Friday, December 13, 2013

Roman sex and Christian revulsion

It is impossible not to be frustrated at the convoluted and complicated intersections between conservative proponents of Christian faith, and sexual expression. From the Roman Catholic celibate priesthood, pedophilia, to the furore over women bishops, to the ongoing conflicts over the place of LGBT people, it's all rather tangled in a very bad way. And it appears this goes right back to the beginning, when the itinerant Christians shifted to become the Establishment.

There's a new book out called From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity and a really good review in the NY Review of Books is helpful for putting some of this in context. The book (and review) highlights the transition from one culture (the Romans) to another (the Christians) that was very different.

The Romans were busy having lots of sex, but it was intertwined with prostitution and especially, slavery. According to the review and the book, slavery looms above it all. yet it was the sex that got the attention.

The reviewer explains
From Saint Paul onward, the great issues of sex and freedom were brought together in Christian circles like the enriched ore of an atomic device. For Paul, porneia—fornication—meant a lot more than premarital fooling around. It was a brooding metonym, “enriched” by an entire spectrum of associations. It stood for mankind’s rebellion against God. And this primal rebellion was shown most clearly in the topsy-turvy sexual freedom ascribed first by Jews and then by Christians to the non-Christian world.

But then, what was true freedom? Freedom also was a mighty metonym, of which the freedom to decide one’s sexual fate was only one, highly “enriched” part. Above all, it meant “freedom” from “the world.” And by “the world” Christians meant, bluntly, the Roman society of their own times, where unfreedom was shown in its darkest light by the trading and sexual abuse of unfree bodies. It no longer mattered, to Christians, with whose bodies, from which social categories, and in what manner sex might happen. From Paul onward, for Christians, there was right sex—sex between spouses for the production of children; wrong sex—sex outside marriage; and abhorrent sex—sex between same-sex partners. Wrong sex of any kind was a sin. And a sin was a sin
So is all the strum und drang of modern Christianity and the historical opposition to gay people, still a reaction to the sexual orgies of the Romans and their slaves? and it was the sex more than the slavery that got their attention?

In any case, the book sounds fascinating.


dr.primrose said...

"For Paul, porneia—fornication—meant a lot more than premarital fooling around."

Actually, for Paul it probably had very little, if any, to do with premarital fooling around. It related (at least originally) to prostitution -- the Greek work for prostitute is "porne."

The cultural context of prostitution in Paul's time was largely slaves or pagan temple prostitutes (or who may have also been slaves).

The whole context of the end of Romans 1 (which contains one of the "clobber" passages is idolatry.

The rebellion against God is not so much about sex or slavery but worshiping false idols rather than God - "Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their heats to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, BECAUSE they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator .... FOR THIS REASON God gave them up to degrading passions." (Romans 1:25-26). (Then the actual "clobber" passages immediately follow.)

There may be a fair argument about whether the meaning of "porneia" changed or expanded and, if so, whether or not that change or expanded meaning had occurred by Paul's time. But one can't ignore the original context and meaning either without grossly distorting what Paul actually wrote.

it's margaret said...

"So is all the strum und drang of modern Christianity and the historical opposition to gay people, still a reaction to the sexual orgies of the Romans and their slaves?"

--well.... it is said the width of railroad ties is based in part on the width of a Roman chariot... (snark meters should be going... and the story is labeled as True, but for unremarkable reasons by Snopes, )

--and closely observing cultural inheritance as of late, and knowing how much the "founding fathers" looked to that part of the world, maybe our culture is unknowingly infused with that mess...

It just seems impossible, doesn't it.

JCF said...

I'd like to see a review of this book by our very own expert (here at FOJ), Tobias S Haller.

Think I'll pop over to "In a Godward Direction" and suggest it...

JCF said...

BREAKING: arch-conservative Cardinal Raymond Burke "His Eminence Man-Lace" himself, REMOVED from powerful Vatican committee! Replaced by ("moderate") Cardinal Wuerl of WashDC.

Let Pope Francis's house-cleaning COMMENCE!!!!

dr.primrose said...

JCF, that's signficant news!

Here's the link to the NBC News story on the subject - Pope Francis: Out with the conservative cardinal, in with the moderate.

JCF said...

When MSNBC blurbed it at the top of the hour, "Conservative American Cardinal OUT at the Vatican", I responded (to my TV) "Please let it be Burke, please let it be Burke" . . . and it was! ;-D

Here's the NYT take:

dr.primrose said...

The N.Y Times story notes that Burke likes really fancy liturgical dress, which also makes him at odds with Francis.

You can see examples here and here.

I'm not sure if I've ever seen a bridal train quite so long!