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The Embrace of Eros: Bodies, Desires, and Sexuality in Christianity.

THE EMBRACE OF EROS: BODIES, DESIRES, AND SEXUALITY IN CHRISTIANITY. Edited by Margaret D. Kamitsuka. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010. Pp. xi + 356. $35.

This multiauthor volume had its genesis in a 2006 conference sponsored by the Workgroup on Constructive Theology. Its 17 chapters are methodologically diverse, many notably interdisciplinary. Yet the assumptions, preoccupations, and aspirations that lend it coherence are earnestly theological in a "progressive" and also highly rhetorical mode; its voice is public, political, hortatory. Collectively the authors embody a hope that getting sexuality "right" theologically might heal lives and transform worlds. They also write responsively to and from their own contexts, occasionally even personally. Pitched broadly, the book takes a teaching tone, most chapters including introductory material for the uninitiated, few heavily burdened by scholarly references or extended textual engagement.

The volume is in three parts. "History: Engaging Eros in the Tradition" includes chapters on Scripture, Augustine, Aquinas, and the legacies of Roman Catholicism and the Protestant Reformation. Part 2, "Culture: Bodies, Desires, and Sexual Identities," ranges eclectically across diverse contexts, from the academy to the church and popular evangelical culture, to AIDS in Africa and the ambivalent attractions of hip-hop for white U.S. males. This is the most richly textured section of the book, working at the intersections of sexual, religious, and racial identities at the point where the rubber of discourse hits the road of embodiment. It is also the least directly theological. Part 3, "Reconstruction: Erotic Theology," revisits and revises, from the perspective of the erotic, doctrines of creation, incarnation, ecclesiology, eschatology, and Pneumatology. Each part coheres, yet chapters resonate across parts; to take one unexpected example, the second and the last chapters both engage Toni Morrison's novel Beloved.

One less happy irony is the suppression of certain differences. As Serene Jones notes in her afterword, the attendees of the original conference gravitated toward ethical questions, agreeing on three basic points: (1) "that consent should be the nonnegotiable starting point for any form of faithful sexual intimacy"; (2) "that throughout history, religious understandings of sexuality have been shot full of exclusions, repressions, silences, and eccentricities"; (3) "that sexual orientation and identity have been socially constructed across the centuries in ways both destructive and compelling" (298). A normative model of "faithful sexual intimacy" does indeed seem to haunt many of pages of this book; covenant, commitment, and faithfulness, implicitly or explicitly dyadic, are repeatedly affirmed as defining the proper context for the sexual desires, acts, and pleasures of Christians. Such quasimarital assumptions are disrupted at moments, for example, by James Perkinson's invocation of the subversively enlivening potential of "hip-hop creativity" (213), Laurel Schneider's broad invocation of "promiscuous incarnation" (231), and Joy Bostic's call for a Morrison- inspired "mutual, interanimating, participatory dance of radical relationality" (293). Yet there might have been other (possibly even more profound) disruptions and fewer assertions of what is natural, inevitable, real, or good, had the authors not taken such a monolithically negative view of prior Christian understandings of sexuality, and had there been more attention to productive "eccentricities" (Jones, 298). In the introduction, Kamitsuka suggests that history provides a view of "the persistent anxiety in Christianity regarding eros" (8). Lodging particular blame with Jesus, Paul, and Augustine, Mark Wallace asserts more starkly that "much of early Christianity is a sustained polemic against bodily instincts, sexual desire, and even the institution of marriage itself" (34, 37). Laurie Jungling references "the extreme regulation and suppression of erotic life throughout much of the Western Christian tradition" (218), while Schneider faults Constantine and Nicea for the imposition of an overly narrow doctrine of incarnation that has sexually repressive implications: "to insist upon a solitary incarnate moment is to betray the very fleshiness of flesh" (232).

As a historian, I might nip at the edges of any of these claims, but then again the truths of history are not so easily sorted. However, I do wonder why theological truths should be any less elusive than historical ones, why theologians should be less humble in their historical assertions than historians. Some of the strangest and most distinctive aspects of Christian eroticism, such as the ascetical and mystical, are ignored or dismissed by the authors, and at least one of its most challengingly complex theorists, Augustine of Hippo, is misread with remarkable consistency. I confess that I also worry when a scholar evokes "heaven," in Augustine's name or anyone else's, as if it, well, simply existed.

Despite such reservations, I suspect and indeed hope that this book will be effective in many classroom contexts and also among interested readers beyond the academy. It conveys a message that needs to be heard.


Drew University, Madison, N.J.
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Author:Burrus, Virginia
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2011
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