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Monday, January 24, 2011  

Why Preachers Should Read Dan Savage

I've had plenty of critical things to say about Dan Savage's writing over the years, and I'm sure to have some more. But I keep reading him because he takes on questions that I and my colleagues often manage to avoid, and because I have a professional fascination with church substitutes. A pair of his blog posts this week reminded me why I continue to admire his writing even though I don't share his worldview and why I think it's good practice for pastors to keep an inquisitive, appreciative eye on what he does.

One concerns a matter of general principle, namely, under what circumstances is cheating in a relationship permissible. A reader took issue with his claim that cheating amounts to the least-worst option when one partner is incapacitated. "It is selfish to cheat on someone in a circumstance such as this," writes the indignant correspondent. "If you really feel the need to cheat on your dying husband or wife, you should have thought about that before you got married." Savage responds:

If a little discreet cheating makes it possible for someone to be there for a sick or disabled partner—if it makes it possible for that person to remain faithful in the most meaningful sense of the term—no one outside that relationship has a right to judge. And, again, I'm not saying that people in monogamous relationships have a right to cheat on their partners at the first sign of sniffles or if their partners are bedridden for a few months with a broken leg. I'm talking about the grind of years and years of caring for a sick or dying partner.

Circumstances change, IHTB, and sometimes allowances have to made. It's neither helpful nor realistic to demand that others go without physical intimacy for years or decades because you can't wrap your head around a situation where a person might need to sneak out and do a small wrong in order to stay put and do a much larger right.

Now I'm going to be one to praise the power of a relationship that goes all the way into incapacity with as much mutual sacrifice as possible. But to take a deep breath and face the prospect of a life without sexual intimacy because the person with whom you've promised to share it is still living but not sexually functional is a matter of tremendous gravity. And I wonder how people in my line of work deal with it, either implicitly or explicitly. The person arguing with Dan makes a rather harsh legalistic case--you committed, and hedging on that commitment even in extremity is selfish. I would venture that it's not an uncommon opinion. What have we had to say about it?

On this point the idea of the uses of the law has something to say. For those of you with better things to do than learn about the Reformation, the idea that the law of God--whether the commandments, or just the body of legitimate ethical wisdom available to us--has different uses can be surprisingly useful. Today I'll summarize them thus:

First use: Managing the Human Disaster
Second use: Revealing the Human Disaster for what it is and throwing us on the grace of God
(the Gospel goes here, but that's another topic)
Third use: Subverting and resisting the Human Disaster through works of heroic charity

Ask me tomorrow and I'll probably put it differently. This isn't the only way to think about the relationship between Law and Gospel, or between ideal and actual in human affairs. But it's a way, and I think every Christian teacher and preacher needs a way to think about these things. Renouncing sexual intimacy in solidarity with a disabled partner is third use stuff--i.e., heroic, a daring attempt to transcend the awfulness of a given situation. It's an act of faith, not a work of the law that can justify (forgive my foray into the weeds here). Where Savage's advice is quite useful, I think, is on first-use grounds. A spouse who takes good and faithful care of the other spouse while taking some joy in an outside relationship is not a cruel or selfish failure. Indeed, in a lot of cases that would constitute a kind of success in enduring the human disaster.

The second example concerns a particular case:

I've written before, but didn't hear back from you. Probably because my email didn't contain flogging or santorium or whatever. But I won't be IGNORED, Dan.

The wounded tone itself is kind of interesting. But anyway:

I'm a 32-year-old female. Second marriage, two kids. One with my ex and one with the man I cheated on him with and my current husband. My problem: a year ago I found my "first love" on a social network. I'd been looking for him off and on for more than sixteen years. This person was a jerk who left me for one of my friends back in high school. But he was and still the love of my life. Always has been. Always will be.He is not married and never has been married and has no children. We began an affair about seven months after finding each other. My marriage, my second marriage, had been rocky before this. My second husband, of three years, stopped having sex with me after I became pregnant and this continued after our child was born. We tried counseling. It didn't help. In no way am I using this as an excuse. I know what I've done is wrong. But I also have a pretty bad track record and I've cheated on every man I've ever been with except for my "first love."...Every man who that has come into my life AFTER him knew about him and knew that if he ever came back for me, I was gone. This includes my current husband. Dan, pull out all the stops on this one, as you famously do, and please tell me what to do.

