Four Christian responses to the myth of “irresistible attraction.”
I have some introductory rambling thoughts on the evangelical sub-culture and irresistible attraction. I don’t pretend to know the law but last Friday, an all-male Supreme Court in Iowa ruled in favor of a Fort Dodge dentist, James Knight, who fired his dental assistant of 10 years, Melissa Nelson, because she became an “irresistible attraction.”
Perhaps you’ve seen some of the headlines:
Knight is a Christian.
He sought out the counsel of his local senior pastor who directed Knight to fire Nelson. When Knight told Nelson the news he had another staff pastor present in his office when he told Nelson she was getting fired.
I haven’t been able to find any articles identifying Knight as an evangelical, but this scenario smacks of the evangelical sub-culture, including the pastor’s counsel. If Knight is not an evangelical, it reveals the sexism still present in some Christian communities.
Irresistible attraction is a story embedded with a cluster of beliefs held by some contemporary Christians (men and women). It is born out of centuries-old, male-dominated patriarchy. The story sexualizes women and then blames and oppresses women.
In 2012, this story is a Christianized form of sexism. The story is alive and well in some communities, and we know it is real in the state of Iowa.
1. “Irresistible attraction” is to be distinguished from all other forms of attraction: sexual, physical, mutual, intellectual, or spiritual attraction.
Irresistible attraction is one of the root stories of the old order of sexism, patriarchy, and sexism. It nurtures all sorts of sexism — hostile, ambivalent, and benevolent.
It is distinct from all other forms of healthy human attraction. It has a myth all on its own. According to some, the origin is biological. It overpowers the will. It directs the will. For others, the origin is in the cosmic forces of darkness.
Men in particular, are not responsible for this kind of attraction — hence the term “irresistible.” It usually centers upon a particular masculine behavior which, according to this story, men are not responsible for. Women are held to be responsible for men’s unrestrained, unrepressed, unchecked, unbridled, promiscuous desires.
Pay attention to what James Knight tells Steve Nelson (Melissa’s husband) in a meeting with Knight’s pastor present:
“Dr. Knight said he was worried he was getting too personally attached to her. Dr. Knight told Steve Nelson that nothing was going on but that he feared he would try to have an affair with her down the road if he did not fire her.”
2. Some pastors spiritualize this irresistible attraction story as an inescapable outcome between men and women who get near or attached to each other.
Knight’s pastor does not object to Knight’s predicting a self-fulfilling lustful prophecy. If you read some of the responses of non-Christian commenters to these various articles they are confused. By endorsing the doctrine of irresistible attraction, Knight’s pastors send a loud and clear message: sexual temptation cannot be resisted.
It’s one thing to say sexual attraction is powerful and should be respected and navigated carefully. It’s quite another thing to say it is irresistible.
There are plenty of good, upright, moral, healthy non-Christians who have resisted sexual temptation — even in the midst of experiencing sexual attraction. Even Hollywood from time to time affirms that men of integrity are not cosmically predetermined robots in the midst of sexual temptation.
It’s stuff like this that tells the world some Christians believe we can rise no higher than adolescent sexuality with even unbridled sexual impulses.
One commenter in the Huffington Post article responded:
“I’m pissed at his Pastor for not saying something like, ‘In this life we face many temptations. You have to be strong enough to withstand them. Now grow up, vow to keep it in your pants, keep your religious marriage vows to your wife, and stop acting like you’re 17.”‘
Knight’s pastors couldn’t reframe the doctrine of irresistible attraction for Knight. They supported his firing of Nelson in front of Steve and Melissa the next night. In essence, they espoused that Knight’s future irresponsibility as somehow cosmically predestined with no help/intervention coming from God (or anyone else) for James Knight or Melissa Nelson.
This is at the heart of so-called “Christian” rules between men and women like missiologists Ed Stetzer who supports avoidance between men and women. Some Christians like Matt Schmucker believe men and women who are not married to each other cannot share a meal alone together, a cup of coffee, or even having a meaningful conversation between each other.
