A Few Thoughts on “Purity Culture”

I’ve been trying over the last couple years to keep in tension two things that I believe are equally true.

The first is: Many of evangelical culture’s ideas about sexuality, marriage, and relationships have borne bad fruit. I’ve heard from many people who, like me, were raised in a conservative evangelical context, but unlike me, were exposed to a grievously harsh and legalistic theology that shamed, alienated, and wounded them. Even though my own personal experience growing up in conservative evangelicalism was much better, these testimonies are not a conspiracy. There really is a heartbreaking legacy that many Christian churches passed onto the young people in their care, and it’s a legacy that has done incalculable damage to the kingdom.

Many of the men and women who suffered under this kind of legacy have given it a name. “Purity culture” may be something of a misnomer, but most people who were raised in it know what you’re talking about immediately when you mention it. Many who were preteens and teens in evangelical churches were an oppressive “purity culture” was practiced are now actively opposing it as adults, which, I think, is a testimony to how genuine the toxic effects have been.

The second truth I hold is this: Many (not all) of the critiques that are launched at “purity culture” could be (and often are) applied more generally to traditional evangelical doctrine writ large; thus, in many cases (not all), criticism of a legalistic “purity culture” within the church is also a meta-criticism of orthodox Christianity’s teaching on sexuality.

In other words, it is often difficult for me to read a blog post that excoriates evangelical purity culture, and discern where the criticism of legalism ends and the criticism of the Bible’s teachings on sex begin. Sometimes the testimony of a harsh, un-Christian, and even abusive church culture is so obvious that denouncing it is easy and essential. On the other hand, sometimes it is not clear to me that what the person is describing as oppressive “purity culture” is meaningfully different than what Christians have believed about gender, sex, and marriage for two thousand years. Thus, affirming the dangers of purity culture in that context may double as affirming the wrongness of, say, the Bible’s clear teaching about sex outside of marriage, or the need to flee sexual immorality, or the sinfulness of same-sex sexual relationships .

A good example of where I have difficulty untangling this knot is the angst that I see many people having over Joshua Harris’s “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” If you have no idea what that book is, feel free to stop reading now and move on to something more relevant. But if the title “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” triggers a lot of memories, feelings, and or even just interest in you, then you and I probably experienced much of the same “purity culture.” The short version of the story is that IKDG was a hugely influential book that advocated what some might call a “courtship” approach to Christian relationships, over and against what you might call a “dating” approach. Harris was a young, single Christian when he wrote the book, and his ideas–the dangers of “casual” dating, the need to “guard one’s heart” in all relationships, etc.–were widely approved and disseminated in conservative evangelical culture.

That was in the mid to late 90s. Now, a growing number of the teens whose youth groups made IKDG required reading are rethinking the book’s effect on them. To which I say: Me too! I’ve seen firsthand what an overly timid, emotionally paralyzed group of young Christian singles looks like, and it ain’t pretty. I remember reading IKDG and thinking that Harris oversimplified a lot, seemed to be speaking to too many situations at once, and honestly, just seemed to be laying down a law where a principle of wisdom would suffice.

So yes, I sympathize very much with the struggles of anyone whose worldview of dating and marriage was formed primarily by IKDG.

But after reading Ruth Graham’s piece on Harris and the book in Slate, I feel like I’ve once again been transported from empathy and agreement to untangling a knot. It’s really tough for me to read the bloggers Graham mentions and not feel like Harris and IKDG are really being used as a convenient lightning rod for what is actually a full-throated dispute with Christianity’s most basic teachings about sex and marriage.

I appreciate that Harris himself seems to be walking back some of the things he wrote in the book. That’s an admirable thing to do that most authors, evangelical or otherwise, wouldn’t do. But, as Graham notes matter-of-factly, the most vociferous critics of IKDG aren’t taking “I’m sorry” for an answer. They want something more from Harris, and from the “purity culture” at large. This is where the knot tightens: The more time I spend reading these young writers, the more I am convinced that the “Anti-Purity Culture” genre is about more than righting wrongs. It’s about righting the wrong faith.

