock and a hard place. Some of his critics are enraptured by liberal sensibilities, some are naive, some are frankly outside of orthodoxy and argued sub-christianly. But Wilson, as an interlocutor and as a pastor, is a blackguard.

        I’m sure there are rays of sunshine, as God is good to the just and the unjust. I am merely airing some criticism on an obscure forum, for whomever was going to jump into this string. I’ll leave it at this.


  3. Alex says:

    Do you think it is appropriate to offer grape juice at communion for those who are alcoholics?

  4. The coming Sunday is, for the Chinese, the Mid-Autumn Festival. I wonder if any of your Chinese readers have thoughts to share about what this lunar festival means to them as Christians.

  5. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    De Boer is again crawling up the wrong tree. I fail to understand how leftism can take up the cause of inherent worth. I mean, the whole philosophy is about giving people what they want, without judgment as to worth.

    • The Man Who Was . . . says:

      De Boer likes to mock the idea that there is any significant group of people in elite institutions who are into the high arts. I think the mere existence of high art (at its best) is a chastisement to those with pop culture tastes. There may not be many people now, even at prestigious magazines or in academia, who like opera more than Taylor Swift or prefer Homer to comic books, but you don’t need a particularly large group of those people to provoke anxiety in those with poppier tastes.

      • I would enjoy opera more, and I would even wear a top hat to the opera, but I am prevented by impecunity and the desire not to be too terribly conspicuous.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        High culture still has a few redoubts, like The New Yorker magazine in the U.S. or the Oxbridge universities in the UK, and they tend to be among the most prestigious places.

  6. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    BTW, I finally got around to actually reading the first book of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s memoir/novel My Struggle. It is every bit as good as everyone says it is. He is not just good compared to novelists now, but comparable to almost any novelist in the tradition.

    I am going to read the second book fairly soon here. It’s the one where he takes up his marriage and, along with that, sex roles in modern Scandenavia.

  7. quinnjones2 says:

    Just a brief comment about my NT Greek class – in addition to learning some Greek, I am also learning something about my assumptions and I’m wondering why on earth I assumed that students of NT Greek would be Christians! One affable group member said that he is an atheist who takes a scientific interest in the Bible (he specialized in nuclear physics). I should not really have been surprised to hear this, as I already knew that other non-Christians take an interest in the Bible – for instance, Richard Dawkins takes a literary interest in the Bible. However, coming face-to-face with a NT Greek fan who is an atheist, was ….strange 🙂 . Some of my Christian friends have said for years that Satan knows the scriptures, but, at present, I see nothing demonic in this man in the group!

  8. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    Rod Dreher has a post up with lots of juicy quotes from sociologist and secularization scholar Steve Bruce here.

    Bruce is great. He has been a huge influence on my own thinking about secularism. He’s way more insightful on secularism than, for example, Charles Taylor, or James K.A. Smith in his Taylorian moods. In fact, he’s Taylor’s main antagonist in A Secular Age. Bruce’s account is not the triumphalist New Atheist “subtraction story” that Taylor needs as a foil, and so it causes Taylor no end of trouble in advancing his thesis.

    My caveat is that Bruce’s explicit theory of why secularism has advanced in the West is that there has been a failure of religious education. (This is analogous to many Catholic and Reformed people who think that they can keep their kids in the fold merely by pounding more doctrine into their heads.) But, as can be seen from the excerpts in Dreher’s post, that theory is contradicted by the details in the bulk of Bruce’s work. To state explicitly what is implicit in Bruce, science teaching (or any other explicit teaching) is not what makes people secular; rather, it is the materialistic practices of modern society, the way we live now, which make people much much less religious, much less inclined to take God or the gods seriously, than they were in the past. This also accords far better with what James K.A. Smith has to say in his cultural liturgies books than Taylor does.

    Anyway, I command you: read this book It is very much worth it.

    • Cal says:

      I don’t see how this, directly, contradicts Taylor’s approach? My impression, having read A Secular Age, is that the “heart” (sorry, can’t think of a better word) level of reasoning (i.e. imagination) has changed. It wasn’t any particular belief or any particular lack of belief. This is why Smith can employ Taylor: we need to retool an alternate social imagination.

      I’ve never read Bruce, so I don’t know what he thinks about it. But Taylor isn’t a pessimist. It seems he likes Modernity and forces a chastened, reformed social imagination (and this is why he likes Ivan Illich and Charles Peguy).

      Are you saying that Taylor’s use of the ‘subtraction theory’ makes him look like he’s tilting at windmills? Or, in other words, its such an extreme and non-influential minority that writes gnu-atheist literature, and the majority is apathetic at best; thus to construct a ‘social imagination’ out of the gnu writing, and thinking it took hold, is only setting Taylor up for failure?

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        The main thesis of the book is that secularization theory is a partisan exercise. That’s clearly is untrue in the case of Bruce. It also flies in the face of common sense.

