Back in my teens I thought I had unlimited Saturdays. It didn’t occur to me that they were finite, that one day I’d see far fewer ahead of me than behind me. I spent one of those finite precious days of leisure in the mid-80s attending a
seminar extended sermon to learn how to date like a proper TRUE CHRISTIAN™ teen. Now, I’ve mentioned before that I escaped fundagelicalism right as its current push toward courtship culture got going. So today I wanted to show you the roots of that cultural shift today, as we move into the holiday season, to show you why I’m so thankful that I got out of the religion while it was just ramping up its push to seize control of American culture. Today we look at the roots of courtship culture as revealed by the Love/Life Principles Seminar of 1986.
For those who haven’t had the dubious pleasure of engaging with fundagelicalism, courtship culture is the set of fundagelical teachings that relate to dating and romantic relationships. This set of teachings stresses women’s subservience to men, men’s inability to control their freakishly dangerous sexual urges, and the subsequent need for women, who (don’t forget!) are seen as totally separate-but-equal to men in every single way, to tightly and rigidly control their sexuality so as not to provoke men, who are (don’t forget!) appointed by a real live god to be their masters, into abusing them somehow.
In courtship culture, parents are taught to tightly control daughters’ budding sexuality and to teach them to feel deep shame about anything they do that provokes male attention in any way at all. Often parents deliberately sabotage daughters to ensure that they will be almost totally helpless as adults–suited for absolutely nothing except motherhood in the way that fundagelicals consider the only proper way to handle the role. Some particularly-zealous parents even withhold adequate education from daughters–all in the name of ensuring that they grow up to be godly women (the term godly is Christianese for properly Christian). Even after escaping the culture, young women might take years to unpack and deprogram themselves to learn to rejoice in whatever form of sexuality or asexuality they feel is best for themselves, to find a sexual expression that rings authentic to their core beings, to learn to trust their own intuition and insist on being treated with full respect by any future partners.
We tend to focus on the effects of Christian courtship rules on women, and I would like to point out that the boys grow up just as emotionally damaged–just in a slightly different direction. It can take years for young men in fundagelicalism to learn the valuable lessons of consent, healthy expression and self-denial of urges, and mutuality that worldly boys (and girls) learn in middle and high school. (Worldly is Christianese for anything that isn’t specifically properly Christian. It is the opposite of godly. And it’s potentially the worst insult one Christian can possibly fling at another!)
The fundagelical focus on power–the gaining of it and the holding of it–comes to the fore in courtship culture as well, since boys are taught that they are naturally suited and divinely commanded to take a unilaterally-powerful leader role in their romantic relationships. Their goal is to offload as much work as they can onto their wives. A fundagelical boy’s ideal goal is to grow up, get married, and then hold down a job to afford a stay-at-home wife (SAHW; also see SAHM, stay-at-home mother, and SAHD/SAHH, stay-at-home dad or husband) and then a passel of children. He will literally not lift a finger around the house or handle childcare duties of any kind; these are considered “women’s work” and thus totally beneath him. He’ll do the Kodak-moment fun stuff that fathers have always traditionally liked–taking the kids to the lake to fish, playing catch, etc., and he’ll handle the occasional masculine task like barbecue grilling, furniture construction and repair, yard care (till the sons get old enough to do it!), automotive maintenance, and those serious displays of physical violence that pass for discipline in these families.
This system of allocating tasks, designed as it is by men and benefiting men so well, produces completely lopsided divisions of labor. Women end up doing a lot more, both in terms of overall tasks and in hours spent working, than men, which men see no problems with. Women expect this unfair division of labor when they get married; they make that terrible bargain in the name of love, and put their hope into their husbands perhaps being more fair-minded than others. This hope is not often realized.
That’s not to say that wives don’t grow up just as focused on power. Their route to it is much more convoluted, that’s all. In their world, a woman gains power according to how much work she can offload to her husband. His goal is to avoid doing anything he considers “women’s work.” Well, hers is to avoid doing that too. She doesn’t value “women’s work” much more than he does. So if she can persuade him to lift some of her excessive load, or get him to endure some indignity for her sake that normally he’d never ever consider enduring, then that gets her a little of her own dignity and pride back–and men endure these occasional indignities (such as doing a load of dishes sometimes, or bathing the toddlers once a month) because they know that these small gestures will perhaps soothe their wives’ blazing resentment just long enough to make them amenable to sex before their relationship can return to its former completely lopsided division of labor.
