The 1999 Princeton Lectures on
Youth, Church, and Culture
An Unexpected Prophet:
What the 21st-Century Church
Can Learn from Youth Ministry
Youth ministry is not just about youth. It’s about ministry, period. By its very nature, adolescence embodies, sometimes acutely, fundamental concerns about being human: Who am I? Whom can I trust? What does it mean to be in communion with others? As a result, youth ministry invites transformation for the entire church and not for youth alone. As we look for ways to renew the church in Christ’s name, we can’t afford to overlook a prophet in our hometown: ministry for, by, and with the young people among us.
The 1999 Princeton Lectures on Youth, Church, and Culture have significant implications for ministry with youth, but they are no less important for the church at large. Kenda Creasy Dean suggests that youth ministry is the point at which Christians should reclaim a theology of desire—not for the sake of youth ministry, but for the sake of the church. Dean then posits that the postmodern crisis of fidelity calls the contemporary church to reclaim holy friendship as central to the life of faith.
Jürgen Moltmann reflects on Jacob’s struggle with God at the Brook Jabbok, on his own journey to faith as a young prisoner-of-war, and on prayer as watchful expectation. He calls Christians to watch for the hidden "yes" in the suffered "no" of God. Moltmann also addresses how one becomes a "true" theologian, exploring the personal side of theology and its existential depths.
Cynthia Rigby unpacks the practical implications of the doctrine of the Trinity for youth ministry and for the church and demonstrates how this doctrine can help us understand the mystery of our friendships with God and with one another. She then looks at the doctrine of the incarnation from the perspective of young people seeking relevance for today and arrives at timeless truths for all God’s people.
Eugene Rivers calls the church to move from a ministry of church maintenance to a ministry of true reconciliation and justice. He challenges us to listen to those beyond our comfort zone that we might serve as faithful witnesses to Christ in the new millennium. May you find these lectures to be unexpected prophets, calling you to new understandings and new forms of ministry.
Director of Leadership Development
Princeton Theological Seminary
- Holding On to Our Kisses: The Hormonal Theology of Adolescence
- The Sacrament of One Another: Practicing Fidelity through Holy Friendship
- Praying and Watching
- What Is a Theologian?
- More Than a Mystery: The Practical Implications of the Trinity in Ministry with Youth
- More Than a Hero: The Practical Implications of the Incarnation in Ministry with Youth
- Youth Ministry for the World in Which We Live
- New Wineskins, New Models, and Visions for a New Century
Holding On to Our Kisses:
The Hormonal Theology of Adolescence
The teenagers I know are both cynical and harshly passionate. What they want is so big, it's hard to get your eye around it at first. Who would've thought that teenagers talking about sex would end up talking about their souls? For that's what they're talking about, isn't it? Not body heat but life everlasting. Not the adventure of skin on skin, but a dinner table in the skies. They have none of our ambivalence—independence versus love, distinction versus belonging. Their struggle is with the world—will it let them lose their loneliness? And how? They want something bigger than themselves to live for, something steadier and stronger than one-on-one love, something I long for and loathe, something eradicating—a "we" in their lives; a family feast that never ends, a tribe of friends, God's will. 1
Not long ago, my daughter's kindergarten teacher sent a note home. "Shannon has been kissing Ken and Danny," the teacher wrote, implying that we had better lay down the law with our daughter about her budding promiscuity. My husband and I told our puzzled five-year-old, in no uncertain terms, that this behavior was off limits. "But I like to kiss them!" was Shannon's unrepentant response. She likes Ken and Danny, who (on most days, at least) like her. They all plan to marry each other someday.page 2
This is the same child who, when our family saw Drew Barrymore's snappy but innocent Cinderella in the movie Ever After, turned to me during the prince's first kiss and whispered loudly enough to stop traffic in Buffalo: "Is he sticking his tongue in?" (He wasn't.) I wanted to ask, "How do you even know about that?!" although all I actually did was choke on my popcorn. After all, we are a household with more communication degrees than anybody needs. We pride ourselves on critical consumption of media, and we congratulate ourselves every time our ten-year-old son complains about it.
