By: Christopher West
The headline in USA Today caught my eye — “A Dance For Chastity,” as did the large sketch of a teenage girl wearing a t-shirt that read, “Virginity Lane: Exit When Married.” Was USA Today actually offering a positive article on the growing chastity movement? Then I read the tag line: “Some evangelical Christians are organizing ‘purity balls,’ at which young girls are urged to put off sex until marriage. Instead, these events simply reinforce society’s misguided notions of patriarchal religion.” So believes Mary Zeiss Stange, a professor of women’s studies and religion at Skidmore College, who authored the article (see USA Today, March 19, 2007, p. 15A).
She describes these dances as follows: “Imagine an evening of candlelight and roses, fancy food and formal dress and ballroom dancing, all in celebration of a promise of loving commitment…. They are called purity balls, and they celebrate the father-daughter bond. Tuxedo-clad dads promise to ‘war for’ their daughters’ ‘purity’…. Daughters, in turn, vow abstinence until marriage.” Stange looks for a few positive things to say about how these events promote “quality time” between daughters and their fathers. Still, she concludes that “there is something profoundly disturbing about these purity balls and all they represent.” Assuming any sensible human being would agree, she asserts: “Underlying this whole business, of course, is the age-old assumption that sex is dirty.” Really? If a father desires purity for his daughter he must view sex as something dirty? “Of course,” according to Professor Stange. For her, “purity” has become a dirty word. Read the entire article here.
Purity vs. Puritanism
But here Stange falls for a common error — that of confusing purity with puritanism. Puritanism stems from a heretical view of the body and sex as something inherently tainted, “dirty,” even evil. This is not authentic Christian purity. The idea that the body is inherently evil is precisely what authentic Christian purity frees us from. Christian purity thoroughly cleanses us from the “dirt” that attacks the true goodness of the body and sex. That’s what sexual purity is — freedom from all that taints sex.
Stange’s accusation that Christians consider sex to be “dirty” may be true in some, even many cases. But this is by no means a neurosis induced by authentic Christian purity. A suspicion towards the physical world and discomfort with all things sexual seems to hang like a dark shadow over all human experience. Like the rest of humanity, Christians have been and still are affected and even infected by it. Hence, through the centuries the Church has defended the goodness of the physical world and the sacredness of the human body against many heresies. The Church still battles today to counter the heretical “spirit good—body bad” dichotomy which many people assume to be Christian belief.
Christianity does not reject the body!
How can one stress it enough? In a virtual “ode to the flesh,” the Catechism proclaims: “‘The flesh is the hinge of salvation.’ We believe in God who is creator of the flesh; we believe in the Word made flesh in order to redeem the flesh; we believe in the resurrection of the flesh, the fulfillment of both the creation and the redemption of the flesh” (1015, emphasis added). Perhaps we as Christians could take Stange’s challenge as an opportunity to examine our own approach to purity. Are there ways that a negative view of the body has seeped into our thinking? Do we in any way devalue the body and sex in the name of “purity”? Do we speak of the body or certain body parts as “dirty”? Do we label the body itself as something impure rather than examine the impurity of our hearts?
It is the lustful heart that is impure, not the human body itself. This is a critical distinction to understand if our purity is to be just that — pure. And it is a critical distinction to live if we are to counter the widespread idea reinforced by USA Today that Christianity views sex as something dirty.