Here’s what I mean. This is an excerpt from Graham’s piece, and it bubbles with the underlying tensions I’ve been describing

I was 17 when I Kissed Dating Goodbye came out, and everyone I knew in my upper-middle-class evangelical community in suburban Chicago was talking about it. For me as a teenager, the whole topic had a pleasing ratio of certainty to ambiguity. The foundational “fact” of purity culture was that having intercourse before marriage was wrong. There was a reassuring black-and-white quality to that stricture, with the promise of a juicy wedding-night reward for my self-control.

Everything about this paragraph is fascinating. The word “fact’ in scare-quotes (is having intercourse before marriage wrong…really?); the description of Harris’ belief in pre-marital abstinence as a “black-and-white stricture.” Note that Graham isn’t even talking about IKDG’s practical rules for dating, which are certainly open to critique. She’s talking about Harris’s underlying worldview of what sexuality is for. In this critique, the fundamental fault lines within Harris’s “purity culture” start here.

Why does this matter? It matters because confessional, orthodox evangelicals have a moral obligation to correct where the “purity culture” has abused, shamed, and alienated. We have a vested interest in holding the truth with love, in preaching a gospel where Jesus died and rose again, not so that our sex lives could be spotless but so that we could be accepted by God when they’re not. There is a moral imperative on evangelical Christians to teach what the Bible says about sexuality through a lens of redemption and wholeness, not through a lens of “Don’t mess this up or you’ll regret it.”

But at the same time, how can we do this if the voices setting the agenda are ones that fundamentally reject what Christianity teaches about the ultimate meaning of sex, marriage, gender, and even love? Healing those who were wounded by oppressive legalism and graceless shaming requires healing them with something, and that “something” has to be more than a narrative of autonomy and self-authentication. Trading in the purity culture for the hook-up culture isn’t a win.

We can do better than “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” Harris would agree. But we can’t do better if, seeking to restore what the locust destroyed, we plant snakes instead of bread. What Jesus teaches us about our bodies is beautiful, even if our stewardship of it has been anything but.


C.S. Lewis Explains When To Stop Believing a Doctrine

One thing I’ve read a lot lately from some contemporary progressive evangelical writers is this: If a particular belief makes relationships difficult, or makes people around you feel alienated or upset, you should probably stop believing that doctrine.

The logic goes like this. Jesus said we can judge a tree by its fruits. When people are excluded by or express personal frustration at a point of doctrine, we should be suspicious of that doctrine because of the bad fruit it is beginning to bear. On the flip side, we should evaluate doctrines for their truthfulness in large part by whether or not they bear good fruit–that is, by whether or not, by believing them, we become more friendly, more inclusive, and more ingratiating to the people around us.

But C.S. Lewis has some problems with this idea. And in his essay “Man Or Rabbit,” he explains why this sort of approach of doctrine isn’t a respectable one:

One of the things that distinguishes man from the other animals is that he wants to know things, wants to find out what reality is like, simply for the sake of knowing. When that desire is completely quenched in anyone, I think he has become something less than human. As a matter of fact, I don’t think any of you have really lost that desire. More probably, foolish preachers, by always telling you how much Christianity will help you and how good it is for society, have actually led you to forget that Christianity is not a patent medicine.

Christianity claims to give an account of facts–to tell you what the real universe is like. Its account of the universe may be true, or it may not, and once the question is really before you, then your natural inquisitiveness must make you want to know the answer. If Christianity is untrue, then no honest man will want to believe it, however helpful it might be; if it is true, every honest man will want to believe it, even if it gives him no help at all. [God in the Dock, p.108-109]

When we’re looking at doctrine, our ultimate question cannot be, “Is this helping us?” Rather our ultimate question must be, “Is this true?” That means at least two things.

First, it means that our doctrines of Christian belief are not meant primarily to help us live and work well with others on this earth, but to help us know and be known by God. We should indeed strive to live at peace with all men, and our love for other Christians is a sure mark of our Christianity. But this is much different from saying the essence of our Christianity is our relationships with other humans. Christianity is news from God first, before it is helpful to us.

