I listen to a lot of top 40 radio, and you should too. There’s a lot of really well-sponsored discourse playing in a 12 song rotation every day, nationwide. While we tend to write it off as thoughtless lyrics with a beat you can dance to, I want to take the time to be clear that no media is neutral media. It takes a particular kind of discourse to filter through the culture industry to the point that the decision is made to reproduce it on a scale that the internet still can’t match.
I won’t say its new. I’m not really convinced that anything is. But my sense is that we’ve seen a shift in content of top 40 pop since the YOLO blitzkrieg of 2011. (That The Lonely Island revived via parody in 2013.) Hedonistic electronic dance music broke through to become the vanguard of the Clear Channel set, to the point that it’s become ubiquitous.
Its only been in the last few weeks that Tove Lo’s single Talking Body broke into regular rotation. It’s already peaked out at number 13 on the Hot 100. It didn’t even crack the top ten, so why the spilled ink? Because I sincerely believe that Talking Body is the perfect expression of the contemporary sexual ethic to which the Church must respond.
(See for yourself, but know it’s all kinds of explicit.)
Tove Lo is the real deal. This song is layered. Its nuanced. Its smart. You can’t just chalk it up to “kids these days” and dismiss it. The whole song is worth contending with, but for the sake of brevity I want to focus on the chorus.
If you’re talking body, you have a perfect one, so put it on me. Swear it won’t take you long.
If you love me right, we fuck for life. On and on and on.
The Chorus is espousing monogamy. If we’re physically compatible, we’ll be sexually intimate for life. It’s a pretty clear line of reasoning. If you’re interested, I’m attracted. If the sex is good, there’s no reason why we can’t do this forever. It shatters the notion that Millennial sexuality is about diversity of experience over depth of relationship. It’s anything but. Millennials (arguably more than their parents) value monogamy, but the way in which the worth of that monogamy is judged is obvious. This is about physical and emotional (but certainly not spiritual) compatibility. Full Stop.
A good friend of mine wrote strongly against clergy moonlighting as cultural critics. I agree with him. But I was ordained to take my part in the Councils of the Church, and with the Task Force on Marriage’s report weighing heavy over GC78, bringing up the way that we look at bodies as a culture is worth looking at. So I’d like to take a detour, on this feast of Corpus Christi, through some Eucharistic theology.
When we shifted to a baptismal ecclesiology in the BCP79 we did so at the expense of our sense of the Eucharist. Yes, the BCP79 elevating the position of the Holy Eucharist to the principal celebration on Sundays was a victory, but the way in which we began talking about the Eucharist negated the net benefit. By making Baptism cornerstone of our ecclesiology we stopped emphasizing the fact that the Eucharist is the full expression of our continual participation in the life of the body of Christ. (I’m treading Wesleyan waters here, but stay with me…)
For us to grow in Christ, Christ must continually pour himself into us. This is the work of the Spirit, but that work is expressed in the kenosis that takes place Sunday in and Sunday out on the Altar. At the heart of the real presence is the fact that, whether we want him to or not, Christ continues to take on flesh and blood. The Romish doctrine of transubstantiation reduces this to an Aristotelian slight of hand, but I think that we (like the Orthodox) get this one right in saying that the mystery is enough. The heart of the Eucharist is the fact that Christ becomes present in the matter of bread and wine. This is the outward and visible sign of the inward grace of a Baptised life. We become members of the Body of Christ so that we can continually partake in the Body of Christ. We become what we receive, but only if we receive it.
Every Sacrament involves a similar kind of outpouring, a similar kind of kenosis. The Spirit pours out on us in Baptism, and seals us as Christ’s own. In Confirmation and Ordination we pour out parts of ourselves, that the spirit may move in us to make us more effective servants of Christ’s kingdom. Confession and Extreme Unction are perhaps the most obvious examples of kenosis in the list of the 7, but marriage continues to confound us.
I’m equally unhappy with the notions that marriage is intended for blessing monogamous unions, and that marriage is intended for the procreation of children. The preface in the BCP seems to tell us that it’s both, at least sometimes. If it’s just about monogamy, then Tove Lo is espousing a perfectly acceptable theology of marriage. You want to fuck for life? Then the blessing of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be with you…
…but none of us would say that, because there’s something more to this. There’s some kenotic aspect of the sacramental union of marriage that we’re completely leaving out of our discourse, and it has a lot to do with the fact that we, as a Church, have no idea what to make of the Blessed Sacrament. We don’t know how to get on the same page and say that the heart of what we are comes from Christ being poured out in front of us so that we can pour ourselves out to each other.
The days of the binary of procreative/non-procreative unions are gone. It is very likely that many of us will see services where two people who express the same gender will come to be married, and yet still have the ability to procreate. We’re already more than okay with marrying heteronormative couples who are unable, or unwilling, to have children. The ambiguity is there, and it isn’t going away. That’s the world we live in, and it’s a world that has never existed before, despite how ambiguous the Task Force’s report seems to think that the history of gender expression, and same-gender attraction is. (Taking disparate historic and cultural norms as reason enough to drop theological claims is weak criticism, and it needs to stop.)
Talking Body makes it clear that we have something to respond to, and we don’t need to be ambiguous about it. The world is good with monogamy being the benchmark. For folks in the procreative camp, I’m sorry y’all, but the BCP makes it clear that procreation is a conditional requirement, at best. If you’re going to make a utilitarian argument about making more Christians, then don’t waste my time.
None of these arguments is saying anything that the Church is uniquely called to say. We need to come back with kenotic love. Love that pours out of itself and makes a new creation. We need to come back with Sacrament. Sacrament that is open to all, but Sacrament none the less.
That means working, listening, and loving harder than we currently are.
The culture industry is throwing their best at us. I linked to it above. What are we going to give back to them? If it’s going to be compelling, then it’s got to be a damn sight better than what we’re doing now.