One of the books I consulted for my thesis was Amy Frykholm’s Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America (Oxford U.P., 2004). In Rapture, Frykholm traveled around the nation interviewing readers of Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series, exploring the effect of rapture narratives in Evangelical culture. Frykholm — who grew up Evangelical and now attends an Episcopal church — studies her former subculture with a keen and empathetic eye. In her latest book, See Me Naked: Stories of Sexual Exile in American Christianity (Beacon Press, 2011), Frykholm turns to personal narratives of sexuality, embodiment, and Christian spirituality. The slim volume contains nine profiles of Protestant Christians struggling in various ways to integrate their physical, sexual selves with their concepts of Christian “purity” or righteousness.
As much as possible, Frykholm backs away from any larger-scale analysis in the interest of allowing her subjects to make meaning of their own lives. However, it seems clear that all of her interviewees have struggled to integrate their sexual selves with their theological beliefs. Some because they experience same-sex desires, some because they’re struggling to live up to demanding Christian ideologies of chastity or modesty, some because anything associated with bodily desires became the enemy.
One of my favorite essays was less about sexual activity or relationships, per se, than it was about our sense of embodiment and the sensual experience of being and expressing oneself in flesh. “Monica” recounts her experience of attending a life-drawing class while studying abroad — an experience that challenged her understanding of propriety and ultimately helped her re-evaluate her expectations of what beautiful bodies should look like and how women’s bodies should behave. At first repulsed by the normal-looking nude model (to the point where she almost dropped the class), Monica perseveres and eventually exhibits her drawings in the college library upon returning to her home campus:
Monica heard two things in the comments [about her art show]. She heard the same fear and revulsion that she had experienced in herself when first encountering the model. It was a disgust that human beings exist in this form … she also heard in the comments that Christianity and nakedness were incompatible — that somehow being clothed and being Christian were necessary to each other (84).
At that point in her own journey, Monica has grown enough to be critical of these assumptions, and by the end of the piece has challenged herself to volunteer as a nude model for community life drawing classes — an act of bravery that seems to be very intertwined with her developing sense of spiritual practice.
What I think may surprise non-Christian readers of these narratives is their familiarity: in many ways, the discomfort with embodiment is a malaise that is more American than Christian, though obviously practicing Christians will express their struggles in theological language. The individuals here struggle with unrealistic beauty standards, with the commercialization of sexuality, with questions of attraction and desire and what their bodies want versus what they’re being taught they should want by their parents, youth leaders, peers. The process of coming into one’s own bodily self and finding a voice for our desires is rarely an easy one, regardless of the faith tradition we’re raised in.
On the other hand, See Me Naked does put those struggles in a particularly Christian theological and social context, and illuminate some of the ways Christian language — particularly theology which seeks to construct rigid definitions of “right” and “wrong” sexual expression — fails believers. Reading stories about young women starving themselves to the brink of death in the name of “modesty” and young men told their interest in pornography was sinful, brought to mind the recent post, How Modesty Made Me Fat, by Sierra of No Longer Quivering in which she writes:
Modesty made me “fat” because it defined my relationship with my body in terms of appearance. Not action. Not gratitude. Not the joy of movement. Just appearance. It also defined my relationship with men as one of predator and prey. It was my job to hide from men so that their sex drive would lie dormant, like a sleeping wolf. But if that wolf ever awakened, it was not because it had been sleeping for a long time and its circadian rhythm kicked in, or it was just naturally hungry. It was my fault because I had done something to “bait” the wolf. Just by being visibly female, or by moving in “unladylike” ways. You cannot consider women full human beings unless you recognize that their lives do not revolve around the male sex drive. Modesty is a philosophy that dehumanizes. It incites constant fear and vigilance in one sex while excusing the other of all responsibility. It’s immoral.”
See Me Naked offers similar examples of the way in which our religious language falls perilously short in its ostensible effort to increase well-being for all. Naked tells stories of women starving themselves close to death for the sake of being pure, stories of women and men who feel lost when faced with the task of integrating queer attractions with their Christian faith, and stories of men who are taught to hate and fear their feelings of sexual desires as something inherently impure or incompatible with living a righteous life.
At the very end of See Me Naked, Frykholm does offer some reflections on an alternative ethic of sexuality, one that I think is worth contemplating whether or not you’re interested in the explicitly Christian language in which she couches her suggestions. “True, deep, real pleasure is an avenue to the Holy,” Frykholm writes. “Through discernment, wonder, and aliveness we will know what real pleasure is … and when we sense true pleasure, we will trust it and be able to act bodily in it and with it.” She recounts the counsel of a parent to her soon-to-be adolescent daughter, “Your body will know more pleasure than you can even now imagine. You are going through a period when your body is going to learn to feel pleasure, and you will be amazed” (176) While I’d argue that children, too, have the bodily capacity to feel pleasure — though of a different kind than adults — I like this invitation to an emerging teenager to embrace that part of her growing-up. Too often, we’re quick to associate teenage embodiment with danger, not pleasure. As Frykholm says, “We all know that puberty, adolescence, adulthood are not solely about pleasure … But pain we know well. Pleasure we sometimes need help attending to” (177). Such an invitation crosses the boundaries of faith traditions and is a reminder to us all how much better we could be, as a culture, at living embodied and joyful lives.
Cross-posted at the oregon extension oral history project blog.