The news of Josh Harris’ separation from his wife and subsequent announcement of his departure from the Christian faith sent shock-waves through evangelical circles. In the late 90s, Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye was a phenomenon of the first rank, selling over a million copies and destroying all manner of youth groups over whether or not people should date or only “court.”

Its prominence and influence made Harris a convenient target for the growing chorus of critics of evangelicalism’s “purity culture.” Many of those met Harris’ announcement with something approaching schaudenfreude: his divorce, it seems, is vindication that his message was rotten at its core.

Such a response is, perhaps, understandable. After all, the industry that arose within the 90s and early 2000s around promulgating standards of sexual purity deserves serious scrutiny and censure. Purity balls, purity rings, prince and princess books, and so on were a counter-reaction against (reasonable!) perceptions of a cultural atmosphere in which chastity was eroding.

But as so often happens, the reactionary temperament introduced distorted emphases of its own, and at its worst instrumentalized the Gospel for the sake of preserving abstinence and marital flourishing.

Of course, at the same time ‘purity culture’ took hold, many evangelicals were talking as much as possible about how to have awesome sex within marriage—a phenomenon that I scrutinized in my first book. The emergence of the Christian ‘sex manuals’ in the 80s and their growing popularity in the 90s and 00s, rested upon similar presuppositions as purity culture: the Christian faith is here to help you have Really Hot Sex.

Nearly every sermon I have heard that touched on sex and marriage the past decade invoked some variant of this message: “You have heard it said that pleasure is dirty and bad, but I say unto you…” In its extreme form such an ethic looks something like Mark Driscoll’s stance that ‘anything goes,’ provided it happens within marriage.

At the same time, the choice of purity culture’s critics to vilify Harris for his contribution says much about what their fundamental aims are. Harris’ book indisputably launched a thousand arguments, and doubtlessly put an end to not a few dates. But its substance is also shockingly banal, and even—for a twenty-three year old—something near wise. Harris issued all the right qualifications about the dangers of legalism, and included an entire chapter on forgiveness.

It was by no means perfect—but its flaws were such that a sensible 16-year-old could easily detect them without too much damage. Most young people inside evangelicalism were not going to purity balls, and had little problem moving on from Harris when they left high school. Legalism pre-existed Harris’ book, and has long endured after it.

At the same time, people resonated with Harris’ view in part because there was no meaningful alternative. Parents like David French spoke loudly about the joys of going on dates in critiquing Harris, without realizing that as a social practice it had largely died by the late 1990s. A few heroic figures would gamely try to keep it alive, but that was just the problem: that script for finding a marriageable partner now required a heroic sort of virtue, which inherently ruled out many of us.

The absence of a script for how to enter marriage was partially a consequence of the loss of a social vision for why one would marry in the first place—and on those scores, Harris offered a picture of a world that in fact might have been better than the Calvinball-like environment surrounding us. It was nostalgic, yes, and was doomed to be distorted in being implemented. But then, every vision is.1

For many critics, though, critiquing ‘purity culture’ is simply a proxy for Christianity’s sexual ethics—the prohibitions on same-sex and pre- or extra-marital sexual activity, most of all, but also the injunction to live modestly and chastely in all arenas of our lives. A few are more careful–I appreciated Katelyn Beaty’s endorsement of a married sexual ethic here, for instance. But similar problems to those that entangled Harris’ book threaten even those level-headed critiques: by reacting against the excesses and distortions of purity culture, they risk distorting or diminishing aspects of that sexual ethic that are essential for the full flowering of chastity within our lives and communities. Those who wish to critique purity culture should, for instance, be unhesitatingly vocal about Scripture’s prohibitions, including those against same-sex unions.

As an aside, I’d note that I said something almost identical to the gathering of gay Christians at the Spiritual Friendship pre-conference at Revoice two years ago. The dangers of starting reflection about ethics from a reactionary posture are real, and can prompt us to be hesitating and milquetoast about stances that Scripture is unambiguous and bold about. When that occurs, though, the legitimate criticisms gay Christians have to make about evangelicalism’s culture of teaching get lost within the broader cultural capitulation by those who would make the same criticisms and throw out Scripture’s teachings as well.