Women are aware that men know about their resentment, too. The women in my church sure knew it. We knew that when a woman’s husband brought home flowers or announced he’d cleaned the coffee maker so she didn’t have to worry about it that day, that meant he wanted to get lucky that night. (Sometimes I’d just wearily ask Biff what he was after when he acted uncharacteristically kind. He’d always seem so SHOCKED YES SHOCKED that I’d so quickly seen through his innocent floppy lovey-dovey goofball-for-Jesus act.) These gestures are part of the rituals of courtship culture in a lot of ways–boys grow up seeing men making these gestures and hearing about them in long lists of WTF cringeworthy tips offering advice aimed at “igniting passion in your marriage,” which is code for how husbands can get laid a little more often.
Both boys and girls learn from toddlerhood that men and women are so different, and so focused on destroying their partners and offloading as much work as possible onto them, that the literal only way that any relationship between them can last and be happy is for them to learn a complex set of rules and rituals regarding how to conduct those relationships. If they follow these rules and observe these rituals to the letter, then they will be able to coexist in harmony and create a whole that was far more than the sum of its parts–thanks to their unique gifts as men and women, which had been ordained by a god from the time the stars were crafted for humankind’s best benefit.
These rules are literally the only way to have a happy relationship with someone of the opposite sex. Disobeying the rules or worse yet discarding them (horrors!!) would only bring a marriage misery and ensure its dissolution. But if the marriage dissolves anyway, then the participants are told–and almost always believe–that they simply didn’t live out the rules and rituals well enough. Had they played their roles correctly, nothing would have gone wrong. The way you can tell that they did something wrong is that the marriage became unhappy!
And meanwhile, I can only remember a couple of couples I knew while fundagelical who actually seemed as happy as they acted. Most pretended to be happy while they were fighting like cats in sacks back at home. They’d go on marriage retreats and hopefully patch things up, then find themselves right back at Square One a month or two later because they were simply working off of a bad recipe and didn’t realize it.
So Christian men and women both grow up learning a set of highly ritualized rules for courtship. These rules grow increasingly restrictive and, well, to borrow their term, perhaps even legalistic1 the further one gets into the fanatical end of the religion pool, and that extremism has only gotten worse over the last couple of decades.
The whole problem might have begun with what I’ve come to call the Jesus Push.
The Jesus Push.
Back in the mid-1980s, Christianity was still going through its Jesus Movement phase. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a movement called the Jesus People took hold in right-wing Christianity.
The Jesus People stressed the intensely individualistic, apocalyptic, orgiastic, and cathartic aspects of Christianity–the “low Christianity” aspect, if you will, as opposed to the more emotionally-restrained, ritualistic variant practiced by most Christians at the time. Dressed like hippies and touting a theologically unhinged form of the religion that horrified mainstream Christians, Jesus People wandered the United States dispensing charity, folk wisdom, and street evangelism in equal amounts.
One of the Jesus Movement’s main effects on the religion was to make even those mainstream Christians start wanting to inject Christianity into every single aspect of their lives–and to create for themselves an insular bubble of Christian culture where they could go from sun-up to sun-down never seeing or encountering any non-Christian people or ideas. They sang about lives of “No Compromise” that were about wanting to “make my life a prayer to you.” They exulted in being sold out and on fire. The terms evoked images of being consumed, of being totally subsumed into a life revolving around religious observances–of being “on” 24/7 and ready to evangelize at the very second an opportunity presented itself. That new emphasis on proselytization alone was enough to mark Jesus People as significantly different from their mainstream peers–even if they were really just poaching Christians from less-fervent groups for the most part.
Then those Christians grew up and acquired real jobs, educations, and (most importantly) disposable income. Christian bookstores asploded in the 1980s both in numbers and in the sheer amount of Christian swag of various kinds that they offered to help ex-Jesus People maintain their feelings of sold-out-ness despite having set down roots and ended their more fecklessly peripatetic days. You could buy Bibles in these shops, of course, as well as books of commentary and occasionally even those few apologetics works intended for the popular Christian market. But suddenly you could also buy Christian-themed clothing, much of it with popular worldly marketing phrases and logos that’d been reworked into smirky Christian ones, and Christian-themed home decoration stuff like pillows, statuettes, clocks (I received a clock like this for my first wedding–and hated it!), artwork, and bedsheets. Eventually the line of Christian-themed goods expanded to Testa-Mints! (Please, please tell me someone else’s mind goes straight into the gutter at the name of these candies. My mind is now prowling around down there cuz I heard it again and would prefer to go play Halo, but needs a Chupathingy driver so it can take the minigun.)
What we see when we look at the Jesus Push is not actually an increase in religious fervor, though it might look like that. What it looks more like to me is a reaction to the threats perceived against the religion’s dominance in American culture–a sort of tribal clamping-down after Christianity began getting entwined with establishment politics during the Red Scare a decade or so earlier and then got hit with the first tendrils of secularization. It was a reactive movement more than a creative one, and that true nature showed itself constantly through the bizarrely derivative “art,” pseudoscience, and repetitive apologetics that churned out of that end of the religion. The children of the Red Scare alumna didn’t recognize the reactionary nature of their movement or care if they did, though.
