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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…)