There’s a scene in HBO’s John Adams miniseries that remains one of the most succinct summaries of today’s defining cultural battle. The scene features the two guiding stars of the American founding, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. The two friends are attending the launch of a hot air balloon in France where they are attempting to negotiate a treaty between France and the revolting American colonies.

As the balloon rises up into the sky, Jefferson sings “So our umbilical cord to mother Earth has been severed for the first time in history. Mankind floats upon a limitless plain of air.”

Typically unimpressed, Adams replies “hot air” as the two friends exchange a playful glance.

It is a perfect summation of two defining convictions about man and nature. For Jefferson the scientist, the material world supplies the raw materials (sometimes, for Jefferson, in the form of human slaves, we should note) which the greatest members of mankind use to extricate themselves from the limits of embodied existence.* Set next to Jefferson, Adams, the man of the law, is unimpressed. He punctures his friend Thomas’s romanticism with one marvelous quip.

Recently, The Matter ran a story about a trans couple (both partners are transgendered, though one presented as genderqueer in the past) that is worth reading. The Medium story is titled “They found love, then they found gender” which tells you the basics of the story, I think.

There’s a temptation evangelicals (particularly older evangelicals I think) have when reading such a story to immediately move to moralizing. And given that Johnny (referred to as Jeannot in other parts of the story) left two boys and a husband behind to begin dating Ashley, this harsh judgment is certainly merited. (Johnny’s husband, notably, declined to comment for the story.)

But there’s something else worth highlighting: In the natural understanding of marriage, the institution of marriage is a creational institution; it formalizes a relationship that through procreation is inextricably tied to the physical world and which mimics the other living members of that world. There is an organic quality to it, if that’s not an odd way of putting it.

To be sure, the creative power of the love existing within marriage is not limited to procreation alone. In many other ways Johnny and Ashley realize these other creative potentialities that exist within close human relationships as they create a home together and offer hospitality to their neighbors.

Yet to separate marriage from procreation, to act as if the potential for creating new life is irrelevant to marriage, is no small change. It is, indeed, to sever marriage from creation and to, instead, suspend it above the physical world with a hook whose only anchor is the emotional attachment which exists between two people.

Consider the specific case of Johnny and Ashley. Though they clearly have a strong attachment to each other and have, indeed, given up much to be together, their marriage is not grounded in the physical order for the simple reason that they have rejected the procreative intent behind marriage and, indeed, have attempted to erase the signs of that intent as it exists on their bodies.

And while there is something in their emotional commitment that can be affirmed, we would be foolish to ignore the fact that the relationship between these two people seems to exist in a kind of ether hovering just over the material world. Much like Wesley Morris’s recent piece on identity, there is an undeniable abstractness to their relationship. This is the main idea of Matt’s argument on same-sex marriage from several months ago. The full expression of love between a couple cannot simply exist suspended in mid-air, as it were. It must incarnate itself in the world. And it does that through the bearing of children. Evangelicals are clear on this point; our post-Christian neighbors are not.

I say all of this because one of the chief critiques of evangelicalism in recent years (and it’s a perennial critique of Christianity as well) is that we are modern gnostics. And you know it’s an oddly universal critique when you can find both DG Hart and Dianna Anderson making it. In its most common form, the argument is typically an imprecise way of saying we only care about immaterial goods and have relatively little to say about the physical world or human bodies. Indeed, some, including Anderson, would even say that evangelicalism is opposed to creation and hates the body. (I can happily report that we’ve been suspicious of this line at Mere O for several years.)

And yet when we actually step a little outside the evangelical bubble (and broader American Christian bubble), what we see is evangelicals more or less lining up on the side of creation. It is evangelicals who, at the very least, are attempting to argue that the design of our physical bodies says something about sex ethics. We’ve been hitting this note for some time at Mere O, but there are other evangelicals saying the same thing. Consider Russell Moore’s Wendell Berry-influenced piece on transgenderism.

Increasingly it is also evangelicals who are taking a lead in thinking about ethically raised food and animal welfare and thinking more seriously about environmental issues in general.

This work isn’t just happening on a purely institutional level either. My wife and I just spent last summer at a farm/study center led by a Covenant Seminary graduate in rural Iowa where half her day was spent working on the farm and the other half was spent in books and discussion. (Think L’Abri meets community supported agriculture and you basically know what it was like.) Author Lisa Graham McMinn of George Fox University is leading a similar work in Oregon and has a book coming out soon that we’ll be reviewing here at Mere O.

None of this is necessarily novel either. Francis Schaeffer was writing about this stuff almost 50 years ago, though he admittedly sometimes felt like a voice in the wilderness. CS Lewis, one of American evangelicalism’s most beloved writers, also cared deeply about the physical creation. Another evangelical favorite, JRR Tolkien, had views similar to those of his friend Lewis.