As they progressed further and further into a purely subjective religious experience, therefore, aided by the trappings of religiosity and the growing insularity of their communities, Christians rushed to out-do each other in how godly they could look and act. They discarded whatever reins that might have previously existed to pull them back from outright dangerous fanaticism and radicalization. The most godly Christians rose through the ranks of informal and formal power, at each step applauded by awed tribemates who aspired only to match and exceed that level of religiosity and extremism. Frank Schaeffer fils described this process as having been engineered and encouraged by leaders like himself and his father during the years of the Jesus Movement, probably because it worked wonderfully to create a tribal mentality that might bind the group together more tightly and stem evangelical churn. (And I’m sure they didn’t mind the political power they gained from the creation of this solid bloc of voters either!)
That said, this notion is a primary one in Christian relationships.
The Rules: Fundagelical Edition.
This attempt to Jesus-fy relationships took the form of markedly new rules for dating.
The first of the new rules was that obviously Christians had to marry people who were at least as fervent and sold out as they were. Not only were mixed-faith relationships off-limits, but relationships between Christians of varying levels of fervor weren’t allowed either. Dating became a process of evaluating the other person’s level of fervor on a number of fronts. People weren’t allowed to just enjoy the relationship or get to know people on their own terms, much less to take a relaxed view of relationships themselves while they were young and thought they had unlimited Saturdays ahead of them. No, they had to plunge in full speed ahead to find a spouse instead, and that puts a lot of pressure on both men and women.
Second, the relationship had to be modeled as closely as possible after whatever fundagelicals currently thought relationships in the 1st-century Ancient Near East looked like. Eventually dating itself was discarded in courtship culture because that’s not how 1st-century Jews handled their marriage searches. Seriously. It wasn’t good enough for Jesus, so it shouldn’t be good enough for modern Christian young people, went the thinking. A lot of these fundie groups going in for courtship culture have even gradually migrated to parentally-arranged marriages of very young women to considerably-older men, even, since they think that’s the relationship model their god prefers most. And that’s an even bigger problem than the first rule because in a lot of ways, we don’t really understand the cultural context of the stories in New Testament. We barely understand some of the cultural context of the stuff in the Old Testament that the New’s sorta based upon, for that matter. And we don’t even know what some of the words written in the Bible even mean now! So when courtship culture tries to ape a culture that’s been gone for thousands of years and plaster an initially Iron Age/Bronze Age mythology and ancient cultural constructs of gender expression onto a modern age where even most Christian men and women expect to marry for love and at least try to cobble together a mutually satisfying relationship, it’s going to mix and curdle in the most dramatic ways.
Third, the marriage that resulted from these courtships had to remain fervent. Basing any relationship on a shared hobby is probably not the best of ideas. Eventually someone’s bound to lose interest in the hobby–and at that point, the couple had better have something else holding them together or else they will fall apart. Fundagelicals’ courtship culture taught implicitly that if one spouse lost interest in that level of fervor in Christianity (or worse yet, deconverted entirely), the other spouse should dump that person. Officially fundagelicals say they believe in the Bible to the letter and follow its every command (except the really hard parts, like dietary restrictions!). That would mean that divorce is 100% off-limits except in a couple of very narrowly-defined situations which include adultery but not abuse. But unofficially, Christians all too often insta-dump spouses when their partners lose interest in their shared Jesus hobby.
They come up with some very imaginative excuses for reconciling their decisions to divorce with the Bible’s extremely clear prohibition of it, and maybe they fool themselves with ’em at least. Who knows.
One might also mention that because of this tendency of theirs to start using the D-word the moment they find out that their spouses aren’t totally into Christianity like that anymore, their deconverted spouses agonize over whether or not to share their innermost hearts on this subject. It’s the loneliest place in the world, being a new ex-Christian married to a super-mega-fundie Christian. The one person who’s supposed to have your back is someone you can’t trust anymore not to plunge a knife into it if you’re honest with them. It’s hard to put into words the pain of that situation.
So as I share these first scans with you, be thinking about the Jesus Push, the rush to Jesus-fy relationships, the relationship rules that began to solidify around the Jesus Push, and the shaky marriages that resulted from Christians’ slavish following of those rules. (But you probably won’t have to wonder, as I did right as I was deconverting, why rules like these seemed to backfire so often if a god has decreed that his followers use them in their lives…)
The Important Stuff: Maps and Restaurant List.
My mother kept this binder after I moved out of the house. I found it among her things after she’d passed away. She was a bit of a “collector” like that–if it was something I wrote, featured in, or found important as a kid and teen, it was probably somewhere in her stash. It’s quite an impressive binder, too–hard brown plastic printed with the name of the seminar and a scrawled doodle adorning it of a lovestruck little boy holding a flower.