        Because it is so hard to deny the obvious, Taylor’s all over the map. The whole book is an elaborate rationalization for why Charles Taylor just can’t believe people no longer respond to St. Francis in the same way as they used to. Well, Charles Taylor, your incredulity is neither evidence nor argument.

      • Cal says:

        Thus, what you’re saying is that secularization does not mean, by and large, tearing down the Church, but merely inhabiting its empty spaces? Does Bruce employ the ‘social imagination’ concept? Is that not unique to Taylor?

        For Charles Taylor, it’s not why don’t people care about St. Francis, but why the ‘cosmos’ is considerably different than 1500, one where God is a given. I’m still not understanding your criticism, if you could comment more at length.

        And, cards on the table: I don’t find Taylor’s explanation satisfying. I don’t believe secularization is anything but a neo-Paganism, where we have more gods than less gods. Bonhoeffer is wrong, this is not a world come of age. I think Jacques Ellul has a lot to contribute in this current age.

  9. They are issues we have discussed here before, but some of you might be interested in the post and comments here.

  10. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    Some short reviews of books I took up, but never actually finished:

    Karl Adam, The Spirit of Catholicism – Way to flowery writing. Most of the supposed “spirit of Catholicism” elucidated here applies equally to traditional confessional Protestantism. It does, however, exclude a lot of more individualist version of Protestantism.

    Ronald Knox, The Belief of Catholics – Wasn’t quite what I was looking for. Not a thick, comprehensive description of Catholicism. Some good differentiations of Catholicism from more individualist version of Protestantism. Some good explanations of how Catholicism asserts that God’s existence can be proved. A much better (and much less condescending) version of the “liar, lunatic or Lord” argument found in Lewis and Chesterton. Still, this is more of an argument for Catholicism than what I wanted.

    Aristotle, Politics – Very good discussion of various kinds of government: monarchy, oligarchy, aristocracy, democracy and their good and bad points. Very common sense stuff. Unfortunately, a bit too common common sense. The later parts of the book seemed a bit too obvious.


    Anybody, know of any really good introductions to Catholicism? In addition to the above, I’ve read Thomas P. Rausch’s Catholicism at the Dawn of the Third Millenium, which struck me at the time as a fairly bare bones recitation of the facts. Any thoughts on Robert Barron’s Catholicism book?

  11. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    What thinkest thou of the latest Doug Wilson kerfuffle? Not the beauty article thing, but the new complications surrounding the pedophile that he married. I, myself, think it was a terrible piece of bad judgment to give blessings to Mr. Sitler’s wedding. We’re now in a situation where a child can’t be alone with his father.

    I suspect a theology that expects a miraculous turnabout in too simplistic a way is partly to blame.

    I don’t think Wilson did anything wrong in his letter to the judge, and I don’t think he is some evil mastermind who manipulated the parties into this marriage.

    But he screwed up.

    • I would prefer not to comment on this in public. I have said what I want to say in appropriate contexts in private and have also been made privy to sides of the issue that haven’t received much airing in public. I was disappointed that Dreher wrote on this in the way that he did, without attending much to the other side and considering the character of some of his sources.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        Have you written to Dreher privately? I would encourage you to do so. Though you should, of course, use your judgment as to what to reveal to him. And keep in mind that no matter how good a guy his is, he is, after all, still a journalist.

        As a matter of general principle, in the matter of pedophiles who have acted or shown a propensity act on their desires I am strongly opposed to them marrying. Openness to children is essential to marriage, so a marriage involving someone with those desires will normally put them in close contact with (their own) children.

      • No, I haven’t. I have considered doing so, but I gather others have.

  12. davidrlar says:

    To continue the discussion of somewhat polarizing figures in the Reformed camp, what do you think of James White?

    • I confess to being wary of answering such questions. What is their purpose? While it might make some sense to comment on a particular controversy surrounding such a figure, I’m not sure there is much to be gained from making general statements about my estimation of such an individual without pressing cause. We are clearly rather different in our theologies and manner and I doubt either of us each really appears sharply on the other’s radar. I far prefer talking about theology than talking about my impressions of particular Christian teachers.

  13. Alex says:

    What are your thoughts on gun control? Do you think the Bible would endorse open carry rights as a matter of principle or is this something that should just come down to what works best?

    • No, I don’t think the Bible endorses open carry or gun ownership rights as a matter of principle (I don’t think it clearly rules them out either). This really is a matter of contextual prudence. To the extent that it relates to my life, I’m very thankful to live in a country with strict gun laws and little gun crime. However, if I lived in the countryside it is quite possible I would think differently. The UK situation is rather different from the US, and I really don’t think gun laws would be quite so easily imposed across the pond.

      • William Fehringer says:

        I can add a bit to this as someone in a rural area. Last year a maniac shot and killed a Pennsylvania State Trooper close to where I live, then hid himself in the woods for a drawn out battle with the police.

        Any sort of personal confrontation with the guy would have meant the police showed up in time to clean up the aftermath and file a report.

        So I was thankful for the permissive laws here that allowed me to keep a loaded gun near my bed, and for the hunting culture, that provided my sister and her two small children, who live closer to the area where the events took place, with a husband a father who has and knows how to handle guns.

