The long shadow of “hot Jesus”

The temptation of Hot Jesus. | Zac Freeland/Vox; Getty Images

The Christ of my youth was benevolent and handsome. So why was I treated like the ungodly temptation?

In the dark church, rows of people raise their hands to the ceiling, murmuring the name of Jesus. Yes, Jesus. Yes, Lord. Come into me, Jesus.

Bodies pulse and the band plays “Spirit of the Living God.” The chorus is chanted more than sung: “Melt me. Mold me. Fill me. Use me. Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on me.”

Sweaty desire for the lord fills this converted warehouse of a nondenominational church, where a handsome pastor will use intimate analogies to remind everyone to give everything over to the lord, their hearts, minds, and bodies. “Give it all to the man who gave it all to you,” he will preach as an image of Jesus appears on the two screens that wing out from the stage.

Jesus in this image is Jim Caviezel from Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Bloodied and beaten, his heaving muscular body is stripped naked and he hangs exposed on the cross. His face is contorted in pain, ecstasy, and submission.

This is Sunday. Jesus is our desire.

Jim Caviezel as Jesus.Philippe Antonello/Icon Distribution Inc.
Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ, 2004.

The Jesus of my youth was hot. Everywhere I went to church — which I did every week without fail from birth to 18 in Baptist, nondenominational, and evangelical churches in Texas, South Dakota, and Minnesota — his face was depicted in Bibles and wall prints as white and hypermasculine, strong jaw, soft eyes, flowing hair that always seemed to be in movement from some invisible force. Probably the Holy Spirit. The Jesus of my youth had perfect skin and the large, capable hands of a carpenter. This was to whom I was to surrender. When thoughts of sin would overpower me, I would think upon the name of the lord and he would come into me, and I would be saved.

I was 10 when I first understood that sexual desire was sinful. Sitting in the living room, listening to my lessons on cassettes my mom had purchased at a Christian homeschooling conference. They were a series of lectures given by a homeschooling family of 20 children. The oldest daughter talked about how she often looked at handsome men in church and wondered which ones would be good husbands. “But that’s sinful,” I remember her saying. “My job is not to desire; my job is just to be a woman of God, and if I’m faithful, he will give me the desires of my heart.”

Four years later, when I had a huge crush on a blond boy at my church, who later told my friend Jenny, who told me, that I was too much of a nerd to like, I wrote in my journal, “This is what I get from focusing on boys instead of God.” What I should have written was, “This is what I get for wanting, for needing, for desiring.” In the faith I was raised in, there was no room for my hunger.

“Have thine own way, Lord,” we sang in church, a hymn of devotion yielding our bodies to the lord as the clay yields to the potter. Our devotion to God was physical, it was intimate. Our bodies were temples to the Holy Spirit, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6:6, which is in us.

This belief was made manifest with a purity ring. My parents gave me the ring when I was 16. Made of Black Hills gold, a flimsy pale material, bent into the shape of a heart adorned with a pink and green metal leaf, this was my purity ring. It was a symbol that God owned my body and would possess it and I would stay a virgin until I married. This was the protection against my sin. The ring was part of a wider cultural movement begun as the “True Love Waits” campaign and picked up by many smaller organizations. Pop stars like Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears sported purity rings at one time or another. We didn’t discuss it. Purity was just assumed, and we didn’t question it.

But at 16, sin was my desire. Sin was the thrill of my body when a boy brushed my arm, when he smiled, when I felt his heat against me in the darkness of the high school gym. Sin was the vibration of my body when he sat next to me on the bus on the way home from debate trips, his leg sometimes touching my leg. Sin was me living for every touch, but praying forgiveness for wanting.

Hot Jesus as theology

Love is a foundational Christian theological principle. In particular, the Bible talks about our love for God in the same breath as it talks about our love for neighbor, God’s love of humanity and our love of him. The Old Testament book Song of Songs tells the story of the desire between two lovers. It’s a passionate book full of metaphors about drinking the nectar of their bodies.

A popular Christian interpretation of the book is that it is about Christ’s love for his community. (Christ is the male lover, while the church the female.) Another interpretation is that it’s about Christ’s relationship with the individual soul. Which would mean that in this verse, from Song of Songs, “Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies,” Christ is literally and weirdly talking about my boobs. And how I was supposed to feel about this was never made clear.

St. Augustine wrote that because humans are made of desire, our desires can be redirected toward God. Ancient theologians like Origen, Plotinus, and Gregory of Nyssa described the church and Christ as bride and groom locked in a relationship of pain, yearning, and bliss.

But the people for whom the passion for Christ was the most important were the female mystics. While researching the history of Christianity for my book on faith and politics, I learned that in medieval Christianity, women were excluded from higher education and church leadership, and female mystics sought oneness with God by seeking revelations and visions from the Lord. They did this by swearing off worldly indulgences and seeking to experience the suffering of Jesus. They claimed to feel the nails of the cross and experienced stigmata, and each pain was their joyous release.

Locked in a patriarchal system that condemned their bodies and regulated their passions, erotic religious desire became a vehicle to communicate the subversive longings of the flesh justified in the religious passion for Christ. “Human passion is the reflection of divine passion,” said Andrew Greeley, the Catholic priest who often wrote about sex as a sacrament and an expression of communion with the lord.

Mechthild of Magdeburg, a medieval mystic in the 13th century, wrote of Christ as her “most intimate rest, my deepest longing, a stream for my passion.”

St. Teresa of Ávila, a 16th-century nun, shared her ecstatic visions in writing that pulses with erotic imagination and desire. In her book The Mansions, she describes being visited by an angel who penetrates her repeatedly with a golden spear, pulling out her entrails, filling her with the love of God. “The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God,” she explains.