But a more honest reading of conditions—both cultural and parental—forces me to admit: of course Shannon "knows about that," and about many other forms of sexual contact from which we think we are shielding her. In a society that reduces the language of desire to sexual conditions, where the media convinces us that people who want to be near one another must use sexual contact to get there, where consumerism transforms intimacy from a quality of relationship into a commodity for consumption, "desire" finally flattens out into precisely the hormonal forms that titillate teenagers and alarm adults. In such a social context, mainline churches have tended to treat adolescent sexuality as a Hershey's chocolate kiss, given to teenagers with the instructions: "Unwrap it, and then hold onto it tightly—and much later, when you're ready, you can enjoy it." In the meantime, holding on to our kisses has left both adolescents and the church with a pubescent mess on our hands, and not just resulting from chocolate.
Desire represents the primary theological lens of adolescence. The desire for an "other" implicit in teen sexuality is part and parcel to being human, and not just adolescent. But the simultaneous sexual and spiritual longing for relationship that constitutes desire is acute during adolescence, and therefore is more vividly rendered in that life stage. Observers of adolescence have always recognized it as both a highly spiritual and an intensely sexual period in the life cycle. Augustine wrote of his own adolescence, "The single desire that dominated my search for delight was simply to love and to be loved." 2 Desire is simultaneously a sexual and a spiritual phenomenon. Far from lamenting this fact, the twenty-first-century church should be wildly thankful. For adolescents' acute desire for "others" calls the church to rescue desire from popular culture's exclusive rights on the subject and to restore its long-forgotten place in Christian tradition.
Hollywood aside, the human desire for "otherness" is not simply or even primarily the foundation for sexual intercourse. Desire serves as the impetus for life with God, marking human beings among all creation as those God desires for companionship. Desire, therefore, serves as the foundation for Christian spirituality and for the communion that stands at the heart of Christian life. "The road to holiness," as Dag Hammarskjold once said, "necessarily passes through the world of action." 3page 3
This chapter in contemporary spirituality recalls the twelfth- and thirteenth-century movements inspired by Francis and Dominic. Less developed, according to historian Urban T. Holmes, "is the realization that the body is involved." He writes:
A satisfying spirituality of sexuality, which is not tinged by a simplistic apatheia is yet to be written. Perhaps it will emerge in the next generation. Certainly the presence of genital arousal in spiritual experience is common and needs to be acknowledged as a positive element—rather than repressed and made a subject of embarrassment. 4
Holmes's opinion is that, because northern European males are "culturally retarded in regard to our sexuality," 5 a non-white male or a woman may be better equipped to develop a spirituality of sexuality. Holmes overlooks the potential of adolescents in this regard, male and female alike. Indeed, after centuries of modern rationalism, youth ministry's legacy to the twenty-first-century church may well be adolescents' insistence that desire matters to Christian faith: our longing for intercourse with others merely underscores our profound desire for communion, "at-one-ment," intercourse with God.
INTERCOURSE: IT REALLY IS A TOWN IN PENNSYLVANIA
Maybe I have shocked you. The double entendre is intentional, of course. We cannot shake "intercourse's" genital connotations from our media-drenched imaginations—yet the word actually comes from a Latin root meaning "to run between," the way a current runs between two objects, connecting them. If you look the term up in the dictionary, you will discover that the preferred meanings for intercourse are "connection" or "communion." In February, the postal workers in an Amish town near my home are deluged by people who want their Valentine's Day cards to bear the local postmark of "Intercourse, Pennsylvania"—so named not for conjugal pleasure, but for being the connecting point between two roads.
As it happens, the Amish are less rattled by the term "intercourse" than many of us, and in fact link the concept to both baptism and courtship. If (as 85% of Amish teenagers do) an adolescent chooses to be baptized in an Amish community, he or she becomes eligible for marriage. 6 The period preceding baptism, known as the "run around" or "sowing your wild oats" period, gives Amish youth time to interact with their "English" peers and even have some access to media and technology. Before baptism, Amish girls fasten their clothing with buttons and other "worldly" fasteners, but after baptism Amish women (the change in terminology is instant) fasten their dresses with straight pins as they renounce intercourse withpage 4
"the world." The pins proclaim, quite literally, that in baptism Jesus Christ holds them together in a new way.
