Do Christians idolize virginity?

'IMG_6071sala-urcu' photo (c) 2010, Jorge Mejía peralta - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Several recent posts from some of favorite bloggers raise this question in powerful ways. I thought today would be a good day to share them, as we continue our series on Sexuality & The Church.

The first is from Elizabeth Esther, who writes:

“It took me a long time to realize I idolized virginity. I kept saying I was just promoting virtue and chastity and purity! Nothing wrong with pushing purity, right? Nothing wrong with Being Good!
Like other Christians, I talked about the “sacrifice” of abstinence. There were princess-themed books about saving our first kiss. Some of us wore purity rings and made pledges to our Daddies not to have sex until we’re married. Ultimately, we implied that a woman’s inherent worth and dignity could be measured by whether or not a man has touched her.
I understand why we do this. Christians are alarmed by what we see as a sexually permissive society. America no longer seems to share our values. This scares us. The less sacred sex seems to the broader culture, the more sacred we insist on making it among fellow Christians.
The intention might be good but over-emphasizing the specialness of virginity has unintended, harmful consequences.
We start by making ridiculous promises to our daughters. We tell them that “sexual purity” is a guarantor of a more intimate married sex life. We tell them that if they “lose” their purity, they will never really get it back. Oh, yes. They can be forgiven. But. You know. They’re damaged goods.
Christians say that the world objectifies women through immodest dress and a permissive sexual ethic. However, by idolizing sexual purity and preoccupying ourselves with female modesty and an emphasis on hyper-purity, Christians actually engage in reverse objectivization. 
Yes, we Christians say, we believe in the inherent dignity of all human life. But we especially believe in it if that human life is virginal, wears a purity ring and bleeds on her wedding night.
This is harmful and, dare I say, idolatrous. Read the full post.

The second comes from the always-brilliant Sarah Bessey, who wrote a post for A Deeper Story entitled “I Am Damaged Goods”:

Over the years the messages melded together into the common refrain: “Sarah, your virginity was a gift and you gave it away. You threw away your virtue for a moment of pleasure. You have twisted God’s ideal of sex and love and marriage. You will never be free of your former partners, the boys of your past will haunt your marriage like soul-ties. Your virginity belonged to your future husband. You stole from him. If – if! – you ever get married, you’ll have tremendous baggage to overcome in your marriage, you’ve ruined everything. No one honourable or godly wants to marry you. You are damaged goods, Sarah.”
If true love waits, I heard, then I have been disqualified from true love.
In the face of our sexually-dysfunctional culture, the Church longs to stand as an outpost of God’s ways of love and marriage, purity and wholeness.
And yet we twist that until we treat someone like me – and, according to this research, 80% of you are like me –  as if our value and worth was tied up in our virginity.
We, the majority non-virgins in the myopic purity conversations,  feel like the dirty little secret, the not-as-goods, the easily judged example.  In this clouded swirl of shame, our sexual choices are the barometer of our righteousness and worth. We can’t let any one know, so we keep it quiet, lest any one discover we were not virgins on some mythic wedding night. We don’t want to be the object of disgust or pity or gossip or judgment. And in the silence, our shame – and the lies of the enemy – grow.

She concludes:

No matter what that preacher said that day, no matter how many purity balls are thrown with sparkling upper-middle-class extravagance, no matter the purity rings and the purity pledges, no matter the judgemental Gospel-negating rhetoric used with the best of intentions, no matter the “how close is too close?” serious conversations of boundary-marking young Christians, no matter the circumstances of your story, you are not disqualified from life or from joy or from marriage or from your calling or from a healthy and wonderful lifetime of sex because you had – and, heaven forbid, enjoyed – sex before you were married.
Darling, young one burning with shame and hiding in the silence, listen now: Don’t believe that lie. You never were, you never will be, damaged goods.

A-freakin’-men is all I have to say to that. You really must read the entire post.

Similarly, Carolyn Custis James recently wrote a piece for the Huffington Post entitled “Why Virginity is Not the Gospel,” to which Dianna Anderson added a helpful critique.

I wrote about my experience with "True Love Waits" in A Year of Biblical Womanhood. As you will notice, this is the context in which the infamous v-word appears! 

