When I was a kid growing up in Ontario, our church used to teach us ways in which we could signal to unbelievers that we were Christians in hopes that they would be interested in the gospel we longed to share with them. Our tradition even taught us clever techniques to refer to “spiritual things,” as we called them, in almost any situation.
“Hey, did you see that goal the Canadiens scored last night in overtime?”
“Yes, I did. And speaking of goals, does your life have a goal?”
Part of the frustration we felt was that it was hard to stand out by being merely a decent Christian person in a culture that was still so shaped by Christian values. So we might avoid swearing and telling coarse jokes—we even had to try not to laugh at them, in order to signal our loftier sensibilities—and of course we mustn’t cheat on tests or tell lies or go to dances. (Yes, going to dances was on an ethical par with the rest.) It was frustrating to be a young evangelist: How could people see that we had abundant, eternal life amid so much Christianity-informed general decency?
Those medieval days are receding fast, aren’t they?
Here’s an item from Canada’s journal of ideas, The Walrus. Steven Beattie somewhat belatedly surveys the recent phenomenon of bestselling, front-of-the-store pornography (Fifty Shades of Grey and its ilk) and pronounces it disappointing. Why? Because it’s so ordinary, so traditional, so girl-meets-boy-who-has-fabulous-wealth-and-a-killer-smile-and-gives-her-everything-she-wants-for-sex. Where is the “transgressiveness” that Beattie longs for in truly notable erotica?
But it is not Beattie’s hunger for more sexual games that most arrestingly demonstrates his sexual morality, and that of bien-pensant Canadian thinking nowadays. It is what he takes for granted as “what everybody thinks” about sex more generally—and apparently what his editor thinks, too, as this line appears just in passing, as an axiom he sets down in order to move on to what he finds interesting.
I find the axiom itself interesting. He reviews another book, this one about a New Orleans waitress who is initiated into a merry band of women engaged in a titillating range of sexual horizon-expansions. And, as Beattie hurries to denounce this book also as distressingly bland, he concedes to the author that “surely the impulse to present a milieu in which they can freely explore their sexuality without guilt is admirable.”
“Surely” what is “admirable”?
So much for Canada’s journal of ideas. Here’s something from God’s journal of ideas:
Finally, brothers and sisters, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that, as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication; that each one of you know how to control your own body, in holiness and honor, not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one wrong or exploit a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, just as we have already told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness. Therefore whoever rejects this rejects not human authority but God, who also gives his Holy Spirit to you. (I Thessalonians 4:1-8)
The first thing Paul tells his young church as he begins his parting ethical instructions in his earliest canonical letter is this: abstain from premarital sex. Don’t “freely explore your sexuality without guilt,” but quite the contrary. Those “who do not know God” engage in “lustful passion” and in fact “exploit” each other. Those who do know God are to remain separate from such attitudes and actions. Chastity, in this case, is what “holiness” means.
And to render this passage all the more implausible in today’s moral climate, if not simply hateful, Paul doesn’t just add “guilt,” but actually a threat, a threat of divine retribution: “because the Lord is an avenger in all these things.”
Hah. Imagine a new church being planted in your community: “The Church of the Avenger.” (Once the comic-book fans found out what it was really about, the initial attendance surge would recede immediately.)
I don’t subscribe to the simplistic idea that everything in Canadian society is just getting worse and worse. “Leading cultural indicators” show, instead, that we treat women, ethnic minorities, the poor, and handicapped, the newly immigrated, and other people much better in many respects than we did in the century of “Christian Canada” (roughly 1860-1960).
Still, not everything is better. Not at all. And in some respects, the cultural gap between Christians and many other Canadians has widened to the point that we stare across a gulf of incredulity: “How can you possibly think that that is okay?”
No need to use clever tricks in conversation now. Now we need different skills…and virtues.