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.
Similarly, the sermon "A Potentially Gruesome Metaphor" unpacks the phrase (and children's song) "fishers of men." Blue details the image's darker connotations and artfully connects it to the darkness inherent in Simon Peter's experience on the fishing boat. Her belief that this dark metaphor is "pretty clearly" not intended to be "extracted as a model for discipleship"—because in general Luke emphasizes Christ's mission of releasing, not catching—is less convincing.
The tone of this book alternates frequently between quietly reflective and low-brow comedic. Combine this with Blue's explicit Christian faith, and comparisons to Anne Lamott are almost inevitable. But, while one can hardly pinpoint in Lamott just where poignant stops and funny starts, Blue's reader will rarely fail to hear the switch being thrown; sometimes her writing is just too cute. Her humor occassionally approaches gimmickry, as in the pun that serves as the title to the sermon "Res[E]rection" but is only loosely connected to the sermon itself. Clearly, Blue is a gifted student and interpreter of Scripture; just as clearly, she's not the kind of person who wants to write a dry, theologically dense book. But the actual message of this book would come across better if its irreverent, informal passages were just a bit less so.
Still, she fleshes out her fascinating thesis with great insight and passion. Blue understands that true engagement with the gospel requires one to "grab it by the neck, yank it around, roll with it in the dirt." To her, the story of God's love for humanity is full of concrete sensuality, and she believes that "if I hear the word of God in the struggle it will be the word of a lover."
Steve Thorngate is an ELCA church musician in Chicago.
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Books & Culture Corner appears every Monday. Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corner and Book of the Week include:
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Back to the Future | A sprawling new novel by the author of Snowcrash and Cryptonomicon goes to the 17th century to investigate the birth of the modern world. (You won't be surprised to learn that the Puritans are among the Bad Guys.) (Oct. 13, 2003)
Poetry, Prayer, and Parable | The playful provocations of Scott Cairns (Oct. 06, 2003)
Terrorists on Trial | How the nation responded to an earlier attack. (Sept. 29, 2003)
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The Ph.D. Octopus, 100 Years On | How Christians can make a difference in the upside-down world of graduate school (Sept. 15, 2003)
The Difference Between Conservatives and Prolifers | William Saletan unspins, and respins, the abortion debate (Sept. 8, 2003)
A New View of Worldview | Some critics want to retire the concept. Not so fast, says David Naugle (Aug. 18, 2003)
'A Golden Age' of Religious Tolerance? | The Ornament of the World analyzes how the intellectual elites of medieval Spain eschewed fundamentalism and showed surprising sensitivity in reconciling competing truths. (Aug. 11, 2003)
Looking for the 'I' | What happens to the self when the brain is injured or malformed? (Aug. 4, 2003)
The Terror of the Therapeutic | Margaret Atwood's new novel considers the price we may pay for looking to technology to remedy our ills, personal and social. (July 28, 2003)
The Catholic Church's Regime Change | Would lay power really augur a new epoch of openness and honesty? (July 21, 2003)
One-Hit Wonder | The long swansong of Madalyn Murray O'Hair. (July 7, 2003)
Divinely Decreed? | Re-fighting the Battle of Gettysburg. (June 27, 2003)