Second, it means that we simply cannot judge a doctrine’s truthfulness by how seemingly helpful it is in our life. Truthfulness and helpfulness are not the same thing. To conflate the two is really a Darwinistic way of looking at Christianity, as if the “strong” doctrines that further social harmony are meant to survive and the “weak” doctrines that are antiquated or unpopular need to die off. The Bible is clear on many points of doctrine that our neighbors may not admire us for believing, or that may not actually help us win favor and friendship (even inside the church!)

But as Lewis reminded us, truth is valuable apart from its helpfulness. Truth is not merely a means to an end but an end itself. “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” (John 14:6)

What happened to the “Emergent Church”?

As far as I can tell it, the “emerging church” is dead.

The time of death is difficult to establish, much like the time of birth was. But there’s no question to me now that the whatever internal mechanisms the emerging church

"A Generous Orthodoxy," by Brian McLaren
“A Generous Orthodoxy,” by Brian McLaren

movement contained are no longer functioning. Its leadership seems largely to have abandoned its project. Compared to the flurry of publishing in the early to mid-2000s, the last few years of evangelical writing have hardly broached the topic. Perhaps most significantly, its most popular champions have almost uniformly given up the pretense to reforming evangelicalism and are now either squarely in the mainline Protestant tradition or else out of the game altogether.

If you type in EmergentVillage.com in your browser, you won’t be reading the latest thoughts of postmodern evangelical theology. THAT site apparently doesn’t exist anymore. EmergentVillage.com is now a home decor shop, which is probably not as ironic as it feels. There is indeed a blog with the name “Emergent” in it at Patheos Progressive Christian, but the site seems to be operated mainly by a few non-clerical mainline Protestants, and–if I may add–doesn’t seem to generate much traffic.

The “emergent movement,” as keynoted by men like Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones and Rob Bell seems to have little to zero traction. What’s fascinating about these men is the way their recent intellectual output seems to fold neatly into categories that they fiercely protested being placed in. McLaren of all of them seems to have maintained his “conversational” tone. Pagitt and Jones continue to produce their own content, yet neither of them seem to have much use for the emergent movement anymore. Jones will occasionally highlight something about it, but his mentions nowadays feel more occasional than regular (and almost never venture beyond his personal blog page). There’s very little focused attention like the kind that was given to the movement a few years ago.

Bell’s case is more interesting. Of the four Emergent pastors I mentioned, Bell is by far the most well-known. He went from pastoring a several thousand-member church in Grand Rapids to becoming something like Oprah’s official spiritual guru, landing his own television show and accompanying Oprah on her massive, pseudo-sacramental speaking tours. That’s quite a turn, of course, for a pastor whose theology embraced Emergent principles like authenticity and community. I wonder how many Emergent teachers would have identified Bell’s current trajectory as a desirable one back in Emergent’s heyday; I would guess very few.

Doctrinally, it’s interesting to me that a movement that placed so much emphasis on “conversation” and positioned itself as an inter-evangelical dialogue has become solidly progressive in its ethics and soteriology. As Scot McKnight pointed out in an important lecture on the Emergent Church in 2006, the movement distinguished itself largely by its refusal to be “pinned down” on areas of theology and draw meaningful doctrinal lines. Yet between Bell, McLaren, and Jones–and I think its fair to sum up the most active remnants of Emergent in terms of those three men–all of them have affirmed the goodness of LGBT sexual relationships, have repudiated penal substitutionary atonement, and have explicitly distanced themselves from most traditional evangelical camps.

Bell and Jones have been especially aggressive in this. Bell was quoted recently as predicting that churches that didn’t embrace same-sex marriage would “continue to be irrelevant” and dismissed those churches that used “letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense.” In November of 2013, Tony Jones used his blog to “call for schism” in evangelicalism, urging his readers to separate immediately from any church that didn’t allow women to be pastors.

Now the important thing about those two comments is this: Even if you agree with both sentiments, it is unquestionable that the absolutist and dogmatic nature of those comments clangs loudly against the kind of gentle, “let’s talk about this” tone that characterized much of Emergent literature for many years. If nothing else, we can conclude one thing from all this: The Emergent Church movement has largely folded into a rigidly doctrinal camp with specific theological boundaries that match up well with mainline Protestantism.