        The guy was eventually captured after wandering about the forest for over a month.

    • quinnjones2 says:

      Hi William,
      I read your description and I can really picture your scenario – much though I wish that guns had never been invented in the first place, I think that owning guns must be pretty much Hobson’s Choice for you and your family!

  14. Alex says:

    I’d be curious to hear people’s thoughts on the validity and benefit of male-female non-romantic friendships. I have found friendships with females to be beneficial. I think sometimes the warnings don’t allow people to experience the real benefit of cross-sex friendships. But I may be wrong.

    • quinnjones2 says:

      In a nutshell – in my experience, all male-female relationships, including friendships, are different from and more complicated than female-female relationships, and all are valuable and part of the rich pattern. I think that discernment and wisdom play a huge part 🙂

      • quinnjones2 says:

        Alastair, this is going to be a long comment, but I think you will forgive me for that 🙂
        Alex – you have a lot of food for thought in all the responses here and I hope you find it interesting and helpful.
        Cal and Philip – I have read your posts and will respond to some of the points you made after presenting my own ‘default position’.
        When I encounter a male for the first time, I am aware that there are already many females in his life who have influenced his attitudes to females in general, and that he will bring these attitudes to his encounter with me – the females are probably (and in some cases possibly) mother, grandmothers, sister(s), aunt(s), female cousin(s), girlfriend, fiancée, wife (former wife), daughter(s), granddaughter(s), nieces – and that’s before we start on female in-laws, female friends, colleagues and neighbours. That’s a great number of females!
        I could make a similar list of the males in my life, who have influenced my attitudes to males in general. I bear in mind, when I encounter a ‘new’ male, that I am likely to bring to the encounter several assumptions which may not ‘fit’ this particular male at all, and the same vice versa with makes who encounter me for the first time. The potential for misunderstandings is great. I would not go as far as to describe it as a minefield, but I do think that it can be tricky!
        So now to Cal’s first post. Cal, I did not know about Augustine’s ‘penfriend’ relationship with a deaconess and it does sound like a very fruitful relationship.
        Cal, you mentioned that you had thought of Victorian and Puritan morality as ‘legalistic and restraining’ and you seem to be suggesting that you would prefer to exercise restraint (with regard to, for instance, touching) out of respect and love (agape) for females, rather than out of obedience to some ‘rule’. Have I understood you correctly about this, or not?
        Personally, I don’t like to be touched by most (but not all) males other than on my shoulder, lower arm and hand. I cringe when a male I hardly know tries to give me a full-frontal hug, though more often than not no harm is meant. These may be a personal idiosyncrasies of mine, but I suspect, from discussions that I have had with family and friends, that I do not have a monopoly over these feelings!
        Philip asked you to elaborate on your comment about Victorians and Puritans. They did live a long time ago, but I think that, to some extent, they have cast a shadow over the generations. Both of my grandmothers were born at the end of the Victorian era. My paternal grandmother died before I was born, but I did get to know my maternal grandmother very well and I loved listening to her when, in later life, she spilled the beans about some of the skeletons in the family cupboard. Ironically, my Mum had a more ‘Puritan’ attitude than her mother (my Nan). I was mystified for decades by the fact that my mother made it clear that, in her opinion, having a baby out of wedlock was a fate worse than death, yet my Nan seemed to be very sympathetic towards unmarried Mums. The events behind this, I eventually discovered, were that my Nan became pregnant (with my Mum’s older brother) before she was married, and her mother (my great grandmother), being a devout Catholic (!), threw her out. My grandfather wanted to marry my Nan, but he was only 19 and his parents refused to grant their consent. He had told my Nan that he was 23, so she was none too pleased. He initially lied about his age to the army because he wanted to join but he was too young, but he did fight in the Battle of the Somme, so maybe we can let him off, up to a point! My grandparents eventually married when my grandfather was 21. In the meantime, my Nan and the baby (my uncle) were given board and lodge by a member of her extended family. My Nan was regarded by her own family as ‘a disgrace’ and the story was swept under the carpet for decades.
        I have given a long account of this, but it seems to me that one generation reacts to another, and one value system reacts to another, and attitudes tend to become polarized and it is easy to forget just what ‘mixed bags’ most of us actually are.
        I don’t have time to respond to all of your points and as I have already posted at length I will wind up soon. So back to male-female friendship. I think it is a fine thing, and that openness, respect and love (agape) go a long way towards smoothing the path.

      • Lol, I am a very committed supporter of long comments! 🙂

      • Cal says:

        Thanks Christine!

        It wasn’t Augustine but John Chrysostom who had the pen-pal (I think her name was Olympia, but I’m not sure).