To put the point differently, reactionary critics should start from their positive vision of things—rather than working toward such a vision in and through their deconstructive efforts or prophetic denunciations. After all, when ‘purity culture’ is overthrown, what then? Ambivalence or ambiguity about Scripture’s teachings on such questions can only leave a different type of wreckage in its wake, and one that is probably more destructive.

Might I propose modesty as one issue that stands in need of retrieval and rehabilitation among the efforts to critique purity culture? For many critics, evangelicalism’s particular approach to modesty placed women under a disproportionate burden to maintain sexual norms, and subsequently imposed disproportionate blame and shame on them for men’s sexual misdeeds.

I have no interest in disputing this thesis in full here. I will note, though, that such (largely) female critics of purity culture can be right, even while telling only a limited and partial story about purity culture’s scope and influence over men. After all, few of them were privy to the vaunted ‘accountability groups’ that structured youth group culture, and the chronic self-laceration for lustful thoughts and attitudes that pervaded them. (Happy was the meeting that was not dominated by such issues.) The self-surveillance and scrutiny that Amy DeRogatis marks as an aspect of purity culture played out differently across the sexes, but was no less present among men—even if it was less public, and therefore less visible.

Still, a sexual ethic in which individuals are fully responsible for their own lustful thoughts does not preclude the responsibility of others to maintain norms of dress that preclude intentionally scandalizing or provoking others, unless one has exceedingly good cause to do so. Insofar as modesty is a virtue, it is a recognition that our bodies are part of a moral ecology; they help create an environment within which other people live, people to whom we have real responsibilities to act in love.

We protect what we love, and that includes our own flesh—protect it not only from the unwelcome eyes of others, but even from those eyes we would welcome in a different context or time. If I may quote myself from a related context:

The Christian objection to porn[ography] is not motivated by a fear of sexuality or by ‘sex negativity,’ but by a sanctified sense of wonder at the beauty of the human being, fully alive and fully revealed. And such wondrous treasures want secrecy: Hiddenness is the native habitat of glory.

But our curious society has long shed its reluctance to profane the most holy places: the body in its sexual presentation is now merely one more trivial amusement meant for the satisfaction of momentary and passing interests, leaving no permanent mark on the soul or the society. Sex no longer matters—which is why it will no longer be fun.

For the comedy, the ordinariness, and the mundane weirdness of sex draw energy and life from the enchanted awe which tempts us to kneel in chaste humility before the glory of another human being. No longer sacred, sex has become nothing at all.2

Sacred things are often secret things. The preservation of a sense of secrecy within our bodies preserves the freedom to give them to another, within our own time and upon our own times. Modesty preserves the meaning of the body as oriented toward others in freedom; it is a means by which we ‘possess [our] vessel’ in honour, rather than dishonour. The failure to live modestly does not make us responsible for the wrongdoings of others—but it might place them in a position where they are forced to adopt a heroic level of virtue. And, as we all know too well, there are not many heroes among us.

It is no easy thing being an evangelical who wants to hold firm to traditional sexual ethics these days. Only the real difficulty arises not from the insults and skepticism of the world around us, but from the challenge of persuading our co-religionists that they have been more worldly than they realized without ourselves being dismissed as simply capitulating on certain norms. I have myself doubtlessly failed to navigate this challenge as well as I might have; perhaps critics of ‘purity culture’ will have more success.

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  1. Fun fact: the first book I wrote still sits on my laptop, unpublished. It was an effort to articulate how a vision for marriage was essential to navigating the process of entering marriage in a world without rules. There is lots of Chesterton in it, and it’s not very well written. But I haven’t seen any reason to disagree with it.
  2. From what I can tell, literally no one has read this book–and my contribution to it is probably the best essay I have written about sexual ethics. Please would someone read it? Pretty please?

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.