Indeed, though he has a complex relationship to evangelicalism, Wendell Berry himself has often attended evangelical Baptist churches and has frequently linked respecting the land and respecting the body. For all these writers a respect for creation colors their sex ethic as well as their way of thinking about land, food, and a host of other issues as well. Far from being gnostic, these writers and their many fans are actually deeply materialistic. Taken together, what we have here is a compelling case that if there is a conflict between materialism and gnosticism—and there is—then evangelicals are prominently involved. They just aren’t on the side that so many seem to think they are.

* Jefferson would likely say “which mankind uses to extricate itself” but this is only because he basically ignores the human costs of this move and the limited number of human beings with the means to achieve it. As is often the case when talking about these issues, CS Lewis said all of this directly in The Abolition of Man and more indirectly and amusingly in That Hideous Strength.

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy and sons Wendell and Austin. Jake’s writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • Greg Herr

    “…respecting the land and respecting the body.” Good phrase.
    +++
    “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation,

    for through your goodness we have received

    the bread we offer you:

    fruit of the earth and work of human hands,

    it will become for us the bread of life.

    ++++

    Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation,

    for through your goodness we have received

    the wine we offer you:

    fruit of the vine and work of human hands,

    it will become our spiritual drink.”

  • James McClain

    “And while there is something in their emotional commitment that can be affirmed, we would be foolish to ignore the fact that the relationship between these two people seems to exist in a kind of ether hovering just over the material world.”
    This is tangential to the point being made, to be sure, but I’m wondering; what about their emotional commitment is to be affirmed?

    • James – Well, I’m following Francis Schaeffer’s lead on this one. (Alan Jacobs and Wes Hill have made a similar point. I think I linked to Wes’s piece in that section.) My basic point is just that if I were speaking with them face-to-face I would want to recognize whatever things I can affirm and I think the way they have committed themselves to each other and given up something to be with the other is admirable.

      Certainly, their relationship is disordered on a fundamental level which is what my broader point was. But in a pastoral situation with the couple I’d want to be clear that there is something good in their relationship; the fidelity that they have had toward each other is praiseworthy. (The other complex question here is what you would do if this couple did come to saving faith in Christ–technically speaking they actually are opposite sex and are married. So this does seem like a different situation than what you would have if counseling a same-sex couple that has come to Christ.)

  • If we evangelicals want to see the world, we need to do more than step outside of our immediate bubble. That is because, more often or not, we are simply coming out of a smaller bubble to move around in a larger bubble.

    What we evangelicals really need to do is to walk through the districts, using a Hunger Games reference, and talk to the people there. Perhaps then, we won’t be so insular.

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  • hoosier_bob

    This reads much into the Genesis narrative that simply isn’t necessitated by the text. Moreover, this argument, like Matt’s argument, seems to borrow more from Rousseau and Freud than from anything in Scripture. And, to the extent that such a metaphysic is set forth in the Genesis narrative, the Incarnation would suggest an eschatological shift from the family unit to the Church. Thus, the coming of Christ stripped marriage of any spiritual significance it had, transforming it into a purely pragmatic arrangement.

    That’s why the Puritans treated marriage as a purely civil-contractual arrangement, and even permitted divorce on terms not too dissimilar from our modern-day no-fault divorce laws.

    I simply see no way to square this view with I Corinthians 7. Further, I see no way to square it with the fact that Christ eschewed marriage and remained single.

    Call me a cynic, but this argument seems like one that’s been concocted in a somewhat post hoc manner, so as to retain a religious objection to same-sex marriage.

    • “My darling, what else is there to do?” reasoned the Irishman. “What other occupation is there for an active man on this earth, except to marry you? What’s the alternative to marriage, barring sleep? It’s not liberty, Rosamund. Unless you marry God, as our nuns do in Ireland, you must marry Man–that is Me. The only third thing is to marry yourself– yourself, yourself, yourself–the only companion that is never satisfied– and never satisfactory.”

      –G.K. Chesterton

      • hoosier_bob

        And what’s your point? That the opinions of gluttonous Catholic writers should mean more to me–a Protestant–than the Puritans? No thanks. I’ll stick with the Reformation.

        As a Protestant, I accept that marriage is a pragmatic matter, whose value is to be weighed on the basis of whether it maximizes the utility of the contracting parties.

        • Heh. My only point is that suggesting that my view stems from Rousseau and Freud is about the most amusing thing I’ve read in the comments…maybe ever.

          I actually suspect that your own contractualism (ironically) is what allows a Freudian view of marriage to dominate, since utility-maximization isn’t sufficient to re-order sexual desire toward its proper end, which would mean marriage has to take sexual desire as its fundamental basis, seeing it as the ineliminable basis for a marriage.

          • hoosier_bob

            You’re not really saying anything. The essence of contractualism is that it can allow any model (or no model) to dominate so long as it promotes some significant measure of transactional efficiency within the given social context. Familialism was common in earlier decades because it was economically efficient within the social world of industrial capitalism. It’s faded in recent decades because it’s not economically efficient in for many in today’s economy.

