On purity culture and violence, briefly

1. When a mass murderer tells police that he was “eliminating temptation,” I don’t think the right response is to assume he is telling the truth even by his own perspective. Maybe he really thinks that’s what he was doing. But maybe he killed eight people because he despaired at life and was angry, and decided later that “eliminating temptation” was a rationale that made sense and kept him from committing suicide. 

2. In any event, it is definitely the wrong response to assume that his parents, friends, or pastors taught him—explicitly or implicitly—to do this. If you’re tempted to think this way, imagine that the group that mentored him are not someone you dislike such as “purity culture evangelicals,” but somebody different. 

3. I think stories like this are frustrating because they offer genuine insight mixed with a journalistic framing that is deeply untrustworthy. Brad Onishi, Jeff Chu, and Samuel Perry—the three voices brought in to criticize evangelical purity culture—are all examples of LGBT-affirming post-evangelicalism. Because of this framing, the subtext of the article is that there are really only two choices for evangelical Christians: double down on hating women and empowering shooters like Robert Long, or abandon core evangelical doctrines. This is exactly the posture that defines nearly all anti-purity culture writing I see, which is why I get so frustrated by it, even when it makes genuinely helpful points…

4…such as Perry’s observation that a lot of evangelical men evaluate their spiritual lives only by the rubric of “purity.” That’s so true.

5. No reasonable person denies that evangelical purity culture can make destructive mistakes. I lived in it, most of my friends did too. These are real stories. 

6. But at what point does your experience in youth group stop being formative? I mean this sincerely. Why do many critiques of purity culture hinge on an ongoing psychological trauma caused by the 3-4 years you spent as a teenager getting just about everything in your life messed up? Maybe one of the lessons of youth group purity culture is that it’s a bad idea to have a 22 year old youth pastor give 13 year old students a book about sex and dating written by a 17 year old. 

7. It’s good to keep in mind that, for all of purity culture’s failures, the anti-purity culture spaces in American society don’t seem to be much wiser at this either

Author: Samuel D. James

Believer, husband, father, acquisitions editor, writer.

7 thoughts on “On purity culture and violence, briefly”

  1. You have some good points and I understand your frustration all around. I have had to work through a lot of “purity culture” beliefs that shaped the way I experienced and approached adulthood. I think a helpful way to look at all this is to see people as wounded. Their souls have actual sores and injuries. You cannot speak to an injury, explain yourself to an injury, reason your way around an injury and expect the injury to heal. Unattended, the injury will actually get worse, become more inflamed, and “scream” louder for someone to pay attention to it. This is what is happening in our culture. People are festering with wounds. The job of the church is to love our neighbor in the way Jesus taught us in the parable of the Good Samaritan. He sees the man on the side of the road and does something to help him. The first step in that is the recognition and acknowledgement that the man in the side of the road is hurt.

    So how do we help all these wounded people coming out of the evangelical culture? I don’t have an exact answer for that, but I think a start is realizing that deep wounds usually do not heal by telling them they should be fine by now. (Not saying you were suggesting that) If we are the body of Christ, we can’t consistently ignore entire parts of our body and still be functional and healthy. Real people need attention and care.

