Late 90s purity culture has come under some scrutiny of late, and that’s putting it mildly. Discontent with “True Love Waits” brand came to my attention in the form of an unexpected string of editorials calling out Josh Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye for causing people to feel shame about their sexual desires.
It seems that little good can be said, publicly at least, about that movement encouraging youngsters to abstain from sex before marriage. And yet the Christian teaching on the matter has not changed. Harris and others are being written about as though they were strange mutators of a more sensible consensus on sexual ethics. But by my lights, they were simply doing what Christian teachers have always done in any age: restate Christian teaching in contemporary language imbued by a sense of urgency and then give a practical program for how one might hold to those teachings in the course of everyday life.
Harris’s arresting initial image is singled out for special attention: a bride is brought to the altar on her wedding day and but her groom is joined by other women with whom he has had sexual experiences. He says “they don’t mean anything to me now but I’ve given part of my heart to each of them.” The image seems meant to suggest how sexual experiences stay with you as emotional and physical baggage. Harris’s critics point to the image as restrictive, uncompromising, and negative toward people who have had sexual experiences before of marriage. Ruth Graham in Slate laces her comments with a bit of self-effacing embarrassment for getting caught up in the whole movement at the tender age of 17.
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. As for everything short of intercourse, I spent hours with my youth-group friends applying Talmudic analysis to the question “How far is too far?” It was an excuse to talk about sex and imagine we were really talking about God.
One might take a moment to parse Graham’s memories for how things might have turned out differently without revising traditional Christian teaching on sexual ethics. Put simply, the foundational fact of traditional Christian sexual ethics from the first century onward has been that having intercourse before or outside of marriage is always wrong. So late 90s purity culture holding up some different standard or emphasis would have deviated from a pretty stable, uncontroversial component of Christian teaching. Reassuring or not, the black-and-white quality of that stricture is present everywhere one looks in Church history and mainstream scriptural interpretation.
The final sentence is the biggest head-scratcher. To a Christian, it’s a strange formulation of mutual exclusion. What if one is talking about God’s desire for sex and therefore exploring some attribute of God’s will? When I was 16 and heard a sermon from Tim Keller about God’s passion for the poor and the scriptural “strictures” that prohibited any desire I might have to avoid care and involvement with them. I felt that I had discovered something deeper than I had previously known about the mind of God. I don’t today look back on that and think that Charity was some idolatrous stand-in for God; it illumined my knowledge of the Holy.
The promise of a “juicy wedding-night reward” is, admittedly nowhere to be found in scripture, and I’ve heard some good cautionary tales about not putting marital sex on a pedestal as the apex of bliss in this life. But the issues with Harris’s book seem to go beyond him setting unrealistic expectations for marriage. But is holding up marital sex as an ideal really so strange? If one believes that Christian teaching on sex isn’t just meant to prohibit bad things but enable good things, then the implication that marital sex is somehow better (or perhaps more “life-giving” as people are fond of saying nowadays) than adultery isn’t a stretch. Therefore the Talmudic analysis of “how far is too far?” seems to me to be completely sensible if one wants to aim to gain some fullness of sexual life the Lord wants for us. The proper corollary to Christ’s once-for-all atonement for sin is constantly attending to the spirit of the law and seeking to live in line with it.
Critics of late 90s purity culture seem united by the conviction that to suggest that adultery somehow makes one fall short of the ideal of living a life that avoids adultery is in bad taste or harmful. But then how then are believers to interpret the Apostle Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 6:18-20?
Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
This passage highlights two challenging teachings for modern Americans: that the self is not inviolable, but is vulnerable to damage, and more radically for our age, that the self is not one’s own to decide what to do with. Therefore one’s personal choice, even if it is to abstain from sex, is secondary to God’s choice of how he desires you to live. The funny thing is that more and more millennials are abstaining from sex as a matter of personal choice. But the requirement for gaining positive press for this behavior seems to be that it remain the sovereign individual’s choice of lifestyle, not the internalization of an absolute ethical teaching. But Christian teaching is, well, teaching. It’s not a “life-affirming” option for some people, nor is it an ornament of tradition. It’s a commonplace of Christian teaching generally that every part of God’s desire for his people is meant to be communicated, and if, say, an evangelical pastor believes it comes from the mouth of God, then we may forgive him for lacing it with a sense of prophetic urgency and writing a book about it.
I’m willing to accept that Harris and others involved with late 90s purity culture got some things wrong or made some errors. Sitting in judgment of our evangelical inheritance doesn’t necessarily deny one’s devotion Christian sexual ethics. Maybe it deserves to be judged, maybe it even deserves to be discarded. But if we are going to do that, while still holding that St. Paul’s affirmation of the commandment “do not commit adultery” is truth and needs no revision, then we need to be ready to do exactly what Josh Harris did in 1997: take accepted Christian teaching on sex and use all of our art and wit to teach it to our children.