Outside of Amish circles, most of us use the word intercourse to describe the "current" that runs between two people in the act of sexual exchange. But intercourse—a relationship that begets—also describes the life-giving current that runs between us and God. By claiming that the church should pay at least as much attention to intercourse as teenagers do, I am not suggesting that we relax standards of sexual restraint among either youth or adults (on the contrary, I will argue that chastity is a time-honored Christian practice that youth ministry stands to reclaim). But it is also true that our society has confused genital intercourse with sacred desire, and an alarming number of contemporary Christians—including a stunning stream of defrocked clergy—behave as though sexuality and spirituality can somehow be separated from one another. 7 Like their ancient forebears, modern gnostics drain Christianity of a full-spectrum theology of desire by convincing us that the route to spirituality is to jettison our sexuality (or vice versa). Yet the separation of sexuality from spirituality inevitably erodes our ethical footing, because it denies a basic tenet of Christian theology: God created sexuality and spirituality as twin paths to Otherness, divinely appointed routes to the God who desires intercourse, or communion, with us.
If desire represents the primary theological lens of adolescence, then youth ministry becomes the point at which Christians should reclaim a theology of desire—not for the sake of youth ministry, but for the sake of the church composed of people created in the image of a desirous God. Not yet fully socialized into the norms of adult culture, and only recently possessing the cognitive structures that enable self-awareness and reflection, adolescents have never separated sex from spirit: falling in love feels like being on holy ground, just as the spiritual connections common at church camps spawn romantic entanglements as well as conversions. Nor has popular culture overlooked the primal connection between sexual and spiritual desire. Like adolescents, who by virtue of both their hopes and their hormones experience sexuality and spirituality in undiluted measure, popular culture has no qualms about supplying adolescents with a theology of its own that does unite sexuality and spirituality—far better than the church—and therefore rings true to teenage consumers.
PEOPLE MAGAZINE MEETS THE DESIRE OF GOD
Stories about intercourse are strewn throughout Scripture, but one will suffice. Mark 5:21-43 offers a kind of typology of desire, as well as a brief glimpse into some of Jesus' own ministry with a youth. As the Gospel writer recounts Jesus' page 5 healing of Jairus's daughter, complete with that embarrassing interruption by a bleeding woman, we see Jesus responding to three kinds of desire: popular desire, pastoral desire, and personal desire.
The story starts with popular desire. A full day of casting out demons already under his belt, Jesus heads for the other side of the lake, only to be mobbed by a crowd. Today it might have been a shot for People magazine: the shoving celebrity seekers, the hungry autograph hounds, the paparazzi, and the tourists all clamoring to get a good close-up of the Son of Man with their disposable cameras. As it is, the scene depicts the raw desire of popular culture, willing consumers of intercourse swayed by the promise that the current of charisma is contagious: a bit of celebrity will rub off on them if only they can get close to someone—anyone—who seems to have it.
Suddenly, a synagogue leader named Jairus throws himself at Jesus' feet: "My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live." (Mark 5:22) Pastoral desire, the desire for Jesus on behalf of another, comes through a blood relative—a father begging Jesus to save his beloved daughter from death. Pastoral desire lies at the heart of ministry where the quest for Christ's salvation takes many forms, but it is always mediated through the loving concern of a third party. The crowd—whose popular desire rises at the prospect of a real miracle—presses in on Jesus even more. But a third form of desire enters the story at this point, the personal desire of a hemorrhaging woman. Her condition deteriorated after twelve years of fruidess medical treatment, and she knows that even the smallest point of connection with Jesus will restore her health, and with it her place in the community as a person-in-relationship. "If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well." (Mark 5:24)
Personal desire is for this communion, for relationship, for fulfilling the deep human need for an "other" who loves us for being the person we really are. Jewish law of the time declared menstruating women unclean. Twelve years of bleeding meant twelve years without intercourse, without the current of human interaction, without the relationships that make us fully human instead of merely alive. Isolated from friends, husband, children, the ritual life of the community, she learned to become invisible, to shrink at the approach of others she dare not come near. Her plan, even now, is to remain invisible, to hide in the crowd and only to touch Jesus' clothes. That would be enough.
