Today’s post is an honest and moving piece by Stephen Pihlaja (@StephenPihlaja) and examines the personal experiential journey of purity culture as a man who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian environment in the USA. Stephen recounts his experience of purity culture in the Japanese church in comparison.
Stephen Pihlaja teaches and researches Language and Religion at Newman University in Birmingham, UK. His latest book Talk about Faith: how conversation and debate shape belief (Cambridge University Press) explores how changes in belief emerge from interaction between people of faith.
In the past several years, increasing critical attention has come to Evangelical Christian teaching on ‘purity’, and its particular focus on abstinence from sex before marriage. A recent New York Times article highlighted the pressures this placed on young Christians, and young women specifically, to avoid sexual expression, to keep both themselves and others free from sexual sin. Joshua Harris, the author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which outlined the ideology of abstinence and pressured young Christians to consider romantic relationships only in the context of a potential marriage partner, has since denounced the book and pulled it from circulation, The Times reports — Harris himself is no longer a Christian.
Highlighted in The Times’ reporting are stories of personal experiences of the Evangelical church and of the damaging effects of its theology. These are brought to the forefront and highlighted by such figures as Blake Chastain and Chrissy Stroop. The attention in reporting about purity culture has rightly focused on the pain and trauma this teaching inflicts on young women in the church, because they bear the burden of both keeping themselves pure from sexual sin, but also not appearing as a temptation for the men in their community. The complementarian, patriarchal teaching of sexuality in these contexts sees women as subservient to men in the home and in the church, but also as responsible for sexual sin. These teachings understand sexuality in women as primarily oriented towards men — sex is what men want and it is the role of women to withhold it or give it.
The consequences of this teaching aren’t, however, limited to young women in the church. As a young man, I, too, attempted to kiss dating goodbye. Having grown up homeschooled in the USA, in a fundamentalist home in the nineties, sexuality was something that we avoided entirely — you changed the channel when the joking turned sexual, you didn’t watch movies with sex in them. My friend couldn’t watch any films for a year after he secretly saw Titanic because there was nudity in it.
At the same time, the older I got, the sexual prosperity gospel offered a way out — if you were faithful, God would bless you with an incredible sex life once you got married. In books like Every Young Man’s Battle, we were told the reward for abstinence was a kind of sexual fulfilment that couldn’t be found outside of marriage, a fulfilment that would make any part of the struggle to stay pure pale in comparison. So, I was focused on marriage, even when I was sixteen, accepting that this was the only acceptable way to express my sexuality.
In my final year in high school, I began a relationship with someone in the church youth group. Both of us had read Harris’ book and committed to dating ‘intentionally’ (as we would have said). We looked at wedding rings and discussed how big our family would be. I remember having just turned 18, asking her father, who was far less religious than I was and much more pragmatic, for his daughter’s hand in marriage. He told me it really wasn’t his decision, I could do what I wanted, but his suggestion was that I wait a year, at least. What was the rush.
The rush was, of course, sex. We were in a liminal space that no one seemed to account for in their theologies: we were supposed to be married, but we were too young to be married. Our sexual desire was from God, it was a good thing, but acting on it was not. The relationship couldn’t withstand these contradictions — we were teenagers. I exercised an unreasonable amount of authority and arrogance because it was my role — I would question how she dressed, what she did with her friends, all the while feeling the crushing guilt as our relationship grew closer and we slipped up or went too far more often. I became sick from the guilt in my first year of college — I went through a series of tests for chronic pain in my stomach and eventually, inevitably, we broke up.
Two years passed and I graduated college and felt called to the mission field. A friend of mine in the church had been asked to go to Japan to teach English at a church and was looking for someone to potentially go with him. I could go then and have an accountability partner, someone to help me avoid temptation and still serve the church. I found myself serving in a small church for a year, teaching free English lessons and leading Bible studies, which the students attended in exchange for the free English lessons.
Purity Culture in the Japanese Church
The church in Japan remains small — in the early 2000s we were told that only 1% of the population was Christian — and predominately female. The message of purity in the Japanese church that I experienced was different suddenly, much less focused on whether you were sexually impure (as there were far fewer teenagers in the churches), but more on when you would marry and start a family. The teaching in the Japanese church around this was against marriage to non-Christians, seemingly for understandable reasons: if a woman married a non-Christian, her in-laws would pressure her and the children to take part in Shinto and Buddhist religious ceremonies and eventually to leave the church.
But the churches always had a much higher number of Christian women than men. This led to a situation where Christian women were encouraged to marry and have kids (this being their primary purpose) but were unable to find Christian spouses. The ageing church leaders encouraged marriage in the same way as in the States, but with fewer options, the relationships between potential partners had one prerequisite: that you were both Christians and would have Christian kids. You could have, essentially, arranged marriages, where the basis wasn’t love or mutual attraction, but perceived fit in terms of religious belief, because what the church needed more than anything was more people.
I was oblivious to this cultural nuance and history, listening instead to the other American missionaries around me. Mostly, they were men married to American women and steeped in deeply racist and sexist understandings of Asian culture. They talked about marriage as a kind of service to the Japanese church, one which led to mutual blessings: that same sexual prosperity gospel, where if you were willing to step out and have faith to get married, God would bless you. It fit with the message I had heard in the American church, the same story: marriage was the only appropriate way to express sexuality, and marriage would bring blessings to you, because God intended it that way.
These two cultural expressions of the same purity myth touched in a predictable way — I met the woman who would become my wife and we were married within less than a year. Our first child was born ten months and seven days later. Any doubt about the success of the relationship was swallowed up in a belief about God’s will, and the truth that by doing the right thing, blessings would follow. When they did not, when both myths turned out to be wrong, the disappointment, anger, and depression stayed lodged within the relationship, affecting everything about our lives even after we had identified it as a set of irreconcilable false beliefs. You can stop believing anything, but it doesn’t stop living in you.
I, like Harris, couldn’t keep these contradictions from affecting my theology and I eventually left the faith. Now, fifteen years later, I’ve come to understand in my own life and through my research into religious discourse, how worlds of meaning are created by what you say about feelings and actions in the social world, and, more importantly, how the myths that emerge out of particular systems of power serve those systems.
Theologies do not exist in a vacuum, and religious belief which is not applicable without creating trauma in the real world needs to be rejected. The control exerted over sexual expression in the Evangelical church objectifies and shames women, erases gay and trans people, and demands that all men participate in the system without question. Everyone, including believers, benefits from its critical examination and deconstruction.