No, Will Smith and his family weren’t actually watching Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke grind it out during her Video Music Awards performance, but their expressions capture something priceless about what has happened to our entertainment industry. I’m not wanting to dis Miley Cyrus as a person or be a “slut-shamer” or anything like that. She is not the problem; Robin Thicke is not the problem; their choreographers are not the problem; the problem is the demonic worship system that I have often short-handed as “capitalism” (for lack of a better word), which has made eros into a consumer product that looks like a girl whose “branding” requires her public dehumanization and humiliation. [Trigger warning: some graphic written content]
I was completely unaware of what happened with Miley Cyrus because I’m utterly uninterested in pop culture. It came up in the context of a debate I was having with another Methodist blogger about the nature of eros. Basically the blogger was saying that Biblical sexuality must start from a “deep-seated suspicion about sex and caution about its power as a dark force in our life.” I was arguing that a better starting point would be to talk about how rich and beautiful eros is when it’s directed at God, particularly in the adoration of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharistic act, when our eros hasn’t been spewed into a kleenex and tossed into a toilet as a degraded form of fleshliness. Well another blogger decided to be cute and share the following:
Based on what I’m seeing in my news-feed about last nights VMA awards and Miley Cyrus, perhaps it would be a good thing for us to explore how “eros” ought to be more celebrated in the church. *removing tongue from cheek now*
They both seemed to be saying the Bible doesn’t talk about eros except about how it should be restricted and basically defining eros as “equal to sex by definition.” It’s hard for this type of talk not to come across as puriticanical posturing (c.f. Matthew 6), though I’m just sharing what I hear on my end of things. In any case, I realized that the reason I see eros all over the place in the Bible is because I have been so immersed in the psalms for the past two years. Eros to me is the kind of love that says, “My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Psalm 84:2) or “Like a deer panting for the water so my soul longs after you” (Psalm 42:2).
The idea that only agape is a legitimate form of Christian love is modernist rubbish and a confused, garbled up caricature of what C.S. Lewis was trying to say in The Four Loves. Eros is in us, whether you like or not. It can either be squandered and spilled into garbage cans and toilets or it can be channeled ascetically into dizzying encounters of ecstatic worship. I have done both in life, and one of the main reasons I hate myself for doing the former is because it destroys my ability to experience the latter. Eros is a beautiful gift from God that can be used in such ugly ways. Where is eros in the Bible? Try reading the Song of Songs, which was the most popular book in the Bible back when the leading theologians of Christianity were all celibate.
Last Monday, I had a charismatic encounter with God in a waterfall. I’m not meaning to cheapen it by saying that it was like making love, but I can’t think of any other human experience to compare it too. My body was smitten with a sensual ecstasy as I said things to God that weren’t words in any language that I know. The purpose of ascetic disciplines like fasting is not to “disfigure your face” and put on a performance of piety (Matthew 6:16); it’s to awaken a radically more intense and even erotic intimacy with God. If Jesus is the “bridegroom” of the church, then why in the world is it offensive to talk about our relationship with Him as being erotic? Only an anachronistic reactionary Victorianism can make the word “bridegroom” devoid of erotic content.
Part of the reason I clash with others in these conversations is that I relate to language as a poet rather than a historian. Historians are looking for an “accurate” definition of words; poets consider the definition of words to be at least somewhat in play, and we see it as our duty to redefine words whose beauty has been tarnished by how they are being used. Language is never a static entity. For people who have read John Wesley’s 18th century writing, think about the word “enthusiasm,” which used to be a word to describe the babbling of an irresponsible nutcase (like someone who would claim that they make love to God in waterfalls) and is now a purely positive word about contagious energy around an idea.
In any case, there are four Greek words for love: eros, storge, philos, and agape. From what I understand, storge is familial affection, philos is friendship, agape is divine benevolence, and eros is passion. Storge is the kind of love that fills my belly with laughter when my boys are laughing. Philos is the form of love that makes you warm inside when you grab coffee with a lifelong friend you haven’t seen in a few years. Agape is the form of love that is so genuinely benevolent and disarming that it can talk a school shooter into putting down his gun. Eros is the form of love that makes you write sonnets that are agony and bliss at the same time.
