About ten years ago, I was a 20ish-year-old undergrad. I Kissed Dating Goodbye had already made the rounds in my circles, I had never seen a woman preach, and I was not yet aware that complementarianism is a fancy word for patriarchy; I did not know what patriarchy was. Feminism was a dirty word. I had never really been on a date.
Elisabeth Elliot was scheduled to speak at our campus ministry and we were all encouraged to read Passion and Purity before the big day. I was a good student. I read the book. It bugged me, a little, but I couldn’t put my finger on the reason; I did not yet have the language to articulate my still, small discomfort. It didn’t seem to contradict anything I believed, but it got under my skin all the same.
I remember her talk being pretty much exactly like her book; there were no new revelations except that she recommended that there were “some things” that you shouldn’t tell your husband about your past, in order to “keep the peace”. I remember this clearly because as soon as she left, our campus ministry director got up and said, “I don’t agree–you should tell your spouse everything. All the time.” I was struck by how blatant this disagreement was, that the director would have the gall to contradict Elisabeth Elliot, of all people! (I was also scared by his pronouncement–I hadn’t done anything bad, of course, but it still scared me to think that someday I might have to confess it all to another person. God was one thing; a husband was quite another.) Other than that, Elliot’s prescriptions were largely swallowed whole. There was no deconstruction of her paradigm, there was no criticism of her book the way we might have criticized other speakers. We read it, we listened, we applauded, and that was that.
In fact, I don’t recall ever reading or hearing a criticism of Elliot’s teachings or books. Even if there were minor disagreements with how to apply her ideas to our own lives (which were sadly lacking in love letters from eligible, attractive missionary men), we pious young evangelical girls generally all just agreed that her story was romantic, wonderful, inspiring. To find a husband like Jim Elliot…!
I am now miles down the road that led me out of the evangelical subculture, and happily married. I’ve followed discussions around the blogosphere putting words to my experiences about leaving the tribe, redefining the church, and finally discovering feminism. I am so grateful for these writers’ words and hard work.
If the Amazon reviews are any indication, Passion and Purity is still an immensely popular Christian dating book, often mentioned in the same breath as I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Indeed, Joshua Harris wrote the introduction to the 2006 edition. This is in keeping with my own experience; the two books were assigned and recommended often, together, and uncritically. I Kissed Dating Goodbye has received some strong criticism, even from its own author. But I have not yet seen a lengthy deconstruction of Passion and Purity – perhaps it is too dated to be considered influential (although it certainly was influential in my circles!) Perhaps Elliot is too esteemed; perhaps there are simply other, more aggravating, books begging for a deconstruction. Or perhaps I simply haven’t seen it! (If so, please do point it out.) Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Kimberley George both made some excellent remarks on Passion and Purity, which I’m sure I’ll refer to in the future, but it’s not quite a full deconstruction.
Elliot’s personal story is remarkable, and she is a strong, smart woman; however, I think there are real problems with the guidelines she prescribes and with the generally uncritical acceptance of Passion and Purity in the evangelical subculture. I do not think it is a helpful book, no matter your marital status, and can in fact be harmful to certain readers. I aim to explore this here from my vantage point as an evangelical expat.