Sexless in the City
Blogger and former rock journalist Dawn Eden discusses "The Thrill of the Chaste."
By Bill McGarvey
Described by one writer as "a Jewish-born rock journalist turned salty Christian blog queen,” Dawn Eden has been a deputy news editor at the New York Daily News for several years. Beginning in early July 2007 she will become the director of the Cardinal Newman Society's new Love and Responsibility program in Washington, DC. A former rock historian, Eden has written on music for Mojo, Salon, New York Press and Billboard, among others. She has her own blog, The Dawn Patrol, and her writings on non-music topics have appeared in numerous other publications, including the Wall Street Journal and the New York Daily News.
Recently, musician and contributor Bill McGarvey sat down with Eden to discuss her first book, The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On, which chronicles her conversion to both Christianity and chastity.
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Dawn, you and I have known each other for a long time. I knew you mainly as a rock and roll journalist. In fact you and I once worked together when you wrote press releases for my old band and on my solo cds. So this is a big turn for you.
(Laughs) See, I love this because you having known me for a while can attest to the fact that I’m not just a poser. You know there are plenty of Christian writers who say, “Oh yeah, I was hip once, I was in the rock world once.”
Talk to me a little bit about how your book Thrill of the Chaste, came about, and what got you away from rock journalism and into writing a book on chastity.
Well the book came about because of my own transformation. I grew up Reform Jewish and by the time I hit my 20’s, I was an agnostic rock journalist and I had a spiritual longing but because I didn’t have faith, I was looking to fill this spiritual void. Like it’s one thing to love music, it’s another thing to say well, I don’t believe, so I’m going get my religious experiences from concerts. That’s how I tried to achieve transcendence. And when that didn’t give my life meaning, I thought love would.
And so I tried to find the love of my life. I didn’t succeed, and so I thought, based on just all the morals of the world that I was in, the world of mainstream media and music magazines, that if I didn’t find the love of my life, then I had every right to just get pleasure from sex. So I had premarital sex, until I was 31 and had this religious experience that convinced me of the truth of Christianity.
I eventually became a Catholic. I just knew that God was real, that Jesus was the Messiah, that the Bible was true, and that I had to change my life accordingly. So, I had to take a moral inventory, and what I realized was that not only was my lifestyle not in keeping with the lifestyle God wanted for me, but that all the sex that I had ever had in my life, even within committed loving relationships, far from bringing me closer to the marriage that I wanted had actually made me less capable to sustain a life-time marriage.
Now you talk about having this religious experience when you were 31. Can you elaborate?
It was the result of my mind having been opened in stages to the truth of Christianity. And one thing that was a major door opener for me was when I was 27, back in December ’95, and I was doing a phone interview with a man named Ben Eshbach, who was the lead singer for a Los Angeles band named “The Sugarplastic,” not a religious rock band. And I thought I would ask him something unrelated to his music, so I asked, what was he reading lately, and he said, “The Man Who Was Thursday” by G.K. Chesterton. I had never heard the name before and thought it was one of those quant English names like P.G. Wodehouse, so I went to the bookstore and picked it up thinking I was going to be reading about Jeeves and Wooster or something. And then, to my surprise, I realized that this novel had a Christian message, but more than that, it presented the faith in a way I had never seen it before.
I had assumed that Christians were just this white bread, Moral Majority, faceless, conformist mass and that for me to be this rock and roll hipster rebel, I had to be different from them. And what Chesterton put forth is that there is false rebellion and true rebellion, and the false rebellion is essentially to be a rebel without a cause. The rebelling for the sake of rebelling. True rebelling was the rebelling against the evil that has its grip on the world, so that the Christian is the true rebel. Chesterton also said this in "Orthodoxy," when he basically observed that Christianity is the only religion where God, in order to be a King, must also be a rebel. And so reading that just opened up my mind, and at first I just thought, well Chesterton must have been the only salty Christian.
Was Chesterton a convert?
Yes. He was a convert from Anglicanism. Although he grew up pretty much without faith. He spent some time as an atheist, I think. And so I just kept reading all the Chesterton that I could get my hands on.
Both your parents were Jewish, right? And you were raised a secular Jew, but your mom converted.
That’s right. My parents divorced when I was a kid. My mother had converted to Catholicism when I was a teenager, but she had converted initially to charismatic Catholicism, which is related to Pentecostalism in the sense it incorporates spiritual gifts that are not normally included in Catholic worship, like speaking in tongues. I could not get into it at all. And then by the time I became interested in Christianity, my mother had lapsed into Messianic Judaism, which is a form of Protestantism, it’s like the Jews for Jesus. Although she didn’t call herself a Jew for Jesus. But she had stopped going to Mass, and she had started with the Messianic Jewish church. And so, rather than exploring the Catholic Church, I read Chesterton for a few years, and started reading the Bible more.
