A great deal of great stuff is being written about white evangelical “purity culture” and the perverse, pervasive and pernicious effects it has on Christian ideas about sex, gender, “modesty,” marriage, etc.
This obsession with “purity” isn’t just a sex thing. That’s where it finds its main expression these days, but purity culture is a fountain flowing deep and wide. It influences how white evangelicals view everything — themselves, God, “the world,” all of it.
A verse from the epistle of James provides an almost-perfect distillation of this view. James 1:27 says:
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: … to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
That’s the idea in a nutshell. This is how their religion is defined — the thing to which they are converted and the sum total of their understanding of discipleship. It’s all about being “pure and faultless” and doing everything possible to avoid pollution or contamination or “defilement” from the entire world. That’s what religion is.
And that’s also, according to this purity ideology, what “the world” is — a great big ball of pollution, a cosmos of disease, defilement and contamination.
What then, is a good Christian to do in such a world? As little as possible. Faith is a blank page that must be kept blank. It is a spotless, pure and undefiled white sheet that must be hidden away from anything and everything that might stain its pure whiteness.
At the moment of salvation, Jesus’ blood washes us white as snow. It’s all downhill from there. (Or, as Steve Taylor put it, “They all start dying from the day they’re born again.”) Purity ideology means that no Christian will ever again be quite as pure and righteous and clean as they are at that moment of conversion. Given that ideology, any talk of “sanctification” or discipleship rings hollow. Those things are a trap — a temptation to start defiling that blank page by writing on it.*
This is something Peter Leithart circles around, but can’t quite pin down, in his First Things post on “Why Evangelical Films Fail“:
Evangelicalism is also a conversionist faith. The key crisis of life is the moment of commitment to Christ. In Woodlawn, most of the characters convert early in the film, necessarily so because the story is about the effect of the revival on race relations. But that means that the line of character development is flat. The really crucial character development has taken place in the moment of conversion. …
Theologically speaking, character development is “sanctification.” A conversionist form of Christianity places less emphasis on sanctification than on conversion and justification. In films, that translates into drastic oversimplification of human psychology. For Evangelicals, there are only two sets of motivations, as there are two kinds of people: Saved and unsaved.
This precludes the possibility of storytelling. Stories require characters to choose and change and grow. Purity ideology warns against any of that. You started out spotless — any change from there will mean “being polluted by the world.” The story cannot go anywhere.
This also precludes the possibility of living a story. Or of living. Period.
And I know from personal experience, and then from my years of youth ministry, and from the email in my inbox, that this story-stopping, life-throttling ideology is a source of enormous anxiety for many white evangelicals. They believe. They want their faith to define them and to be the Most Important Thing in their lives. But they aren’t allowed to do anything about that, or with that. They’re warned that doing anything would be dangerous. Doing anything is to be avoided.
The alternative — doing nothing, on principle — is frustrating and meaningless. The few bits of permissible world-avoiding busywork are no help. “Evangelism” is encouraged, but only the forms of no-contact, boy-in-a-bubble evangelism that just alienate the “unsaved” that such approaches treat as aliens. Those kinds of evangelism thus wind up heightening the sense of meaninglessness and frustration.
And then there’s Bible-reading — the daily devotions or “quiet time” one is mandated to feel guilty about not doing. But reading the Bible through the lens of purity ideology — through a lens that filters out anything that seems to suggest actually doing something in and with “the world” — winds up just as frustrating. Read that way, the Bible is dull and confusing. (Thus prompting the double-whammy of feeling guilty about finding it dull and confusing.) Ditto for the other big permissible/mandated activities of prayer and worship.
Go ahead and try to write a story in which the only activities characters engage in are: 1) Bible-reading and prayer; 2) evangelism; and 3) Not Having Sex. Those characters will never choose, grow or develop. When the story arrives, they’ll be unable to get on board, and thus it will have to go on without them.
And just as it is impossible to write a story with characters as flat and stunted as that, so too it is impossible to live a life keeping one’s own character as flat and stunted as that. The stasis of the perpetually pure, white, blank page is impossible. You’ll still change, but you won’t grow. You’ll ossify — shrinking and getting harder, but more brittle.
So what’s the alternative?
