Cannonball Read! The Purity Myth, by Jessica Valenti

This year I’ve signed up enthusiastically for Pajiba’s Cannonball Read 6, so approximately once a week (hopefully…) I’ll post a review of another, non-Elisabeth Elliot book.  I’m looking forward to powering through 52 books this year, and hearing about the other Pajiban’s reads!

On to the first review, which is a bit of a cheat since it covers the same subjects I’ve been talking about here on my blog for the past month…

#CBR6 Cannonball Read #1: The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti

Rating: 4/5 stars

Feminism and modern evangelicalism, and the tension between religion’s “ought” and human reality, are some of my favorite topics (hence my blog) so I was excited to finally pick up The Purity Myth. I expected to find a book that succinctly examined our cultural and subcultural obsession with the virgin-whore dichotomy, the use and misuse of the concept of feminine “purity” in modern evangelical and American culture, and the political and personal consequences of our preoccupation with virginity.  I was not disappointed.  It’s an easy read, chock full of citations and punchy, convincing sentences.   Continue reading


Passion and Purity, pg. 33: Unruly Affections

Today we start chapter 4!

“Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners…” …I had been reading my Bible, I believe, quite faithfully, nearly every day through high school and college…It took no specially profound understanding of it to know that I did not begin to measure up to its standards.  As I grew into womanhood and began to learn what was in my heart I saw very clearly that, of all things difficult to rule, none were more so than my will and affections.  They were unruly in the extreme, as the diary entries attest.

Bringing anything into order — a messy room, a wild horse, a recalcitrant child — involves some expenditure.  Time and energy are at least requred.  Perhaps even labor, toil, sacrifice, and pain.

Let’s start with the second paragraph.  It’s true that forming new thought patterns and habits requires work, and this is good to keep in mind when you’re focused on self-improvement of any sort.  It’s very easy to be very lazy with yourself, to begin feeling entitled and self-righteous, and it takes a certain amount of discipline and self-awareness to identify bad habits, address them, and begin forming new, healthier habits.

In fact, I think that it takes time, energy, discipline, toil, sacrifice, and pain, to do most things–a project, a job, a career, a relationship, a dream.  Anything worth fighting for is, at some point, going to require work.

But here Elliot has gone beyond encouraging self-discipline and good habits.  She has characterized normal human emotions as sinful.

It’s normal to have intense crushes on cute guys when you are 19 years old.  It’s normal to stay up at night wondering if he’s The One.  It’s normal to go on mediocre first dates and wonder if you should bother with a second.  This is not what I would call “unruly in the extreme.”

Experiencing emotions is not a sin.  Wishing for a husband — or just a date! — is not a sin.  Feeling lonely and confused is not a sin.  Falling in and out of love is not a sin.

I realize that Elliot could also be implying that she felt she needed to control her emotions better in order to make good decisions about her relationships and her future.  Fair enough–but that’s not exactly what she says here.  She says that her will and affections do not live up to the Bible’s standards.  And as evidence of this, she provides diary entries in which she goes on dates and wonders about the future–standard young adult activities!

Couple problems here.  First: what are the Bible’s standards?  She alludes to them in previous chapters, although she only supported with a few verses: complete commitment to Christ and absolute sexual purity.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, these standards are fine, but hardly comprehensive, and the way Elliot interprets them is shallow.

And I’ll bet cash money that those “unruly wills and affections” listed in the Book of Common Prayer (which she quotes at the beginning) are not only sexual, but include greed, selfishness, gluttony, pride…you know.  Sex is not the only thing that tempts our wills.

Second, and most importantly, this evangelical tendency to think of even emotions as sinful is a really big problem.

It goes like this:

  1. Jesus said we are supposed to be pure in heart.
  2. Jesus also said that even thinking about sinning is the same as actually sinning.
  3. The Bible says that man’s heart (and that obviously includes emotions) is wicked and deceitful.
  4. Therefore, we can’t trust our emotions because they could be leading us into sin.
  5. Therefore, we should spend a lot of time and energy second-guessing our emotions and controlling our thoughts so that they are pleasing to God.

This line of thought is dangerous. Continue reading

Passion and Purity, pg 30: Unnecessarily Gendered, and a summary

Passion and Purity, pg. 30

We’re moving through chapter 3, still laying the groundwork for the forthcoming romance between Elisabeth and Jim.

If times have changed, I see no signs of confusion having lessened.

Sigh.  Again, the times didn’t change in order to eliminate romantic confusion.  They changed to give women equal opportunity in life.

Women still dream and hope, pin their emotions on some man who doesn’t reciprocate, and end up in confusion.

Men do this too.  Unrequited love is a human experience, not a female experience.  Why does this need to be gendered?