But no one is invisible to God. As she touches Jesus' cloak, she not only feels herself instantly well, but she also experiences intercourse for the first time in twelve years: communion with God who desires her. The disciples must have been anxious to get on with the journey: the real miracle, as far as they can tell, lies further up the road at Jairus's house. Jairus must have been mad with anxiety. With page 6 not a moment to lose, Jesus has stopped to find out who touched him in a crowd teeming with popular desire. For all its good intentions, pastoral desire has the disciples and Jairus practically in knots. "Who touched me?" Jesus asks. The disciples are incredulous. The crowd is immense. They're racing against time with a dying girl. Jesus, hurry up. Jesus, do our ministry. Jesus, follow our agenda. Jesus, heal this daughter, not that one. "How can you say 'Who touched me?'" they want to know. (Mark 5:31)
Jesus ignores the disciples, searching the crowd. He recognizes that communion has occurred. A current has passed between him and another. He is "aware that power had gone forth from him." (Mark 5:25) "Who touched me?" Jesus wants to know. And the woman, "knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth." (Mark 5:31) Then Jesus says something remarkable. He calls her "daughter"—the only time he uses this term of familiarity in the New Testament. "Daughter," he says, "your faith has made you well." (Mark 5:34) In this small term of relationship, Jesus makes her human, and not merely disease-free. She is well, not because Jesus has magic clothes, but because communion with God has restored her to relationship. She is, above all else, a "daughter," a child of God.
Jesus might have kept on walking. The disciples were right: it was ridiculous to think, in a crowd of so many people, that stopping for one person (an unclean woman, at that) could make much difference. Jairus was right: time was running out. Death pressed in on his daughter even as they spoke; the bleeding woman could have waited. What we have here is a story we know all too well: as soon as we enlist Jesus in some pretty significant youth ministry, some adult comes along and messes up our plans. And yet, God did not call us into youth ministry only for the sake of youth. God called us into youth ministry for the sake of the church, whose ministry involves youth. Jesus did not head to Jairus's house for the sake of one young girl alone; he went to Jairus's house for the sake of the kingdom of God, in which this young girl plays an irreplaceable part. The bleeding woman's interruption should remind those of us in youth ministry that God's desire is not our desire, God's schedule not our schedule, God's time not our time. Jesus' only desire is to love us personally, as the human beings we really are, as children of God.
The word "blood" comes from the same root that means "to bless," making a blessing a blood commitment. To Jesus, the unclean woman—"daughter"—was blood kin. Intercourse is also given to us as a blessing, and it, too, entails blood commitments—something easily overlooked when we spiritualize "true love" to the point that bodies seem irrelevant. Maybe that is why the Office of National AIDS Policy reports that one in four newly reported HIV cases is found in teenagers. 8 Maybe that is why youth think so little about "exchanging fluids" in the bed of an page 7 unsuspecting parent, swapping life for life as they become entangled in one another's bloodstreams. In their potential to beget, they are as close to God as they will ever become, as they become cocreators of life, possibly even creating blood kin of their own. Desire is at once sexual and spiritual, and the post-Enlightenment insistence on sanitizing spirituality of its sensuousness—and vice versa—has left contemporary youth a dangerous legacy.
The story of Jairus's daughter has one more chapter. Even before Jesus has finished speaking, people from Jairus's house arrive to say it is too late. "Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?" (Mark 5:35) Still God's desire is not our desire, God's schedule not our schedule, God's time not our time. Jesus has not, as it turns out, ignored Jairus's pastoral desire after all. Jesus has all the time in the world. He arrives at Jairus's house to find the weeping and wailing at full throttle. The mourners laugh at Jesus' suggestion that the child is sleeping, not dead.
In a classic moment of ancient comedy, the text says simply that Jesus "put them all outside," like the cat, and focused on those who really had a stake in this girl's transformation. Taking only the girls' parents and Peter, James, and John into the room with him (the family and the church, even today the two most significant contexts for faith formation 9 ), Jesus takes the girl by the hand and tells her to get up. As she does, we learn that she is twelve years old. So astonished were Jesus' onlookers that, weeks and months and centuries later when the story was retold, the only thing anybody can remember Jesus saying was, "Get this kid something to eat." As the curtain falls, popular desire suddenly seems absurd beside the desire of God.
