Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Recommended Reading

There's been a couple blog posts I've come across this past week that I want to share, because they speak on topics that I like to write about but give more clarity and a different perspective.
Sarah Moon's post, The Magical Marriage Switch, illustrates the logical inconsistencies in some of purity culture's prime arguments by showing how their teachings about sex in marriage contradict and invalidate their teachings about sex while single. I've touched on this concept of magical transformation regarding marriage before. But Sarah gives specific examples of how purity culture will flip an argument on its head when marriage is introduced into the equation. Basically, anything that sex will ruin before marriage becomes something that sex will improve after marriage.

Anna Lynn's post, Christian Sex: What the Purity Movement Didn't Tell Us, gives a historical context for the purity movement and points out the topics the purity movement failed to address. It made me think about how I never had any concept I was involved in a "movement" while it was happening. I didn't know that the things I was being taught were in reaction to something else, or that it was anything new to Christianity. This quote in particular got my attention:
The purity movement’s mantra in answer to the sexual revolution was, “Don’t have sex outside of marriage.”  Harris’ addition to the mantra was, “and don’t think about it either.”
The "don't think about it either" brand of purity was the only kind I knew. Josh Harris' challenge to live so purely that you couldn't even allow yourself to think about sex with your soon-to-be spouse sounded impossible to live up to, but it also sounded right. Because to a naive teenager who only wants to please God more and knows nothing about sex except that it's bad outside of marriage, who was I to question someone as convincing as Josh Harris?

Now, with the benefits of hindsight, life experience, and understanding of the changing currents within Christianity throughout history, I can see the purity movement with a critical eye. The purity movement made "no premarital sex or even thinking about it" a huge part of my Christian belief system. It was so intertwined with everything I believed that it felt revolutionary when I realized I didn't believe in it anymore. I've stated before that I feel bitter towards the purity movement. That is still true, even though it's gotten better as I've been writing about it this past year. But when I look back over Christian history and see the various movements that impassioned people but, in the end, were nothing more than a fad, I am saddened that the movement I happened to get caught up in was so damaging to people's marriages, sex lives, and views of themselves. I feel angry because I feel as though I was used as a pawn in somebody else's game: someone who didn't care about me--only my virginity.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

True Love Waits is updating their purity campaign

I recently noticed this article about the True Love Waits campaign, which is 20 years old now. They say they have rewritten the entire program "to introduce a modern focus on the same message that has been encouraged onto millions of youth for the last two decades."

I am curious to know exactly what will be different about this campaign. It appears they are reacting to the criticism that has come about in the last year towards the purity movement, because the creator of the new program, Clayton King of Crossroads Worldwide, mentions the idolization of virginity:

"King also says the current project is unique in comparison to other abstinent-focused campaigns including the original 'True Love Waits' because his intention is not to "elevate virginity as the ultimate goal."
He says it will have a greater focus on grace and mercy for those who carry shame from abuse or past mistakes, and that it is more important to focus on being found faithful on judgment day than to be a virgin on your wedding day. My hesitance to be happy at that news derives from my assumption that not only would I disagree with what qualifies as a past "mistake," but more importantly I fear that the program's definition of "being faithful" includes "being a virgin at your wedding."

Maybe this program will focus less on the supposed negative consequences of premarital sex than they did when I was young, not shaming females into feeling dirty and worthless if they have been touched by a male. Maybe they will stop doling out the empty promises of having better married sex. Either of those things would be vast improvements.

But some of the language King uses makes me think it won't be different enough, particularly that he says he wants to draw attention to the "unchangeable word of God" and argues "If Jesus is your Lord, then you will gladly do what He says, trusting that because He loves you and He knows what's best for you." Both of those sayings are reminiscent to me of the type of Christianity I used to be a part of, where there was only one way to interpret scripture, and it would be used as a weapon against you to enforce conformity. Purity programs like this have already determined what they believe God wants from us regarding sex and marriage. Interpretation is not up for debate. They are there to convince young people to conform to their standards.

I never liked the name "True Love Waits," because it heavily implies that those who do not wait do not have true love. Now it is being called the "True Love Project," which I hope is an attempt to focus on God's love, rather than qualifying the worth of a couple's love. Mostly, though, I wish campaigns like this didn't exist, because it skews the relative importance of sex in a Christian's religious life. Why aren't there campaigns focusing on teaching young Christians to be charitable or to demonstrate love to all of God's creation? Perhaps those things wouldn't make them "set apart" from the world enough, since those values are already shared by most non-Christians.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Challenging the biblical case against sex before marriage

Back when I described how I made the decision to leave the purity movement and its teachings behind, I mentioned that the biblical defense of purity was too weak for me. I want to go  a little more in depth on that now.

