Good Christian Sex, Chapter 7--Memories Losing Their Meaning

I am not exactly breaking new ground here, but the Beatles have some pretty great songs.  I mean, Bob Dylan just won a Nobel Prize for Literature, and Dylan has some good songs, but (controversial opinion alert) Dylan can't hold Lennon and McCartney's bags as a songwriter.  As music critic Chuck Klosterman said "everyone thinks the Beatles are the greatest band of all time because they have all the best songs, and both of those things are true."

Anyway, consider this tune:

There are places I'll remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life, I've loved them all

But of all these friends and lovers
There is no one compares with you
And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new
Though I know I'll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I'll often stop and think about them
In my life, I love you more

Chapter 7 of Good Christian Sex is about pasts, and takes a position remarkably similar to that taken by John and Paul in "In My Life."  This position is in contrast to the way pasts, especially sexual pasts, are usually treated in Christian discussion.  In many ways, the heart of this difference in perspective calls back to something McCleneghan raised in the previous chapter--whether or not we give away something of ourselves when we have sex, or as McCleneghan calls it the "Horcrux" model of sexuality.  If it really is the case that we give a piece of ourselves away when we have sex,  the best possible outcome would be to have no past at all--to enter into a marriage without any previous experience, sexual or otherwise.  To have such a past, on this reading, is to be compromised on some level, to have given something to someone that would have been better given to my one and only.

Or, at the very least, I have to take the position that everything that came before was false or lesser, if perhaps only in retrospect.  "Sure, I thought I was in love, but now I understand that was a pale imitation of the real thing I have now."  We end up being forced to revise our own stories, in order to fit the pre-determined narrative.  Because, if we acknowledge that there is something positive about what came before, then we are diminishing the person we are with now.  Either way, everything is zero-sum--if I validate the past, I will be taking away from the present or future.

But it doesn't have to be this way.  "In My Life" points to an understanding of the past that allows you to acknowledge what came before on its own terms, without taking away from what is happening now.  I'm not giving myself away or diminishing my present by acknowledging what came before.  This also means we don't have to ret-con our own stories, revising our histories to edit out any positive portrayal of our previous partners.  As the song says, if we are required to insist that we never loved before meeting our current partner, then we have no choice but to edit our our memories to fit that story.  We have to lie to ourselves, and to others, about who we are and where we come from.

The truth of the matter is that all of us have pasts, and many of those people in our pasts had a positive influence on our lives.  We can celebrate that without having to put those pasts into direct conflict with what is going on now.  Our stories are more complicated than that, and our relationships are not zero-sum.  We may stop and think about the people and things that went before, without calling into question who we love now.

The other dimension of this, which McCleneghan properly points out, has to do with the reality of negative experiences in our pasts.  While many of our previous experiences have been positive, all of us are wounded to some degree by some of these experiences, and some of us have been wounded very deeply and profoundly.  If it is the case that our past experiences take something from me permanently, then these negative experiences become wounds that will never heal.  There is no message of hope in the Horcrux model of sexuality for victims of abuse or trauma--you have lost a piece of yourself for good, there is nothing you can do about it, and you just have to accept your diminished state going forward.  That's not exactly "good news."  Nor is it true--without minimizing the genuine pain that comes from bad experiences associated with sexuality, it is right and true to say that those experiences can be worked through and overcome.

If there is a big-picture theme running through McCleneghan's book, it is its efforts to "turn down the temperature" with regard to discussions of sexuality.  So much of the presentation of sexual issues in a religious context is pitched at this high level of anxiety, as if our sexuality is an armed nuclear weapon that will irradiate everyone in the area if we aren't perfect in executing our control protocols.  McCleneghan is calling us to back away from this constant DEFCON 1 approach to our own lives.  She is not saying that sexuality is unimportant, or should be treated casually, but she is saying that it is not nearly as fraught with apocalyptic significance at every turn.

Once you take your finger off the proverbial button, you can relax into the "In My Life" perspective on your own past.  It is OK to take a moment once in a while to think back to that girl or guy you once had the hots for and smile, without calling into question what you have now with the person you are with, or worrying that some future love will be diminished by those past experiences.  And, for those with some more painful experiences behind them, they can set out to do the (admittedly difficult) work of growing through and beyond those experiences, confident in the thought that their past doesn't have to permanently define them.  It's a good message, and one that I think many folks need to hear.

Two chapters left to go--one on cheating, and one on ending relationships.


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