            I don’t presume to know what sexuality’s “proper end” is, to the extent that it includes anything besides procreation. I assume that God’s general revelation is sufficient to permit me to observe the world around me and make wise judgments as to whether certain conduct is a reasonably proper end of sexuality within a certain context. If that was good enough for the Puritans, I don’t see why it can’t be good enough for us today.

            That said, I suspect that the reason why many evangelicals balk at contractualism today lies less with its theological merit and more with the fact that it doesn’t expressly foreclose same-sex marriage.

            As to Rousseau and Freud, I’d suggest that you’ve taken a certain social narrative for granted–the evangelical “family values” narrative–that you have lost sight of the fact that it came from somewhere and that that somewhere wasn’t Paul.

          • The supposition that reducing familial relations to ‘transactional efficiency’ has no bearing on how we conceive of those family-relations and their stability is precisely what I’d call into question. I have never worked it out in public, but the nearest analogue to sexual desire in the NT is not food, but money. There’s more conceptual overlap between a contractualism that obscures any inherent normative ends and sexual desires that are entirely untethered from the obligations of family life. It’s not for nothing that the only categories we have these days to evaluate sexual activity is the contractual framework of consent and ‘efficiency.’

            And I don’t know how long you’ve been reading me, or what you’ve read, but the idea that I’m in line with the “evangelical ‘family values’ narrative” so badly, badly distorts everything I’ve written that it disappoints me. I thought you might know me better than that. Apparently not. I’d point you, for starters, to my first book, including the chapters on sex.

          • hoosier_bob

            To be honest, I find most of your writing to be a bit flowery and difficult to follow. Then again, I’m a lawyer with an educational background in physics and economics. I have five pictures hanging on my wall: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Richard Posner, Ronald Coase, Joseph Schumpeter, and Michael Polanyi, if that gives you a sense of my thinking. I’m guessing that you’re more of a humanities guy.

            Anyway, I think I can boil my thinking down to a simpler test.

            Any plausible Christian theory of marriage must reckon with the fact that Jesus remained single and that Paul and Jesus both tend to disparage marriage and biological-familial connections relative to singleness and connections within the body of Christ. Therefore, any theory of marriage–whether at a practical or theoretical level–that marginalizes singleness must fail by any Christian metric. There are any number of folks peddling “biblical view” of marriage in the evangelical world. And they all fail in this stead, which probably explains why evangelical churches are less than one-tenth as effective at attracting singles as they are at attracting married folks.

            That’s not to say that contractualism is biblical, but neither is it actively anti-biblical in the way that most so-called “biblical views” are. I get that your eros-focused view of marriage differs from what James Dobson may set forth. Even so, I see nothing in Scripture to suggest that we ought to be constructing social identities around heterosexual eroticism. And, if I recall, in your comments on Michael Hannon’s First Things piece, you averred that heteronormativity (the construction of social identities around dyadic gender roles) is implicit in Scripture. Well, that’s only the case if you lop off the New Testament. Christ’s singleness effects a fundamental upending of the Genesis narrative, and sets us on an eschatological trajectory that points toward singleness as the ideal expression of Christian living and sexual desire as something of a liability.

            The church ought to be a place to which confirmed single people flock. It’s not. Instead, we flock to Wall Street and K Street to serve institutions that understand the value of people whose commitments are not obscured by domestic duties. The monasteries of the Middle Ages have been replaced by law firms and investment banks.

            Peace.

          • Yeah, um, well….I’m not sure if I’m “humanities guy” or not. But I’ll just say that I affirm your point about the need to have a robust understanding of singleness so wholeheartedly that….well, that I’ve made it myself publicly many times.

            Here’s but one place that’s not my book…even if it’s in there, too.

            http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/januaryweb-only/ed-young-sexperiment.html

            https://mereorthodoxy.com/witnesses-singleness-kingdom/

            Matt

          • Also, I don’t position ‘heteronormativity’ (a term I hate, and was only using in that context for dialectical purposes) as an antithesis to singleness, as you seem to. I also would want to know more about your understanding of the “upending” of Genesis’s narrative. There’s one path that such rhetoric takes people, and it’s called Marcionism. I suspect that’s not yours, but I’d want to know more. New creation is, after all, still *creation* in some sense. The proper form of marital love has to be new-creation transitive, even if actual unions themselves are not. So, I think I want a theory of singleness that is informed by a doctrine of marriage…and vice versa, rather than seeing them as two contrary or opposed manners of life.

          • hoosier_bob

            One can certainly affirm that the Incarnation initiates an eschatological shift without becoming a Marcionite. Otherwise, the whole Reformational tradition from Luther to Moltmann is guilty of the same error.

            I’m simply making the unremarkable averment that the coming of Christ and the establishment of His Church works a certain fulfillment of the procreative mandate and points us toward a new kingdom in which people will neither marry nor be given in marriage. Marriage is a temporal institution whose significance and value are passing away as the kingdom of Christ breaks into this world. But you wouldn’t guess that from the social life at most evangelical churches.