Two Glimpses of Sex and the Evangelical Purity Culture

Today we are going to talk about sex.

The first item I wish to direct your attention to comes to us by way of the New York Times.  It is a video animation of a recent “Modern Love” column by Arla Knudsen in which she recounts her personal journey out of evangelical youth-group purity culture.  For your viewing pleasure I have linked the video below:

There is much in this story that will trigger the ire of the evangelical “Defenders of the Faith” crowd.  To be sure, there is much to be ashamed of:  he used her as a one-night hookup, and by her own admission, she used him as an accomplice to her rebellion against the sexual ideology of her youth group.

But let us take another look at this.  Let us use it as a mirror to reflect back to us how the outside world, and especially those leaving our midst, see us and our purity culture.

Let us start with an important question:  Where is God in all of this?  Where is Jesus Christ in all of this?  The video is entitled “Losing My Religion”, but Knudsen’s story isn’t so much about walking away from religion as it is about walking away from a particular evangelical tribe and its sexual ideology.  Religion has at best a marginal role to play in this story–an assumed but unimportant presence.

How much more so with God and Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ is the one whom all this is for–our fixation with sexual purity to the point of obsession is all about honoring the command of God to reserve sex for marriage.  Do not think that anything I have to say today is against sexual purity; reserving sex for marriage is an essential discipline of the Christian faith and there are very good reasons for this.  But in so many evangelical communities, sexual purity is the thing that moves the needle and Jesus Christ is at best an outside observer, an assumed but unimportant presence.

How much of our evangelical culture and practice has reduced Jesus Christ, the very center of our faith, to an assumed but unimportant presence observing from the outside?

The main thing in Knudsen’s youth group (and I would be willing to bet that a lot of you came from youth groups that were similar in this regard) was sex, and the not having of it.  This was elevated to a point where it became THE way you distinguished yourself as a Christian and lived out your faith as a Christian.  Not having sex was how you experienced God and how you showed yourself faithful to God.  This crowded out anything else which could have been said about God or about Jesus Christ, thereby resulting in a stunted, inadequate faith which fully deserves to be walked away from.

Next, let us look at this piece from the blog Love, Joy, Feminism entitled “How Treating Sexual Thoughts as “Sin” Undermines Relationships“.  The author recounts her experience growing up evangelical, expecting to meet a man who would struggle with lustful thoughts so badly that he would meet an accountability partner.  Then she met and married a man who did not identify as a Christian, which was asking for trouble because he would not even be trying to guard against lustful thoughts.  Early on she would grill him about his thought life, trying to ensure that his thoughts did not stray toward other women.  But then she realized that obsessing over his sexual thoughts was getting in the way of their marriage.  In time, she learned to let go and relax.

Do you know what I’ve learned over the past half decade? When you stop obsessing over sex, it’s really not that big of a deal. There is no lifelong battle to be waged. It turns out that the guys who tend to be obsessed with sex are the ones obsessed with not thinking about it.

Think about that:  The guys who are most obsessed with sex are the ones obsessed with NOT thinking about it.  What’s wrong with not worrying about thinking “lustful” thoughts about other women and using that energy to instead build an intimate and satisfying relationship with your partner and enjoy life together?  Believe it or not, it is possible to look at a woman on the street and think “Mmm, sexy”–and then just leave it at that.  There is no causal connection which leads of necessity from “Mmm, sexy” to “I wanna get with her”.  There is only a connection if we put it there.  But if we maintain that there is no difference between “Mmm, sexy” and “I wanna get with her”, then that sets men up for a world of failure when they realize that despite their best efforts they cannot get the thought out of their minds and are therefore horrific sexual sinners.  If it comes to that, then actual cheating will not look all that different.

Again, where is God in all of this?  Where is Jesus Christ in all of this?  If we make sexual purity into the primary means by which we identify ourselves as people of God and show ourselves faithful to God, then there is a lifelong battle to be waged.  One which the vast majority of guys will probably lose.  If sexual purity is the end-all, be-all of how you live out your faith, then purity culture and purity rings make perfect sense.

But again, where is God in all of this?  Where is Jesus Christ in all of this?  Our faith does have things to say about sex and we need to talk about that at some point.  But if we have made Jesus Christ the center of our faith, there will be space.  Space to explore all that God is and has for us beyond the purity culture.  Space to be healthy, balanced creatures who think sexual thoughts but give them the balance they deserve.

Of course this flies in the face of much of what a purity-obsessed evangelicalism has to say about sex.  But just think what a happier and healthier place evangelicalism could be if we could just get this right.