For many years, my faith hinged on the bible. It was the one true source of authority for what was right and wrong, and the people who surrounded me believed that, too. Using the bible was the best way to defend yourself in an argument, because one verse was enough to defeat countless arguments for another position, no matter how well-founded they were as long as they were not also from the bible. As a result, people rarely challenged widely-accepted interpretations of passages of scripture. It could appear as though you were trying to twist the words to your own desires, and even worse, people would assume you were only trying to defend a sin you must be already committing. In a Christian community where you are constantly being judged as "one of them" or "someone who needs to change before they are right with God," being assumed to be sinning was an embarrassing and isolating experience.

That is one reason why no one ever really challenged our "biblically-based" beliefs on premarital sex, as well as masturbation, pornography, drugs, or homosexuality. Less-embarrassing potential sins were debated openly and freely, like tattoos, dancing, alcohol, gambling, or swearing.

I myself never questioned the biblical basis of my beliefs on sex because it was so in line with everyone else that no one ever asked me to defend it. Any sex outside of marriage was wrong, period. It wasn't until I started questioning the negative side effects of purity culture that I began to wonder if the whole foundation of it (the biblical interpretations) were wrong.

Basically what I found was that there were no verses in the bible that specifically condemned premarital sex. There are many verses that speak against "sexual immorality" and sometimes "fornication," but if you look deeper you will find they are translating from the greek word porneia, which is debated to mean other things--not premarital sex, or even the catch-all term "sexual immorality."

I wondered at first why most Christians assume premarital sex would fit in the category of sexual immorality. Of course, most believe it because their culture has always believed it. When questioned, they can come up with a lot of negative possible consequences of sex, which is enough for most people to declare a blanket decision on the question, even though most of those consequences are from non-consensual or unsafe sex, or involve people with evil intentions. No exceptions are made for all the other kinds of sex being had in the world. Then there is the issue of Old Testament laws regarding sex, which are very harsh. Even though many Christians will agree that the old law was done away with when Jesus fulfilled it in his death, they still like to use it as backup if it aligns with their position.

I do think that most of American Christianity's beliefs about premarital sex derive more from culture than from the bible. American culture still demonizes sex and is uncomfortable with it. We can't help but assume it is what Paul was talking about in his letters. Forget about the difference in cultures 2,000 years ago, historical context and the art of translating ancient languages! "The bible is clear on this issue..." Now that only makes me laugh. "I'm just following the bible" is another weapon pulled out from time to time. But it doesn't fool me anymore.

As you might have guessed, my faith is no longer solely based on the bible. I do not believe the bible is inerrant anymore. I doubt that every author in it was "spirit-led" at the time. But I still hold it in esteem and understand that there are people who need their beliefs to be defensible via scripture.

When it comes to biblical interpretation, there is a lot of bullying that goes on, in the form of mocking outliers, making accusations regarding the motivations of questioners, fear-mongering, and creating community divisions. I want to encourage Christians who trust the bible as their only authority on faith to be bold in asking questions and challenging norms and to see that people who do not see premarital sex as a sin can make a good biblical case, too.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Purity of heart: John Piper vs. altruism

I came across a post by John Piper the other day that reminded me how much I've changed since bible college.

For a little background, I attended a Baptist-leaning, "inter-denominational" bible college from 2001-2005. I didn't know who John Piper was before I enrolled, but by the time I graduated, I knew a lot about him. He was highly regarded by the bible professors and students. We used his books as textbooks sometimes. I attended his church frequently with my friends. I loved his use of logic and how he could pick apart a small set of verses to make an hour-long sermon. As a practiced Lutheran, I was not always comfortable with some of his positions, but I felt a strong obligation to agree with him on everything due to peer pressure.

A few years after college and after much thought and introspection, I came to the conclusion that love should be the most important aspect of my Christian faith. It seemed to me that love was the overarching theme of the bible, the lesson of many of its stories, and Jesus himself said that loving God and others were the greatest commandments. As I tried to figure out what it would look like to live a life where love took first place, a lot of things changed in my belief system. I learned to care about people as they were and not just judging where they stood with God. I stopped defining love as trying to make others follow Christian rules for godly living, and allowed my emotions to have a valid influence in determining right from wrong.

One of the most surprising things that came from this was that I rediscovered how good it felt to do good unto others. I was no longer volunteering out of a sense of duty or obligation, not even peer pressure. I was doing it because it made me happy to be helping someone else. It was a way to put more love into this world. I cannot explain how freeing that change felt. It was replacing hollow lies to myself with genuine love and good will. I no longer had an ulterior motive to influence or save someone's soul; I was doing good deeds because I cared about people and their well-being.

