No Sweeter Innocence: Shame and the Fruit of Death

I didn’t lose my virginity in the traditional fashion – at least, not the fashion in which most of my friends lost theirs. There were no wedding bells, no engagement rings, no “I do’s.” I didn’t have to undo a chastity belt or say any magic wedding words before I engaged in the acts I considered as the “loss” of my virginity.

No one but my then boyfriend and I knew what was happening in his small bedroom, with the window AC unit blowing cool air on us on those early Fall nights. We explored and learned and traced the lines of each other’s bodies in a deep embrace of our infatuation with one another.

There was no shame in that room; there was no shame in those experiences. I entered into that exploration eagerly, happily, and lovingly. Perhaps I am the victim of a sinful nature, of an original sin slouching me toward a Gomorra of godless sexual pursuit. Or perhaps sexuality and sexual experience is far more complex than the church has ever taught us. 

One of my favorite songs of 2014 was Hozier’s “Take Me to Church.” In interviews and statements about the meaning of the song, the artist has commented that it is about the institutional church and its rejection of love – particularly same-sex love – because it doesn’t follow the “rules.” The speaker uses theological language to discuss the sexual experience, begging for the “deathless death” and referring to encounters with his lover as going to church, a form of worship at her side. There’s something beautiful in the slow and steady rhythm of the song. 

The part that strikes me the most, however, is the bridge: “No masters or kings, when the ritual begins, there is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin.” 

That last line has stuck in my head like nothing else over the past year, probably because it is at such odds with the evangelical portrait of sin and premarital sex. Dating guides and Christian purity proponents command fidelity through fear – fear of sin rending apart a person’s life, fear of the destruction of unholiness, fear of the wrath of God. Sin, in the evangelical world, is not gentle, is not lovely, is not ironically called so. In calling the “sin” of sexuality and sexual experience both gentle and innocent, the speaker in Hozier’s song undermines and challenges the idea that such sex is sinful at all. 

This is a view we were warned about in youth group. We were taught that sin feels good for a moment, but its destructive nature will weigh us down. Sin and the temptation to break our vows will sound pleasant, will sound godly, and will break down our resolve and our purity and our holiness. We will find ourselves ashamed and alone.

In looking at the evangelical and Christian responses to Hozier, I see that theme played out over and over again – the desire to reinstate shame into the discussion of sexuality and premarital sex. Any suggestion that there might be holiness or purity within the act of sex itself is quashed, stated as unbiblical, and condemned as unholy. 

Unfortunately, these attempts to inject shame back into the narrative backfire tremendously. Instead of talking about sexuality in a way that honors the varying experiences people bring to the bedroom, shame forces people to toe the line of appropriateness. Shame creates a culture in which everyone who experiences the world differently is made silent, forced to see themselves as the worst of sinners and fallen from grace. Shame is not a theology of hope – it is a theology of despair. 

What if “Take Me To Church” is not an attack on the Christian faith, as many have proposed, but instead an embrace of the mystical nature and seriousness of the sexual encounter and God-created sexuality? And rather than crying that Christianity has been misrepresented to a sinful world, why not closely and carefully examine why so many have walked away from the church with a message of shame and condemnation? 

All too often, the evangelical church has become so invested in defending itself, defending the faith, that we’ve become blind to the introspection that is vital to the survival of any belief. Without close self-examination, the church and “the world” will be like two ships passing in the night, unable to communicate with each other as one speaks shame and one speaks the truth of their experiences. 

It is this conflict, this inability to realize the impact our theological words have on other people that creates such a reputation for the church as a whole. It is no wonder that we are seen as foolish by the world when we really are foolish enough to think our words of sin and shame and guilt have little impact on the lives of real, genuine people. 

Denny Burk, the Southern Baptist Convention’s resident “expert” on transgender issues, commented on the recent suicide of transgender teenager Leelah Alcorn by misgendering her, referring to her by her deadname, and talking about a “pastoral response” to such “sin.” The lack of self-awareness is evident throughout the post, as Burk clearly believes that merely restating the same things Alcorn had been told by her Christian counselors would have somehow made a difference. As I said on twitter, “Leelah wasn’t lacking in ‘Christian messaging.’ She was drowning in it.” 

The problem, church, is not that our message is not being heard. It is that our message is wrong. We preach shame and guilt and denial when we should be preaching radical love and grace and liberation. We condemn – even as we soften such condemnation into “disagreement” – and reinforce self-hate and self-denial as positive developments in personhood. 

Our theology can be “orthodox” day in and day out, but it means nothing if our praxis results in death.

Or, to put it in words evangelicals may better understand:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 

Perhaps one could even adapt this passage to be of greater relevance to our current ways of speaking:

If I speak in the correct theologies and correct orthodoxies, but have not acceptance of God’s created people, I am merely adding to the noise. If I have the gifts of pastoring and preaching and deep faith but still think conversion therapy is a-okay, I am nothing. If I give all I posses to charity and run myself into the ground with a year round speaking schedule but still deflect blame when young trans people kill themselves, I gain nothing.

We, as the church, must be willing to radically change. We must be willing to allow the unexpected to influence and change us, to take us to church and teach us about who we are and how we appear. Our fruits should be glorious and beautiful – but I see more dead teenagers, dead queer people, dead people of color, lost lives of God’s people than I see any goodness and love coming from the current incarnation of the evangelical church. We think we are speaking truth when we are speaking shame into the lives of the marginalized and the downtrodden – we are aiding in their pain instead of relieving it. And this is a failure of the church, a failure of grace, and it is sin.

We are to be judged by our fruit, by what our words produce, not by how theologically correct those words are. And right now, we are failing that test. Perhaps it is time to let someone else take us to church.