26 September 2019

Purity of heart

Gallery: visit to a lamp store in Hebron

Recently in Christian and ex-Christian blogs and social media feeds, "purity culture" is getting the shredding that it has apparently deserved for a long time. For two examples from the CBE Web site, here's a recent one, 5 purity culture myths; and an article from 2015, lies purity culture teaches women. (Also see Melanie Springer Mock's book If Eve Only Knew, which I reviewed here, for a deeper biblical and cultural analysis.)

I say "apparently," because that culture and its trail of pain was invisible to me for most of my life as a male Christian. As you know if you've been following this blog for a while, I grew up in an atheist family and didn't come to faith until I was 21. During the years since, most of the women I've talked with about faith belong to one of these groups: either they didn't come through that culture either, or it somehow worked for them, or they dealt with the residue more or less privately. Or they left the church. In any case, I was oblivious to their experience. Instead, I mostly noticed the healthier aspects of church as a multi-generational community and developed a sort of secondhand nostalgia for the churchy childhood I never had.

I remember just one incident in my years in Quaker ministry that should have caused me to be more curious. About twenty years ago, I went to a wedding at which, during the ceremony, the father of the bride paid tribute to his daughter and her "purity pledge." It struck me as peculiar that parents would announce such an intimate detail about their daughter -- but I had not heard about the underlying cultural phenomenon.

There's just one aspect of purity culture, as I am beginning to understand it, that makes me want to pause before burying it forever. For all its poisonous theology and its crass merchandising, did it once have, at its inception, a realistic concern for the integrity of human sexuality? The original impulse to defend "purity," however that impulse later went astray, seems to have a realism about it that continues to be worth considering.

Labeling sex as dangerous is a tactic that can go wrong in so many ways, but on some raw level it could contain at least two important and related insights:
  • Sex can become dangerously addictive, particularly when coupled with our primordial sin of objectifying one another; and addiction, in turn, blinds us to the harm we cause ourselves and others;
  • Sex and its risks and rewards are not just an individual concern but also a community concern, especially if that community is committed to putting Jesus at the center (which happens to be my Quaker definition of church). By that I don't mean that the details of our lives as sexual beings are proper grist for the church's rumor mill, but that guidance on healthy sexuality and boundaries, and the consequences of violations, are both proper subjects for the church's teaching and pastoral roles. Unhealthy secrecy and mystery can set up opportunities for predators.
Churches are not just confined to two choices -- either being utterly oblivious to their task of helping their members to become disciples in sexuality as well as in peace, simplicity, equality, stewardship, and so on; or binding their members with legalistic and gender-biased expectations along the lines of purity culture.

Here I want to submit to you a recent blog post by Eastern Orthodox writer Frederica Mathewes-Green, Why They Hate Us. I hope that you'll take a moment to read it and maybe tell me whether you agree with me that her defense of purity is very different from the defense represented by purity culture -- and much more helpful. Does she in fact contribute to a defense of discipleship in sexuality that isn't trapped in that all-or-nothing choice? Or is it the same old thing in a more elegant presentation?

There are a couple of sentences in her post that threatened to become a stumbling block for me:
Given all the varieties of sexual upheaval today, critics tend to focus on gay marriage, saying that it destroys traditional marriage. But in terms of sheer numbers, porn is overwhelmingly more destructive.
She never returns to refute or amplify the "critics" who say that gay marriage destroys traditional marriage, albeit less than pornography. Personally, I understand her defense of purity as totally applicable to any relationship that has integrity.

One last writer to mention on the subject of purity: Søren Kierkegaard, author of Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing. Kierkegaard keeps challenging us to face the challenge of living as free, responsible, God-dedicated individuals. Much of the book is dedicated to all the ways we can avoid that responsibility, outsourcing our morality, pleasure, intellect, to all the structures and powers ready and eager to control and smother us. Purity is a product of looking as directly into God's face as we can possibly dare; purity culture is something else entirely.

Anything I might say about Donald Trump and the impeachment process threatens to be out of date as soon as I push the "Publish" button. But in view of the "purity" discussion, I found something fascinating about Trump's characterization of the summary of his phone call with Zelensky as "absolutely perfect," even after its damning contents were available to the public. That call did not focus on Ukraine's geopolitical situation or the overarching priorities of U.S.-Ukrainian relations, but on Trump's own political interests, and his wretched, even threatening, expressions of contempt for the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

The fact that the U.S. president considers his performance self-evidently "perfect" forms a clear article of impeachment for which no further investigation is necessary. The thing speaks for itself. This is a president who is unable to understand, let alone choose, a responsible course of action corresponding to his obligations as head of the nation's executive branch and chief articulator of our foreign policy. The problem isn't fake news, it is a fake president.

Related posts on sexuality and discipleship:

What's so urgent about sex?

Trust, the first testimony, part two: now it gets personal

David Swartz on the Quaker legacy of the Vineyard's John Wimber.

Emily Couch wonders whether the "holy tandem" linking the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church is showing signs of weakening. And an update from RFE/RL's Matthew Luxmoore. Friday PS: Ksenia Luchenko, The Moscow Times.

Peter Pomerantsev left Russia to escape Putin's assault on reason.

Lynn Gazis-Sax: If the president can ask a foreign government to go after one particular citizen, why not others?

Philip Weiss: Palestinians now count for practically nothing in Israeli elections, but might they be the last hope for liberals in Israel?

Buddy Guy and Samantha Fish together!


Bill Samuel said...

It's interesting that Frederica Mathewes-Green notes that different types of anti-purity prevail in different ages, and their attractiveness begins to fade by itself. Surveys of sexual activity among American youth show that their sexual activity has been slowly, but steadily, declining. Promiscuity culture is gradually becoming seen as less attractive.

Johan Maurer said...

Hello, Bill. Thanks for commenting. Do you believe the explanation for the decrease in sexual activity is the reduced attractiveness of promiscuity culture? That might be, but I sense a more general malaise as well, exacerbated by digital culture and its ubiquitous tool, the mobile phone. Mathewes-Green's article mentions the theme of "loneliness" -- how might this be a factor? If loneliness once led to random hookups (and I don't know whether it did or not), that doesn't seem to be the solution people reach for now.