Saturday, June 21, 2014

You Keep Using That Word

... I do not think it means what you think it means.

This is one of those topics that has bothered me for a long time.  To be perfectly honest, it's one of those topics on which I feel like the church lied to me, and that made me pretty mad.  I am speaking of the issue of lust, that bugaboo of American Protestant Christendom about which we harangue our young people from puberty until about the age of 30.

I think America in general cares far too much about morality, and American Christendom is certainly not immune to this peculiar cultural defect.  And I suppose, if one is going to focus on morality, one might as well focus on sexual morality - since, for better or worse, we as a species seem to be obsessed with it (Christianity hardly being the only religion, and America hardly being the only people, who have made veritable fortresses of rules to protect our sexuality from ourselves).  But that doesn't stop me from feeling like the church lied to me about it.

Specifically, I feel like the church lied to me about lust.  I don't think anybody did it intentionally.  They just ... left out a really important piece of information.

APC teachings on lust generally begin with Matthew 5:27-28, with the better sort ending at verse 29 instead.  My favorite commercial translation (the NKJV) renders it thus:
[27] You have heard that it was said to those of old, "You shall not commit adultery."  [28] But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  [29] If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you, for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.
I say that "the better sort" include verse 29 because I think that makes it pretty clear (if the preceding verses were not clear enough) that there is ample Biblical support for the notion that the problem is with the luster, not the lustee.  That by itself gets lost often enough.  It doesn't get lost in the teaching, precisely.  Frankly, you have to be a fairly incompetent teacher not to get that point.  Everybody I know teaches that it's my responsibility not to lust.  But it gets lost in the overall messaging mix, because everybody I know is also deeply concerned to let people know how they can help me not lust.  And the next thing you know well-meaning older women are teaching younger women in their women's groups (no men involved!) about what to wear and not to wear, to "help" their brothers, and girls are getting sent home from proms because their dresses aroused lustful thoughts in the chaperones, and even I am deeply, genuinely upset over what a girl is wearing who is trying to convince me to date her.

I don't think that the APC obsession with lust is to blame for all of America's sexual dysfunction.  But I think it drives - granted, oftentimes from many removes - a lot of it.

And there really is no problem with the desire to help me avoid what is, quite clearly, something Jesus thinks I should avoid.  "It's your problem, not mine" can (and should) live hand in hand with, "How can I help?"

But.  Before we get there ... what exactly is the problem?

Matthew 5:28 starts off simply enough.
Egô de legô humin, Jesus says: "But I say to you all."
hoti pas ho blepôn gunaika, "that everyone who is looking at a woman."  Still pretty straightforward.
pros to epithumêsai ...
... and here is where I think insufficient attention is focused, in APC practice.  Pros is a preposition that, like most prepositions, can have a variety of meanings - but they all have to do with the idea of directionality.  Epithumêsai is an infinitive (specifically an aorist infinitive, I know, but I don't think that's relevant to my present argument), here being coupled with the accusitive article to, to make it clear that pros (whose meaning, like most Greek prepositions, is shaded by the case of its object) is being used in the sense of motion or direction towards the object - in this case, the infinitive epithumêsai.

Epithumêsai is conventionally translated as "to lust," but I think we have a tendency to forget what that word means - and since it is the thing Jesus is exhorting us to avoid, I feel like that is a significant oversight.  Ancient Greek is a language that is in love with compounds, and this is one such.  There is a danger in getting too reductionist with foreign compounds, since sometimes they don't literally mean what their compound would suggest (idiom is a thing!), but in this case, I think the lexicon is on the side of a reductionist reading.  So what is this word?

Epi is another preposition, also with an overall idea of directionality, but in a much more pointed way than pros.  If I walk pros to you, I am walking in your direction.  If I walk epi to you, I am headed in your direction with a more distinct purpose.  Thumos is the "soul," if you want to put it that way (but English-speakers tend to be used to thinking of psyche as the soul); it's the part of you that houses your strongest passions and feelings.  Epithumêsai, therefore, is to "set one's heart upon," to drive your desire towards something (in this case, the aforesaid woman) with great purpose.  So lust is ... not a bad translation.  "Covet" is equally good.

No matter how familiar one is with grammar, it should be clear by now that there is a lot of directionality in this prepositional phrase.  In fact, as much as I like the NKJV generally, this is one area where I feel like it drops the ball.  "To lust" is an adequate translation of epithumêsai, by itself - both are infinitives.  But it does nothing to render pros to - we are not just lusting here, we are looking pros to lust.  We are looking in order to lust (or, if you aren't particular about translating the infinitive literally, for the purpose of lusting).

