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.

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