        My problem with Puritan-Victorian sex ethics is the pall it casts, and much of Anglo-American sexual dysfunction comes as a reversal, but not a paradigm shift. So, for example, the sexuality of touch, inbedded in our “gut-reaction” culture, is an outreach of this. Whether we’re allergic to it, or embrace it, we’re doing in a subtle subliminal understanding that touch = sexual. It may not be apparent, and this is not lumping personal idiosyncrasies. But why are some societies permissive with their dancing styles, but for Anglo-Americans (maybe Western generally), there’s a sense that dancing has a sexual-eroticism to it, whether you like that or not. Per Foccault, the Sexual Revolution is not a revolution, but a reaction.

        I’m not saying other places and times did not have problems, whether similar or different. All I’m saying is this above colors our ability to relate as different sexes. So I’m not upset with the Puritans or the Victorians per se, I’m marking out what may be our gut reactions. It’s just being aware without self-deceit. Some may be worth overturning (e.g. fear of being thought “homosexual” for having close same-sex friends, allergy to hugs, kisses from same/opposite sex), others should be taken as cautions (i.e. spending time privately alone with someone of the opposite sex as conceptual courting/dating).

        I’m not anti rules. I just want to make sure the rule makes sense and doesn’t smother out things that make us truly Human, but, on the other hand, uphold redeemed relationships. Particularly allergy to touch. It’s hard to maintain friendship without the bodily component. Due to the hetero-homo sexual construction with sexuality as identity, we’re constrained to fear too close same-sex relations. It’s for this reason that marriage is hyper-idealized as the sole, ultimate, and deep companionate institution. Where does that leave widows, celibates, unmarrieds etc.? And not only that, but think of all the lonely marriages or divorce that are due to over-weighing marriage. If you didn’t find your soul-mate, or your partner doesn’t complete you in the ways you want, what are you to do but feel miserable or seek it elsewhere, being driven by a fantasy?

        Especially the latter problem: some chalk this focus as idolatry which can only be remedied by a return to God. It’s true some marriages devolve down towards an idolatry of the person or the institution. But it’s not only that. Not everyone thinks their spouse is to be everything, just something. “I didn’t think marriage would complete my life, but why can’t she just do x,y,z or be a,b,c?” Well maybe marriage is not a companionate institution (though being married to a companion is a great blessing). Maybe we still need friends too. But how are we do have deeply satisfying friendships if we bodily cut off? There’s something a touch, a hug, an embrace, side to side, head to head, that can’t be communicated by word alone.

      • Cal says:

        And thus, back to Alex, the need for, perhaps, male-female non-romantic friendship. It may be another outlet for growth and understanding that is outside of a spousal relationship. But again, returning to the beginning, wisdom and discernment. Given our cultural coloration, how can we broach the possibility of a relationship becoming sexualized? How can we restrain ourselves if we realize it is a reality? How can touch be regulated so it does not degenerate into concupiscence? How may we employ social rules to protect ourselves and the other, while not quenching the friendship? And for male-female non-romantic relations when one of the persons (or both) are in a married state? How do we protect ourselves from adultery, yet not force our husband/wife to be the only voice of opposite sex and friendship in our life? This is even more difficult, and so prone to justifications for faithlessness or fear.

      • quinnjones2 says:

        Hi Cal,
        Just a quick response to a question you asked in your second post of today ( about male-female friendship)
        You asked :’ How do we protect ourselves from adultery…?’
        I think that key to this is differentiating between thought/deed and desire/deed. I think that we need to pray about any thoughts of adultery and adulterous desires. I’m thinking of:
        ‘…we take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ’ 1Corinthians 10:5
        ‘But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery in his heart.’ Matthew 5:28
        I believe that praying about what is in our hearts and minds gives us an ‘inner brake’ behaviourally.
        I will reply to your first post, but it might not be for a few days because I have a lot on my list just now!

      • quinnjones2 says:

        Hi Cal,
        Thank you for your first post of yesterday. I have given it a lot of thought and I need to give it more thought and I don’t really know what to say for the best just now. You mentioned ‘soul mate’ and ‘widows, celibates, unmarrieds’. A friend brought up this subject at church yesterday. A few people would like to go to a four-day guided retreat next May. One of the themes is ‘soul friends’ and my friend asked me if I was interested. I’m not sure what the retreat organizers mean by ‘soul friends’, but I would like to find out so I have asked my friend to count me in. Maybe I will have something worthwhile to report back on after that – maybe not! In the meantime I will keep reflecting and praying.

    • Cal says:

      Like Christine said, wisdom and discernment. Chrysostom had, as his “best friend”, a deaconess. They corresponded through letters, and in the estimate of many scholars, there were no hints of eroticism or sexuality. But they never spent time alone together nor did they really converse outside of letters-exchange. Augustine made as a rule that if he met with a woman, he would have someone else present and it would be public.

      I’m not saying we should go to their extremes. However, Anglo-Americans live in a heavily sexualized culture (thanks, in my estimate, primarily to Puritans and Victorians), especially in regards to touch, innuendo, and social categories. I’ve ignored this context, thinking it was just legalistic and constraining, only to find myself hurting people, being immoral, and causing unneeded confusion.

      Male-Female friendships are good and helpful, no doubt about it. But we need to go past this question and ask more detailed questions about our context. We’re all avid self-justifiers!


