Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Chilly Day Ramblings on Art and the Pill

Do you know what I can see today?

It's something I couldn't see at all yesterday.

My own breath!

Yes, it's that cold here in north Texas on this, the 10th of April.  Yesterday, we had about 80 degrees.  Eighty extremely humid degrees.  Right now, it's about 38.  And rainy.

I stuck my head out of the back door and marveled at the visible vapor coming out of my mouth.  Yes, I realize that many times, when I open my mouth, regardless of the ambient temperature, an unfortunate amount of steam puffs out in the form of hot cynicism.  But today, it's all due to our fickle spring weather here in the Lone Star State.

Yesterday, the central air conditioning was on.  Today, it's the central heating.  Meanwhile, our trees are almost in full leaf, and the grass is greening (shady lawns such as we have in this neighborhood require the St. Augustine variety which takes a while to shed its winter browns).  Azaleas have peaked, and iris are in full bloom, while daffodils have already gone for the year.

But today, we've got 38 chilly degrees.

Weather that's more conducive to curling up with a laptop computer and surfing social media sites, ya know what I mean?

Before I knew it, I'd gotten involved in a couple of online conversations about two topics evangelicals rarely discuss in public:  the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and the pill.  Contraceptives.

Is it just me, or is there something to the fact that both of these conversations, in a way, have to do with sex?  At the very least, both topics can quickly unravel into sprawling discussions of various ancillary topics, such as free speech for Mapplethorpe, and sexual freedom for contraception.

Are you ready for some chilly day ramblings?

The Art of Appreciating Mapplethorpe

Mapplethorpe is best known for his homoerotic photographs that helped stir up conservative antagonism against the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in the 1980's.  He also is lesser known for photography bordering on pedophilia, which makes his legacy a tricky one for an evangelical like me to parse.

Frankly, I have to admit it:  some of Mapplethorpe's less sensationalistic art can be appreciated in a vacuum of sex and innuendo.  Consider these following works of his (from The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation's website):

"Derrick Cross"
"Self Portrait - 1975"

"Robert Sherman"

Yes, Mapplethorpe could be downright vulgar in his subject matter, but he could also be quite delicate.  He had an eye for textures, symmetry, and geometric form that actually celebrate the miracle that is our God-created human body.  If, sometimes, it's the viewer who ascribes a pornographic element to Mapplethorpe's work, whose fault is that?

Of course, when he was alive, and now as his foundation carries on his legacy, Mapplethorpe mostly wanted to practically taunt his audience with blatant explicitness.  Individual photographs can be evaluated on their unique merits; meanwhile, in an art show, one does not have the luxury of picking and choosing the works one wishes to experience, like I can do for today's essay.  That's where the NEA made complex problems for itself and the art world in general - while giving a gay photographer from Queens far more notoriety than he might have otherwise received - when it attempted to fund his shock-art shows with taxpayer dollars.  For my thoughts on that topic, click here.

Suffice it to say that freedom of expression is one thing.  Who pays for it is another.

Contraception's Trust Factor

If this is the first time you've heard an evangelical attempt to discuss Robert Mapplethorpe objectively, it may also be the first time you'll hear an evangelical attempt to discuss contraception objectively, too.

Fortunately, this being one area that, as a single never-married, I haven't yet had to personally face, objectivity comes as easily as discussing the better side of Mapplethorpe.  Actually, when it comes to contraception, most evangelicals can agree on one basic principle.  Since sex has become one of the most thoroughly misunderstood and perverted gifts that we have seized from God's perfect creation, to the extent that contraception - and specifically, the pill - has allowed people to become ever more sexually active at the expense of monogamous matrimony, it's easy - and proper - for evangelicals to vilify it.

However, what about evangelical married couples who want to use the pill?  They don't yet want kids, but they want to be sexually intimate - something even the Bible encourages?

"Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control." - 1 Corinthians 7:5
Frankly, I don't know if evangelical married couples who are trying to respect their spousal "obligations" while trying to be financially responsible are wrong for using the pill.  Or any form of contraception, since even though some of the medical and biological factors alternative forms of contraception deploy or prevent can be argued different ways, they all amount to the same thing:  an aversion for offspring at the present time.  Whether the pill is a form of abortion, while tubal ligation and even vasectomies are not, is a red herring.  If the couple have a legitimate reason for thinking they need to delay or obfuscate procreation, and the science which God has allowed to be invented to accomplish that is available, I'm not going to deny the grace necessary to let them pray through such a decision and be at peace with using contraception.

