“Table for 19 Virgins, Please.”
In 2004, TLC introduced us to an Arkansas family that left the nation slightly bewildered. When Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar first appeared on TLC accompanied by their 14 children wearing matching polos and calico jumpers, we all asked ourselves: Is this real? Are they Mormon? Are they Catholic? How on earth can they afford to have fourteen kids?
Well, they can afford to have fourteen kids. In fact, they can afford to have 19 kids (20 if you count the family adoption in progress). They have married off almost four of their children and now have 6 grandchildren with number 7 on the way.
But the shock and awe didn’t end at the wonder of Michelle Duggar’s incredible womb. Additionally, mainstream-America was treated to a rather wholesome, whimsical rendering of various conservative Christian ideologies. While not exhaustive, here are the highlights as presented by TLC in some form or another:
- The Quiverfull Movement: the shunning of birth control and family planning (barrier contraception and “natural family planning” methods included), and the aim to have as many children as God intends.
- Christian Patriarchy Movement: essentially, the move to return to complete male headship and absolute authority, not only in churches but also in homes. Especially prevalent in the Institute of Basic Life Principles (founded and formerly led by Bill Gothard*) and Vision Forum (now closed, but founded and formerly led by Doug Phillips*).
- Christian Courtship: a practice that stems from the idea that even a loving romantic relationship can lead to baggage, so it is best not to enter into them if there is a chance that they will fail. These types of courtships are narrowly marriage-focused to the extent that some begin with a marriage proposal. Often, these are arranged by the young woman’s father and can be terminated, but likely not without great pain and shame to not only the involved parties, but to their families as well.
Each of these could very well have its own series. Like most of Christian history, the lines are not hard between these various ideologies. Like the Duggars, many families follow bits and pieces of each. That being said, there seem to be two primary threads that hold these movements together: they are largely patriarchal (male-led and dominated) and their core is built on sexual purity, especially as it pertains to women.
Guard Your Cupcakes and Your Chewing Gum
Part of my vested interest in how Christians discuss sex is due to the fact that, more or less, I grew up in a soft form of purity culture. The 90s saw the hay-day of promise rings, purity pledges, and every book imaginable about Christian dating. While in my context, there were no Purity Balls or picture books about a sacred “first kiss” given to me at my birth by God, I did listen to Barlow Girl, Steve Green, and DC Talk on a fairly regular basis.
I never read the book about the two sisters being given the gift of golden apples to safeguard until the prince arrived back home to claim them, but I do I recall a youth gathering in which we watched a short film featuring a young woman holding an apple. As the film progressed, long railroad ties were driven into the fruit, demonstrating the female heart being savagely and irreparably damaged with every sexual (or merely romantic) encounter.
“God could fix it,” we were assured, but looking at the decimated fruit, it was clear the subtext read: “but really only to a certain extent.” Like the many other metaphors for women’s soiled virginity (licked cupcakes, chewed gum, half-consumed cookies, etc.), this rather violent display insisted that the core of our feminine beauty rested on this rather abstract and nebulous idea of our purity and how well we maintained it, and once it was gone, it was gone for good.
As life progressed and I started studying scripture with a little more gusto, I found myself wondering how the church could take such a glorious story of love and redemption and boil it down to one human activity. I was surprised by how little the Gospels actually glorify virginity in comparison to, say, glorifying the love and care of one’s neighbor.
So, what are we doing here?
A question I frequently ask myself: what are we doing here? What I hope this series will be is a cursory examination of purity culture, where it comes from, how it is still practiced, and what its ramifications are in the church and broader world. The veneration of virginity (note: virginity, not chastity) is not only practiced in morally conservative Evangelical churches; it is everywhere and is manifested in a variety of ways, many of which have done significant damage to people, especially women.
This is not a series shaming chastity. We will dig deeper into the nuanced differences of the call to be chaste and the worship of virginity, but for now, the church has always called the Christian (men, women, single, married, young, and old) to periods of chastity. Some are called for life, some for a brief moment, some for longer moments.
Join us again next month as we dig deeper into both historic and theological perspectives on virginity and ponder the question: “How did we get here, and where do we go now?”
*Both Gothard and Phillips were forced to resign following sexual indiscretions, which we might not get to in the scope of this series, but I wanted to set it out on the table.