There are two small points that just got made, both of which have what I believe are outsized significance for real-world morality.

Point the first: Jesus is not talking about lust in general.  He's talking about looking, for a specific purpose.  Why is this significant?  Because all too many young people in American Christendom (myself included, and I feel like I generally had a higher-caliber of theological teaching than most) are worried about the fact that they just lusted after someone.  We twist ourselves into real knots about this, as a community.  We have gender-segregated groups to talk about "struggling with lust."  We form awkward partnerships for "accountability."  We wring our hands about pornography because of it (depending on the pornography in question, there might be other valid reasons to wring our hands about it, but in my experience, those are never the actual reasons hands are wrung).  In a million and one ways, we feel ... guilty.  Dare I say it, we feel condemned.  And that is not something we should ever feel.

And all over ... well, what?  Because we had some sexual thoughts about a person, or our sexual response cycle started.  I'm going to avoid the secular cop-out of saying that there's nothing wrong with that; there can be.  But let's start with the text: did you look (even if we're defining "look" pretty broadly, for instance to include imagination) for the purpose of lusting?  Or was it something that happened?  It makes me almost want to giggle uncomfortably just typing that, as if lust is something that can happen by accident, but ... well, look, that's what the text says.  We are not talking about lust.  We are talking about looking for the purpose of lusting.

Universities, high schools, and youth groups are filled with young people wringing their hands about lust, and the nation is filled with adults who never really stopped, but how many of them - how many of us - actually do that?  How often do you really take a mental step back, and deliberately cast your gaze upon someone to lust after them?  I won't say it never happens; it does.  But it happens a lot less frequently than one might infer from the amount of play this issue gets with our young people.

Point the second: what is lust, anyway?  I can't recall a single sermon, or discussion, of this point that has bothered to ask that question, let alone answer it.  But I can say that, even in my generally high-quality theological environment, the never-actually-discussed, de facto, assumed answer is that lust is sexual arousal.

This is a lie.

Epithumêsai is not describing getting aroused, or finding someone sexually appealing, or having an orgasm.  There is a reason that the Septuagint uses it in the ninth commandment ("Thou shalt not covet").  It is describing a state of mind in which you have an object in mind and, like Sauron, all your thought is bent on it.

Now, this can be sexual, yes.  But it is a very particular part of a person's sexual life.  A person can find someone attractive, initiate a sexual encounter, and have sex, all without lusting after his or her partner in this way.  Most of a person's sexual life, I daresay (most of mine, anyway), occurs outside of this focused, laser-like, I-must-have-it-and-it-will-be-mine state of mind.

How often do we bother to explain this to the generations of people who have grown up wringing their hearts into knots about lust?  How often do we actually ask, "Have you ever felt that way?"  I have, but not often - and when I first started hearing sermons about this passage, I definitely had not experienced what it is actually talking about.

But let us finish Jesus' thought.  Êdê emoikheusen autên en têi kardia autou, he finishes: everyone who is looking at a woman in order to covet her already committed adultery with her in his heart.

I mention this final phrase because I think it nuances what Jesus is talking about in a way that I think is incorrect misunderstood to the sorrow of whole generations of Christians.  I think the most common understanding of this verse is that looking at a woman in order to lust after her is morally equivalent to having sex with her.

If we understand pros to epithumêsai in what I believe is the vernacular way, we might translate the verse like this: "Everyone who is looking at a woman and finds her arousing has already had sex with her in his heart."  And this would indeed be a terrible challenge, one so difficult to meet that it could well justify all the effort and, frankly, broken spirits that the American church has sacrificed to meet it.

But that's not what it says.  The looking must be with purpose.  And the object of that purpose is not mere arousal, but hyper-focused desire.  Again, to covet is a perfectly good translation here, and one that I think is helpful.  What I understand Jesus to be saying is this: If the only thing stopping you from having sex with someone is that you have not, in fact, had sex yet, then in your heart, you have had sex.

And this does happen.  But again: how often do we ask our youth groups, in all of our earnest discussions, "How many times has this happened to you?"  In my experience, this verse is taught (with due solemnity by our elders, who presumably know what it's like to be a young person) as something that every young person struggles with, pretty much all the time.  That is certainly how it was taught to me, and I left a lot of sweat on the ground struggling against what everyone assured me as a daily struggle.

