Reviewed by Steve Thorngate
Is "Sensual Orthodoxy" a Contradiction in Terms?
"It's amazing how the church manages to tame the wildest things," Debbie Blue notes early in Sensual Orthodoxy. She is referring here to the sacrament of baptism, but the observation applies as readily to each of the other topics she addresses in this short, tightly focused collection of sermons. Blue's central point is that the church tends to remove most of the concrete physicality and sensuality from the gospel, leaving it much tidier but also colder and far less interesting.
Blue, who is part of the ministry team at the House of Mercy in Saint Paul, examines familiar biblical passages and points out how, while "the people in charge have so often had an anti-sensual, abstracting sort of tendency, the story of Christ goes in the opposite direction." She limits her scope to this story of Christ, opening each sermon with a lectionary gospel reading and then reflecting on its implications, often contrasting her own interpretation with a more familiar one. It's important to note that she aims her criticisms not at specific, formal doctrines of any faction of the church so much as at more general attitudes about the nature of the Gospel, attitudes shared by many within the wider church and reflected in sermons, songs, Sunday school lessons, and traditions. Blue's reading of the Gospel is certainly orthodox—or, as she qualifies it, "at least orthodox enough"—but her reflections are original and provocative.
This book's greatest strength might be its limited, consistent focus. Each of the 16 sermons contributes to her point with a different case study, adding up to a pretty convincing argument in 141 pages. Many of the sermons provoke much thought; a few also induce a wide smile and nodding head. "It's incredible, really," Blue writes in reference to Christ's conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, "that this extraordinary metaphor: 'to be born again,' could ever get so depleted that it's become equated with . . . that time when you were six and raised your hand in Sunday school. . . . [It] seems so different than saying you have to make a decision. . . . I mean who does most of the work to get something born?" Blue goes on to point out that, when God "grieves" for Adam and Eve in the Garden, the Hebrew verb denotes the pain of childbirth. "I don't think God's exactly having a picnic birthing humanity . . . again [author's ellipses]. Imagine laboring ten thousand years to give birth to your children."
The light tone of this passage is equally effective in the book's first sermon, in which Blue challenges the mundane tranquility of traditional manger scenes. She singles out the ubiquitous Magi, "more Merlin than Arthur" but airbrushed by church tradition and inserted into the stable; this leads her to Matthew's tension between the Magi and the much less receptive religious leaders in Jerusalem, to how impossible it seems that there might be room for Christ in the world which he enters. Later, Blue's playful retelling of the parable of the laborers in the vineyard ends with a picture of grace defined not by the workers' equal wages but by their very presence in the vineyard, in unlikely fellowship with each other and with the landowner.
Elsewhere, Blue offers more straightforward, poignant reflections on Gospel passages. She notes that Mark's account of Christ and His disciples at sea "doesn't strike me as 'the astounding event of the stilling of the sea,' but the absurd tale of the God who sleeps, in a storm. . . . He's a lot more relaxed about this so called enemy than we are." Her reading of Luke's story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus highlights the fact that the disciples finally recognize Christ when he breaks bread to share with them. "Weird, isn't it?" she says. "It's so surprisingly physical." She goes on to observe that "God can wait and wait and wait to be recognized, has no need to be coercive, is more concerned with getting everyone fed, sustaining love, than being recognized." And in "Glory Doesn't Shine, It Bleeds," Blue ponders how in the Gospel of John, in contrast to the synoptic gospels, Jesus uses the word "glory" to refer to his own suffering and death, his redemptive work on the cross. "God's the fool that goes up the tree after the cat," she writes. "God's glory is totally for us."
Blue frequently takes the position of providing new angles on certain gospel passages that liberal Christians might find unsavory, and at times it seems like she tries too hard. Her sermon on the parable of the ten bridesmaids interprets the bridesmaids' lamp oil as God's grace and the resulting light as "living a life full of deeds of love and mercy." As an aside—almost flippantly—she notes that the parable's conclusion (in which the bridegroom refuses to allow the unprepared bridesmaids to enter the wedding feast) is "not a treatise on hell." The parable is of course often seen as exactly that, and it's unfortunate that Blue chooses not to support her statement or explore this controversial issue further.