Friday, May 17, 2013

Young marriage and the conflict between God's law and God's creation

I have been trying to write a post about marrying young in purity culture: the pressures, the causes and effects. But discussion about those things felt like I was only touching upon the superficial issues that are a result or a symptom of something deeper. Stating the obvious feels pointless, but perhaps it is not. Purity culture puts a great emphasis on abstaining from sexual relations of any kind, to the point that your self-worth and even your worth to God and your spouse are supposed to be damaged by any failure in that area. The longer you go without marrying, the more chance you have of damaging yourself, because you are open to the temptation of fornication, which is having sex outside of marriage. Getting married puts you in the safe zone. Getting you to the safe zone sooner rather than later makes you and everyone else who cares about your sexual sins sigh a breath of relief.

The statistics of higher divorce rates among younger couples do not frighten evangelicals, because they believe that God will bless their marriage for following his laws or for simply being believers. There are those who believe true Christian marriages cannot fail, because they have figured out God's design for marriage, and as long as husband and wife follow the roles God has laid out for every man and woman, any couple can make it work. Happiness in marriage is something derived from obedience to God rather than relationship with your spouse. Of course, many married Christians boast about their healthy relationship with their spouse as a source of happiness, but they almost always attribute it to God blessing their union, or God having hand-picked the perfect spouse for them.

Not all Christians are marrying young. As the mainstream culture marries later and later, so do many Christians. They face the same career choices and economic struggles. They share the modern notions of waiting to marry the right person for love. They have the same options to lead a fun and adventurous life in their 20s, free of the need to settle down immediately. But when they struggle with sexual purity--that desire to be intimate with another person or to satisfy the biological urge for sex--the church's one-size-fits-all solution is to get married. To them, it's really the only option to avoid sexual sin or the struggles and loneliness that come from avoiding that sin.

A good example of this is an article printed in Christianity Today in 2009. Mark Regnarus recognizes all the problems with purity teachings and asking young Christians to go against their natural sexual urges. In fact, his common-sense assessment of the problems made me hopeful that he would have an equally common-sense solution, despite the title of the article.

Most young Americans no longer think of marriage as a formative institution, but rather as the institution they enter once they think they are fully formed. Increasing numbers of young evangelicals think likewise, and, by integrating these ideas with the timeless imperative to abstain from sex before marriage, we've created a new optimal life formula for our children: Marriage is glorious, and a big deal. But it must wait. And with it, sex. Which is seldom as patient.
As an aside: I am one of those that prefers to enter marriage once fully formed. I know not all people see it that way nor want it that way, but for me, I believe that with maturity comes the ability to have healthier relationships and make better choices.

Regnarus spends the rest of the article making a case for why early marriage really isn't that bad and how we can make it better and easier for young Christians to be successful with their young marriages. I will admit I was disappointed that that was the only solution offered, though I know I should not have expected anything else. Regnarus' belief that marriage is a covenant and that sex outside of it is a sin is so widely accepted as God's law that there really aren't any other options for a traditional bible-believing Christian to offer.

I see the Christianity Today article as a classic example of our interpretation of scripture creating unbending rules that do not consider humanity. I picture God's Law as a stone wall built along a a large body of water. The water is humanity, and no matter how many times the waves, following their natural flow, crash against the wall, it does not budge.

I know that the rules we create for following God's law derive from our interpretation of the bible, because we believe the bible to be the only authoritative source of truth. But what if we also used God's creation as an equal source of truth? How would valuing natural human tendencies and instincts influence our interpretation of God's will for us? Things like fornication and homosexuality might no longer be a problem for Christians, because they would no longer be considered sins at all. Telling someone to marry young or suffer the consequences wouldn't be necessary, because Christians could live happy lives in or out of marriage without fear of God's disapproval.

To most conservative Christians I know, the above paragraph sounds like the worst heresy. But that is where I am at right now. Letting go of biblical inerrancy and sola scriptura was scary for me, but I found that my faith did not depend on it. There is always the possibility that we have interpreted the bible wrong, no matter how confident the current thinkers of the day are in their assessment. I also like to think that Jesus freed us from many more laws than we give him credit for.

Friday, May 3, 2013

What does purity even mean?

When the word "purity" is mentioned, the vast majority of people assume it is short for "sexual purity." And 99% of the time they are right, because that is what the term "purity" is most used for in Christian culture.

But I often hear Christians try to define purity in broader terms, especially when they are under fire for focusing too much on teen or women's sexuality. They say it has to do with purity of thoughts and emotions as well. (The phrases "guard your heart" and "do not awaken love before its time" come to mind.) Some Christian groups, usually the more conservative ones, will try to implement guidelines in courtship to avoid emotional attachment prior to marriage. Of course that practice places people in danger of worse hurts later down the road, and, in my opinion, reveals the error in believing that avoiding heartbreak is part of purity. But in a small way I can appreciate that they are truly trying to apply their beliefs to their lives.

Because in my experience, the broader definitions of purity--the ones that incorporate more aspects of being human than sexuality alone--are proved hypocritical when put to the test. I saw this illustrated really well in a talk show I watched once. Anderson Cooper was interviewing a family who attended purity balls. The episode (I can't find the full video online) also had Randy Wilson, founder of the Colorado Springs purity ball, and Jessica Valenti, feminist author of The Purity Myth. At one point, the parents explained that purity was about much more than sexual purity, that it included all different parts of life. It sounded good in theory. But further into the show, one of the daughters spoke of the teens at her school who "were not pure." Anderson had her explain what she meant by that, and her answer was that they had had sex.

That did not surprise me, of course. If anyone is accused of being "not pure," it usually means that they have done something sexually with another person before they were married. I have never heard anyone be told they are not pure because they had sexual thoughts or got emotionally attached to someone. Sure, there will be some talk in small groups about "impure thoughts," but those are easily forgiven, and no one would ever show hesitance to date or court someone who had lost purity in one of the non-sexual-activity categories. What it comes down to is that sex is the only thing that actually matters in Christian purity. Having sex automatically disqualifies you from the "pure" group, while failing in any other area but sex keeps you in good standing.

While I personally would prefer purity to be a term used to describe the goodness of a person's heart and intentions, I also think that purity is a difficult term for any area of a person's life. It implies that perfection is expected and achievable, and I don't think it is. Purity is an all-or-nothing concept. The slightest tarnish takes away the ability to be pure at all.

I suspect that the church's obsession with sexual purity did not begin with finding purity described in the bible and then trying convey it to young people. Rather, I think the church latched on to the idea of ridding sexual sin from its young people, and found that to speak in terms of purity versus damaged goods made their message have more of an impact and was easier to talk about.

As a result, I find I do not like the word purity very much. It has lost its meaning and its sway. However, I believe there are good things in this life that can be pure. Love is one of them. I believe God is love. And I don't think love is hindered by impurities.