And ... well, I feel like the church lied to me.  Sexual arousal is a daily occurrence.  Looking at a [person] for the purpose of lusting after [him or] her, quite frankly, is not a daily occurrence.

When I in college, I met a girl.  She was amazing.  She was ... well, I haven't discussed this with her, so I won't give any more details than that.  But she was intoxicating.  From pretty much the instant I saw her, I wanted to jump her bones and do things I didn't even have names for with her.  The attraction, we quickly discovered, was mutual.  We flirted not just outrageously, but intensely.  When she was anywhere near me, I could barely keep my hands off her, let alone think straight.  We weren't dating, but the sexual tension between us was so thick that a knife would barely have made a dent.  We planned a date in my room to watch a movie we both thought was sexy and had no plans to watch the movie, except maybe as foreplay.  Leading up to that day, we both texted and IM'd each other to drive each other even crazier (this was before that was cool).

That is looking at a woman for the purpose of lusting after her.  It's intentional, it's consuming, it's directed.  Sex is a part of it, but its defining features are not actually sexual at all.  The critical thing - the thing that left me with such an indelible impression that now, for the first time, I had really seen what Jesus was actually talking about - was that I wanted her (and she wanted me) in a way I had never wanted anyone before, and we both took deliberate steps to encourage that desire in ourselves and each other.  We both came to our senses before "anything happened" (if you'll forgive me the use of such a mealy-mouthed phrase), but for a few weeks, the only way in which we hadn't had sex was ... well, we hadn't gotten around to having sex.

Contrast this with a more typical scenario.  I am walking down the street.  I see a woman wearing pants.  Like many women's pants do, these pants show off her legs to advantage.  I find this sexually appealing.  I maybe even get the start of an erection.  We go our separate ways.

In that second scenario, while there is certainly a bit of attraction, I think it is plain that the intensely directed experience of coveting is missing.  I don't actually want that woman at all, and if she offered to have sex with me right then and there I'd not only say no, but be kind of repulsed - despite the fact that I find her attractive.  And while I did look at her, I certainly didn't do it for the purpose of coveting her (which I didn't do, in any case).

This leads me to suspect that one of the greatest lust bogeymen of the American church is actually a paper tiger.  I speak, of course, of pornography.  The principal use of pornography, in my experience, is to arouse.  It may have many ancillary uses (comfort, relaxation, a sense of safety, stimulation of the sexual imagination, whatever), but I think one use is almost always missing: desire to be in the scenario depicted.  People don't use porn because they want to have sex with a particular actor or a particular character.  In my experience, there is almost never any wanting involved at all.

Now, there are many reasons why we could wring our moral hands about porn.  It may be professionally exploitative (but it doesn't have to be).  It may be morally destructive for the actors involved (but I'm not sure it always is, and there aren't always actors involved to begin with).  It may just be an artistic travesty (which, let's be honest, most of it is).  But is it looking at a [person] in order to covet [him or her]?  I see no way to make that argument with a straight face.

I don't think that what Jesus is talking about never happens (nor, I should probably state for the record, is it always bad).  It happened to me in the story above (and it's happened to me since).  But it's a lot rarer, and a lot more recognizable, than I think it is generally given credit for.  I don't think this verse should never be taught, but neither do I think we should teach our young people - by our words and by how much time we spend dealing with "lust issues" - to be constantly looking over their shoulders to make sure they haven't lusted after someone.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Phoenix Earth

This weekend at Fechtschule New York somebody asked me, again, what my phoenix earth patches are about.  I've been asked this a bunch of times since adding them to my HEMA gear, and I always chicken out.  Yeah, I guess part of it is that I don't really know how to explain, but mostly ... I chicken out.  Usually I say that the phoenix earth stands for me, or that it's been my coat of arms since I was fifteen or so (when my sister first designed it).  And those things are true ... sort of.  But that isn't what my patches are about.

My phoenix earth patches are representations of my arms as they have existed in my mind since some time in late undergrad: On a circular shield gules, a diminished bordure, a phoenix earth Or.  The circular shield recalls a hoplite aspis, and symbolizes faith (a shield) that benefits others (in the hoplite form).  The red field is for strength and magnanimity, and for honoring a father (or, if you will, the Father).  The gold is for faith, obedience, gentility ... and for vengeance.