Embedded in this story of irresistible attraction is that any form of sexual attraction is irresistible. In the Christian tradition, some have held sexual attraction as irresistible. It is so powerful, it overwhelms the will. “Sorry, I just couldn’t control myself. You are so attractive, I had to act on my impulses.”
But Christian feminist and ethicist Christine Gudorf says, “It is the root of what makes women fear men as dangerous.”
3. The story of irresistible attraction tends to view women and their bodies as the sources of temptation.
Christians who embrace this story of irresistible attraction rarely see sexual objectification as an expression of male pride, arrogance, and power at the center of relationships between men and women.
Male pastors as such do not have to name their church as institutionalized expressions of oppression toward women like Melissa Nelson. In communities like Knight’s writes Pam Hogeweide, “Christian women are conditioned that our sexuality hovers at the edge of lasciviousness. We can’t be trusted around men. Our curves get in the way” (Unladlylike).
As she notes, “When women are repeatedly given a list of do’s and don’ts aimed at our feminine nature, it teaches women not to trust our bodies. Women then equate visible curves as visible sexuality, as if admitting one has boobs is admitting one has sex” (my insertion of italics).
In this story, the visible sexuality of Nelson meant whatever “tight” clothing she wore, she was not only leading Knight on, she would also be willing to have sex with him when he was ready to act on his lustful fantasies. According to his own admission, he was afraid that Nelson’s tight clothing might lead him to act out on urges that he knew were appropriate for the marital bed only.
When pastors support stories like James Knight, they contribute to sexualizing women within the church and that is far worse than what is out there in the real world.
One commenter observed:
“He needs to get his own act together and decide to love his wife and stop blaming other people. Next month it will just be the girl at the coffee shop, or the friend’s wife … the problem is inside him. To fire an employee of 10 years just shows his religion is skin deep and he lacks empathy.”
“From what I can see, this dentist created a sexually charged work place, and he has the nerve to blame her for it!?”
My friend Amy Martin commented on what it feels like as a woman to be in churches like this on Ed Stetzer’s blog:
“In the outside-church-world, I’m treated less as a latent temptress siren, waiting to lead men astray given mere minutes of a closed, window-free office door. This has been a great relief, and allows for a different level of respect and cooperation between co-workers, regardless of gender. Safe environments, like you say. I found I had to leave the church to find them, unfortunately.”
Notice that Melissa Nelson has stated she was not interested in any sexual relationship. This was a one-sided sexual attraction. It was Knight who believed (and the pastors) that if the relationship continued he would act out on his attraction — predicting Nelson would not resist any advances.
This is unhealthy communal imagination.
J. Harold Ellens observes, “We are always at risk of projecting on the other human we need him or her to be, rather than accepting and being truly present to the real person he or she is.”
Indeed, Knight’s wife projects her anxieties upon Nelson when she can’t imagine why “[Nelson] liked to hang around after work when it would be just her and [Dr. Knight] there. I thought it was strange that after being at work all day and away from her kids and husband that she would not be anxious to get home like the other [women] in the office.”
4. The pastors offered no narrative of hope or new life (redemption) for either James Knight or Melissa Nelson.
In the CNN article, Knight’s lawyer, Stuart Cochrane is quoted as saying, “”He and his wife really agonized about it,” Cochrane said about Knight. “He didn’t want to terminate her.”
In my book, Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions, I note the strong currents of two dominant stories in the evangelical world: the marital/romantic story and the danger story. Both stories of course, involve an introduction, a plot and climax toward the same thing: sex.
The story of irresistible attraction neatly and conveniently is dominant in both stories.
Where do evangelicals present an alternative story of men and women?
Clearly, these pastors in Iowa did not have an alternative story of hope for Knight or Nelson. There was no hope for justice coming from them for Nelson. She was given her walking papers while the pastors hoped she would not apply for work for anymore dentists in their congregation.
