Several years ago, I read “The DaVinci Code” to see what all the fuss was about. It was nothing special—a fast-paced novel with interesting, if inaccurate, historical details woven in—but one line still stands out to me. The leading lady recalls a conversation she had with her grandfather as a child, about the film “The Last Temptation of Christ.” “Would it be so bad if Jesus had a girlfriend?” the old man asks her.
“YES!” I wanted to shout. “Yes, creepy cultic dude, it would be horrible if Jesus had a girlfriend.” I can’t remember the characters names, or most of the details of the story, but that simple question still startles and horrifies me. Here’s why.
Sexuality is a gift from God, but there’s no doubt that sin has screwed it up in the most grotesque ways. That WE have screwed it up in the most grotesque ways. Sex can be beautiful, yes, a wonderful celebration of love, faithfulness, new life, and these brilliantly-designed bodies our Creator so generously gifted us. But in our broken world, sexuality has been twisted to serve other purposes. To control. To harm. To feed addictions. To feed children. Once an expression of a tender, loving relationship, sex has been hardened and depersonalized, turned into a currency that people exploit for money, pleasure, or power.
I thought of this the other night as I drove past the strip clubs on the north end of Tower Avenue, watched middle-aged men weighted down by dust and exhaustion shuffle their feet and smoke cigarettes under a sign promising Girls! Girls! Girls! I wondered about the Girls!, wondered if anyone was loving on them, telling them (and more importantly showing them) that there is Someone who for whom their worth is not tied to their sexuality, in either a negative or positive way.
See, for women, the messages about where our worth comes from start young. As babies, we are beautiful, pretty little preschoolers in adorable dresses, so cute you could just eat us up. By elementary school, we’ve discovered that girls with long blonde hair and trendy, sparkly tops are treated differently than the ones sporting tangled locks and stained sweats. By middle school, we’ve seen enough movies to understand that living happily ever after involves being skinny, beautiful, and having a lot of sex, and by high school fashion magazines have taught us that it’s not so much about being pretty as it is about being sexually attractive to a certain sort of man—by leaning forward and parting your lips slightly when you’re flirting with him at work, by dousing yourself in pheromone-laced perfume available for only $120 at Nordstroms, by learning the Ten Naughty Tricks That Will Drive Him Wild In Bed, dished by a Parisian madame.
The Christian community participates in this as well. On the one hand, you have pastors’ wives taking pole dancing classes, lest they be complicit in their husband’s downfall by “letting themselves go.” Our porn-drenched, sex-obsessed culture has so saturated the church that women are being pressured (from the pulpit!) to perform acts their grandmothers couldn’t even conceive of. On the other, you have the “modest is hottest” crowd, where a woman’s demure virginity is praised as an irresistible turn-on to conquest-oriented males (as if everyone knows that’s the real goal of chaste Christian girlhood—to drive prospective husbands “mad with desire”).
What it comes down to is that in many ways, society ascribes value to women based on how attractive and/or useful they are to men.
What it comes down to is that in many ways, society ascribes value to women based on how attractive they are to men. (This is only exacerbated by women’s idolatrous tendency to base their identity on who they are in relationship with others, rather than on who they are in Christ. But that’s a different post for a different day.) Whether it’s the young intern getting the job the middle-aged mom really should have landed, or the father demanding extra cows in payment for his beautiful daughter’s bride price, this sort of discrimination is widespread. We tsk-tsk over the cost to the women left out in the cold by this silliness, the women who are passed over for the promotions or livestock-laden proposals. But driving past those strip clubs, I couldn’t help but wonder if it’s the women who live into those unrealistic expectations who suffer the most. What happens to a woman’s heart when she embraces (and perhaps monetizes) society’s shallow view of her value?
But it doesn’t just happen in seedy strip clubs, on a Parisian catwalk or under the bright lights of Hollywood. It happens in our churches. The intersection between Christian patriarchy, pop culture, and pornography goes deep. All three rest on the foundational assumption that women exist for men, that their value and purpose lies in what they have to offer males.
In our churches, this usually comes from a misunderstanding of women’s creation as an ezer kenegdo, a “helper suitable” or “helpmeet.” Instead of being the strong ally, the powerful rescuer the word ezer implies (in the Bible, ezer usually refers to Israel’s military allies, or to God himself–it’s hardly a term of weakness or subservience), some seem to see women as more like the “comfort girls” that used to be (and in some places still are) provided to military men—beautiful, subservient creatures whose job it is to keep the men placated and comfortable while they carry out their important mission. One prominent pastor (who shall remain nameless) quipped that the pastor’s wife had the most important job in the church—having sex with the pastor. There is so much wrong with that, I don’t even know where to begin.
But Jesus never treated women like that. He respected them as persons, and welcomed them as his disciples, co-laborers, benefactors, and friends—a radical, counter-cultural practice that often scandalized even his closest followers.
I’ve often wondered what the “sinful women” described in the gospels thought of Jesus. What was going through their heads as they interacted with this incredibly unusual man? Did they expect that the rabbi to condemn them? Did they wonder if he would seek them out after nightfall, like so many other “good” men did? Desperate for attention, for someone to love and affirm them, did they hope that he would take notice of their feminine charms? Were they befuddled when he didn’t? What was it like for them to be accepted not because of their sexuality, but in spite of it?
No wonder they loved him so lavishly, watering his dusty feet with hard-gained perfume and well-earned tears.
The world tells women that they get their value from how useful or attractive or desirable they are to men, that their purpose is to please men. Jesus treats women with the intrinsic dignity due people created in the image of God, and reminds them that their purpose is not to please men, but to please God.
How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news!
Jenny Rae Armstrong is an award-winning freelance journalist who blogs about faith, social justice, and women’s issues at http://www.jennyraearmstrong.com/. She is passionate about building up the body of Christ by building up women, in her rural community and around the world. She loves making new friends, so drop by her blog and say hi, or follow her on Twitter or Facebook.