      • Philip says:

        “Thanks, in my estimate, primarily to Puritans and Victorians”–I’m curious if you could elaborate on this, Cal. I know that people often make such assertions, but I’ve never seen a coherent historical argument to back it up. After all, a good century separates us from anyone who is literally a “Victorian,” and Puritanism has not been much of a going concern in the United States, at least, for even longer. How likely is it, really, that the oddities of our own society are the product of the attitudes of our great-great-grandfathers (add a few “greats” for the Puritans)?

  15. Cal says:


    I ascribe my Victorian comment to Michel Foccault’s analysis of the sexual revolution. For him, there was no “revolution”. The Victorian, according to him, was an era that was full of prohibitions, scientific/moralistic evaluations of sex etc. A society that extensively documents and elaborates on sex is a society that is focuses on sex. It’s a similar phenomenon that has happened in evangelical christian circles. The elaboration on don’t’s becomes a strange, bizarre, fixation on the act. Showing someone what not to do can become, and many times is, an indirect voyeurism.

    ‘Homosexuality’ had never been defined before. Of course, for the Victorian era it was a mental illness or dysfunction. This is only the first step towards a sexual-orientation essentialism. The Bible knows nothing about this. Actions are condemned, there is no implication for some inner disposition.

    The rigid scientific categories end up creating a certain mood. One is either one or the other. But of course it doesn’t fit reality; thus the insanity of the LGBT alphabet-soup. We are now defined by sexuality and hence the connection with ‘Gay rights’ as civil rights. The Sexual Revolution overturned the previous era, but not its paradigms. It’s why Foccault can snort (even as a homosexual S&M pervert) at the so-called “freedom” being ushered in. It’s a rat in a maze thinking he has escaped because he has found the cheese.

    As for Puritanism, my comment above is perhaps a little more damning than I can substantiate. I know Puritanism is not a historical presence, nor an ideology. It is, like Gnosticism, a mood. I had in mind, particularly, the New England Puritans.

    What do they have to do with us Americans today?

    Well, a lot, conceptually. Part of the discourse of the American Revolution was shaped by Enlightenment thinkers, both English and French, but a lot of inspiration came from a certain ‘Protestantized’ view. I’m not affirming a slippery slide of historic necessity that this happens, just that it did.

    This still remains a bedrock in how Americans still function, but I’ll just talk about sexuality. Puritans were not prudes as many characterize them. Of course, they had certain restrictions and wariness that may not be bad, though they might have manifested in weird ways (i.e. I’m thinking about the weird pillow-divider as a couple would sleep together, where a little horn, plugged through the wall, would allow people to listen in to make sure they weren’t having sex).

    But, Puritan sexuality emphasized a certain wariness coupled with a companionate view of marriage. Companionship in marriage is not bad, but this sort of couple suspicion of sexual immorality around every corner and elevating marriage as an outlet for the “erotic” (the scare-quotes are important) created a seedbed for the future. Touch and cross-sexed friendship were much more suspicious. Marriage began to be idealized as a load-bearer for all of these desires.

    I don’t have a lot of details, and I’m still thinking this one through (so feel free to criticize), but as I see it, Puritanism was a seed-bed for a decline of friendship and a wider-view of sexuality, subjected as it was to suspicion. Victorian trends didn’t erase Puritanism, but built upon it. The saccharine Victorian family didn’t come from nowhere. Slowly deep emotional bonds and physical touch become definitive signs of a sexual eroticism.

    I’m not saying there weren’t problems elsewhere, or that these two are worse than other conceptual discourses in the history of man. But I think it’s particularly interesting that actions that do not inherently imply erotic sexuality (i.e. a kiss, hand-holding, holding one-another) are almost signs of it. And this is not a ‘me’ looking out on ‘them’. When I see two adults holding hands, my gut instinct is they are in a “relationship”. When a woman kisses me on the cheek as a greeting, my mind will begin to race. When my friend wanted to put his head on my shoulder, I am uncomfortable, and not because it’s a “space” issue.

    I don’t think this is good for my soul that I have these internal reactions. My spouse can’t bear the weight of all my emotional attachment. There is still a need to be apart of a wider net of community and possess a wider group of friends than merely the family-unit. And besides this impossibility, it condemns those who can’t have this relationship to all sorts of immorality. People end up having sex because they’re looking for someone to talk to (I’ve heard this before). It’s only in sex that any kind of intimacy is realized. Thus why in evangelical Protestant circles, the only vocation is marriage, otherwise you’re some sort of spiritual Hercules who can wander this world lonely.