So when I came across Piper's post that stated altruism is not genuine love and is unbiblical and atheistic, I was dismayed and even angry.

So I answer again: "Doing a good deed for others with no view to any reward" is unbiblical and atheistic. It dishonors God. He offers more joy in his fellowship to those who do right "for his sake" than "for right's sake." If we don't embrace the offer of this reward in doing good, we belittle him. But if do embrace the offer, we show him as our supremely desired treasure - above all the rewards of doing wrong.

Doing good deeds to be rewarded by God either here or in heaven is something I am familiar with. It was the primary motivation for me from the ages of 17 to 25. And I will tell you, it didn't feel like love. Not the kind of love you feel as an emotion that comes from the heart. But many Christians believe the heart is deceitful, and emotions cannot be trusted. They redefine love as obedience. As action. I've written before about how the "love is a choice" dogma can lead to abuse in religion.

From where I stand today, I cannot really picture a good god who views true altruism to be dishonoring. The God of John Piper and most of Calvinism does not seem like a God worthy of worship.

In this blog, I usually talk about purity with the intent of showing how messed up the church's view of sexual purity is. I do not value the purity movement's purity. But I do value purity of the heart. I value genuineness, love, and good intent. And Piper's views do not exemplify those things to me. In fact, it more exemplifies what happens when you allow cold hard logic to be your only guide to interpretation of God and scripture, excluding feelings, experience, observation and intuition.

That is not to say there is not plenty of talk about joy and happiness in Piper's writing, and plenty of scripture references. Read it for yourself and see what you think. I think I would interpret the verses differently and probably define "joy" just as differently as we define "love."

Friday, September 20, 2013

Avoiding heartbreak through sexual purity

One of the many touted benefits of saving sex for marriage is supposed to be the avoidance of heartbreak on the road to finding true love. The idea is that sex creates deeper emotional attachments, which can be more hurtful in the even of a breakup. Courtship proponents talk much of guarding each others' hearts. And some take it further still by striving for "emotional purity," which is the attempt to not get too emotionally attached to someone until you are married to them.

I can sympathize with trying to avoid heartbreak. Nobody wants their heart broken. It hurts. But there is an undercurrent to the meaning of heartbreak in purity culture that the outside world doesn't have. In purity culture, it is heavily implied that if you have endured heartbreak over a potential mate, you are damaged goods. You gave too much of your heart away and cannot give as much to your future spouse. Outside of purity culture, most people view heartbreak as a normal and sometimes necessary part of living. It's something you learn from and move on. In fact, there is a general consensus that that being vulnerable and open to love and intimacy is worth suffering through however many heartbreaks are necessary to find true love.

I suppose I might have been considered a success story to purity believers in that I hardly dated anyone and therefore never got my heart broken by a boy. I never fell in love with anyone until I found the right person. But that took 28 years. And I will readily admit that I probably missed out on a lot of life experiences, had I not been so insecure and concerned with doing things the "right way." But more importantly, it didn't stop me from getting my heart broken. I had a falling out with my best friend in high school. I had some really lonely years after college. Many people have been heartbroken by their parents. And I think there are plenty of people who have had their heart broken by someone they loved but never dated because that love was unrequited.

All these other kinds of relationships and heartbreaks are ignored. In purity culture, the only thing that matters is the sexual and emotional purity between two prospective heterosexual mates. To them, whatever heartbreaks you've suffered from your other relationships don't count. They don't break off pieces of your heart and leave you damaged the way romantic relationships do.

It's irrational, isn't it? But that's what happens when you idolize sexual purity and marriage. It becomes more important than anything else, causing massive blind spots.

The other thing that concerns me about the talk of heartbreak in purity culture is that they are giving young people the impression that they will never suffer heartbreak from their spouse. When combined with the pressure to marry young to avoid fornication, that can cause people rush into a lifelong commitment without properly evaluating if it is right for them. If we taught young adults that marriage can run into heartache, too, maybe some would pause before jumping in too soon. Maybe they wouldn't treat marriage like a race to the finish line if they knew there was still a lot of hard work required to maintain a lasting relationship.

I would much rather suffer through a few early heartbreaks if it meant making a smarter choice in a spouse later on than suffer my first heartbreak due to a failed marriage. It's much harder to move on past that kind of heartbreak, especially when your entire life is invested in that relationship.

If purity culture valued the hearts of adults who have gone through divorce as much as they care about young virgins, I wonder how their teachings might change?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Relevant Arrested Development joke

There's a scene in my favorite show, Arrested Development, that makes fun of a common misconception held by purity believers. I mentioned it in my last post about the myth of "reward sex"--the idea that by waiting so long to have sex, your first time will be amazing because you've got so much pent-up sexuality to express. More of us should have had the reaction Michael has in this conversation (look at the 5th frame), but I unfortunately believed in this idea well through my twenties.