Which ties into the phoenix earth itself.  The phoenix earth represents Earth after the end times, the New Jerusalem.  It is the new beginning after the resurrection of the dead, after whatever tribulations the end times may bring, after the reign of a thousand years (if there is such a thing), after the last rebellion of the adversary, after Judgment Day and the second death, after earth, after heaven ... when all that is over and done with and life begins.  I saw a new heaven and a new earth, says Revelation 21, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.
And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God.  And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”
Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”
When I look forward to an "afterlife," this is what resonates with me: when there is no more heaven and no more hell, when the brokenness of the human condition and the glories it can produce in adversity are replaced by a better human condition, one utterly free of the brokenness that haunts every corner of our existence and yet produces better glories, in ways we, who have come to depend upon darkness to let us distinguish and appreciate the light, can hardly imagine.  When we get our bodies back, recognizably flesh and bone and yet transcendently better than before, and live in a physical world that is recognizably our own and yet so much better that it may as well be an alien planet, when the source of all joy and satisfaction is closer, and more present, than any human being has ever experienced.  When all things - all things, everything that makes life the bittersweet mixture of joy and sorrow that it is - are made new.

This is, as I said, the afterlife that resonates with me.  I do not care for heaven.  In heaven, I am still dead.  Not obliterated, perhaps, but my body and soul are sundered, and that is just fundamentally wrong.  The Biblical descriptions of heaven, if that's what they are, sound either dreadfully dull or eye-wateringly intense yet dreadfully one-dimensional.  Give me a body, give me an earth ... give me the promise of the wild, unfettered and alive life that my [probably metaphorical] ancestors experienced.

But it is not really the afterlife itself that motivates me.  It is what this new life - this New Jerusalem, this phoenix earth - represents in the here and now.  For me, the [Biblical] phoenix earth is the ultimate expression of the promise that God makes things better.  That he is not the god of consolation prizes, nor the god of jury-rigged solutions held together with duct tape and a prayer, nor a god for whom some things are simply broken beyond repair.  If the earth - the human condition, life itself - can be fixed in Christ, then anything can be fixed in Christ.  And not only fixed, but made better than it was before.  No matter how bad a marriage is, it can be better than it was before.  No matter how broken a friendship, how sundered a family ... it can be made better.  It may involve a phenomenal amount of effort, soul-breaking vulnerability and hard work.  But in Christ it can be done.  Whatever it takes to get there, it's not impossible.  Knowing that makes all the difference to me.

So what do my patches say?  They say, I believe in a God who not only can, but wants to, make all things new.  I believe he will come in indomitable strength to have his vengeance upon evil itself, not only to fix what is broken but to make everything better than any human being has ever experienced it.  I believe in creating that kind of world through self-mastering forgiveness and unconquerable gentleness wherever I go.  And I will hold this trust in the face of the slings and arrows of life, for my sake and for yours.

That's what my phoenix earth patches are about.

Fechtschule New York 2014

This past weekend was Fechtschule New York 2014, which was my first "formal" tournament since beginning KdF almost exactly one year ago.  By "formal" tournament I mean one in which every match in the tournament was judged and refereed according to rules that had been prescribed beforehand.  I had competed in one tournament before this, at an event called Shortpoint 2014, but that was a very informal gathering of fencers and the "tournament" was simply the result of every match that a fencer happened to have during the course of the day, be it a friendly sparring session or "in the ring."

At FNY, I was competing in both the paired forms competition (in which teams of competitors performed specified techniques from a particular fencing treatise, each team competing to present the technique as cleanly and "ideally" as possible), and the beginner's longsword tournament.

I didn't advance beyond the first round of either tournament, but I feel very differently about them.  My partner for the paired forms tournament got her left little finger broken earlier during the event, so I competed only sort of by accident, at the last minute - another fencer from my school also found out he needed a partner at the last minute, so the two of us practiced ten techniques for about an hour and then threw ourselves into the competition.  That's about six minutes per technique, which isn't exactly a lot of time to polish things even if we did know most of them already.  Given that, I am proud of what we were able to present to the judges, even if we didn't make it past the first round.  And the people who did go far really did deserve it; their fencing was clean, exacting, and accurate.

