It was sexy. It felt a little voyeuristic, like we should all look away. But no one could tear their eyes off the hot display of marital lust happening onstage at Sunday’s Grammy Awards.
Beyoncé sat with her back to the audience, straddling a chair when the beat to “Drunk in Love” — the first single off her unpromoted, unexpected album Beyoncé — began to pulse. She purred her way through the beginning of the song, singing lyrics like, “You got me faded, faded-faded, baby, I want you, na-na / Can’t keep your eyes off my fatty, daddy, I want you, na-na / Drunk in love, I want you.”
Subtle the song is not. After the first few verses, Jay Z joined his wife onstage to continue the ode to connubial sex. And then, when the song was over, they hugged and walked hand in hand offstage, disappearing back into their regular lives. (As regular, at least, as a life of extreme wealth, fame, and superstardom can be.)
But their performance did more than just entertain millions of viewers; it argued for something as old fashioned as marriage being sexy. And that, as Alyssa Rosenberg wrote at ThinkProgress yesterday, might be just what conservatives need to make their case for marriage:
It’s a song about flirting, about going out and partying, about having fantastic, adventuresome, totally enthralling sex–with your spouse. That’s a far, far better argument for marriage than the pseudo-scientific case for holding onto your oxytocin by not having sex before you say your vows on the grounds that such conservation efforts will make your first time better.
Many branches of Christianity have long said people should wait until marriage to have sex. Some of this has been done in damaging ways, encouraging fear of one’s body and draconian punishments for having lusted. But one thing we as Christians often fail to communicate in the conversation about marriage is how important it is to have a robust understanding of desire and sex in their right places.
Of course, this isn’t for lack of trying. In 2011, controversy-courting pastor Mark Driscoll and his wife Grace released their book Real Marriage. In an incredibly misguided effort to demystify marital sex, they ended up answering questions like, “Is anal sex OK?” (yep!) and what to do when a lack of sex makes you moody (tell your wife you need more!). Other gimmicks followed suit: Ed Young, a Fort Worth pastor, held a “bed-in” on his church roof while encouraging (married) members of his congregation to have sex every day for a week. Justin Buzzard, a pastor in Silicon Valley, wrote a book with the intimidating title Date Your Wife in which he suggests that men have forgotten how to pursue their wives as they once did.
The means of delivery is less than spectacular, but the takeaway is clear enough: Marriage (even, and perhaps especially, Christian marriage) should be a place of sexual fulfillment and joy. Theology of the body is especially important to Christianity, seeing as how the god we worship took on flesh to live among us. But a pastor writing a book about the permissibility of certain kinds of sex will never get the message across like Jay and Beyoncé have. They’re hot for each other, but you’ll rarely hear Jay Z crowing about his “smokin’ hot wife.” (Although he did famously say he’s “got the hottest chick in the game wearing my chain.” Can’t argue with that.)
Christians are famously bad at talking in public about sex. We often focus too much on what not to do — wait until you’re married and try really hard not to lust after people you aren’t married to — rather than the joys of sex. Some Christian sexual theology could really be boiled down to a simple “keep it in your pants.” But a look at Scripture reveals sex to be deeply important to marriage. If, after all, a couple becomes “one flesh” when they are married (Genesis 2:24), we need to understand what that means. And Proverbs 5:18–19 says of marital love:
Let your fountain be blessed,
and rejoice in the wife of your youth,
a lovely deer, a graceful doe.
May her breasts satisfy you at all times;
may you be intoxicated always by her love
Smack in the middle of the Bible we have this testament to desire, the Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs). It’s a whole book of racy conversation between two lovers, full of language we were never taught in Sunday school:
How fair and pleasant you are,
O loved one, delectable maiden!
You are stately as a palm tree,
and your breasts are like its clusters.
I say I will climb the palm tree
and lay hold of its branches.
O may your breasts be like clusters of the vine,
and the scent of your breath like apples,
and your kisses like the best wine
that goes down smoothly,
gliding over lips and teeth.
Compare that to “Drunk in Love”:
We woke up in the kitchen saying,
“How the hell did this shit happen?”
Oh baby, drunk in love we be all night
Last thing I remember is our beautiful bodies grinding up in the club
(For more “Drunk in Love”–Song of Solomon comparisons, you can check out this post I wrote on Jan. 27.)
This is the crux of why some Christians are (or should be) so interested in Mr. and Mrs. Carter. There is a thread that unites “Drunk in Love” and the Song of Solomon: It can be good to give yourself to your spouse in marriage, marriage isn’t all feigned headaches and guilt, and marriage should actually be a very sexy endeavor. The Christians who have been trying to spread this message — Mark Driscoll et al. — have been getting it all wrong, and the people perish for lack of Beyoncé. Reminding us that we can be flirtatious and fun in our marriages is a really good thing.
Beyoncé and Jay Z have been married almost six years, have had a child together, and have seen some career highs and lows. (Mostly highs — who am I kidding?) But they are in many ways an excellent example of the kind of marriage Christians want to promote. Little surprise: Beyoncé has spoken about growing up in the church. They are loving parents, close to their families, and head over heels for each other. It’s endearing to watch the way they watch each other. They both very clearly take pride in the other’s work while also being super into to one another. That’s attractive.
There will always be Christians who find something objectionable about this whole situation. The National Organization for Marriage, a group that advocates against marriage equality said they “politely decline[d] Rosenberg’s suggestion” that Beyoncé and Jay Z should be the new conservative spokespeople for traditional marriage.
Some Christian objections, though, come up for good reason. How far can we go in public acting out or talking about something that is meant to be done in private? How can we talk about sex so that it isn’t only about the one partner performing to just to please the other, but so that there is parity along gender lines? Those are important questions to ask, and I’m grateful to be part of a faith tradition that holds sex and marriage in high enough regard to ask them.
But it’s also important to remember and to tell that marriage can be sexy and fun. For all the Christian talk about marriage making you holy and being a place of prayer, we sometimes lose out on the notion that marriage can be a place of deep joy and delight, that just as God delights in us, so we should delight in our spouses. And there was a lot of delighting going on on that Grammy stage.
Laura Turner is a writer and editor living in San Francisco. She is a columnist for Religion News Service, Christianity Today, and an MFA candidate at Seattle Pacific University. She may or may not have taught herself most of the “Single Ladies” dance.