There’s a scene in the 2004 adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ novel, “The Notebook” in which Ryan Gosling’s character tries to get Rachel McAdams’ character to stop playing games with him and clearly tell him what she wants out of life. “What do you want?” he asks repeatedly. “It’s not that simple,” she insists. I feel like Gosling nearly every time I read the latest condemnation of “purity culture” by ex-fundamentalists who say they still want all the benefits of Christian sexual morality, but don’t seem willing to do the unsexy work necessary to actually create and maintain that morality.
The latest indecisive rhapsody is former Christianity Today editor Katelyn Beaty’s June 15 New York Times piece entitled, “How Should Christians Have Sex?”. Beaty writes: “I am 34, unmarried and a committed Christian, and have, over time, not held to the purity standards I inherited from my faith community.” Wow. If there’s one thing we’ve never seen before, it’s an unmarried woman condemning purity culture right after admitting that she hasn’t lived by it, anyway.
Beaty opens her piece by implying that promising not to have sex until marriage (you know, the sine qua non of Christian sexual morality) is creepy and unhealthy. She explains that her decision at age 14 to sign a “True Love Waits” pledge imposed “a psychological burden” that she and her peers “are still unloading.” She submits purity balls, purity rings, and “Wait For Me Journals” for the scorn of Times readers, and repeats the familiar complaint that purity culture taught young Christians that if they only behaved themselves, God would bring them the perfect spouse (a claim Ben Shapiro calls “Gumball Machine God,” and which I’ve examined at length, here).
Beaty assures readers that she no longer subscribes to purity culture (we were on pins and needles). Yet in spite of all this, the main point of her article, confusingly, is that she’s still not happy: “I also find myself mourning the loss of the coherent sexual ethic that purity culture tried to offer. Is consent culture the best that we have in its place?” By “consent culture,” I assume she means every species of sexual sin but rape. Beaty leaves “promiscuity,” “fornication,” “debauchery,” and other perfectly serviceable words in the lexical unemployment line, because apparently, everything now has to be described as a “culture.”
What of the alternatives? Progressive figures like Nadia Bolz-Weber, Beaty explains, are trying to offer grace to parched souls with “a sexual ethic grounded in the goodness of bodies and of sexual expression based in consent, mutuality and care.” And also fluffy kittens. Bolz-Weber, you will recall, is the Lutheran “pastrix” who wears vestments with cut-off sleeves, has more tattoos than a Maori whaler, and recently forged a disappointingly-small vagina idol from purity rings women sent her. Oh, and she thinks “ethically-sourced” pornography can be a part of “sexual flourishing.”
It’s hard to imagine a more timid or circumspect call for Christian morality than what Beaty goes on to offer. In fact, she’s not really sure what sexual morality ought to look like. She admits: “I yearn for guidance on how to integrate faith and sexuality in ways that honor more than my own desires in a given moment.” Since pledging to save sex for marriage is apparently off the table (that’s psychologically burdensome, remember?), it’s not clear what she has in mind to replace purity culture. She does have lots of colorful adjectives for it, though. It is to be “a spiritual covenant,” a “bodily expression that two people will be for each other, through all seasons.” This new, non-burdensome sexual morality is to be “sacramental,” affirming the goodness of matter through an “encounter with another soul.” How…tantric.
All of this, presumably, is to occur in the context of marriage. But Beaty fails to offer so much as a comment on how anyone actually arrives at the covenantal, sacramental, matter-affirming bonds of the marriage bed without, you know, saying “no” to sin. The problem with purity culture, she writes, is that instead of emphasizing the wonderful gift of sex within marriage, it “led with the shame of having sex outside of it.” (evidently she forgot about the “Wait For Me” journal she told us about mere sentences ago). As if to drive home the irony, she reminds us again that purity culture promoted “sexism and shame,” and kept young people “from knowing the loving, merciful God at the heart of Christian faith.”
Got it? Purity culture, which apparently consisted chiefly in corny merchandising and “manipulative” virginity pledges, is bad. Super bad. Like, still-ruining-my-life-20-years-later bad. But we still need something more than the consensual sensuality the secular culture offers. There should be something special about the marriage bed, something “robust,” and “sacramental” and “covenantal” and…oh, I don’t know, undefiled. Something worth waiting for. Beaty longs for this kind of sexual morality, she says. It just can’t look anything like that dreaded 1990s purity culture.
I feel you, Ryan Gosling.