    Hopefully this gives a little insight into my comment,

    • Philip says:

      It gives insight, but I am still profoundly sceptical of such sweeping historical claims–on what concrete historical basis does one actually characterize ‘the Victorians’ as being obsessed about sex? Certainly most Evangelicals are much less sex-focused in my experience than in stereotype, and I fear projection of contemporary exaggerrations upon our fore-fathers–or, conversely, a failure to recognize the sheer normality of past societies. For example, suspicion of cross-sexed friendship is probably the human norm (here I too generalize without sufficient evidence, I’ll admit); why blame the Puritans for what everyone has done, or has only done under carefully controlled circumstances (ancient Christians had to become monks to be friends with women, to judge from Peter Brown’s The Body and Society, and I’ve encountered precious little non-sexualized friendship between men and women in Classical texts; perhaps only in certain philosophical circles, and then only rarely)? As for same-sex friendship, what evidence so ever is there that the Puritans were suspicious of it, or of physical contact within it–let alone because of suspicion of unnatural vice? If they were, what evidence is there that this produced any widespread social rejection of hand-holding or hugging between men?I profoundly doubt that a country in which men still shared beds into the mid-nineteenth century (at the earliest) really was so hung-up about this as people are now, and any cultural trend that takes so long to surface can have only a tenuous connection with its supposed antecedents.

      As for the idea of ‘homosexuality’, what are we to make of St. Paul’s statement that ‘God handed them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity … the males, leaving behind the natural use of the female, burned with desire for one another’? Certainly this contains no idea of a sexual disorder in the pseudo-medical sense of modern psychiatry, nor does St. Paul propose a sexual orientation, as if it were indelibly engrained within sinners who can all be converted and cleansed, yet he certainly does envision–and combat–inner dispositions as well as outward actions.

      • Cal says:

        That’s fair to be skeptical, I don’t have a source list where you can go investigate my claims. But let me clear up some points:

        In regards to Victorianism, I’m not saying every single person in the Victorian era was a “Victorian” or that they all agreed. There is no Victorian Club, Sect, or Party. There is no document to examine what they believed. It’s what might be called a ‘mood’. It’s a typology to help explain certain phenomena and get a better understanding. Now part of diagnosing a mood is not exactly what everyone believed. Such is impenetrable. However, one can see, through cultural histories, what the “discourse” was like. My contention is that sexual exploration marked it. Thus when the Sexual Revolution occurred, they misunderstood the historiography that made Victorian mores into “repressive”. The Sexual Revolution merely brought to life a shadow world that the Victorian era cultivated. It was a mood where sexual expression became more and more attached to identity.

        I’m trained in history, and apart of that discipline is to be suspicious of “human norms”. I’m not saying there is no nature or no Humanity proper. But I want to make sure I don’t want to be lazy in doing so. Nuances really do make differences.

        I didn’t deny that other societies had mores on cross-sexed friendships. I’m only saying they were not exactly the same, and problems that manifest in this or that time for this or that people shed light on different questions. Two lines shooting out at half of a degree difference will, after much traveling, be very far apart from whence they started. I talk about Puritans because we are talking about Western Europe and the United States, which Puritanical Protestantism and Victorianism have left a mark.

        You conflated my argument about touch. I’m saying that there were particular cross-sexed allergies for touch in Puritan New England (particularly, I’m using a small scope to make a larger point). I’d argue that some of the Anglo-American sexualization of touch is apart of this. Sensuality is not equivocal with sexuality, though they blend frequently. There have been other societies that have rules about touch (actually, all of them). That’s not what I’m saying. I’m talking about a particular form. It’s one thing for a man to not touch a woman because it is dishonoring her (e.g. she doesn’t belong to you), it’s another thing because there’s a suspicion of sexuality being expressed.

        I don’t think a long, over-time, linking makes such link tenuous. I think that’s how ideas in history work. Tertullian pioneered the term ‘trinitas’, describing not creating the truth, but this word/concept has imbedded in it questions and implications that would arise long after Tertullian’s death. Similarly, social-concepts (that do not necessarily have words) will grow over time. There is not necessity in these questions or social concepts being played out. This isn’t deterministic or a slippery slope, but when things do spawn out of others, we should look for clues, at the same not committing a root-branch fallacy.

        In regards to homosexuality, you’re getting off on the wrong track. All I said was that as a psychological state, sexuality was not a category until the Victorians. Putting it in the psyche was only a step away from essentializing it (i.e. it’s part of “who” “I” “am”). God condemns same-sex acts, but contextually, as you point out, it’s not a ‘disorder’. But the problem the early Church recognized was not homosexuality or same-sex attraction, but concupiscence. This category has mainly dropped out of Christian discourse (besides maybe academic publishings). It needs to be recovered. It goes beyond a simple sexualized category of ‘lust’, reaching deeper into how our desires even function. The problem is not same-sex or different-sex desires, it’s a question of the desire itself.

        In regards to why same-sex monogamous partnership is not marriage, I’d argue along the lines of Fabrice Hadjadj who would say sexuality (in the wider Catholic definition) requires a binary/duality. Thus the above is not even really sexuality. It’s a confused self-love.


