Magazine article The Christian Century

Pucker Up

Magazine article The Christian Century

Pucker Up

Article excerpt

A BOOK BY Michael Philip Penn titled Kissing Christians is attracting attention. There is some tease in this earnest scholarly work, such as "Chapter One: Kissing Basics." But, alas, there are only slight references to "eroticism." Apparently the early Christian kiss was not erotic, even though the kissers interpreted the biblical command to "Greet one another with a holy kiss" to mean a kiss on the mouth.

Segue to the contemporary scene, where liturgical churches have retained or restored a mild version of this greeting in the form of the "passing of the peace." When Roman Catholics were told to re-include this in their rites, they resisted. The late Dan Herr, a salty editor friend, told how, in response to the priestly command, he turned meekly to the woman behind him. Her arms akimbo, her face a scowl, she said, "I don't go for that sh--."

One would think the literal-minded Protestant churches would restore the greeting with a holy kiss, because the command is clearly and apostolically voiced or, rather, scriptured, a half dozen times in the New Testament. But literalism goes only so far.

Kissing Christians begins with a quotation from Clement of Alexandria: "There are those who do nothing but make the church resound with the kiss." He worried about the "impure kiss, full of poison, feigning holiness." Penn admits that his discovery that "early Christian men and women kissed each other on the lips forced [him] to reevaluate [his] image of the ancient church." He assiduously tracked the kiss, "one of the most prevalent features of early Christianity," finding over 1,000 references to it in ancient writings.

Further, he found that kissing-on-the-mouth was encouraged among the faithful but discouraged with catechumens, visitors and outsiders, since--and this is his thesis kissing was a boundary-setting act. Some people were ruled out by kissing and some were ruled in. …

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