Every so often we do this around here at Everyone’s Entitled to Joe’s Opinion: Pick a topic and talk about it for several posts until we’ve beaten it to death and there’s nothing more to say about it.
If you haven’t guessed, we’re in the midst of a series about love. You can click the links above to catch up on all the past installments, which will be there for ever and ever or at least as long as there’s an internet.
If you are at all familiar with the sort of blogs where I hang out regularly, then you may have heard the term “post-evangelical wilderness”. For me, this “post-evangelical wilderness” is reality; it is where I have lived for the better part of the previous decade.
As the proud husband of an amazing imaginary wife and proud father of 2.6 amazing imaginary kids (which is to say: a single person), love is one area in which this post-evangelical thing becomes real for me. So in these posts I am turning a critical eye toward much of what evangelicalism says concerning love, sex, and dating.
Today we are going to look at purity culture as it exists in much of American evangelicalism.
Before we begin, I feel compelled to say this: Reserving sex for marriage is an important spiritual discipline of the Christian faith. There are very good reasons for this. Nothing I have to say in the remainder of this post should in any way be construed as a denial of this basic point.
Yet there are many places in evangelicalism where this idea of saving sex for marriage has sprouted wings and taken on a life of its own. Many of you probably grew up in youth groups where it was all about sex, and the not having of it. Many evangelical fringe movements, like the homeschooling movement that the Duggars are the public face of, are thoroughly saturated in this purity culture. In all of these places sex and the not having of it are elevated to the point of becoming the end-all, be-all of how you distinguish yourself as a Christian and how you live out your faith as a Christian. This crowds out anything else that can be said about God and reduces Jesus Christ to, at best, an outside observer, an assumed but unimportant presence.
The purity/courtship thing became all the rage in evangelicalism just a little over a decade ago when Josh Harris burst onto the scene with “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”. This spawned an endless amount of craziness on the subject: No longer is it sufficient to not jump into the sack before you get married; instead you must not even kiss, hold hands, or engage in any other physical display of affection before marriage. All of these are the on-ramps to a road which leads straight to sex and from which there are no off-ramps before that final destination. The courtship movement is now dead, thankfully–in most parts of evangelicalism, at least. But dead movements, like dead people, never just go away. They always leave behind a stinking, rotting corpse, which in this case is a generation of young and young-ish adults who have serious hangups about any sort of touching before marriage. In the present climate it is all but impossible to have a romantic relationship in evangelicalism without getting into all sorts of weirdness concerning this.
Let us not forget that the purity/courtship thing is very dehumanizing to women. In so much of the evangelical discussion on modesty and purity, it seems that the burden falls disproportionately on women. On the one hand, women are constantly bombarded with messages from the culture which tell them to dress in ways that will make them attractive to men. The culture tells women incessantly that they can never be thin enough, fit enough, well-endowed enough, etc. That is bad enough. The Church adds insult to injury here by sending the message that women’s bodies are a shameful thing which cause men to be dragged into sin by uncontrollable lustful passions, and that they are therefore responsible to dress in such a way as to keep their brothers in Christ on the straight and narrow.
That is not right, people.
Fellas: YOU DON’T GET A PASS ON THIS!!!!!!!!!!!!! You are accountable for your own sexual desires and how you act on them. When Jesus says that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matthew 5:28), he does not give men the option of blaming it on the what the women were wearing. Instead he says in the very next verse, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out! Better to enter life blind than be thrown into hell with both eyes” (my paraphrase).
And I’m not giving you that option either. For too long, evangelical culture has come down unjustifiably hard on women while giving men a pass on controlling their sexual passions. It is way past time to start holding men accountable in this regard. So you think her neckline is a little too revealing? TRY LOOKING AT HER FACE!!!!!!!!!!!! Don’t bitch and moan about how her revealing neckline is leading you into sin. Try showing some self-control for once instead of blaming women for leading you into sin.
This ties into the notion which is all over the place in evangelicalism that, for men at least, the battle against sexual sin is a lifelong battle which must be fought every day with reckless abandon. The underlying assumption here is that every thought pertaining to women and their physical appearance is sexual, potentially lustful–that, in other words, it is impossible to look at an attractive young woman on the street and think “Mmm…sexy”, without thinking in the very next breath “I wanna get with her”.
Believe it or not, people, there is no causal connection between “Mmm…sexy” and “I wanna get with her”. It is possible to see an attractive woman and think “Mmm…sexy”–and then just leave it at that. There is only a connection if we put it there. When we make “Mmm…sexy” into an on-ramp that leads inevitably to “I wanna get with her”, then of course it makes sense to speak of a lifelong battle against sexual sin. And it makes sense to dehumanize women by treating their bodies as shameful things that lead men directly into sin. And it sets men up for a lifetime of failure when they realize that they cannot get the thought out of their minds and are therefore sexual sinners of the most horrific kind. But if we would just step back and recognize that the one does not lead inevitably to the other, that “Mmm…sexy” does not lead inevitably to “I wanna get with her”, then there is no lifelong battle to be waged. There is freedom for women to be who they are, to be loved, affirmed, and celebrated by God and the church for all that they are, their bodies included. And there is freedom for men to enjoy the company of women and build intimate and satisfying relationships together.
Finally: 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.
As Christians, we have a story to tell. A story which the world around us desperately needs to hear. It is the story of Israel and her engagement with God, a story which comes to its unexpected climax in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and how those events have changed the lives of all whom Jesus has called to follow (that’s you and me, people). For too long the church in America has been telling alternate stories in which Jesus Christ is at best a marginal figure, an assumed but unimportant presence. The purity culture is one such alternate story, which is best forgotten as soon as possible. Let us stop telling these alternate stories and instead get back to the only story which has any power to bring life to a dying world that desperately needs to hear it.