Immediately when I open the binder, a map falls out of it. I still laugh at this map, tucked as it is in the front of the notebook like the afterthought it was.
On one page, we see a map of the general area (Sagemont, a boring upper-middle-class suburb of Houston); on the other, we see the church map. I think I attended this seminar right after I became a Southern Baptist, too. The seminar occurred at what I now know is a megachurch; at the time I just thought it was a really big church. They famously had one of those church signs with pithy sayings on them that they changed frequently. My mom complained when they didn’t change it often enough. I’d attended a pizza blast here and ended up baptized, which surely mortified my Catholic mother–but she never said anything.
I wonder now exactly who they thought was going to come to this seminar. I don’t think anyone was traveling into town from like Galveston to attend what was certainly going to be a longer and more teen-oriented version of the dating advice we’d already heard in our various youth groups. But there you are.
I also want to mention that this church seemed just huuuuuuge to me as a teenager. It had a gymnasium, an unheard-of luxury at the time. On the church map itself, notice that the “Love/Life Principles Seminar” happened in the gym, while the adults got to go to the “Parenting Teens Seminar” in the worship center itself. These were two-part events. I can’t remember if my mom attended the parents’ seminar. I don’t think she did. She was far more sensible than I was.
Title and Author Bio.
These pages, obviously, tell us who wrote this execrable nonsense: Barry Wood, who we’ve touched on here before. After emotionally destroying a generation of young people in Murrrka, he went into the missionary field, where he seeks to infect African Christians with his misogynistic, bigoted ideas–er, sorry, to “equip indigenous missionaries to win their people to Christ.” The photo of Wood is the tip-off; it’s definitely the same guy as in the biography in this notebook.
He claims to want to be the “friend” of those teens attending his seminars, but I don’t believe him. I already knew that nobody can be “friends” with someone who has a lot of authority over them. As Lem says so eloquently in Better Off Ted: “An occasional drink is fine, but being friends with your boss is a slippery slope! . . When push comes to shove, they’re always your boss, and they know it.”
The presenter of the material, however, was Emery Gadd, who was a previous pastor of that church. I can’t even remember him. I think a woman helped him sometimes but I can remember nothing about her.
This was, like, the most boring seminar I have ever attended–and I’ve been pitched MLM scams a few times. Basically the whole shebang was them showing sheet after sheet on an old-school overhead projector. Each sheet would be a page out of the notebook, projected on the wall. They’d read the page and then tell us what to write in any blanks.
I can tell I was getting bored out of my mind by the end because I began drawing elves on the back of the pages. At first I tried to keep it religious by sketching crosses and lilies, but in the end the elves won.
Elves always won.
And I’m still too embarrassed to show those sketches right now but one of those elf-girl warriors might make an appearance in coming days.
What’s Left Out.
What’s interesting about this whole thing is that Wood presents himself in the book as this erudite, wise religious leader who gets kids today. But as we will see, the seminar makes a lot of very WTF assumptions about a lot of topics, pushes a really rapey, shame-based, and gender-essentialist view of sex and relationships, and utilizes source documents that are far from rigorous (like, um, Reader’s Freakin’ Digest). He also appears to have some alarming ties to Bill Gothard. Remember Bill Gothard, the guy who lost his leadership position of the “terrifying homeschool cult” he’d founded, ATI (Advanced Training Institute), after he got caught harassing and groping girls and women there? Yeah, that super-creep. Quotes from him are enshrined all over this notebook’s pages. But I didn’t need to see that creepy predator’s name to know that Gothard’s teachings infuse the seminar–as we’ll discuss.
I’m not sure what Wood’s exact connection with Gothard is, but I do know that he wrote a manual on his current missionary site that talks about Gothard very admiringly (p. 150). So the ties might be a little more formal than Wood’s letting on now (unsurprising; even the Duggars distanced themselves from Gothard after the news of his creeping got out).
We’re going to take up next time with the fundagelical relabeling of rules, which is also where the seminar takes up–enjoy your Thanksgiving, and we’ll see you next time! (I’ll be posting on the holiday, probably not a long post, but if you need something to keep you company amid relatives, we’ll be right here for ya!)
1 “Legalistic” is Christianese for something or someone excessively worried about following rules; a Christian may be totally obsessed with rules of various kinds and have a totally ritualistic understanding of their religion’s ideas, but they’ll always consider that fine. Someone who is concerned about different rules or to be more concerned about rules is “legalistic,” however. Ex-Christians often get accused of having gotten involved with legalistic groups or denominations–it’s another of their silencing tactics intended to negate us and make us feel like we just didn’t “get” their religion well enough to be qualified to criticize it.