Sunday, July 14, 2013

Great married sex as a reward for staying pure

Continuing the discussion from my last post...

"Reward sex" is what I call the mythical fantastic sex that "pure" married couples are supposed have bestowed upon them by God as promised by the purity movement. It was something that a lot of youth group teens, homeschoolers, and bible college students looked forward to. Through the teachings of purity leaders and the writings of Josh Harris and Elizabeth Elliot, we were indoctrinated with this idea that married sex would definitely be worth the wait. Not just because it was sex, but because God would bless us in that area and because abstinence brought other benefits.

None of these ideas can be found in scripture. There is no real theological foundation for it. But it was very easy to believe. The logic went something like this: God cares about the tiniest details of your life and rewards you for obedience. Sex outside of marriage is a sin, so saving yourself for marriage is obeying God. Therefore, God will reward you for being abstinent until marriage.

I'm not sure how they made the jump from there to the reward being specifically great sex, but I suppose it is the most direct and easy reward to assume. Christians in the purity movement like to describe their marriages like a fairytale, probably because it conveys God's participation and approval in a more impactful way. But because of how common these fairytale stories were, I became convinced that my love life would be a fairytale, too. Fairytales, with their happily-ever-after endings, imply that, because it was fated, the marriage is perfect--including the sex. I think that's one other possible reason we all jumped to the conclusion that God was going to bless us with great sex.

Then there were the arguments that abstinence naturally made sex better. Waiting so long would mean there would be lots of pent-up sexuality to express, and marriage would be this huge release. Men and women who had never experimented with themselves sexually would be easier-pleased by their spouse's touch. Having only one sex partner in your life means you'll never know any better, so you'll be having the best sex of your life by default! (I really despise the last two arguments, because they are based on lowering the bar for good sex, and assume that people can only recognize bad sex by comparing it to other experiences, which is simply not true.)

Here's an example of the type of thinking I was inundated with as a young adult. From the Arndt family blog:
I think sometimes people forget that abstinence isn't giving something up; it's saving something.  When you drop coins into a piggy bank, the coins do not disappear!  You'll get it all back, only in the form of quite a jackpot!

I would say that one of the biggest misconceptions nowadays is that you're missing out by saving yourself for marriage.  On the contrary, I think those who don't set anything apart for their honeymoons are the ones who are missing out.  For them there is no awe-inspiring new frontier, no ta-da, no feeling of "wow, here we are!"  There's no history and no story.  No jackpot stored up or set aside, no fresh treasure to give your new husband or wife.  The apples were picked before they were ripe, and now there's little left at harvest time.

By waiting, you get the exact same thing, only with so much more power, passion, and permanence.  Every dollar you've deposited you'll get back, with interest!  You get a wedding night just like any other couple, only with hearts that have been slowly seasoned by a history of waiting and hoping.  You'll have reached the exact same point, only with a legacy of love and longing leading up to it.

What a wonderful feeling it will someday be to realize that you've made it across the finish line. 

I, personally, was convinced that any sexual experience I had before marriage, even masturbation, would detract from the intimacy and joy I would get when I one day married. I thought this was a fact of nature, that previous sexual experiences took away enjoyment from any relationship. I was led to believe this by shame-based purity teachers who were married and should have known better.

This has always frustrated me, how the adults could have spread and encouraged these false truths, when they themselves had experienced married sex. I assume some of them thought the end justified the means. Some had probably convinced themselves it was true, and that they were either living the dream or suffering the consequences of their own sexual choices.

But as most people realize when they begin a sexual relationship for the first time, sex is not so black and white. Abstaining doesn't make anything easier or better; in fact, it almost ensures you will get off to a rocky start. Sex works like anything does in a relationship between two people. It takes familiarity, practice, and communication.

Whenever the question was brought up, "what if the sex is bad?" the automatic response amongst purity proponents was, "we'll have the rest of our lives to make it better." It was the closest thing to practical and realistic they ever got: an admission that sex may take practice to get better. But it simultaneously dismissed the concern of incompatibility, leading youngsters like me to assume that any two people could make it work, and that with time, any sex problem could be solved.

I don't know if being told the truth about the non-existence of reward sex would have changed my mind about purity when I was young. I think it would have been good to dispel the magic of the purity movement, so that even though I still believed that premarital sex was wrong, at least I would have recognized the sacrifice I was making by committing to abstinence, rather than working towards a reward and pretending there were no downsides.