Secular Interest in “Mastery of Self?”

If memory serves, it was February of 1976 when I attended a weekend retreat with several other high schoolers and parent-chaperones from First Baptist Church in Birmingham, Mich. I was in the ninth grade at the time. That very same weekend, a few other Detroit-area, Baptist-affiliated churches were also headed to the same campground, and one of the other groups happened to be from the church attended by my girlfriend, whom I had met the previous summer. She was three years older than me. So you can probably see where this is going already, right?

To make a long story short, we sneaked out of our cabins after the adults went to sleep and met up at (irony of ironies) the chapel. Shortly after we left, however, the alarm went up in both camps, and several adults from both churches spent what had to be cold, bitter hours trudging through deep Michigan snow looking for two extremely stupid, self-involved teenagers. Needless to say, the parent-chaperones were exceedingly ticked off – who can blame them? – and my parents got several earfuls after we had all returned home. What stuck in my mind, though, was not how badly the two of us had behaved, but instead the argument offered by one of my parents as they were – inexplicably – defending me to the adult ministry leaders over the phone. One snippet of that conversation stood out in particular: “What’s the big deal? After all, it’s just sex.” This was an especially intriguing bit of argumentation for me to overhear, especially as no sex, per se, had actually taken place during that ill-advised chapel rendezvous. I was still (at that point) a virgin.

The overall lesson that was communicated to a 15-year-old? Sex is not a big deal. It’s something everyone is experimenting with these days, so we Christians should all learn to “lighten up a bit.” Biblical admonitions against sex outside of marriage (Leviticus 18; Romans 1:24-28; 1 Corinthians 6:18-20; Galatians 5:16-24; Ephesians 5:5-6; Colossians 3:5-6) were not to be interpreted literally in our modern, enlightened age. Looking back across 35 years, I want to affirm my deep love and somewhat-belated respect for both of my parents, but at the same time acknowledge that horribly-misguided episode of parenting as the “green light” that (unwittingly) “helped” me to combat my own conscience; it served as a touchstone that enabled me to repeatedly set aside what I knew to be right, a watershed moment that made it easier for me to unleash decades of brokenness and multiple tragedies.

On the evening of November 18, 1992, NBC aired the 51st episode of its hit TV series “Seinfeld.” Almost 20 years later, this particular episode (“The Contest“) remains an often-quoted cultural milestone, even though the carefully-left-unnamed topic of that episode was sexual self-gratification, i.e. masturbation. While I can freely admit that I laughed at this episode just as much as any of the others – the creative team behind this series was arguably one of the best ever – I was nevertheless left with a slightly-uncomfortable feeling, as if I were laughing at something that maybe wasn’t that funny after all. I revisited this feeling just recently as I read an article by a Holocaust survivor who provided a very different take on the humor of Seinfeld’s 116th episode, a.k.a. “The Soup Nazi,” suggesting that perhaps trivializing the use of the word “Nazi” is not such a great idea, either.

But trivialization of human sexual behavior has, I think, been a lasting effect of “The Contest,” “Friends,” and all of its entertainment cousins. Sex is funny. Sex is trivial. Self-gratification of sexual desire outside of the marriage covenant is junk-drawered as “just another thing that single people do.” Sexual activity is not (above all else) something that we should take too seriously. Almost twenty years later, though, I find myself involved in volunteer ministry work that draws me into friendships with other men who have become enslaved to their sexual desires, some even to the point of contemplating suicide. The prevailing narrative arc of addiction – more and more effort/expense, along with increasingly-diminishing results – is no laughing matter to any of them. So we simultaneously amuse ourselves with entertainment that makes light of sexual behavior in a culture that is drowning in suicidal despair over an increasing lack of ability on anyone’s part, it seems, to be “master of their domain.”

Sara Lipton is an associate professor in the Department of History at State University of New York at Stony Brook as well as a fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. In the wake of the sexual scandal and resignation of Representative Anthony D. Weiner of New York, Lipton authored what I found to be a brilliant piece on the topic of self-mastery. Without citing even one verse of Christian scripture, Lipton offers up a compelling critique of modern man as almost completely unable to control his sexual desires. In just a few short paragraphs, she makes a compelling case for the idea that men acting out sexually has only in very recent times been misconstrued as some sort of knuckle-headed testament to virility:

For most of Western history, the primary and most valued characteristic of manhood was self-mastery. Late antique and Roman writers, like Plutarch, lauded men for their ability to resist sexual temptation and control bodily desire through force of will and intellect. Too much sex was thought to weaken men: a late-15th-century poem mocks an otherwise respectable but overly sexually active burgess who has “wasted and spent” his “substance” until there is “naught left but empty skin and bone.” Rampant sexuality was something men were supposed to grow out of: in medieval political theory, young male bodies were used as symbols of badly run kingdoms. A man who indulged in excessive eating, drinking, sleeping or sex – who failed to “rule himself” – was considered unfit to rule his household, much less a polity.

Those Manly Men of Yore
Op-Ed Piece by Sara Lipton
The New York Times
June 16, 2011

Personally, I find it amazing to consider that things are spinning so far out of control nowadays that even secular, non-Christian voices in our culture are calling for something that looks like “restraint.” The sticking point there, of course, is that we have spent the past several decades “demythologizing” and eroding the Judeo-Christian worldview such that we are left with no universally-accepted standard for what restraint might actually look like in practice. What works for Lipton would obviously be too prudish for Rep. Weiner and his legion of fallen brethren. And what we accept as commonplace these days would have been considered deeply shocking back in 1976 when I was just beginning my own “adventure” of throwing off the shackles of a “suffocating Christian morality.” It goes without saying that while we may be shocked that a Congressional veteran would engage in salacious sexual conduct over the Internet, who’s to say that this sort of thing won’t become routine (and even blasé) another twenty, or perhaps even ten, years from now?

Just yesterday, Pastor Shay Roush offered up what I found to be an excellent sermon on the topic of Temptation. I found it interesting that my initial response to his message was to begin a mental list of other people I knew who “really needed to hear what he had to say.” In doing so, of course, I was completely ignoring the fact that I tend to overeat, drive too fast, and go all too quickly to despair when the events of life do not unfold as neatly as I would prefer. While my temptations these days are not at all the same as the ones I gave into for much of my adult life, Jesus – in His infinite mercy – immediately helped me tie the Lipton piece in The Times to Shay’s sermon such that I was able to admit that I, too, very clearly lack “mastery of self” in several areas. As Christians, though, we are obligated to answer the question, “What will you do with the Truth, now that it has been revealed?”

Philippians 3:8-16 (ESV, emphasis mine)
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith – that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.

1 Corinthians 9:24-27 (ESV, emphasis mine)
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.


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