A world where eros has become a consumer product is a world where sonnets cannot be written. The image that I saw of Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke reminded me of a scene from a very disturbing movie Requiem for a Dream that has given me nightmares ever since I saw it.
The movie is about the degeneration of a group of heroin addicts, one of whom is a girl who has become the sex slave of her dealer/pimp. At the end of the movie, she dresses up to go on a “date” with this man whom she thinks of as a “boyfriend.” He tells her that he’s got somewhere special to take her. It shows her putting on makeup and a fancy dress, so that she looks genuinely beautiful enough that you almost forget how messed up her life is. When they arrive at the place, there’s a crowd of really excited, chattering men. They turn the corner, and there in a cage is a naked girl on all fours. The men pull out their dollar bills, and get ready to watch some “hard-core lesbian action.”
That scene is the ugliest moment I have ever seen in any film. To me, that scene and other commodifications of sexuality like it capture the death of eros in America. I see it as a ghastly surrender and betrayal to say that eros can only be this monstrosity, and it is simply something we must regulate by limiting it to marriage. Is marriage a room with a cage where only one man does what the crowd of men were doing in Requiem for a Dream or in the bleachers at this year’s video music awards cheering on Robin Thicke as he grinded on Miley Cyrus?
Of course not! The eros within a (healthy) marriage is not simply regulated misogynistic filth; it is actually something profoundly beautiful that the apostle Paul exalts to the level of the mystery of Christ’s relationship to the church, if only our capacity to write sonnets and ache with love for each other hasn’t been destroyed by the dehumanizing false eros that we’ve been exposed to. Bad eros doesn’t just disobey the Bible; it destroys the possibility of good eros (which is why the Bible says not to do it).
There are multiple forces that can poison eros, one of which of course happens on an individual level when we gluttonously follow our bodily urges wherever they take us, like animals. We also live in a world that wants to make everything into something we pay for. In such a world, the force that makes us write sonnets and ache with longing can be exploited powerfully if it’s channeled into products that can be sold, whether it’s a porn film, a Beer commercial, or an ultra-short miniskirt. But that’s not how eros has to be!
One thing that hit me recently is that the reason we make fun of contemporary praise songs for being “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs is because they’re largely based on the psalms. We say that hymns are more “serious” theologically because their lyrics are carefully spelled out doctrine and creed-like statements. Why not just recognize that hymns are for the head while praise songs are for the heart? The ancient nuns (and monks, whether it offends your homophobia or not) would have no problem saying, “Jesus is my boyfriend.” Read Catherine of Sienna or Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross.
This is why I am unexcited about responding to a hyper-sexed culture with puritanical posturing that views eros as a mostly negative thing to be tolerated for the sake of procreation. Making something taboo makes it attractive. That’s not a “Freudian” secular claim; it’s freaking Biblical! “Sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead” (Romans 7:8). To view Biblical teaching in a casuistic way (and merely replace 1st century Jewish “circumcision” with 21st century American middle-class “circumcision”) is to be on the opposing side of Paul’s debate in Romans.
Why not instead talk about the potential of eros to be an amazing sonnet-exploding experience when it’s directed toward God in worship, not just in the strobe light, pyrotechnics rock concert version, but actually more intensively when we spend a day fasting and reading psalms or when Eucharist becomes an intimate partaking of Jesus’ real body and blood and not just a chunk of Hawaiian bread stained by some Welch’s grape juice? Eros needs to be rescued from the filthy dungeon where Satan has it imprisoned.
In C.S. Lewis’s Great Divorce, one of the inhabitants of hell who comes to visit heaven has an ugly lizard clinging to his shoulder and whispering in his ear. An angel asks him if he wants the lizard to be killed. When the man finally lets the angel kill the lizard, he writhes in agony but then the lizard dies, falls to the ground, and is resurrected as a giant stallion that the man climbs upon to ride feverishly off into the mountains chasing the dawn of God’s glory. That is what eros looks like when it has been crucified and resurrected.