I signed my first abstinence pledge when I was just fifteen. I’d been invited by some friends to a fall youth rally at the First Baptist Church, and in the fellowship hall one night, the youth leader passed around neon blue and pink postcards that included a form letter to God promising to remain sexually abstinent until marriage. We had only a few minutes to add our signatures, and all my friends were signing theirs, so I used the back of my metal chair to scribble my name across the dotted line before marching to the front of the room to pin my promise to God and my vagina onto a giant corkboard for all to see. The youth leader said he planned to hang the corkboard in the hallway outside the sanctuary so that parents could marvel at the seventy-five abstinence pledges he’d collected that night. It was a pretty cheap way to treat both our bodies and God, come to think of it. Studies suggest that only about 12 percent of us kept our promise.

I have a feeling this is going to be a hot topic in the months and years to come, and we will be discussing it at length as part of series, though later in the year. 

What do you think? Does the Christian culture idolize virginity? How should our narratives surrounding sex, virginity, and purity change, particularly as they concern women? 

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Torn, Chapters 7-11: Internalizing the Culture War

Torn-book.jpeg

As part of our series on sexuality and the Church, today we continue our discussion around Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate by Justin Lee.

This week, we’re talking about Chapters 7-11, in which Justin describes how Christians responded to his sexuality.

Chapter 7 – “That The Man Should Be Alone”

After his experience with ex-gay ministries, (which we discussed last week), Justin had to confront the reality that he would likely never become straight. This left him with three options, as he saw it: the first was to hide his same-sex attraction and marry a woman in spite of his lack of attraction to her, which he felt would be unfair to both himself and the woman in such a relationship; the second was to pursue a relationship with another guy, which he had trouble reconciling with what he’d been taught regarding the Bible’s teachings on homosexuality; and the third option was to remain celibate, which left Justin with the prospect of being alone for the rest of his life.

“I don’t have the words to convey how much this questions weighed on me,” writes Justin. “I knew I couldn’t continue calling myself a Christian unless I was willing to accept whatever God had planned for me, even if it was a lie of loneliness…After agonizing over the decision I knew I had to make, I finally reached the inescapable conclusion: I had to follow God, whatever that might mean. I knelt down in my bedroom and I made a promise to God… Dear God, I prayed, I don’t want to be celibate. I don’t want to be alone. I want to fall in love with someone and spend my life with that person. But even more than that, I want to serve You. And if Your will is for me to celibate my entire life, I will do it. Please show me what You want for my life, and help me to do Your will, whatever it is.” (p. 104)

Justin says this moment marked a turning point in his journey. He felt a wave of peace rush over him. He didn’t have any answers right away, but he knew that “whatever the future might hold, I was committed to endure whatever God called me to. And God was going to be with me.” (p. 105)

Chapter 8 – “South Park Christians”

Justin knew that God would be faithful to him, but the Church, he said, was another story.

Recalling an episode in “South Park” in which Stan discovers his dog Sparky is gay and responds by simply shouting “Don’t be gay!” again and again at the poor dog, Justin says that most of the Christians in his life were “South Park” Christians who responded to his agonizing questions about his future with a flippant, “Don’t be gay!”

“The Christians I knew typically assumed it was all a matter of choice, so admitting the truth about my feelings only subjected me to ostracism, misunderstandings, and the brand of ‘unrepentant sinner,’” he recalls.

When Justin told one of his pastors that he didn’t think the ex-gay ministries could make him straight, the pastor told him that as long as Justin remained celibate, he was welcome to continue worshipping with the congregation, but that if Justin entered a same-sex relationship, he would be asked to leave. Justin had never even considered that he might be kicked out of the congregation, so his pastor’s words stung. The pastor then encouraged him to return to the ex-gay ministries.

One of Justin’s friend contacted Focus on the Family on Justin’s behalf; another bought him porn, hoping it would make him straight; still others questioned Justin’s commitment to his faith, and many approached him with contention, eager to debate the Bible with him.

When Justin became involved with a campus ministry, the reactions among his classmates were largely the same. When Justin shared his struggle, they were kind, but tended to turn every conversation into a debate over Scripture and homosexuality. One girl even asked Justin to “leave his agenda at home,” and respect the group’s views on homosexuality. “My agenda?” Justin thought. “No one had ever accused me of having an ‘agenda’ before. The only ‘agenda’ I knew I had was my day planner…”

Time and again, the message Justin received from the Christians in his life was simply, “Don’t be gay!”