HOLDING ON TO OUR KISSES:
THE DILEMMA OF SACRED INTERCOURSE
Spiritual desire and sexual desire can both be harnessed for popular, pastoral, or personal reasons. Unfortunately, by remaining mute on sexuality for several centuries, the church has abandoned sexuality to a media culture that shrinks the spectrum of desire to popular desire alone. For those of us raised in a culture that separates sexual from spiritual desire, associating intercourse with communion seems alien, if not downright offensive. Unfettered by faithfulness to a theological tradition—and, it must be said, unchallenged by the church—popular media creates the impression that desire is a human, not a divine, attribute.
When desire becomes separated from its divine roots, the concept mutates: it becomes viewed as alien to God, reduced to an emotion humans experience when we are not acting like God, when we are "naughty." This view, of course, leaves teenagers with only two options: suppress their desires in order to be more "godly"—or enjoy being "bad." The way out of this dilemma is obvious. Since desire is fundamental to the nature of God and therefore basic to the nature of page 8 humans created in the image of God, suppressing desire denies our core humanity. Suppressing desire feels dishonest, and it is no fun—so most of us (adolescents and adults alike) choose to enjoy being "bad." Without a way to probe desire from the perspective of Christian theology, the tools available to teenagers for exploring their God-given longings inevitably come from the media, and they inevitably reflect popular culture's limited theological imagination.
Meanwhile, the church's de facto decision to let popular culture define desire has had disastrous theological consequences. Driving a wedge between sexuality and spirituality, on the one hand, forced upon the church a disembodied view of Christian spirituality (thereby reducing spirituality to ether). At the same time, separating sexuality from spirituality reduced sexuality to "parts and plumbing," and equated the human desire for otherness with biological drives and instincts. This strategy forced Christians into yet another delicate corner. When sexuality is reduced to "parts and plumbing," affirming sexuality (which Christian doctrine requires) means celebrating body parts and functions—the kind of perspective that creates sticky educational dilemmas akin to unwrapping chocolate kisses and telling teens to just hold on. Every teenager on the planet is programmed for the follow- up question: "If we can celebrate it, why can't we use it?"
RECONNECTING THE DOTS:
MADONNA MEETS THE MADONNA
Interestingly, while the church has been busy ignoring the connection between sexuality and spirituality, a theology of desire has been in full swing in popular culture. If the church is squeamish about connecting sexuality and spirituality, the entertainment media is not. As a result, media culture tutors postmodern youth in a theology of desire derived, not from the teachings of the church, but from the teachings of the marketplace where sensual spirituality sells. Although the media's fusion of sexual and spiritual themes seldom points to anything resembling Christian doctrine, the fusion rings true to adolescents who intuit a deep connection between the two. Without a referent, both the sexual and the spiritual images of popular culture remain ambiguous, leaving adolescents to imbue them with content derived from their own experience. As a result, most adolescents' "theology" of desire amounts to a cut-and-paste combination of family values, hormonal urges, social norms, and the Jedi belief that faith equals feeling: "If I trust my feelings enough, I will know God." 10
One of the most dramatic examples, but by no means the only one, of the media's blatant fusion of sexual and spiritual imagery is Madonna's video Like a Prayer. 11 Now ten years old, upon its release in 1989 the video was considered page 9 shocking for its explicit connection of spiritual and sexual themes. Make no mistake: the purpose of this video is to sell CDs, as well as to enhance Madonna's popularity as a singer/celebrity. But selling CDs and singers, it turns out, becomes infinitely easier when they seem to satiate both spiritual and sexual desire by toppling barriers to both, one after another, as the video progresses.
In scope, Like a Prayer is an ambitious and seductive work. Like a Prayer is a love song. Madonna wears a tight dress with straps that just can't seem to stay on her shoulders throughout the video. As she intones the song's lyrics and melody, the video's image-narrative broadens the scope of the song's "desire" to include a longing for a multitude of relationships. Throughout the video, barriers to relationships of every kind, from racial prejudice to social intolerance, from gender role stereotypes to sexual inhibitions to religious doctrine, collapse in answer to something "like a prayer." As the video begins, Madonna runs for sanctuary into a small village church, obviously Roman Catholic, where she gazes upon the statue of a black saint standing behind an altar grate (or is it a prison cell?). 12 She subsequently frees and kisses him. As the saint goes out into the world, Madonna cuts herself; reviewing her wounds she discovers that they are the stigmata, bestowing on Madonna the rank of sainthood.