The stories get very familiar.  In the woman’s, always the ancient longing–“and her desire shall be for a husband”–the inextinguishable hope for recognition, response, protection.  In the man’s story, always the restlessness to wander, experiment, conquer, even though inside there is a: “hunger not of the belly kind…but the gnawing hunger of lonely men for a home and all that it means.” (quote from a poem by Robert Service)

Again, this is unnecessarily gendered.  Women also have wanderlust, like to experiment and conquer, and long for home “and all it means.”  Men hope for recognition, response, and protection, too.   Continue reading

Passion and Purity, pg 29: Passion is a Battleground

Passion and Purity, chapter 3 pg. 29:

Chapter 3 is called, “Passion is a Battleground” and starts of with Satan himself!  Let’s dive in:

If there is an Enemy of Souls (and I have not the slightest doubt that there is), one thing he cannot abide is the desire for purity.  Hence a man or woman’s passions become his battleground.  The Lover of Souls does not prevent this…He wants us to learn to use our weapons.

I’ll say it again: purity in this context means only “no sex outside marriage”.  Despite the fact that the idea of purity can (and should!) be applied to other aspects of life and spirituality, Elliot is not using the word in any broader sense.  A Christian can desire purity in many shades – a pure heart, free from materialistic distraction; a pure longing for God; a spirituality unmarred by selfishness –but that is not what we are talking about here.  

The idea then is that Satan’s most reliable offense (against every man and woman) is in the realm of sexual temptation.  Our sexual desires are so overwhelming and hard to control that many people simply choose not to, give into temptation…and then Satan has won the battle.  As an added bonus, those who don’t fight the temptation have disappointed Jesus, for He’s one who wants us to “use our weapons.”

Passion and Purity: Page 24, Chapter 2: Choose Your Own Adventure

Today let’s talk some more about taking verses out of context!  Ready?  

A young woman came to me several years ago to ask, “Is it okay to tell God I’ll be a missionary if He’ll give me a husband?” I said no. She had not yet understood his claims. Are we in a bargaining position with our Creator, Redeemer, the Holy One?

I would also tell this woman no, because being a missionary is hard work, and it would be extra miserable if you had any doubt about the calling.  Don’t do it, lady!  I understand this woman’s desperation, though: no boyfriends on the horizon, and isn’t there something she can do?! Who hasn’t asked that!

I’m not sure I agree that we’re not in a bargaining position with our Creator.  Jacob certainly thought we could bargain.  Abraham did it, too, famously. Hezekiah asked God for a longer life and got it.  If the Shulamite woman’s advice can be interpreted to mean, “The Bible says don’t date until you’re ready to get married” why can’t we use Jacob as an example as well: “I will not let you go until you bless me!”  

I can read Jacob’s quote, claim that it means I should bargain with God until he gives me what I want, and go about my merry way, and I have done no more harm to the text than Elliot et al have done by applying “do not awaken love until it pleases” to the modern dating scene.   

Plucking verses from their context and applying them to our lives today with no other guiding principles just leads to confusion.  How are we to know which verses are for us, today, and which can be dismissed?   Unless you have a narrative, to guide you, God can come across as a capricious monster.  As Rob Bell says:

I don’t see all of the passages in the Bible sitting equally side by side so that you can pick one and then counter it with another and go back and forth endlessly, always leading you to the randomness of God.  I read it as an unfolding story, with an arc, a trajectory, a movement and momentum like all great stories have.

Rob Bell

I think this tendency to hold all verses equal and forget about the overarching narrative comes from 2 Timothy 3:16, which enjoys rock-star popularity in evangelical circles:

All scripture is inspired by God [God-breathed] and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…

This is the verse we were taught to remember if anyone questioned the authenticity, accuracy, or divine origins of the Bible.  It also serves as a kind of equalizer: because all Scripture is God-breathed, yes, even those obscure passages in Judges and 1 Chronicles, you are just as likely to find guidance for your life, right now in the book of Numbers as from the Sermon on the Mount.  

In some ways, ironically, we evangelicals have a really excellent sense of narrative.  Consider the question, “Well if God is the same yesterday, today and forever, then why could He get away with genocide in Exodus?”  Any evangelical worth his salt will say, “Because now we are under a New Covenant!”  God is still the same, but now He operates differently because of Jesus.  When we’re talking about covenants and substitutionary atonement, we evangelicals do have a honed sense of narrative and trajectory.  

Unfortunately, we tend to lose that perspective when we are talking about actual human decision-making.  Look at how many  anti-gay rights activists rely on Old Testament verses to support their position.  I would bet money that these same people know all about the new covenant and Paul’s vision of clean and unclean animals, etc, and yet when asked to support their position on “how should we live, right now, and how should we make a decision about this one very specific issue?” they almost immediately choose an Old Testament passage that most specifically supports their position, throwing all that new covenant trajectory stuff out the window.  