And it was after that that I started to have this experience, which was the actual faith experience. I don’t like to talk about it that much because its unique, and the thing is that God comes to each of us in different ways, so the way that I was touched isn’t the same way other people might be. The shortest way to describe it is that I heard a voice in the night, a woman’s voice, which really surprised me because even as an agnostic I thought that God was a man. And the voice said, “Some things are not meant to be known, some things are meant to be understood.” And when I woke up I was very freaked out by that. And I was trying to figure out what it meant, and something told me that it was in the Bible. And I was wondering where it would be in the Bible. And then in my mind I was directed to read Romans 5:1. So I read it, and it said, “Therefore being justified by faith, we have Peace with our lord Jesus Christ.”
And for me, being justified by faith, I connected that faith with understanding, with some things that are meant to be understood. And so, the message that some things are not meant to be known, I took as meaning that I was trying to get to know God through external knowledge, where I was thinking that if I have enough proof that God exists, then I would believe. But the message was that some things are meant to be understood, that I had to have the understanding that comes with faith, and then the knowledge would be given to me. So I got down on my knees that night and I said the Sinner's Prayer which is the prayer to Jesus that I’m a sinner, please come into my heart, and after that, I was transformed.
In the book, you talk a lot about "Sex and the City" and how you think its been a defining moment, culturally, as far as women’s ideas of sexuality. Can you talk a little about that and how a lot of your book is certainly taking to task some of the ideas that you believe “Sex and the City” propagated?
Sure, well as you say “Sex and the City” is a defining movement. The interesting thing is that it really simply recycled ideas that were 25 years old, or older. The Germaine Greer and Helen Gurly Brown idea that true liberation is being able to “have sex like a man.” I’ve come to believe more and more, since I wrote the book and have been speaking to men about chastity, that it’s not possible for even a man to have sex like a man.
What does it mean, “To have sex like a man?”
It’s the idea that you can just go in and out, in and out, and nobody has a face, nobody has a soul, and that you can just cut yourself off emotionally, so that like Benjamin Braddock says in The Graduate, when he’s confronted by Mr. Robinson, “What I did with your wife wasn’t even like sex, it was like shaking hands.” You know, that’s the “Sex and the City” ideal of just having sex like you’re shaking hands.
So you think women have been sold a bill of goods?
Oh, completely, and it’s ironic because the same people who are saying that we should be able to have sex like a man are the people who rally against objectifying women, whereas if you try to have to have sex with someone without having an emotional attachment with them, you are objectifying yourself, and the other person by treating both parties like a commodity.
In the book it’s clear to me that though you were a rock journalist, you weren’t like the groupies in Almost Famous who sleep around left right and center. You make it very clear that you weren’t living a chaste life, but I also got the sense that you weren’t waking up in a different bed every morning.
I was looking for something deeper and looking in the wrong places, but at the same time I would go through phases where I was particularly depressed, and if I really had a low self image then I would seek to be found attractive by some guy, because I would think, well, if this guy finds me attractive then there must be something good about me. It’s a terrible way to go through life. Now, a feminist can say that it’s not good to have sex with someone because of low self-esteem. But the thing is, if you’re a feminist, you can never say that any reason to have sex is a bad reason, because women have freedom of choice, so you can’t actually say that there are bad choices. What I discovered upon becoming chaste is that it’s always wrong to treat people as though they are interchangeable. Any time you have sex with someone outside of marriage, you’re treating them as though they can be replaced. Because the only irreplaceable person is the person you marry.
You say something interesting in the book when you talk about the morning after sleeping with somebody and you go out for breakfast to a diner; you felt you were more choosy about your morning order than the men you were sleeping with.
Yes, that’s true, at breakfast I would order two poached eggs on rye toast, no butter, and coffee with skim milk no potatoes, and I realized, I have four specifications on my diner breakfast, and I can’t be choosy about the one man with whom I would want to spend the rest of my life.
In the book as well as your blog, "The Dawn Patrol," you go into great detail about your love of music. When I first met you a number of years ago, your knowledge of certain pop music was just encyclopedic. You would play me all this obscure music that I’d never heard of—all these really cool things. I thought it was fascinating. To be honest, you fueled my own love of rock and roll. Is that part of you gone?
Oh well, I’m really happy to hear that I helped to fuel your own love of rock and pop music. I still love that era in music, but what’s changed about me is that I’m not obsessing about it so much. I have other obsessions now. I’ve always been a bit obsessive. You know that.