The beginner's longsword tournament was a different matter.  Competitors were divided into three pools of five fencers each (I think one of the pools might have had six), and each fencer fought every other fencer in his or her pool.  The two best fencers from each pool went on to a bracket system for the semi-finals and finals.  The rules for the tournament, and the judging procedure, had been refined at Shortpoint and in my opinion were excellent.  Not only did matches run very quickly, but judging felt very accurate (i.e., few instances where the fencers thought one thing had happened, but the judges thought another), and the incentives for the rules felt very good.  In a nutshell, they discouraged people from taking shots to easy targets (such as the forearms) unless they could also defend themselves while doing so, and encouraged people to make technically strong hits to the head and torso, preferably while simultaneously controlling their opponent's blade (and, thus, defending oneself).  While no tournament rules are ever going to be perfect, and no tournament will ever be a very good simulation of a real fight - even a real duel - I have nothing but good things to say about these particular tournament rules.

I do have very critical things to say about my own fencing.  It was timid, overly intellectual, and restricted itself to a smaller range of techniques than I know.  At Shortpoint I felt like I fought about as well as I knew how, win or lose.  At FNY I did not feel like I fought as well as I know how.  I found myself discomfited by the incentive to go for the vitals, but did a poor job of defending myself when going for my preferred strikes against exposed hands and forearms.  I let myself believe that my opponents were better than they were, and as a result forgot to fight with basic good technique, which foreshortened my range and made it even harder to fight at a good distance from my opponent.  That belief also restrained myself from doing what I knew was the right thing in many situations.  "I'm not especially good at what I know I should do in this situation," I might think.  "My opponent will probably counter it."  But that is no way to fight.  Everything can be countered, but counters are generally harder to pull off successfully than the things they are counters to.  And in any case, if one isn't willing to attack, one might as well throw in the towel.  Attempting to substitute techniques that I knew I was better at, but also knew were sub-optimal for the situation, did not go well.

This is why I am not pleased with my fencing in the longsword tournament.  I certainly would have liked to win more matches, but mostly, I feel like I did not fight with my all.  I have been brooding over this for the past couple of days; it's taken me that long to break down what exactly I did wrong in terms that are specific enough that I can work on them but broad enough that I can draw generalizable conclusions from them.

I've decided that I need to own this failure.  On the one hand, this weekend was not the best fencing I have ever done, or even the best fencing I know how to do.  But it is the fencing I actually did, and that makes it part of me as a fencer.  It's something I need to face if I'm going to get better.

It's also, despite the pain of giving a poor showing, a reminder for me of what kind of fencer I want to be.  It might be nice to say that I lost because tournament fighting is not real fighting.  But in fact, the opposite is true.  The event as a whole demonstrated that the best way to become an excellent tournament fighter is to learn real, martially applicable skill.  And you know what?  While I'm perfectly happy to hew into somebody's forearm to win a fight, I don't want to be someone who can't attack and defend.  The elegance of the longsword that I find so appealing is precisely in using it both to attack and defend.  And I don't want to be the kind of fencer who wins fights by nickel-and-diming my opponent to death in the legs and arms.  I want to annihilate them.  I want those head shots - one of the most oft-repeated phrases in the treatises we study is "stab him in the face."  Yes, it's scary to close that extra few inches to be able to hew or stab the skull, or the collar area.  I want to face that fear and conquer it.

Because that's what fencing is about to me.  Force without is force within, and vice versa.  I'm not interested in killing because I have any particular desire to kill people.  I'm interested in it because it's a form of authentic force, and I believe that authentic force is what is necessary for real self control or self possession.  And that - to hold oneself in the grip of one's own will - is something I prize very highly.  So I will get better at fencing the way I want to fence, and I will get better at being me, and I will remember that most of all, this is something to learn.  More than twenty years later, Alanna still calls to me to work, even at the things you aren't good at, to bend myself to my will through sheer bloody-mindedness:

Sacherell was well enough.” Coram yawned. “He’s a bit of a natural. Ye’re just not a natural with a sword, Master Alan. Some are born to it, like me. I never knew aught else, and I never wanted to. Now, some—some never learn the sword at all, and they don’t survive their first real fight. And then there’s some—”

“Yes?” Alanna asked, grasping at this straw. She was obviously not born to the sword, and she had no plans for dying in her first fight.

“Some learn the sword. They work all the extra minutes they have. They don’t let a piece of metal—or Aram Sklaw—beat them.”

Alanna stared at the forest and thought this over. “It’s possible to learn to be natural?”

“It’s just as possible as it is for a lass t’ learn t’ beat a lad, and the lad bigger and older than she is, and in a fair fight."