Let’s go back to that verse from James, which I described as only an almost perfect distillation of purity ideology, because there’s actually a bit there where I put that ellipsis. And when you include that bit, it utterly ruins the whole attempt to interpret this verse as an endorsement of white evangelical purity ideology.
What James actually says is this:
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
That “look after orphans and widows in their distress” bit gets mentally erased because it can’t be made to fit with what white evangelicals are seeking to confirm for themselves with this verse. Messing about with orphans and widows — who are, by definition, unmarried women, and thus, by definition, dangerous — is imprudent for those whose priority is trying to remain pure and faultless and to avoid becoming polluted. Poor people are notoriously dirty and unruly. That can rub off, you know. Messing about with anyone is, well, messy.
So, since this orphans and widows bit can’t be made to fit in with what they imagine the rest of the verse is saying, it fades into invisibility. That doesn’t only leave the remainder of James’ statement incomplete, it mutates the meaning of the rest of the verse.
“Look after orphans and widows in their distress and keep yourself from being polluted by the world,” James says. That’s how you keep yourself from being polluted by the world — by looking after the powerless, the disenfranchised, the poor, the outcast. And this is what “being polluted by the world” means: It means joining in the world-system’s neglect of people like them. It means participating in and supporting their neglect and oppression.
For James here, “the world” doesn’t refer to infidels or to “secular” culture or to everyone who isn’t a pure and undefiled member of our exclusively pure and true sect. Here, as in much of the New Testament,** “the world” means something more like “The Powers That Be.”
That is “the world” that James was talking about. And that is “the world” that James’ brother was talking about when he told his disciples, “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.”
To understand that, translate “the world” as TPTB, or, if you like, as “The Empire,” or even “Wall Street”:
If The Powers That Be hate you, keep in mind that they hated me first. If you belonged to The Powers That Be, they would love you as their own. As it is, you do not belong to The Powers That Be, but I have chosen you out of their clutches. That is why The Powers That Be hate you.
It’s still possible to do that while maintaining something like white evangelical purity ideology. You can interpret “keep yourself from being polluted by the world” as “keep yourself from being polluted by The Powers That Be,” and still come away thinking that your whole job is to avoid, escape and safeguard the unblemished purity you were granted at the moment of conversion. You can thus retain the same egocentric elevation of your personal purity as your sole concern.
But that, again, requires you to change the meaning of what James said by mentally erasing the essential bit of that verse — the bit about orphans and widows and those in distress. That, again, is the key to what James is saying. It’s not about you. It’s about them. Put your self-centered concern for personal purity above your regard for them and you have, by definition, become polluted by The Powers That Be.
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* The spark for this little journey through the psychology of white evangelical purity ideology was David Badash’s recent post discussing the lawless Kentucky clerk insisting on a religious exemption from doing her job, “Kim Davis Has Been a Practicing Christian for Only Four Years.”
Badash there makes the mistake of thinking of evangelical Christianity as a practice, a craft, a journey of discipleship. It’s not that. It’s the opposite of that. Thanks to purity ideology, white evangelical Christianity gives us only one thing to do: Get saved. After that, it’s just a matter of retaining as much of the initial purity that establishes until, eventually, you die and/or get Raptured.
If Kim Davis got saved only four years ago, that means she probably has more of her initial purity still intact than some lifelong Christian who got saved 40 years ago.
** Context matters, of course, and context is the best way to make sense of what purity ideology can’t understand as an apparent contradiction in what the Bible has to say about “the world.” Sometimes the Bible speaks of “the world” as this thing that hates and defiles us, this thing we’ve been called out of and away from. But other times it speaks of “the world” as this thing that God loves, and that God commands us to love and sends us into in order to share, and express, and embody that love.
So use the brain God gave you and read that phrase — “the world” — in context. When the world is discussed as an evil, powerful system of injustice, then treat that phrase as “The Powers That Be.” When the world is, instead, a reference to just, you know, the whole planet and such, then read it that way. It would be illiterate nonsense to read John 3:16 as meaning, “For God so loved The Powers That Be,” just as it would be illiterate nonsense to read James 1:27 as saying, “keep oneself from being polluted by the entire planet.”