Is purity culture pushing us toward theocracy?
In the nearly two years since I made the leap from blogger to podcaster, we’ve watched the conversation on purity culture continue to swirl on social media. There has been no shortage of material; between Rachel Joy Welcher’s book last year and the ongoing lawsuits involving the SBC’s cover-ups of sexual abuse not to mention the release of the Hillsong documentary. Never has there been a time in the modern era where conservative evangelicalism has been fighting harder to control the narrative around “Christian sexual ethics” as they are now.
Just this week The Gospel Coalition published an excerpt from an upcoming book by author Joshua Butler called “Beautiful Union” in which he used highly sexualized language to describe the relationship between Christ and the church as it should be between husband and wife, among other things. His framing of sex in these excerpts were no more than a gross over exaggeration of neo-Calvinist complementarian values in which women are nothing more than a vessel from which to birth more children and please their husbands. The negative attention it garnered after tweeting a link to the article containing the excerpts implored TGC to delete their tweet, but left the article live on their website.
There was no shortage of reactions on twitter, everything from serious reflections on the danger of seeing women as nothing more than a walking womb (a la Handmaiden’s Tale) to jokes for days about Butler’s serious efforts to spiritualize sex. Many people were surprised that it wasn’t satire, however I don’t think even the best satirist could have written anything quite as awful and get away with it. As someone pointed out later in the day, the book was in fact to be part of a two-book deal with six-figure payday, and the working title of this book had reportedly been “Sex Icon.” Make all of that what you will.
While anyone who writes such ridiculous drivel expecting anyone to take it seriously does deserve pushback and even though some of the jokes did make me laugh, there’s a much more sinister force at work here. Jokes aside, mainstream evangelicals don’t see Butler or his writing as a joke. Quite the opposite, he’s had prior best-sellers in the Christian genre and pastors one of the campuses of a large multi-site church in Phoenix, AZ. His peers laud him for his ground-breaking “expertise” on sex and gender theology. This is someone who’s even found some popularity in more “progressive” circles at times. Until he had written an article for TGC mansplaining the reasons people choose to deconstruct their faith or leave the church, I hadn’t even heard of him before. He’s not your typical theobro shouting online about keeping women subservient for clicks and likes. And that’s exactly why his book is potentially so dangerous.
There is always infighting in and among Christian groups and orgs, this is why there are almost as many denominations as there are translations of the bible. But if you’ve ever lived inside evangelical subculture, you understand the attitude towards voices on the fringe vs. mainstream. The best way to describe it is this: there are some things that are very niche to a denomination, and others that are more broad. For example, if you grew up fundamentalist you might have had to dress in a way that made it obvious you didn’t attend the local presbyterian church. But there are some ideologies or people in evangelical subculture that cross the divide between denominations, like a lot of CCM artists or famous authors. For example, my family wasn’t baptist but plenty of women’s groups at churches I attended used Beth Moore’s bible studies. The formula inside the capitalist nature of evangelism is pretty simple: appeal to a broader audience, control more people with fear of being othered, make more money. Or the version they want you to believe: appeal to a broader audience, win souls for Jesus.
The farther the reach, the more influence these Christian pseudo-celebrities have and the more accepted their views become. In other words, what might have otherwise been seen as fringe, if the right person says it, instead becomes a societal norm in evangelical subculture.
The war has not been won, yet.
It is true that people are leaving these toxic churches at a younger age now than ever before, and that is hopeful to be sure. But for the foreseeable future there will always be another generation of kids being subjected to these teachings. And like we saw in the excerpts from Butler’s upcoming book, these pastors and Christian authors will keep finding new and awful ways to relay the same dangerous message. The message that you are not your own, that women will always be responsible for men’s sexual desires, and that any sex act (even when it’s consensual) is depraved outside of a heterosexual marriage.
The only way we can combat this is by speaking out against it, fighting back against legislation banning books and sex education in schools and urging lawmakers to keep public education a basic human right for all. And for those of us who have kids, we have to change the way we talk about sex with our children– the way we talk about our bodies and consent and gender. Not to mention the way we talk about religion with our kids. Are we teaching them to think for themselves, to ask questions? Are we treating them as human beings whose thoughts and opinions and choices matter? Or are we just trying to control them in a way that makes us more comfortable?
When I first decided to write the series on purity culture, I truly did it as part of my own healing process. And truth be told I thought I’d write it and post it and be done with it. It’s only now looking back that I realize how naive that might have been. I know for some of you, you’ve worked through what you needed to and moved on– and for you it might not be helpful or healthy to keep talking about it. If that’s you then by all means mute all the words and block whoever you need to on social media. But for those of us who have the means and the bandwidth to keep talking about it- to keep speaking truth to power on behalf of every survivor of the war over women’s bodies– we should and will keep talking about it.
Because the war isn’t only for women’s bodies, they’re coming for transgender kids and their parents and their doctors, they’re coming for drag queens and Pride celebrations. They’re coming for pronouns, for crying out loud. All because of the way that Christianity has warped the ideas around sex, sexuality and gender– ignoring science entirely. And it’s not even close to being over yet.