I’ve heard pro-life arguments that begin and end with a single Proverb: I knit you together in your mother’s womb.  I’ve heard sermonized dating advice for college students based on a single verse from the story of Isaac and Rebekah (the fact that the story also involves bride prices paid in gold by a servant and an arranged marriage was not mentioned.)  

It’s also common to take a single verse out of context and glean overarching principles from it.  In that sermon from Genesis about Isaac and Rebekah, “Isaac went into his field…” before Isaac’s servant came back with his bride-to-be.  The overarching spiritual/dating principle, we were taught, was that men should be “in their field,” that is, working, if they want God to bring them a girlfriend.  Since we can all think of perfectly happy couples who met and fell in love and got married in less-than-ideal employment circumstances, it’s safe to say that this is a pretty sloppy “principle.”  But there’s nothing in the evangelical approach to the BIble that helps us tidy it up to get a real, working principle.  So, if you were an evangelical who wanted to argue against this sloppy interpretation, you can use logic and experience, or you can find another Bible verse that summarizes your point for you.  

Unfortunately, That One Bible Verse will pretty much always trump logic and experience in an argument with an evangelical.  After all, all Scripture is God-breathed, and therefore much more reliable than your mind/experience.   

When we approach the Bible as a Choose Your Own Adventure book (Do you want more guidance before making a decision about prom?  Turn to Matt 5. Have you already prayed for guidance and are ready to ask her out?  Turn to Gen. 24) we forget about the fact that it’s us choosing the adventure.  We are choosing which verse to turn to, which verse to ignore, which plot point matters most.  And we don’t choose in a vacuum, but in a context of culture, religion, desires, language, mood, education.  Our choices may be wise and godly, but let’s not pretend they’re universal.  

I have posted about taking verses out of context twice in a row because I think this sloppy approach to applying Bible verses is also kind of a theme in Elliot’s book.  Soon we’ll see how she takes single experiences from her own life and turns them into Timeless Christian Principles for All Men and Women Everywhere.  I think this problem is easy to overlook in Passion and Purity because the evangelical assumptions are deep, implicit, and hard to identify–especially since they are cushioned in romance and martyrdom.

Individual experiences, like individual Bible verses, can and often do illustrate greater principles.  But without a reliable, Jesus-centric interpretation framework, it’s very easy to think that every individual experience and every Bible verse is equally applicable to any given situation.  And that can lead to advice that is just plain bad.  

Passion and Purity: A Moment’s Hot Desire

Passion and Purity,  Chapter 2: The Life I Owe, pg 24

Elliot wants to impart a “sense of destiny” to color the rest of the story in the book: the way to do this in a Christian sex book, of course, is to remind everyone that following Christ is worth more than a momentary sexual passion.  He has paid the price for your soul; you therefore owe Him your life (including your sexual choices, obvs).  Hence this chapter’s title.

The sense of destiny: someone has paid for me with blood.  How the knowledge lifts my spirits beyond the moment’s hot desire!

I think that this spiritual appeal is a much more solid foundation for her book than the previous chapter’s murky history lesson and feminist straw men.  What’s more, it’s hard not to admire her steadfastness and resolution.  She’s all in.

It is also very good advice to keep long-term goals in mind when you’re making decisions, particularly decisions about sex: Is this worth it? Is this relationship healthy?  Is s/he pressuring me at all?  What does this mean to me — and to us?  Will this distract me from other important things in my life?   How will I feel about this later?  Am I prepared to take the necessary precautions to avoid pregnancy and STDs and other negative consequences?  If not, why not?  Does this jibe with my faith?  Etc.  Sex can have some serious consequences.  Think about them before diving in.

But — you knew there’d be a but! — let’s think about how she characterizes sexual temptation: “a moment’s hot desire.”

Now let’s think about how Elliot has previously characterized sexuality, using flippant words and phrases like, “Times have changed, they say.  Everyone’s equal.” and “Now anyone can go to bed with anyone else, regardless of gender.”  In the last chapter, she effectively defines “modern” sexuality as “doing whatever you want with whomever you want.” Later in this book and in others, she will give instruction on appropriate gender roles in great detail–delving into that now would make this post far too long so suffice to say that prescribed gender roles by definition don’t make much accommodation for an individual’s own sexuality or sexual expression.

So as far as I can tell, Elliot values sex (within marriage) but doesn’t have much time for the idea of sexuality. Continue reading

Sex is not Arithmetic

We’ve got to get off this penchant for thinking that if something is true or right, it will automatically be better in our experience. That is a theology of glory. That is a prosperity gospel. That is Christians trying to justify themselves before the world by claiming that God’s Kingdom always advertises itself by visible proofs.

In other words, stop trying to defend the faith by saying silly things like it leads to better sex.

Chaplain Mike breaks it down over on Internet Monk.