Read the whole thing. Savage may be forgiven a somewhat brusque opening to his answer:

I didn't respond to your earlier pleas for help, SCIL, because I didn't have much to say to you. I still don't. I had the same reaction reading your email today that I had reading all the other emails you've sent me about your situation. My reaction is a little selfish and I'm a little embarrassed to share it with you. But you keep pressing me, SCIL, and so here it is:


But the heart of the matter is more serious:

You say you've cheated on every man you've ever been with the exception of your "first love," SCIL. You seem to be operating under the assumption that you never cheated on him because he's the love of your life and that he's the love of your life because you never cheated on him. No. You never cheated on him, SCIL, because you never got around to it. You two broke up when you were fifteen. If you'd been with him a little longer, you would've cheated on him like you've cheated on everybody else. And if you leave your current husband and break up your first child's second home and your second child's first, it won't be long before you're cheating on the love of your life too. Because you're a cheater, SCIL, you're the kind of person who couldn't and shouldn't make monogamous commitments.

Or get married. Or have children.

Don't know that I'd go that far. Her children probably don't agree, at least if we're talking about a particular case and not a "kind of person." But it's hard to doubt the soundness of the impression.

So what should you do. Stay? Go? Frankly, SCIL, I don't give a f*** what you do. And, stay or go, it's not going to make f*** of a lot of difference. Your personal life is a mess, SCIL, and always be. Because, you see, wherever you go, there you are.

That said: If your current husband doesn't mind being cheated on, if he can put up with your affairs, I think you should stay with him for the sake of your kids. They deserve whatever stability and continuity you scrounge up between infidelities. And, again, if you leave your current husband for the love of your life, SCIL, it won't be long before you're cheating on your third husband and preparing to uproot your kids a third/second time again. I know it, you know it, everyone reading this knows it.

So just stay put, okay?

People like SCIL are in our pews. And I wonder what we're saying to them about their emotions, the way they relate their emotional needs to the interests of their children, their prospects for being either as good or as happy as they want (and apparently expect) to be. Probably not much, at least that we're aware of. But surely the person who bothers to look for truth in what we say, rather than harassing Dan Savage, is learning something about themselves from what they hear.

My hunch is that someone like SCIL is probably not going to hear much that persuades her that she is who she is, that she's kind of a disaster, and that managing that disaster in the interests of her children is the most important thing she can do. Some hay has been made about the role of Christianity of the prosperity-gospel variety in inflating housing bubbles and so forth. I wonder if we don't encourage a moral version of the same thing, a false hope that we can just be good, happy, and somehow harmless all at the same time. That's entirely speculative on my part, and it's certainly no part of anyone's intention. But as someone who hasn't preached about sex and relationships at any length in a year and a half, I can say that SCIL learned more by harassing Dan Savage than she would have sitting in church while I was preaching.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 3:58 AM
First of all, good call! I very rarely make it to the pulpit, and when I have in the past, I certainly didn't go to the realm of sex. I like seeing a theological reflection on a statement that, in most cases, would lodge itself firmly in the secular realm.

Secondly, the specific case of SCIL makes me wonder about human capacity for change. Well, that and the fact that I am currently reading "Home" by Marilynne Robinson. It seems like when people ask the question of whether people can change, the answer is either, "Of course they can!" or "Obviously they can't!" Savage seems to imply that SCIL can indeed change her habit of leaving after cheating, but her essential cheater-ness remains no matter what she does, and she will inevitably cheat again. So here's my question for you, and I'm interested in both your theological and personal response: in "managing the disaster," can essential improvements be made(aka, SCIL eventually becomes someone who loves herself and therefore becomes capable of committing fully to someone else)? Or can we simply adapt our behaviors (aka, SCIL stays with third husband in spite of her fixed character as, well, whatever she is) so as to cause the least amount pain in our day-to-day lives?

Your thoughts, as always, are appreciated. No rush, it can wait til your next bout of insomnia. :)
The other reason to read Dan Savage, lol:
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