Chapter 9 – “The Poisoned Yeast”

Still, Justin loved his evangelical brothers and sisters, knowing them to be good, generous people who were passionate about the gospel and eager to do the right thing.  The reason these good people responded to him so inappropriately was because of misinformation, he says.

Justin recalls a frustrating conversation with an evangelical leader named Mark who tried to convince Justin that his homosexuality must be the result of faulty parenting, or some sort of childhood trauma, because there was no concrete scientific “proof” that biology contributed to same-sex attraction. When Justin noted that there was no scientific evidence to support the theory that homosexuality was the result of bad parenting, Mark had no idea how to respond. Mark went on to suggest that perhaps Justin was gay because he was raised Southern Baptist and not given opportunities for artistic expression which created a form of defensive detachment! Justin had to stifle a laugh. Mark then continued to posit that Justin must be gay because his alopecia areata (a hereditary condition that makes Justin lose his hair) gave him a “traumatic” childhood. But Justin insisted that, in spite of some teasing here and there, he had a happy childhood.  But the guy wouldn’t give up! He was determined to point to a trauma that had made Justin gay and that could be fixed with therapy.

“It didn’t really matter to me what Mark thought of me,” Justin writes. “I would likely never see him again…It was Mark’s influence that bothered me. No matter what I said, Mark was going to keep going to groups like this one and telling thousands upon thousands of Christians that being gay was caused by faulty parenting, that it only led to misery, and that anyone who wanted to become straight could…And they would pass those beliefs on to their children and other Christians, who would act upon that misinformation whenever they encountered gay people.” (133)

“A little bit of misinformation, like yeast or poison, can work its way through the entire church,” Justin writes. “contaminating an important force for good in the world and turning it into something doing damage. With the church contaminated by misinformation, people feel that they have two choices: either accept the church and the misinformation along with it, or reject the whole thing.” (134)

Justin determines to participate in a third option: fighting the misinformation.

Chapter 10 – “Faith Assassins”

In this chapter, Justin discusses with refreshing charity the ways in which the reputation of Christianity, particularly evangelical Christianity, is damaged by this misinformation and by a preoccupation with waging culture wars against the LGBT community.

“Well-intentioned Christians, believing that being gay is a sinful choice that can be easily changed, speak and act accordingly,” he writes, “recommending ex-gay ministries and fighting against cultural acceptance of homosexuality. To those who know better, this comes across as hurtful and unkind.” (p. 139)

This I something we have discussed at length here on the blog in the past, (see "How to Win a Culture War and Lose a Generation") so I won’t spend much more time on it here. Justin does a fantastic job addressing it in the book, which I recommend reading in its entirety.

At the end of this chapter, he laments over the divide between Christians who advocate “God’s Truth” on one hand and “Love” on the other when “in the Bible, Truth and Love are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other. God’s Truth is all about God’s Love for us and the Love we ought to have for one another. We are being untrue to that Truth if we treat people unlovingly. And we are missing out on the full extent of that Love if we try to divorce it from Ultimate Truth…We Christians must work to repair this schism in the church. If the church is to survive much longer in our culture, it must teach and model the Christianity of Jesus—a faith that combines Truth and Love in the person of Jesus Christ, revealed to us in the Bible and lived out in the everyday lives of his followers.” (p. 147)

Chapter 11 – “The Other Side”

On the other hand, Justin found himself struggling to fit in with other gay people. When some of his gay friends convinced him to visit a gay club, he felt totally out-of-place. Even many of the gay Christians he knew seemed uninterested in engaging what the Bible said about sexuality, which Justin was eager to do. Others, angered by their experience with the Church, left the faith altogether. 

Justin joined a LGBT club on his campus and begins taking more leadership in it. What he discovered as he got to know more gay people was this:  “The one big thing the gays and the Christians had in common was that they both believed in a Gays-vs.-Christians cultural dynamic. They might not all phrase it that way, and some might limit their antipathy to a particular subset of the other group—evangelicals, say, instead of all Christians—but at the end of the day, belief in this dichotomy was so strong on both sides that even those of us who should have known better, the gay Christians, had bought into it.” (p. 156)

This created a false dichotomy that forced many of Justin’s friends into a horrible choice: “Would you be a good person, or ben an honest person? Deny what you believe about God, or deny what you know about yourself? Condemn yourself to a lifetime of faking it, or condemn yourself to an eternity in hell?”

