Ann Voskamp and Jesus as lover: Perspective from the Puritans, pt. 1

I’d never heard of Ann Voskamp until a few weeks ago, when Elizabeth Esther wrote about the controversy some reformed evangelicals are stirring up over Voskamp’s latest book. (Is it just me, or does this seem to happen, oh, ALL THE TIME?) Voskamp has written a spiritual memoir which has some clutching their pearls over the sensual language she uses to describe her longings for God, e.g.: expressing a wish to have “intercourse,” “union,” “intimate communion” with God, and to “make love to” God.

Despite, once again, not having actually read the book, critics have leapt from being (understandably) squicked out by this language to basically calling Voskamp an irreligious pervert, blasting her book as “poison, “evil,” panentheistic, and “mysticism” (which is bad, apparently?), and comparing it to, I kid you not, a book on “how to kill your grandmother.” Right.

Now, to be clear, I haven’t read Voskamp’s book, and this post isn’t about the book. I have no intention of reading it; it’s the sort of spiritual writing I know will leave me cold. I’ve never had more than a fleeting, very occasional sense of personal connection with a spiritual being. It’s a relief to no longer have to pretend to feel any such connection, or try and fail to force myself to. And I completely understand being disturbed and even repulsed by the imagery of intimate union with God (although it does raise the question as to why people who feel this way belong to a tradition that requires them to believe the Holy Spirit impregnated a virgin).

Still, when Christians leap from disagreement or even outright disgust to accusations that different perspectives within their religion are poisonous or dangerous to “real” Christianity, it raises some questions for me. The perennial question being, why are conservative Christians so very threatened by anything even slightly outside their worldview or experience, if their version of God is so correct? Especially reformed evangelicals, with their completely sovereign and omnipotent God? Why are they so threatened by people like Voskamp, or Rob Bell, or William P Young (author of The Shack) who suggest a different view of God? It baffles. On my more cynical days I’m inclined to think the haters are just angry that these authors are so popular, with Bell and Young having sold millions of books in a religious publishing market where selling 100,000 makes an author a “bestseller.” John Piper can only dream of having such an audience for his writing.

The specific response to Voskamp raises further questions about: 1) how well reformed evangelicals know what they claim is their own religious history (hint: not all that well. Shocking, I know.) and 2) how well claims about the timelessness and universality of complementarian teachings on gender and sexuality hold up to the historical record (see above hint). Because the thing is, concepts of gender and sexuality have been far more fluid in historical Christian traditions than they are in modern day reformed Christianity, even in traditions present-day reformed Christians claim as their predecessors. If the ‘truly reformed’ bloggers of the world think Voskamp’s imagery is perverted, what the Puritans – Puritan men - wrote about union with Christ would make their heads spin. As Richard Godbeer writes in his excellent book Sexual Revolution in Early America:

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Puritan sexuality was not its spiritualization of the erotic but its eroticization of the spiritual. Scripture invites believers, male and female, to conceive of Christ as a husband and to envisage union with him in vividly sensual, even sexual terms. The challenge that biblical images of Christ as bridegroom and lover post to what we might term male heterosexuality has been met in various ways by different Christian cultures. Modern westerners have, for the most part, ignored biblical passages that contain this imagery. But previous Christian traditions have chosen options other than the suppression and bowldlerization of biblical text. New England Puritans welcomed and celebrated the sensual possibilities embedded within the scripture from which they drew inspiration. Their ability to do so was due in large part to remarkably fluid conceptions of gender within Puritan culture. As a result, in this world and the next, through both human marriage and espousal to the savior, Puritans could find sensual and sexual fulfillment within the Lord’s garden (55-6).

In upcoming posts I’ll look at some specific examples of the Puritan’s “eroticization of the spiritual” and how it undermines reformed complementarian claims about the fixed, eternal nature of gender roles.

15 Comments

  1. I haven’t read the book either, so I’m not commenting on it per se. It’s weird, b/c I definitely understand that visceral reaction that evangelicals have to anything that veers away fro their understanding. Hell, I even have it myself. I have a very specific understanding of what Christianity is–inflected of course with my own left-leaning political and moral values–and anything that veers from that gets my hackles up. But it’s a reaction that I’ve been working against, for precisely the reasons you’ve laid out. How good is a faith if it crumbles at the faintest whisper of disagreement? If these principles are so tried, true, and tested, and if they’re worth organizing your life around, and if they’re worth hating other people over, then really they should be able to withstand a fair amount of scrutiny.

    btw, I love what you say about no longer having to act like you’re having a connection with God. I felt much the same growing up. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in God; I did but I really never felt much of a connection, except through worship music. I always hated praying aloud b/c I felt like such a fraud. Actually I felt like we were all frauds, using similar speech patterns in our prayers b/c they made us sound more legit in our relationship with God.