There was no path of transformation and responsibility for Knight.
Surely, the Christian tradition has something to offer more than what these pastors offered.
Surely a Christian ethic of embodiment, desire, delight, and goodness offers a path of transformation and hope in this life. The pastors offer no such ethic for Knight to learn to love his neighbor (Melissa Nelson) and take responsibility for his lusts.
Consider for example what a Christian ethic of spiritual attraction might contribute toward a narrative of hope. Spiritual attraction wouldn’t deny physical attraction. But it wouldn’t shame Knight (or other Christians) for experiencing a physical attraction.
Admiration or delight in another’s physical presence is not the same as imagining or desiring sex with them.
Too many Christians (pastors) conflate the two as one meaning: lust.
Then men experience shame when they are attracted to women.
Nor it would shame Nelson for her attractive body. Norman Wirzba observes, “To take delight is finally to relish the goodness and beauty of God’s work and to see in each other the trace of God” (Living the Sabbath). Although Wirzba doesn’t directly address delight between men and women I suggest his book offers rich insights into a healthy ethic of delight between men and women.
I think Wirzba’s insights ring true: close proximity with another enables us to experience sacred delight toward them without using them for our own gratifying ends. Wirzba writes: “If we are to see others with this depth, we must be prepared to get close to them and learn to see them for what they are, rather than what we want them to be or in terms of how ‘useful’ or pleasing they are to us.” This is a healthy response to beautiful men and women with whom we share a close proximity.
An ethic of delight for example, would see that women as God’s creatures are to be included in the beauty of God’s creation for his glory — not merely for distorted male lust or the “male gaze.”
Eastern Orthodox David Bentley Hart shows us the rich possibilities of delight and beauty: “In learning to see the world as beauty (Dan inserts: and women not just as sexual or romantic objects), one learns the measure of a love that receives all things not to hold onto, not ‘for me’ (and the James Knights of the world), but as beautiful in their own splendor” (The Beauty of the Infinite).
Now pay attention to this profound insight from Hart:
“This also means that the things of the senses cannot of themselves distract from God.”
Did you catch it?
In those two quotes we have 1) responsibility to beauty, 2) a commitment to a sacred response to beauty, and 3) an admiration of beauty, without the need to possess for our own gratification or use.
Beauty never distracts us from God; it leads us to God.
There is, in the words of Hart, “a moral education of desire.”
A Christian ethic of delight does not minimize the risks or dangers but it also does not close the door on the range of moral possibilities and imagination. Cultivating a deeper attraction for the good and beautiful in the midst of tempting circumstances is saying “yes” to something greater than hedonistic impulses. Experiencing the pleasure of another’s beauty would not be inherently wrong or threatening to a marriage
An ethic of delight would give both men and women grace and deep meaning to the sexual energy and beauty men experience in the presence of another woman as not something inherently lustful. Conservative evangelical William Struthers of Wheaton College suggests this is as a rich possibility in his book, Wired for Intimacy.
An ethic of delight does not immediately entail for men hedonistic voyeurism or self-indulgence in the presence of attractive women. Some Christians immediately link pleasure especially the pleasure experiencing an attractive woman’s presence as voyeuristic or self-indulgent lust.
Responses like James Knight and his pastors leave Christians with no alternatives.
But there are.
Transformation for someone like James Knight would not happen overnight. But a Christian ethic of embodiment and delight would offer a path for Knight to love his neighbor, Melissa Nelson, keep his marital vows, honor his wife, and take responsibility for his lusts.
Gathering together this coming April are pastors, authors, worship leaders, and others who see the healthy need for justice, equality, shalom, and life-giving beauty. You’re welcome to join us for these two days of important conversation.
What are your thoughts on this case of irresistible attraction? Have you experienced anything close to what Melissa Nelson has experienced?