The scene shifts to Madonna's view of an alley stabbing, where the victim's black rescuer is falsely accused of the crime. Before she frees the man of his unjust imprisonment, Madonna dances seductively before a field of flaming crosses, mocking the symbols of white supremacy that led to the racism implicit in his accusation. Having mediated the accused man's freedom, Madonna now appears liberated herself. Still clad in a cocktail dress, dancing and flying with a Pentecostal choir led by an African American female pastor, Madonna leaves behind what seems, by comparison, to be the rigid liturgy, piety, and doctrine of the village Catholic church. Meanwhile, the saint—sad but resigned to his ecclesial incarceration—returns to his place behind the altar grate and once again turns to stone.
Although this video critiques the church's avoidance of sexuality by ignoring a relationship between desire and Christian doctrine, Like a Prayer is a triumph of the media's fusion of sexual and spiritual desire. But it is not unique. Sexual and spiritual themes cohabit most entertainment genres. One study of MTV images found that "religious imagery is twice as likely to be found in videos that also use sexual imagery than those without." 13 In fact, Neal Gabler, author of Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, argues that celebrity culture is itself a religious phenomenon, as ordinary people turn from religion to the worship of celebrities. Gabler points out that even the Air Jordan logo resembles a crucifix. 14
Postmodern youth are deeply suspicious of the institutional church, but they have popular desire to spare for Jesus the celebrity. Youth celebrate Jesus the page 10 celebrity, not for his relationship to the church, but for his independence from it, someone whose ethics are too pure to have been co-opted by institutional religion and who therefore can stand outside as a critic. 15 Jesus the celebrity needs no church building. He goes to the mall and is on sale on crucifixes (Generation X theologian and cultural critic Tom Beaudoin refers to the current craze in crucifix artifacts as "crucifixation" 16 ) and in W.WJ.D. ("What Would Jesus Do") and F.R.O.G. ("Fully Rely on God") paraphernalia. Jesus the celebrity appears on prime time in a range of costumes (compare, for instance, the Christ-like portrayal of God in Touched by an Angel with the talk show Jesus of South Park). Jesus the celebrity's footprints mark the music industry well beyond Amy Grant, Kirk Franklin, and Butterfly Kisses. Listen to the explicit appeals to the cross from the Dave Matthews Band. Notice the salvation imagery of Jewel, Tori Amos, Alanis Morissette, and hip-hop artist Lauryn Hill. 17
These singers are arguably the priestesses and priests of a generation, shaping the religious consciousness of the young in ways the church can only envy. It is catechism writ large, except that the catechist is not the church, but the media; the image of Jesus comes not from the Gospel, but from celebrity culture; the tradition being handed on emerges not from the accumulated experience of Christian community, but from the private experience of a handful of commercially successful artists.
So where does their credibility come from? Quite simply it comes from the fact that popular culture willingly gives voice to the embodied spirituality of teenagers. They know that they are at once both body and soul, that they desire both sex and spirit, and that the object of their desire lies both beyond them and within them. They want to express the wholeness of their being so badly that it aches, but without a theological vocabulary they lack a language to fully describe a desire they know is bigger than genital sex and more substantive than vague spiri-tuality. Popular culture's reliance on image, rhythm, and melody concretizes adolescents' implicit theology of desire. The truth may be "out there" spiritually, but Fox TV's The X-Files also owes its postmodern following to the smoldering sexual chemistry between agents Scully and Mulder. Sex may change the lives of its central characters, but the Broadway musical Rent sells out to twenty-somethings also for its theme of spiritual redemption through friendship.