    • I hear you. It’s something I think about a lot these days – on the one hand, I do think my current beliefs can and should hold up to being challenged and scrutinized, and I feel like I should probably be more ideological diversity in what I read and consume. On the other, what passes for intelligent conservatism these days is so reactionary and anti-intellectual that it’s difficult for me to take it seriously. I feel like there must be some conservative thinkers who are making arguments worth taking the time to understand and digest, but honestly, I’m not aware of any. Maybe I should read some old-school conservative thought.

      I always hated praying aloud b/c I felt like such a fraud. Actually I felt like we were all frauds, using similar speech patterns in our prayers b/c they made us sound more legit in our relationship with God.

      Me too.

  2. The tradition of virgin-martyr literature is huge, and wildly erotic, also conflating love of God with a longing for death. Isabella, in Shakespeare’s play “Measure for Measure” is a good example, shocking many Victorian critics with her declaration that she would “strip myself to death as to a bed that longing has been sick for”.

    • Hi orlando, thanks for the comment and welcome to the blog! Great point. The narrow terms in which we think about a lot of things today – not just gender and sexuality – are pretty novel from a historical perspective.

  3. Reformed conservatives would be aghast at all the gender bending in the church, if they actually studied church history. Nuns and monks in the Middle Ages were huge spiritual gender benders. In Jesus as Mother, Caroline Walker Bynum shows a vast amount of gender bending during the Middle Ages. “The idea of Christ as nursing or pregnant mother is for the Cistercians [monks] one among a host of images that articulate a process of return thru love of other to true dependence….” (p. 166). Earlier she made this observation: “Medieval authors do not seem to have drawn as sharp a line as we do between sexual responses and affective responses or between male and female. Thru out the Middle Ages, authors found it far easier than we seem to find it to apply characteristics stereotyped as male or female to the opposite sex” (p. 162). There is also a vast amount of eroticism as the bride of Christ from both monks and nuns.

    Then if they bothered to read on they’d find out their view of “family values” and marriage have not always been the dominate view. In From Virile Woman to WomanChrist Barbara Newman shows how marriage and women were so looked down on by the church in the Middle Ages that women who came to the convents as widows would disavow their children in order to take the veil and have a chance of putting away their femininity and becoming spiritually male, so they would have a closer union with Christ. Even women with young children would abandon them to orphanages or families and enter a convent and confess their sin of marriage and bearing children as fleshly sin and do penance their formerly “wicked” lives. The church praised them for this revelation and their commitment to live a holier and more Christ-like life through renouncement of their biological families and embracing of celibacy.

    To be honest, it wasn’t until Martin Luther that marriage became the preferred tradition. Until then marriage was seen as the second-best. The preferred and more holier path was celibacy and marriage/spiritual, erotic union with Christ.

    • Right on, Shawna. I focused on the Puritans for this series since the English/American Reformed tradition claims them as predecessors – and since Voskamp’s critics wouldn’t consider all but a handful of medieval or even early Christians to be “real” Christians. But as you say, there are lots of examples of similar gender bending theologies throughout church history. Godbeer points out that the Puritans were anomalous from a historical perspective in believing that one could both be married in the flesh and have spiritual union with Christ.

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  5. “Is it just me, or does this seem to happen, oh, ALL THE TIME?”
    You’re condemning leaping to conclusions, while having no reservation in making a few of your own. Wow.

    • Context: it’s helpful. For example, this was a controversy over a book EM hadn’t read that followed right on the heels of the controversy about Rob Bell’s Love Wins – which none of the critics had read, either. See also: the controversy over The Shack, over Philip Pullman’s books, etc., etc.

      Also, hyperbole for humorous effect: it’s a thing. The point is, this kind of mass hysteria over books people haven’t read happens a lot in evangelical circles.

  6. I’ve read the book and the comments by people about that part of the book are so exagerated…if you read it in context it is very understandable…you have to read it in the context of the whole journey of Ann’s story, not just pick out those statements. People just have to have something to fuss about, I guess.
    I loved the book!

  7. First let me say that, while I am a professing conservative Christian, I am not one of those who is opposed to Ann’s book. Having never read it, I would find it somewhat disturbing to oppose something I don’t really know about (unlike opposing The DaVinci Code, which I have read and do oppose). I heard Ann speaking on the radio, and find nothing disturbing about her attitude toward Jesus.

    But all that aside, in this post, you question why the “haters” (ostensibly me and folks like me), are so intolerant of views outside their own. I would propose that perhaps, the “haters” are really lovers. Since we believe that our God has said in His word that believing in and professing Jesus is the only path to eternal life, we might just be so vehement in speaking out against those who say otherwise because, given that we believe this, not doing so might be helping to condemn our fellow creatures to eternal death instead, and because it does make us extremely uncomfortable, even desparate that those we love (because our Lord commands us to) might be following a path which will lead them to death when they might instead live. If that makes me a “hater” I guess I’m a hater.

    LiJn,
    Brian

  8. I loved the book! Putting her phrases into context will make more sense to those who do not understand. She has a wonderful pure love for God and I love her approach to life!

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