      • Philip says:

        Right, the historian ought to be sceptical about ‘human norms’, but the historian ought equally to be sceptical of ‘moods’, I think. In my own scholarly neck of the woods, it used to be unquestioned orthodoxy that traditional Roman religion was essentially moribund by the end of the Republic, only for it to get a temporary shot in the arm from Augustus; certainly by the third century, no one (except, strangely, the occasional emperor) really cared about it: the real life lay in the ‘oriental’ cults of Isis, Mithras, Attis, and so forth. But what is an oriental cult, and why did neither Christian nor pagan writers seem to think that Jupiter, Apollo, and the rest really didn’t matter anymore? Scholars of ancient religion had, I fear, succumbed to thinking in overly vague terms–the ‘oriental’ is just such a mood–to such an extent that the greatest of them, Franz Cumont, could in all seriousness explain away the disagreement of Augustine and others with his picture of paganism by asserting that ‘the best minds’ had lost ‘their sense of reality’. We were, in effect, supposed to believe not only that intelligent and learned, even brilliant, contemporaries did not understand the real situation of the very pagan religion that they were attacking, but also that the demise of Roman paganism had somehow taken place (or become inevitable?) four hundred years before it became fully manifest. That argument (which I draw in admittedly broad strokes) has been largely abandoned, precisely because it was demonstrated (by e.g. Robin Lane Fox in his Pagans and Christians) not to correspond to the empirical, factual reality represented by contemporary documents, especially inscriptions. Furthermore, the idea of an ‘oriental’ cult has come under sustained conceptual attack, in a large part because it has become clear that most were actually creations of the Greco-Roman world: they represented as much a ‘Romanization’ or ‘Hellenization’ of the Orient, as an ‘orientalization’ of Rome and Greece–and indeed, the whole concept of the ‘Orient’ is a projection of now-outmoded modern attitudes onto the ancient world, even though those attitudes, too, do have ancient roots.

        I fear a similar thing in talking about a ‘Victorian’ mood–how do we know that we are not just describing our own mood about the Victorians? The fashionably theoretical would argue, no doubt, that this is what we are always and inevitably doing, but serious historiography must, however imperfectly, try always to describe a reality that exists apart from itself. If our connections become too tenuous, either because our postulated historical moods do not match the actual attitudes expressed in contemporary sources (perhaps it is easier in antiquity, whence we have so little), or because one historical event or idea is predicated upon another without sufficient proof, then it becomes increasingly doubtful that we are describing anything real, or rather, that we are describing anything other than what we have taken from the period in question. In that last case, the historical argument becomes simply circular.

        I see your point about Tertullian and trinitas, but I do not think it apt: in Tertullian’s case, we know that he was read by later theologians, who were participants in a society and culture, the Christian Church, historically and institutionally continuous with Tertullian; as many minute and far-ranging studies have shown, we can see the doctrine of the Trinity developing (if that is the right expression) as an elaboration of ideas already present within Scripture and the Christian tradition (liturgical, exegetical, and so forth) to which Tertullian is an early witness. Only comparably detailed and accurate study of pre-modern ideas on sexuality could establish, I think, just what constellations of ideas were present at a given time, and how their configurations might have changed as time passed. I think the idea of a sexual ‘mood’ is far more, as you said, like ‘Gnosticism’–there were indeed commonalities among the teachers and movements who claimed access to secret knowledge, but talk about a ‘Gnostic’ world-view or theology (or mood) leads to confusion: witness the ease with which many contemporary pastors and theologians accuse this or that contemporary movement of ‘Gnosticism’, not in reference to Aeons or Pleromata or anything actually distinctive of any ancient Gnostic teacher, but to some such vague generalization as ‘the spirit is better than the body’ or ‘the material world is the source of evil’. ‘Gnostics’ may have held those ideas or they may not have, but such talk of Gnosticism is more heresiology–the project, I mean, of making ideas fit into established taxonomies of heresy–than it is history, theological or otherwise. We must pay attention to the historical ‘big picture’, but we can only actually know detailed, particular facts, upon which the big picture must be based if it is to be an actual picture of anything.

        Thus, regarding touch: yes, naturally the Puritans had different reasons for restricting touch than others did, and perhaps those reasons are most continuous with our own. Certainly these are plausible hypotheses. But you yourself said that ‘Touch and cross-sexed friendship were [I gloss ‘became’, to avoid tautology] much more suspicious. Marriage began to be idealized as a load-bearer for all of these desires.’ That can only imply that you think cross-sexed friendship was a more normal, more accepted practice prior to the rise of Puritanism, whether in New England or in Britain; it also implies that you think same-sex touch was relatively less acceptable to the Puritans than touch in marriage, or else the second sentence (‘all of these desires’) collapses. Your generalizations thus depend, rightly, on very specific historical assertions, both of which are subject in principle to verification. I question them precisely because I think it unlikely that crossed-sex friendship was more acceptable to the pre-Puritans (a very different question from the hypothesis that the Puritans frowned upon it for different reasons than their predecessors had), and see no reason to believe that the very modern suspicion of same-sex touch was even a ‘Victorian’ phenomenon. As with Roman religion, so with sexuality: a historical phenomenon that takes decades or centuries to manifest itself after the laying of the alleged cultural groundwork may not actually work the way our theories say that it does.

