The Problem with Purity

This semester I am teaching a new course called The Meaningful Life where currently we are talking about the relationship between spirituality and religion. Not a new topic, of course, it is one of increasing importance as poll after poll suggests Americans see themselves as spiritual while at the same time rejecting the idea of being religious. Religion, it seems, has fallen on hard times.

And for good reason. In our cultural climate where division is hailed as the same thing as conviction and where cooperation is denigrated for capitulation, who can argue that contemporary notions of religious fervor have not fanned these acrimonious flames? Orthodox religion of whatever stripe seems to be producing people who are stridently right in their beliefs while also seemingly unaware that the primary test of whether or not a religion has produced its intended result is the presence of compassion, a tangible extension of selfless love.

It wasn’t hard for religion, in this case Christianity, to lose its way. It happened, I think, when the Bible was made the end all and be all and when people decided the best way to study it was to break it into small, discrete units separated from the grand narrative running all the way from the book of beginnings to the vision of God’s dream coming to fruition not through some violent battle where God smites everyone who hasn’t seen the Light but by embracing the journey to be love, to de-throne one’s self and to truly live for others. It was then, too, that individual verses easily became excised from narrative context and historical realities.

I see this unfortunate approach to reading and so to theology in many of the materials espousing purity. Dannah Gesh, for example, writes on her blog about how everyone is born a sinner (and thus not pure) even though they may initially be innocent. (I know: I had to read it several times, too.) Dannah simply states this idea of hers to be true and then supports it by throwing out a few Bible verses:

“Indeed I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5).

“Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23).

“Surely there is no one on earth so righteous as to do good without ever sinning.”
(Ecclesiastes 7:20).

Her conclusion is that people (her audience, specifically: young girls) are given the potential to create purity by saying no to lust. Over time one builds up a whole lot of beating back lust, turning it, eventually, into purity, the seeming goal of every young Christian girl because, of course, she was a sinner from the very beginning.

Can I be honest? I don’t understand the reason for creating such a convoluted explanation of something pretty straight forward: teens have raging hormones and quite a bit of curiosity about their bodies. Why do we need to rummage through thousands of biblical passages to find a few verses to hurl at these young teens with the intent of convincing them just how sinful they are as if this is the sum total of the Christian message.

I’m not advocating for some kind of full-on embrace of free love by which I really mean sexual promiscuity, but I’m also pretty sure this isn’t as central to the gospel as purity pundits would like young teens to believe.

Instead of manipulating Scripture to scare young women and men from engaging in sex before they should wouldn’t it be better if parents and teachers and faith leaders taught teens to read the Bible, to understand its grand plot and message and to talk openly and honestly about sex and promiscuity, STDs, and to see themselves as whole persons, as people of tremendous value?

Reducing young women to gatekeepers of their “sexual purity” is essentially telling them their sexuality is unnatural, something to be shunned, while at the same time, that it is the most important part of themselves.

The answer Dannah Gesh and others give to avert young teens from sexual experimentation is pushing purity with pretty flimsy biblical support. Another approach might be to take the Bible seriously and help young women and men to see God made them and every other living being. And that they are good.