Justin hits the nail on the head with this:

“It wasn’t that there weren’t any gay Christians to begin with. It was that in a Gays-vs.-Christians culture, everyone had to pick a side.” (p. 157)

Feeling torn, Justin fell into a deep depression.

“During the day, I daydreamed about ways to kill myself,” he recalls. “I didn’t really want to die, but I couldn’t see any future in this world where I could possibly be happy. I felt like I was staying alive out of obligation to God,  not because I had anything at all to live for.”

Justin finally goes to see a counselor. In therapy, he realized this: “My depression wasn’t about a chemical imbalance. It wasn’t even really about my loneliness. Without realizing it, I had internalized the culture war, and it was tearing me apart inside. I couldn’t deny my faith, I couldn’t deny the truth about myself, and I couldn’t keep living two separate lives.”

His story picks up in the next Chapter 12, which we will discuss next week, along with Justin’s thoughts on what the Bible says about homosexuality.

Questions for Discussion…

1. What sort of misinformation regarding homosexuality have you encountered in the Church? 

2. For LGBT folks (and friends & family): What sort of experiences have you had with Christians—good, bad, and ugly? Can you relate to Justin’s experience of “internalizing the culture wars”? 

As usual, I’ll keep a close eye on the comment section after this post. I’ll have to close the thread after 24 hours, just because it becomes too much to monitor, especially when I’m travelling. Thanks so much for understanding!

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Love: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

[Trigger warning: abuse, rape]

Yesterday’s post seems to have struck a nerve, so I’m having a hard time keeping up with all the comments rolling in. But one commenter, Kat R., made an important point that I don’t want us to overlook. 

Responding to the kind of theology that suggests hurricanes and earthquakes and school shootings happen because an angry God has lost his temper and is unleashing his wrath and discipline on people whose sin nature makes them incapable of understanding such actions as loving, Kat R. writes: 

“…When Christians are told that God is love, but that "love" looks and feels like the opposite of what we know love to be (it's angry, it's emotionally unstable, it's violent), it's not a far journey to make for some leaders in churches to ALSO claim that their angry, unstable, and violent actions are "loving". This is how abuse happens.”

Kat is right. I’ve seen this play out time and again—not only in church situations, but also in marriages and homes. When love is stripped of its most basic meaning for the purposes of theological accommodation (“your childhood abuse/ cancer/ rape/ poverty is just God’s loving discipline in your life”), love loses all meaning whatsoever and becomes totally relativized. 

I’ve heard some theologians explain it like this: God is like a father, disciplining his children. Children don’t always realize that a parent’s rules and enforcements are for their own good. Similarly, God’s “discipline” (which they associate with natural disasters, violence, tragedy, rape, abuse, etc.) may not make sense to us now, but it’s part of God’s good plan. 

This metaphor makes sense at first blush, but it’s one thing to say that a parent may send a child to the corner for the purpose of loving discipline, quite another to say that a parent may rape and abuse a child for the purpose of loving discipline. When we cast God as an angry and abusive father whose actions we don’t understand as loving because our sinful minds are incapable of grasping true love, and when we say the logic of this paradigm should trump our intuitive revulsion to it, we’re veering into "orthodox alexithymia" territory fast. 

Eric Fry added this:

If "God is Love" is something that cannot be fathomed by our emotional understanding of love, then that verse has little meaning outside of any context people wish to place upon it. And placing a context upon 'love' that lies outside of our emotional understanding diminishes Christ's loving sacrifice…. Our deep appreciation and gratitude for that sacrifice can come only out of our own emotional understanding of love. The 'change of heart' of repentance can be only a shallow thing if it comes solely from our intellect.”

And Captivated Photo said:

“I always think of the 1 Cor 13 "The Love Chapter" as a chapter explaining Love or God as love to us. I replace the word Love with God and therefore begin to understand that God is patient. God is kind. God is not easily angered...etc. It's simplistic but it helps remind me who God is and how Love really looks.” 

I like that. 

So what is love? 

It’s exactly what we know it to be. 

 Love is patient.

Love is kind. 

Love does not envy. 

Love does not boast. 

Love is not proud. 

Love does not dishonor others.

Love is not self-seeking.

Love is not easily angered.

Love keeps no record of wrongs.

 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 

Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails.

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Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.