Saturday, October 3, 2009

Sex and Christians in the 50s

A few years ago I found myself in love with bluegrass and the blues. And while listening to Bessie Smith's "Empty Bed Blues" (1928) I encountered these paired lines:

Bought me a coffee grinder that's the best one I could find
Bought me a coffee grinder that's the best one I could find
Oh, he could grind my coffee, 'cause he had a brand new grind
He's a deep sea diver with a stroke that can't go wrong
He's a deep sea diver with a stroke that can't go wrong
He can stay at the bottom and his wind holds out so long

I heard this while innocently driving along, and I said to myself -- out loud: "Damn, did she really say that?" In 1928? I suppose it had not occurred to me that people were having sex in 1928. You should see the lines about cabbage....

My introduction to Bessie Smith came back to mind the other day, when I found this book in the church library, Sex and Love in the Bible, by William Graham Cole (Association Press, 1959). All I know about Cole is that he taught at Williams College; his publications suggest that maybe he was a pastoral theologian, someone who worked on the intersection of psychology and theology.

Cole's was a great book. Fifty years ago he was telling the truth about the Bible, sex, and modern morals. He spelled out how "biblical family values" couldn't be found in scripture and shouldn't be imposed on modern believers. He sought to bring gospel values to bear on people's sexual lives with sensitivity and honesty. Following the common psychological wisdom of his day, he regarded homosexuality as an illness -- we know better now -- but he insisted upon treating sexual minorities with dignity and as equals. I have no doubt he'd hold a progressive position today. In short, here is a serious theological publication from fifty years ago that gets it.

Yet so many Christians these days act surprised when matters of sexuality come into our communal reflection. I recall a local denominational gathering just after the UCC had endorsed equal marriage rights for all persons. One speaker lamented that this resolution had been thrown upon us so suddenly -- as if the UCC hadn't been working on these issues for over thirty years! Not to mention the work among Presbyterians and Lutherans over almost as long a period.

Friends, it's long past time that Christians move beyond platitudes, ignorance, bigotry, and naive biblicism. Serious biblical and theological work on human sexuality has been going on for a long time. This doesn't mean we'll all agree on every point. But it does mean we'll have to be as honest with the Bible and sexuality as we've come to be with the Bible and slavery, interest, and church leadership. It's time to wake up and smell the coffee.


Sarah said...

Well said!! Is William Graham Cole still alive? I wonder what he'd say about the scholarship today ...

Rachel Hackenberg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rachel Hackenberg said...

Sounds like an excellent book! One of the newest books on my shelf--yet to be read, naturally--is "Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage." Author Stephanie Coontz argues (somewhat similar to Cole, I suspect, though from an historic perspective) that "traditional" marriage actually lacks...historic tradition!

Daddy said...

I'll definitely wake up and smell the coffee, because I got me a new coffee grinder, and it's the best one I can find.

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