        On homosexuality, I do not think I am not getting off on any wrong tracks at all–I was merely pointing out that you asserted more than you meant; or is concupiscence not an internal disposition? Augustine certainly thought so: the will as well as the actions are corrupt, but God amends both. The error of nineteenth-century psychology was, perhaps, to think that any person is ineluctably his own psyche as it is now, for the word of God penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit.

  16. Cal says:

    Well, as I said, moods are categories to describe something beneath the level. They are not alien to historical work, but are still conceptual frame-works that are not the reality, but help us get at reality.

    I am rushing through many arguments to prevent long comments becoming any longer. And I am rambling through many different issues. So forgive the possible confusion.

    We could continue, but I am not sourcing books, I have no notes in front of me, I have no documentation. I am merely responding from my memory and my own thinking. It’s ok if we disagree here on the material. We can’t go any further.

    Yes, we can condemn certain groups because of gross simplifications and lump them in. This is what is done with Puritans who are viewed as dire and drab, when New England was not exactly so. That’s not what I’m trying to do and turn Puritanism or Victorianism (however I may personally despise both projects, for numerous reasons). They are heresy lumping categories like Gnosticism many times functions.

    But, despite Gnosticism being used as such, it is not at all unhelpful to lead into thinking about a historical ‘mood’. We don’t need to believe in the aeons as a doctrinal position to be apart of a gnostic mood. It’s a much more subjective category, but I think such moods are true, though, as you say, need to be examined closely.

    I will close to lay out my assertions for yourself or others to examine and prove/disprove at your leisure:
    -Puritans, in a radically moralistic Protestant push, equated sexuality and sensuality in ways that became socially effective.
    -Victorians had an ideal and bourgeois vision for marriage and male-female sexuality that became attached to a materialist and scientistic view of the world.
    -Combined, the outfolding of primarily Anglo-American culture is one that has a diminished view of friendship (both same-sex and crossed-sex) due to the weight of marriage, a hyper sexualization of touch and sensuality, and the development of sexuality into a certain psychologically identifying form.

    Do I blame this all for a particular vision of the relations between of the sexes that emerged out of “Puritan” and “Victorian” cultures? No. My original comment was hyperbolic to make a typological point. If we continued to wage through this and write a book on it, would my initial comment be able to stand? Probably, but with a lot of qualifications. But then it wouldn’t be a quip.

    I’m not sure why you stand to defend Puritanism and Victorianism, maybe you just don’t like broad-brushed jabs at eras and cultures. That’s fair enough. I do think there are better ways where cross-sexed friendships are able to be maintained, and have been maintained, then what we have present in our Anglo-American culture.

    But, I don’t know what got you into this conversation in the first place. Maybe it was curiosity (or hating broad-brushes). But we are staring at a tree when it comes to the forest. By the tone of some comments (and internet comments are terrible for conveying tone, so forgive me if I’m off), you seem to be missing my original intent. Especially, I’m thinking of your comments on homosexuality.

    I think cross-sex relationships are enriching, but they ought to be done thoughtfully. I do not think it’s necessary that certain cultural ‘social imaginings’ are defining of reality. But they do condition our reality. There’s a difference between nudity and nakedness, for example. I want to relativize my own culture, but realize it is the rule-book I have impressed into me.

    Here let me clarify some of my muddle: Cross-sexed friendships have always existed. They existed among Puritans and Victorians as well. We live in an exceptionally permissive society. The groundwork for what we in Anglo-American world have was lain by Puritans and Victorians. They had a certain essentializing of sexuality, conflating sensuality (i.e. touch, bodily interaction) with sexuality etc. that still affects us today (per Foccault, we had no sexual “revolution”). Because we, as a society, now accept unfettered sexuality as good (by and large), cross-sexed relations are left to all sorts of confusions. In other comments I bring up other examples, such as a companionate marriage out of Victorian Idealism (along with Enlightenment notions of Volitional contract) have homosexual marriage as a quite natural evolution. Or the confusion of sexual and sensual makes same-sex friendships difficult and shallow due to the exclusion of touch.

    Again, cross-sex relations are beneficial. But we have no way to conduct them without collapsing to aridity/superficiality or into a sexual relationship. I think Tillich is a scumbag, but he has a point when he compares the sensual Lutherans to the Puritans in trying to defend his adulteries. He can have a right premise, despite deploying it poorly and have an evil justification for his behavior.

    I still don’t understand why you’re bringing up the homosexuality question. I never denied we have an internal state, or our sexual desires are not internal and subject to probing. All I said is that we’re starting down the wrong path when we affirm sexual desire, without wondering about its placement. Our sexuality is not our disposition, our desires are. We are not ‘heterosexual’ or ‘homosexual’, but we have all sorts of lusts and desires. There is no part of a person that is defining as such. Our desires for this or that sex is not solid blocks but a sliding scale. The Bible is able to equate idolatry, no longer worshiping or seeking the Living God, with sexual immorality.

    I’ve written long enough.

    peace and love,

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