What about evangelical couples who get married and have no intention or desire to have children, you may ask?  Perhaps that's more of an example of selfishness than the couples who want to wait a few years before starting their family.  Perhaps it's also a slap in the face to couples who'd love to have children, but are infertile.

Mostly, I think it's a misunderstanding of the purpose of marriage.  If the person you're marrying does not want to ever have children - or you don't, then you're probably simply not designed for marriage.  In a general sense, the purpose of marriage is creating families.  Even governments, since the beginning of time, have assumed the marriage franchise from Christianity precisely because marriage is the foundational element of societal regeneration.  If you're eligible for procreation yet marrying only for the sex, or the tax benefits, or the companionship, you're likely marrying for the wrong reasons.

The main thing regarding contraception, however, has to do with the likelihood that it conveniently and quietly minimizes our trust in God.  Do couples who are entitled to as much sex as they want with each other also trust Him to allow a pregnancy to begin with that sexual behavior, despite whatever economic or logistical hardships a pregnancy may cause?  In other words, the reasons a couple use so they can use contraception could fly in the face of God's sovereignty, and their faith in His timing.

While I'm still not going to conclude that using contraception in any form is flat-out, always, definitely sinful, might using contraception nevertheless indicate a weak relationship with God?

After all, God is one of the persons with whom your marriage covenant has been sealed.  Plus, He is the one Who allows life, or doesn't.  What damage might result if we interfere with His parts of the covenant?

Of course, all this is easy for me to say!

It may not be as black and white to married folks as Mapplethorpes photographs are.


  1. Hi Tim,
    (because the internet does not yet allow for a 'tone of voice' flag in such things, please picture this in a 'just asking' tone, not a confrontational tone)
    Can you provide the (presumably?) Biblical exegesis for "the purpose of marriage is creating families. ... If you're eligible for procreation yet marrying only for ... the companionship, you're likely marrying for the wrong reasons."?

    I have presumed you draw such conclusions from a Faith world view, but I may also be wrong in that. If your conclusion is more from a secular world view perspective, then I concede it is such a subjective matter that there is no need to supply my request.

    1. Thank you for your patience, Anonymous. I've been distracted lately by such things as taxes. I'm glad somebody challenged me on this point - it means people are actually reading what I write!

      Firstly, I'd start with the "marriage is for families" thing by saying that although before Adam and Eve were kicked out of Eden, they were technically "married" (in that they likely enjoyed the physical pleasures of their unique situation) but, ironically, part of the "fall" was the unpleasantness and pain of pregnancy and childbirth. In other words, God changed the purpose of sex from pleasure alone to pleasure and procreation. Adding to the irony is that Christ was to be born - not just arrive on our planet already in regal splendor - and be born through a lineage determined by marriage.

      Second, relationships can exist to a certain extent outside of marriage, whereas childrearing is most completely and effectively accomplished within a marriage construct. I don't have a specific Bible passage to support this view, but God clearly authorizes parents with the primary responsibility for childrearing.

      Third, the "orphans and widows" passage about acceptable religion illustrates the importance of children in a marriage relationship - if parents die, the faith community needs to come around the orphaned and contribute to their care. If a widow passes away, presumably without offspring to care for her, the faith community needs to step in again. I suppose I could write a whole essay on this, but suffice it to say that there is no similar instruction for us regarding single men. Am I wrong in concluding from this that procreation that leaves children destitute, or procreation denied a bereaved wife, are particularly acute situations we Christ followers need to mitigate?

      Please note that I did take care to word my last sentence in this thought so that everybody who marries yet wants no kids isn't faulted for their actions. I was trying to say that to the extent people who are virile marry yet intentionally and permanently thwart their virility might not be benefiting from God's whole intention for the covenant.

      Of course, I say that as a single, aging, never-married man, whose chances for finding a wife young enough (and desperate enough!) for child birth diminish by the hour.

      Does that answer your question?


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