I can vouch for that.
I have a new rock star now, and I bought all the videos of him that I can and I listen to his MP3’s.
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, he is a rock star! "Life is Worth Living!" (laughs)
I met him when I was a little kid. At a prayer breakfast for the mayor Philadelphia, Frank Rizzo. So I met Frank Rizzo and Archbishop Sheen on the same day. My folks have a picture of it.
Oh wow. That I would love to see. Archbishop Sheen was, if you go to YouTube, and you look up Bishop Fulton Sheen, you see some those "Life is Worth Living" TV shows from the 50’s. He was so ahead of his time, using the media to spread the faith. And he was such a funny guy. In the ratings he rivaled Milton Berle, who had the top TV show of the time.
In my own life I’ve seen how people can come to experiences of truth through art. Certainly the connection I experienced through music felt like it was part of some larger truth, so I guess I am a little hesitant to throw it all out.
Oh I don’t think you have to throw it all out. One of my favorite albums is still the Zombies’ “Odessey and Oracle.” That kind of music, as I said before, is transcendent. It makes you think that maybe there is something more than this material world and it makes you want to reach higher, reach upward. Anything that causes us to realize we didn’t make ourselves, that there is something larger than ourselves, is a good thing. The striving that can ultimately have its end in faith. C.S Lewis talked about that in "Surprised by Joy."
I would agree that there can be a type of nihilism in certain kinds of music, and yet I’ve found tremendous hope in different types of non-sacred music. I think a lot of our readers find it hard to put up a wall between faith and their experience in the secular world.
Oh, there is not a wall. The Pope says that we are called to find the faith experience in each form of art. It’s very important to be able to find that in rock and other forms of art.
But this Pope as I’ve written about thought that Bob Dylan was a poor choice to perform for Pope John Paul as he did in the late 90s.
I read that, but I don’t think he was speaking ex cathedra. [dogmatically]
What are the reactions to your becoming a Catholic? I’m sure some of your Jewish friends have taken issue with that. What’s been the reaction not only to your conversion, but to the book? And what’s it been like to be out there on tour?
Well, the overall reaction to my conversion wasn’t too bad, except for my sister, who is now a rabbi. She didn’t talk to me for about a week. I’ve heard that she did sit Shiva for me. Shiva is the mourning process that observant Jews do when somebody dies or when somebody converts. So apparently, I’m the walking dead. As far as the reaction to my book, its been very exciting, I’ve been hearing from people who, like me, felt that having sex before marriage wasn’t bringing them happiness but felt that they were stuck in that lifestyle.
It sounds like you’ve acquired a sort of general audience. Not just a Catholic audience.
It is a general audience, and I find that what people respond to the most is when I talk about when I discovered that all the sex I had ever had brought me further away from marriage. The reason for that is that, this is all in John Paul the II’s, “Theology of the Body” as well, when you have sex with someone, the most self-sacrificing act that you can possible do with your body, you’re saying to your partner, I give my entire self to you, I give my breath to you, I give my sweat to you, I give what’s inside me to you, everything. So when I was doing that with a partner, even with someone I was in a loving relationship with and hoped to marry, we still had an easy out because we weren’t married.
I don’t care what they say about how unstable marriages are. If you haven’t actually taken those vows and signed that paper, it’s far easier to just say to your partner “see ya” than if you’re married. I knew that my partner and I had an out, and that I couldn’t pour out my entire self emotionally to him. And the way that we are called to do in marriage, you are called to not hold back anything in marriage. And so, I had to build up a shell between myself and my partner, I had to detach, even just detaching a little, so that I would be prepared in case we broke up, because if I poured myself out completely when we broke up I would be devastated.
It’s hard enough to break up when you haven’t done that. And so, every time that I had sex with person that I wasn’t in love with, I would have to build up more of a shell. So it was this terrible irony that this sex that was supposed to bring me closer to marriage, according to what the culture told to me--because what “Cosmo” and all these women’s magazines say that sex should open the relationship—this pre-marital sex actually taught me how to detach. So in becoming chaste, I had to learn how to—and this is true now when I go out on dates—how to not focus on building up a shell, how to learn to be emotionally vulnerable with people. And it’s really only possible to develop that when you're not shortcutting intimacy by having sex.
Comment on this article here, and read Astrid Storm's review of "The Thrill of the Chaste" here.
A contributing editor to SoMA, Bill McGarvey is the editor-in-chief of BustedHalo.com, where this interview originally appeared. Reprinted with permission of the author.
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