 Wikimedia
Teresa of Ávila by François Gérard, 1827.

When I first read about St. Teresa in college, I laughed. It seemed so obvious the conflation of love and sex and the divine, and the fetishization of Jesus. My sophomore year, my friends and I went on a retreat to a monastery with our honors class and stayed up writing stories about the mystics and their passions. We would not be the first to conflate the sacred with the profane.

Hot Jesus isn’t just a modern phenomenon; artists have been reveling in the body of the lord for centuries. Art critic Leo Steinberg observed an obsession with Jesus’s genitals in Renaissance paintings. In contrast to Byzantine art, Renaissance art often depicts Jesus as an adult and as a baby fully nude, genitals hanging out. Some artists even painted Jesus rising from the tomb with an erection, giving a very different meaning to the hymn “Up from the Grave He Arose.” A famous example of this is the work of painter Maerten van Heemskerck. The Catholic theologian and Jesuit priest John W. O’Malley noted that putting the genitals of Jesus on display emphasized his humanness.

 Wikimedia
Man of Sorrows by Maerten van Heemskerck depicts Christ after the crucifixion attended by angels. Some art historians claim the loincloth is wrapped around an erection symbolizing his resurrection and continuing power.

It’s quite a contrast: the sublimated spiritual ecstasy of women and the full humanity of Jesus. It is his body and his blood we worship. His humanness is a necessary part of Christian theology. But the humanity of women is not. Some Catholics argue for Mary’s perpetual virginity, noting that no man ever touched her. The theory of perpetual virginity roots Mary’s holiness on the denial of her sexuality. But for Jesus, the embrace of his holy experience is the embrace of his body.

It’s supposed to be this way. A woman’s desire, her pleasure, the full experience of her body, has never found a comfortable home in Christianity. It’s easier to divide and conquer than allow a woman to be full and complete.

Hot Jesus tamed

During the Counter-Reformation, reformers covered up genitalia in religious art and chopped off the penises. Christianity split into factions. No longer dominated by Catholicism, Christianity became a lot more complicated, but the eroticism of Jesus has remained constant. In modern cinema, Jesus is played by Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, and Ewan McGregor. Clothed or not, hot Jesus dominates our imaginations with his Brad Pitt-like face. He is fully embodied, cross fit, his ripped abs on full display on Calvary.

 Gilles Mingasson/Broad Green Pictures
Ewan McGregor in Last Days in the Desert, 2015.

Clothed, his eroticism is transmuted through our Puritan ethic — but it’s there in the music.

Many gospel songs, with their swaying rhythms, speak of needing Jesus, wanting Jesus, and how he watches us and loves us in return. So many of R&B’s most sensual singers began in gospel churches. And where did that longing, that desire come from, if not from the desire, pulsing, sweating, in our pews?

Christian crossover hits tend to be songs that are supposed to be about Jesus but could just as easily be about a man. “Baby, baby,” sang Amy Grant, a Christian pop singer popular in the ’80s and ’90s, “I’m taken with the notion, to love you with the sweetest of devotion.” Currently, Christian artist Lauren Daigle has a crossover hit titled “You Say” about a person in conflict who feels one thing but is told another: “You say I am strong, when I say I am weak,” she sings with her voice that sounds so much like the pop star Adele. The official music video for this song shows Daigle singing solo in a room as sunlight washes over her. The “You” in the song is a benevolent God, who gives her hope; on YouTube, Daigle looks like yet another woman dressed up as a doll on strings, caressed by a puppet master. “You say I am loved, when I don’t feel a thing.”

Jesus comes to us. He lives in us. He fills us up. I have to plug my nose in churches so I don’t snort-laugh when earnest men sensually strum guitars and croon about wanting the spirit of the lord to fall upon them. Or rooms full of teens shout an orgasmic, “Yes, Lord, yes Lord, yes, yes, Lord! Amen!” They think they are thinking of Jesus, but it feels more like they are thinking of sex. I want to laugh because the distance between the two is so small, it’s almost unholy.

The Jesus I was raised to want with all my spiritual and sexual desire was a white body. A male body. A heterosexual body (although he does travel in packs of 12 men). What if the body of Jesus isn’t the body you want? These depictions of Jesus, the instructions that he is the only correct outlet for human desire, further sublimate desire when it falls outside these parameters. Queer bodies, bodies of color, trans bodies — those are not the bodies given to us by Catholic churches or white evangelical churches.

Hot Jesus and me

In graduate school, a gay friend got excited when he found out I was raised Baptist.

“Is sex really hot?” he asked.

We were drunk in a bar in Cambridge. I was away from my husband, finishing my master’s degree in fiction. I never wrote about sex. Paul leaned close into me. “I heard when you grow up religious, the sex is good because it feels transgressive.”

He was excited, and I spun my wedding ring on my finger, the one that had replaced the purity ring. By the time I had gone to college, I’d tried to lose my purity, but I had no courage and no takers. Later, I’d lose all rings. Later, I would allow myself to be a body, fleshy and needy and complicated. But then, I was 25 and I didn’t even know the limits of my imagination.

I took a long drink of my Dark and Stormy. How could I tell him about sin and holiness and about the condemnation of my body — both a holy temple and an ungodly temptation? How my very skin was sin and how I’d been trying my whole life to separate myself from the thing that held me? How could I say all of this with this rum in my hands and hot Jesus looking on from somewhere in my heart?

So I just winked, and we laughed the most unholy laugh.

Lyz Lenz is a contributing writer to the Columbia Journalism Review. Her new book God Land was just published. She lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with her two children and two cats.

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