Book Review: ‘Talking Back to Purity Culture: Rediscovering Faithful Christian Sexuality’ by Rachel Joy Welcher

Review is by Jen Pollock Michel, who is the author of Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of “And” in an Either-Or World. She lives with her husband and their five children in Toronto.

In his classic book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton described the surprising, even subversive, nature of truth: “Whenever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth.”

He gave the example of celibacy as an illustration: “It is true,” Chesterton wrote, “that the historic Church has at once emphasized celibacy and emphasized the family; has at once … been fiercely for having children and fiercely for not having children. It has kept them side by side like two strong colors, red and white. … [The Church] has always had a healthy hatred of pink.”

Chesterton’s words serve to frame the helpful approach of Rachel Joy Welcher in her recent book, Talking Back to Purity Culture: Rediscovering Faithful Christian Sexuality. Welcher registers substantial criticism against the evangelical movement that brought pledge cards, books, and rallies to sex-crazed American teenagers. But she does not deconstruct 2,000 years of orthodox teaching on Christian sexuality. Sexual purity matters, if not exactly in the way that purity culture defined it. “As with most earnest, human responses,” writes Welcher, “we didn’t get everything right.”

Good Intentions and Gross Errors

Welcher, a daughter of a pastor, was a high school student in 1997 when Joshua Harris’s book I Kissed Dating Goodbye “captured the attention of the evangelical world [and] inspired countless other books on dating and sexual purity,” she writes. She helpfully situates the movement in its context, reminding readers that purity culture grew up during a period of soaring rates of teenage pregnancy and STDs. Given the cultural conditions of the time (and what she calls the “age-old problem of immorality”), Welcher believes the church had ample reason to look for ways to affirm the good of marriage and the good of sex within it. “Practicing purity,” she writes, “is a form of worship.”

Unlike many other purity-culture critics—writers in the vein of Linda Kay Klein and Nadia Bolz-Weber—Welcher does not propose to replace historic understandings of sexual faithfulness. Extramarital sex is not an important act of “freedom” or an authentic expression of “love.” Sex is meant for the glory of God. “Beloved, do not be deceived by … the gospel of self,” Welcher warns in the tradition of the biblical prophets. She refuses to cry “peace” in the face of pending disaster. It is possible to sin sexually—and to suffer for that sin—and Welcher has every intention to teach her own children these truths.

What she refuses to tell them, however, is that “virginity makes them pure.”

However well-intentioned purity culture might have been, it was also guilty of gross errors. It made Christian purity a function of sexual history and behavior, not spiritual rebirth. It saddled women with the responsibility for male lust and failed the victims of sexual abuse. Further, it made unqualified promises of marriage, children, and great sex to everyone who pledged to wait.

Welcher’s story is particularly illuminating here, as she played by all of purity culture’s rules—and got burned. She saved her first kiss for the man who would become her husband, but the couple did not live happily ever after. In a few short years, her husband left the faith and left the marriage, leaving her to hold purity culture’s promissory notes at 30, without virginity to offer to another husband. Welcher realized that purity culture had promoted one temporary (albeit important) expression of sexual faithfulness (waiting to have sex until marriage) to the neglect of the more enduring call to lifelong sexual self-control, a call binding upon all Christians, married and unmarried, opposite- and same-sex attracted, young and old. “We are called,” writes Welcher, “to pursue purity until the day we die or Jesus returns, whichever comes first.”

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Source: Christianity Today