These past several weeks there have been more posts than usual about sex and the dominant purity culture in modern evangelicalism among those I read. If you’ve not read any of the posts, here is a sampling.
- Virginity: New and Improved! and Am I Being “Soft on Sin”? by Elizabeth Esther
- when is should be about love and when purity culture hurts men, too by Preston Yancey
- News Flash: You Probably Won’t Marry a Virgin by Joy Bennet
- I am damaged goods by Sarah Bessey
- The privilege of purity by Sarah Moon
- The Case for Early Marriage?: Confusing Is and Ought by Dianna E. Anderson
As those who have read some of what I’ve shared can probably imagine, I have a very hard time relating to the evangelical purity culture. I’m aware of it, of course. I’ve spent the last twenty years in a Southern Baptist church and I’m neither blind nor deaf. But I do not and have never understood purity culture. Very little I’ve heard anyone say about sex or marriage in that context makes any sense whatsoever to me. (And some of it, like the father/daughter purity balls outright creeps me out.) But I think a few things have become clear to me and I’ll try to touch on them in this post. I doubt I’ll be able to do more than scratch the surface, but that’s a start, at least. I would also recommend Fr. Stephen Freeman’s recent post, The Beauty of Truth and the Existence of God.
I’ve written elsewhere about the mystery of evil. On the one hand, evil is not a creation of God and as such cannot be said to exist in the same way creation exists. On the other hand, all of us who have experienced and witnessed evil know it is very real, indeed. But I’ve noticed an error underlying much of evangelicalism and its purity culture in particular. Evangelicals tend to treat sin and evil as though they were synonymous or congruent categories. I don’t believe that’s true. Moreover, if you start from that premise, it renders much of the Christian narrative unintelligible.
Instead of congruent categories, I see sin and evil as overlapping circles in a Venn diagram. There is evil that is directly related to sin, there is sin that is not evil (and could even be considered beautiful and good), and there is evil with no direct, causal relationship to sin. Frankly, the black and white, non-overlapping categories of “good” and “sin” that seem to dominate purity culture look more like the categories of Law and Chaos in Michael Moorcock’s fantasy novels than anything from the Christian narrative.
But before we even start to categorize sexual activity, let’s begin with its created nature. We are embodied spiritual beings created by God and as with all of God’s creation, we are fundamentally a good creation. God cannot create anything that is not good. Sex is part of our embodied, spiritual existence and is a creation of God. Sex is good. That is its nature.
Sex can be perverted into evil. Evil is always a perversion of the good rather than something self-existent. How can sex be perverted into evil? I would suggest that any time it is used to take actions foreign to the nature of God, abrogating the will of another and turning the other into an object of consumption, sex has been perverted into something evil. Rape is evil. An adult using a child for their own sexual gratification is evil. Treating another human being as an object for your pleasure is evil.
But sex itself is good.
Even when, from a Christian perspective, it might be sin.
After all, what is sin? Sin is missing the mark and Christians proclaim that the mark is Christ. In terms of sexuality, there are two such paths Christians have upheld. There is the ascetic path of a celibate life. Paul and Jesus walked this path and Christians have followed in their footsteps ever since. And there is the ascetic path of Christian marriage. But what is Christian marriage? We see that in Ephesians 5. Christian marriage is a mystery or sacrament and properly lived out is an icon of Christ and the Church. (Note that vows to each other are a rather late addition to Christian marriage ceremonies.)
And that should make the distinction between sin and evil clear. When our marriages fall short of an icon of Christ and the Church (however that may look) we have missed the mark. That is sin. But it is not evil. The marriage can still be either good and working for our salvation or evil and pulling us to destruction. But it can “miss the mark” along the way and remain good.
Similarly, while a sexual relationship outside of marriage may “miss the mark” it may also be for our salvation. And the relationship itself can still be good. Or it can be unhealthy (another category that is neither good nor evil which I would interpose). Or it can be evil. But its category is independent of the fact that it “misses the mark”.
And I believe this is another area in which evangelicalism itself can miss the mark. God is always working for our salvation. That’s the whole point behind the Incarnation. And salvation does not mean some future disembodied existence akin to Plato’s Happy Philosophers as many seem to imagine. Christ has come to rescue us. Now. As embodied spiritual beings. From all that oppresses us.
And that always involves a spectrum. God is not a distant figure wagging his finger sternly at us when we step off the straight and narrow. Wherever we find ourselves, Christ is always there with us — even when we do not acknowledge him. So when we’re in the ditch, Christ is there and he always says the same thing. Well, here we are. And from where we are now, this is the first step out. Life is a constant continuum of movement toward God and true existence and away from God toward non-existence.
As a teen parent twice over, I’ve been a parent practically my entire life. All but one of my children are now adults and my granddaughter is older than I care to face. Most parents wish good for their children. Let’s say a child was spiraling out of control. It could be anything. Alcoholism. Drugs. Gambling. Eating disorder. Whatever the cause, you could see it as their parent but nothing you tried helped stop the spiral. How desperate would you be?
But then your child develops a relationship with another person. That person stops the spiral. They rescue your child. And together things get steadily better. Perhaps they even have a child together. As a parent, do you obsess over their marital status or lack thereof? Or do you love the person who helped save your child? Do you consider the relationship evil or good?
Why would a God who loves us all and is working to rescue us be any less of a loving parent?
By the time my wife and I met, I would say my sexual experiences and relationships had ranged from unhealthy to evil. I can’t remember ever being the sort of “innocent” many people seem to have in mind when talking about children. But I was … vulnerable and in some ways broken. And those built on each other. Some preyed on my vulnerability and in other cases I tended to gravitate toward other broken people. I can safely say that my relationship with my wife is the first one I would describe as unequivocally good — well before we were married. She saved me. And she helped save my older son. I don’t know where either of us would be today without her. And she was not without her own past, so I hope there was at least something of a mutual aspect.
My wife was a lapsed Catholic and I despised Christianity when we met, so Christianity wasn’t in our consciousness at all. But I still believe Christ was with us even when we did not see or acknowledge him. And our relationship was both good and given to us for our salvation. Of course it missed the mark. We not only couldn’t see the target, we weren’t even aware a target existed. But our relationship was good from the beginning. Nothing will ever convince me otherwise.
I’m reminded of something a speaker did when my younger son was in our church’s youth group (and I was a volunteer youth leader). It was one of those weekend events focusing to a significant degree on sex. At one point she did an illustration where sheets of colored tissue paper were glued together on a white poster poster. When they were peeled off, there were many colored pieces left behind. She related that to what happens when you have sex as though it was a bad thing.
Of course, that’s not what happens when you have sex with someone. That’s what happens when you build a relationship — sexual or non-sexual — with another human being. We are relational beings and when you invest in someone else, you leave your mark on them and they leave theirs on you.
And though it can be perverted in unhealthy and evil ways, that’s fundamentally a good thing. Pause and think for a minute of all the people who have helped shape the person you are today. Sex is just another potential facet in those relationships.
An informed, consensual, healthy sexual relationship that strengthens and reinforces our humanity and is not destructive to ourselves or others will always be good even when it misses the mark. Trying to make the two mutually exclusive is a false dichotomy.