Beyond the Purity Culture Wars | Sojourners

Beyond the Purity Culture Wars

For the last two decades, the evangelical church in the United States has adopted a posture many refer to as “purity culture,” which praises the virtue of chastity and calls on all single young adults to pledge themselves to a high standard of sexual purity before marriage. This movement was especially pronounced in the late '90s, aided by a 1997 book by Joshua Harris, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, published when he was just 21 years old. The book asks readers to consider a spiritual alternative to the secular practice of dating. Its massive popularity went on to directly and indirectly shape dating rules laid out by many evangelical parents, and in turn shape the relationships and habits of a generation of young evangelical readers.

Twenty years later, many 20- and 30-somethings still feel the effect of growing up inside purity culture. Online communities like the No Shame Movement give space to individuals to speak out about the harm — physical, spiritual, mental, or emotional — “purity culture” has caused.

In her 2015 book Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity, author Dianna Anderson explains some of the negative consequences of purity culture:

Many grew up being told over and over that their virginity was the most important thing they could give their spouse on their wedding night, only to reach that point and realize that having saved themselves didn’t magically create sexual compatibility or solve their marital issues. Many soon divorced. Still others sat silently in their church groups, wondering what virginity could possibly mean for them as people who had been victims of incest or abuse or who felt attracted to the same gender.

Two years ago, Harris left his position as minister of the Covenant Life Church to study theology at Regent College. There, Harris met filmmaker Jessica Van Der Wyngaard, who was completing a master's in Theological Studies. Van Der Wyngaard was considering a documentary on issues of singleness and dating in the church, and after studying alongside students like Van Der Wyngaard, Harris developed a goal to revisit his book. He wanted to figure out what he still agreed with, while addressing the impact it has had on so many. As he completed a guided study with a professor, reading books that covered Christian culture at the turn of the century, he simultaneously began asking for public input from individuals, responding to tweets and emails from readers.

Fatherhood has also changed Harris’ perspective. One of Harris’s daughters is now entering dating age.

“We do learn through the agonizing journey of mistakes and heartache and pain, and I think that my impulse as a dad is to protect her from that, but I don’t think that’s realistic," Harris said. "I think you create a different set of problems when you try to protect yourself or your kids from that. I think what I want for her is to have rich relationships that begin with her relationship with God and flow into relationships with men and women with many different backgrounds and perspectives, and I want her to learn by interacting with lots of people the type of person she wants to be alongside in a committed relationship.”

When Jessica Van Der Wyngaard arrived at Regent in her late 20s, she saw the issues around singleness that she’d experienced at her home church magnified at the university level. Other single friends agreed to feeling pressured toward marriage or made to feel as if something was wrong with them.

“What frustrated me was that so much of the dialogue around sexual purity, singleness, and dating was in the hands of the people who got married when they were 21,” she said. “And they don’t know what it’s like to be in your late 20s or early 30s and single, and that dialogue needed to be expressed from someone that was in that position.”

After discussing the documentary, Van Der Wyngaard and Harris agreed that a partnership made sense. Van Der Wyngaard would produce and direct a documentary that followed Harris’s journey as he processed his first book and looking how the issues surrounding dating and singleness in the church have evolved over the past 20 years.

They’re calling the project I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

One of the documentary’s subjects, Debra Fileta, therapist and author of True Love Dates: Your Indespensable Guide to Finding the Love of your Life, explained her participation via email:

“The past 20 years, so much of the conversation within the church has been centered on what ‘not to do’ in relationships ... but there aren't enough people talking about how to do dating and relationships well. So many singles are going into marriage completely unequipped due to the lack of education and conversation that's happening about relationships in the dating phase … I'm thankful to have a chance to be a part of this upcoming conversation.”

Earlier this summer, Van Der Wyngaard launched a Kickstarter to fund the documentary so that they could release the film for free and make it a resource for churches. Van Der Wyngaard explained that she had been waiting for years for someone to engage in the questions she believes the film will ask. She decided that crowdsourcing, as opposed to finding organizational sponsorship, was a way of including others like her who were asking the same questions.

“I wanted the conversation to feel for people like they were part of it, like they were owning part of this conversation and were on the journey with us,” she said.

Some familiar with Harris’ first book are wary of donating to revisited project without a clear understanding of what its overall message will be. Poet and public speaker Emily Joy wrote on Facebook, “Unless Joshua Harris is about to renounce the entirety of purity culture, from style to content, then he doesn't need a single dollar from us — and he certainly doesn't need 38,000 of them to tell us that he meant well but just got a few things wrong.”

According to her Facebook page, Joy is among the “post-evangelical Christians currently leaving the church due to its hate-filled rhetoric and exclusionary theology.” And in fact, one of the biggest challenges that Van Der Wyngaard’s and Harris’ project will face is that many of the individuals who “survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye” have left the evangelical church and are less open to hearing a conservative response.

Harris says he anticipates this.

“It’s understandable that people want to know exactly what’s going to be said before they fund something,” he said. And he says that he and Van Der Wyngaard are still approaching the topic from a conservative stance.

“We think we have a chance to encourage a humility and a respect — which we recognize that different people would say, ‘Well that falls so far short of where you need to be,’ but we’re trying to be realistic about where we are and who we can speak to at this point,” he said.

The entire scope of the documentary is still a work in progress. While they know that they can’t address all issues around sexuality — for instance, they do not plan on tackling topics like sexual orientation or pornography head on — they are interviewing individuals like Debra Hirsch, author of Redeeming Sex: Naked Conversations about Sexuality and Spirituality, who is already asking them provoking questions that broaden the conversation.

If their Kickstarter is not funded, the project might not come to life as it is laid out, but both Harris and Van Der Wyngaard are still committed to producing a free public message. Just where the conversation will go, they’ve yet to figure out.

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