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    1. Another thought I had, and perhaps one reason why “the answer” seems so hard to put into mass read words, is that the The Good Samaritan story is one of one man directly tending to the broken state of another. The life-changing and life-giving attention and care, this love of the neighbor taught by Jesus, takes place in a one on one situation and context. Soul-healing only comes via a direct encounter with Christ’s love.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I’m really confused in reading your comment. Surely you aren’t implying that people are not wounded when being raised in an environment where there are no sexual boundaries, such as progressive Christianity? Are you also suggesting that people who were raised in an evangelical culture are all damaged/wounded? It sounds like you are using “all or nothing” thinking. I was raised in an “Evangelical Culture” that taught biblical principles of sexual immorality…the biblical foundation of sex before marriage as sinful. Did all young people refrain from having sex before marriage? No. Did we become so broken as we faced temptations and dilemmas that we went out and killed people to stop the temptation? No. But those who chose to have sex knew it was against God’s design for a healthy sexual relationship in the confines of marriage. Teens make impulsive decisions based on emotions, that is not a new concept. As a former teen and a former parent of a teen, having healthy family discussions will always have a more impactful and enduring influence than what is taught in a finite youth group. If parents are leaving the spiritual and moral development of their children up to a youth leader, therein lies a huge part of the disconnect and void. If parents aren’t discussing and asking questions about what is being discussed in youth meetings, then parents are dropping the ball. It may not stop a teen from having sex before marriage, but the foundation is planted. The teen may also abandon their Chrisitan teaching altogether and choose sexual promiscuity. As you state, If you are truly wounded by the evangelical culture it would seem that rather than looking for healing outside of a relationship with Jesus Christ, that you are looking in all the wrong places. When anyone makes a radicalized decision that is not based in reality, we must look deeper than the surface. There are many red flags with this young man’s story that speak to disorganized, irrational thought processes that perhaps are the result of an undiagnosed mental health issue. Most teens follow an emotional/intellectual trajectory of maturation when becoming young adults where they are able to make healthier decisions based on their developing moral compass and both negative and positive experiences while evolving and maturing past “all or nothing” thinking. All-or-nothing thinking often involves using absolute terms, such as never or ever, everyone and no one. This type of faulty thinking can also include an inability to see the alternatives in a situation or solutions to a problem. For people with anxiety or depression, this often means only seeing the downside to any given situation. Many teens are emotionally immature and are victims of “all or nothing” thinking, hence an epidemic of teen suicide. However, when they make the developmental transition to young adulthood, much of the cognitive distortion is outgrown. Granted, there are many adults walking around stuck in a developmental pit where they have not moved into the next phase of emotional and intellectual maturity for a myriad of reasons. My point is that everyone has a “broken” story but we all don’t become mass murderers. To look for the “quick explanation” does severe harm to finding root causes for such radical behaviors. I’m truly not trying to negate your pain or your experience, but your explanation is overly simplified and lacks substance other than “the good samaritan” biblical reference, which is a wonderful reference where Jesus models compassion to anyone regardless of circumstances. It sounds like you are transferring your experience to explain this person’s actions, and assuming his motive is justified through the lens of your experience from a youth group. It also sounds like another attempt to disparage and discredit evangelical churches and historic Christianity.
      There are many people who are walking around wounded and broken, many having to do with sexual issues, but countless others that have nothing to do with sexual issues, but nevertheless are hurting. Sin is and always has been the root cause of brokenness. Until we reconcile our sinfulness with Jesus we will remain broken. We are all looking for a quick answer and someone to blame when senseless, heinous acts occur. We find a politically correct narrative to satisfy the masses, and leave God out of the solution. I’m sorry for your negative experiences with evangelical youth teaching, but as the old saying goes “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

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      1. Hello. Thank you for your reply. I ought to have clarified that my comment was mostly sparked and in response to point #6 in the original post. Growing up in the evangelical culture or family, it has been hard to watch so many “brothers and sister” from my generation fall away from the faith and end up so hurt and angry regarding things they were taught. Is it possible to love these people back to the fold? Personally, I remember youth group as a positive experience that served as a place to be with other believers and be nurtured in the faith by other adults who could back up the values held by my parents. The “purity culture” influence for me was something that happened in isolation. For better or worse, I also tend to lump purity culture in with complementarianism/Christian marriage books, because my exposures to those things came when I was seeking help and knowledge ON MY OWN, outside of the guidance of other believers. As a teen dealing with sexual temptation in a relationship, I read books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye. As a young wife wanting to find guidance in being a godly wife and building a strong relationship with my husband, I read books like His Needs, Her Needs and Created to Be His Helpmeet (not necessarily complementarian books) ON MY OWN. Would my parents have gladly talked to me about my struggles and questions? I’m sure they would have, but it was also very awkward and I felt like I couldn’t. My oldest is a 16 1/2 year old son, and it still feels awkward to bring up the subject even though I thought I’d be so open as a parent. Perhaps I am projecting my own experience onto the culture, but I feel like this problem of isolation continues today. Who do we go to talk about our problems, particularly the most pressing and intimate ones?

        “It sounds like you are transferring your experience to explain this person’s actions, and assuming his motive is justified through the lens of your experience from a youth group.”

        If I might clarify, I definitely didn’t mean to sound like I was justifying this man’s actions. His actions were wrong. I was speaking more to the response of people saying things like, “See? The way we in the church talk about sexual issues matters”. Do I think evangelicals are at fault for this man’s crime? No. I do, however, sometimes wish that the complementarian crowd who claims to cherish and honor women and teach that they are worth protecting, particularly by men, would come out a little stronger against crimes like this instead of get tied up trying to defend their beliefs, which is where they seem to get so stuck. It’s the whole, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” maxim. Jesus was both. He knew a lot AND he cared. That then played out in the life that he lived.

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  2. AMEN! My formative time was university, going to L’Abri (Schaeffer was still alive), visiting Christians behind the Iron Curtain and all sorts of things that never came up in youth group! Why the fixation with youth group? Someone stuck in their teens is in a sad place in life. Meeting Christians in Beijing who survived the Cultural Revolution or clambering over the Green Line in war-ravaged Beirut to get to a Bible study did far more for my faith than youth group! So glad to see Sam’s Biblical perspective on this whole sorry mess…. Christopher

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