CELIBATE PASSION AND EROTIC FAITH:
ANCIENT CONNECTIONS FOR POSTMODERN YOUTH
The irony, of course, is that if we would listen to our own tradition as Christians, we would discover that Madonna, Tori Amos, and others are exploring an ancient connection, a link between sexuality and spirituality that the church page 11 embraced well into the Reformation. Until the corset of modern rationalism squeezed erotic imagery straight out of our theological lexicon, Christians could turn to the teachings of the church to describe the stirrings of desire within themselves, and use these stirrings as a way to point beyond themselves to God.
Until the Enlightenment made passion unfashionable, Christian teaching—where sexual ethics were hardly a fixed code—viewed erotic experience as a helpful tool for learning about God. Steeped in Scripture rife with sexual imagery, the medieval mystics naturally thought of God in erotic terms, employing a vocabulary of desire that grew out of the writings of John Cassian and climaxed in the works of Augustine and Gregory. 18 In this vocabulary, which became normative for the mystical writers of the early Middle Ages, the free choice of the will differentiated acting in accordance with spiritual desire from being overwhelmed by carnal lust. These early theologians taught that we cannot live without desire (in fact, our human growth is stunted without it), but that the object of our desire determines our moral character. Human beings are differentiated according to what they seek. Desire becomes spiritual when directed toward God. When a person seeks God, "the very nobility of his purpose has the effect of transforming his life, rendering it progressively more godly and open to the divine." 19 Union with God is realized in desire and becomes inseparable from it.
Consequently, early doctors of the church seemed unconcerned with holding on to their kisses. Kissing, in fact, constituted a major theme in monastic literature, as the ecstasy of communion with God was frequently compared to being passionately kissed by Jesus. 20 By the early seventh century in the Western church, Pope Gregory the Great's practice of using erotic imagery to instruct priests on holiness became a standard mode of instruction for young clerics (youth who undoubtedly found religious instruction more compelling than their contemporary counterparts). 21 Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) encouraged young monks to remember their sexual experiences in order to understand prayer as being kissed by Christ with increasing intimacy. 22 Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) referred to God as being "like one drunk and crazy with love," 23 while Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) called all who seek God "God's lovers." 24
The originators of these themes, of course, lived thousands of years before them. Their legacy is the passion of Israel and the bridal theology of the New Testament. 25 God's desire for Israel is made manifest in God's covenant with her. (Hosea 11) The desire of Jesus is that we be in communion with him, and God's reign—from the Gospels to John's vision at Patmos—is conceived as a bridal banquet in which Christ is the bridegroom and the church is the bride. (Matt. 9:15) Jesus' ministry, significantly, begins at a wedding (John 2:1-11); the end of history is described as a marriage feast. (Revelation 19:7-9) The new covenant is a wedding page 12 covenant, and all of human history exists in order that the bride can make herself ready. (Revelation 19:7)
Far from a sign of apostasy, the sensual spirituality of postmodern youth is a sign of their irrepressible longing for the God who loves them. Beaudoin notes, "Many cultural critics look at Gen X pop culture's deep immersion in sexuality and say, 'How far Gen X has run from God!' In contrast, I look at all the sexuality and think, 'How deeply Gen X desires God!' " 26 Unlike popular desire, personal desire is often most authentically enacted by those whose humanity has been compromised, those whose bleeding needs blessing, those whose place in the cycle of life renders them "unclean" and marginalized. For all the popular desire that surrounds youth, their personal desire—their desire for identity in relationship to "others," their hunger for full selfhood and humanity—must not be overlooked. Indeed, this desire may point directly to the desire of God.
However, we must also remember that Jesus' mission was not to save either Jairus's daughter or the youth in the church basement. Jesus' mission is to save the world, including Jairus's daughter and the youth in the church basement, and Jesus calls all of us to get up and walk according to God's plan of salvation. Jesus gave life to Jairus's daughter, but in so doing he also gave a sign to the entire church that, no matter what the mourners may say, salvation is at hand. Jesus' youth ministry included bleeding women as well as dying daughters of noisy parents. So, therefore, must ours. For youth are not the only ones who need Jesus to save them: you and I bleed as well, and our hemorrhages sap the church of life, make the church invisible, and marginalize Christianity. If we could just get near enough to touch his cloak, then we would be made well.
Jesus, hold us together. Heal our bleeding. Set us on fire with desire to touch your cloak. And that will be enough. Amen