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Almost 40 years ago, in 1974, theologian Harvey Cox, who was teaching at Harvard Divinity School (I attended his retirement in 2009 and wrote about it at R&T), made his way to the Playboy Mansion and had a conversation with Hugh Hefner that was moderated by eminent arts curator Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel.

This wasn’t the first theological conversation about changing sexual mores in general, and Playboy in particular, on the popular level. Dr. Cox (disclosure: I have known him for almost twenty years, and he wrote the Foreword to my first book) had written thoughtfully and critically in the 1960s about Playboy, in popular articles and in his famous book The Secular City. Among other things, he had criticized Playboy for propagating a consumerist eroticism that was not meaningfully sexual because it was impersonal, in fact inhuman in its fear and “othering” of women, and thus failed to honor the sacred and mysterious power of sexuality that, in Dr. Cox’s view, the biblical tradition upholds. These and other criticisms led to a (remarkable by today’s standards) published conversation in Playboy (June 1967) about “Religion and the New Morality” among several theologians and leading clergy, including Dr. Cox, Dr. James Luther Adams, Father Herbert Rogers, Rabbi Richard L. Rubenstein, Right Rev. James A. Pike, Dr. Robert Wood Lynn, Rev. Howard Moody, and Dr. Allen J. Moore. (That’s right — no women.) Dr. Cox also wrote for Playboy. Those were, as they say, different times — about which I want to say more in a moment.

But back to the conversation that Ms. Diamonstein-Spielvogel moderated between Dr. Cox and Mr. Hefner. You can watch it here:

YouTube Preview Image

The first thing I notice is that the roaming menagerie of creatures are not the only exotic animals in this interview; what zoo of gender is it that lets loose two men as featured discussants about a topic focused almost entirely on the representation of women? (I know, I know; in religion and its study, we are still too often locked in that zoo.) At least Dr. Cox has the wherewithal to state in the interview that he is not qualified to pronounce on some aspects of the question before them.

Their only significant agreement is on what, since philosopher Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, we have learned to call the “repressive hypothesis,” that is the idea that sex has been, since the Victorian age, essentially stifled in its natural, healthy (more…)

On Antisocial Virtues

Posted in: Christianity,Dialectic,General,Recommended Reading by Tom Beaudoin on June 15, 2011

In Harper’s Magazine last year, philosopher Alain de Botton wrote an essay called “Improvable Feasts” in which he characterized a part of Christian tradition that I think gives an important bearing for comprehending secular music cultures, especially in their antinomian, nihilistic or decadent gestures, tendencies, or experimentations.

“At the heart of so many religious rituals,” Botton writes, “are antisocial feelings — aggression, lechery, envy, unbearable sadness. Expressed without restraint, they could break societies apart, yet repressed with equal passion they could end up overwhelming the sanctity of individuals. The ritual is hence a mediating force (usually justified by supernatural sanction) between the demands of the individual and those of society. This controlled purgation demarcates a time and place where the demands of the self may be honored without running amok, and yet through which longer-term harmony and survival of the group can be ensured.”

He adds, “Religions teach us to be polite, to honor one another, to be faithful and sensible, but they also acknowledge that if they require only these things of us, they will sunder our spirit. They therefore accept the debt that goodness, faith, and sweetness owe to their opposites. At least, medieval Christianity understood. For most of the year it preached solemnity, order, restraint, fellowship, earnestness, a love of God, and sexual decorum — and then, at New Year’s, it unleashed the festum fatuorum, the feast of fools, and for several days the world was upside down. Clergy played dice on the altar, brayed like donkeys instead of saying ‘Amen,’ had drinking competitions in the nave, farted to the Ave Maria, and delivered spoof sermons based on parodies of the Gospels… After drinking tankards of ale, they held their holy books upside down, burned excrement instead of incense, and urinated out of bell towers. They tried to marry donkeys, tied giant wooden penises to their vestments, and held boozy orgies on the altar.”

Botton then quotes the Faculty of Theology at Paris in 1444: “Wine barrels burst if from time to time we do not open them and let in some air. All of us men are barrels poorly put together… This is why we permit folly on certain days: so that we may in the end return with greater zeal to the service of God.”

Botton concludes, “If we want well-functioning communities, we cannot focus only on social virtues. We must also find a place for antisocial ones.”

While Alain de Botton waxes somewhat lyrical, in an “Animal House” kind of way, about the “feasts of misrule” and “festivals of fools” from the Middle Ages (and which philosopher Charles Taylor and theologian Harvey Cox have found so important in making theological sense of secular culture), his somewhat simplistic celebration of these “liminal” festivals holds significance for the theology-music relationship. I say it is simplistic because Botton does not give any indication that there might be any

(more…)