I’m 38. I grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Boy, was that a fun ride. Ha. I became a young woman in the era of pleated stonewashed jeans, Scrunchies, Tamagotchis, see-through telephones, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Saved By the Bell, Doc Martens (still sad I never had a pair), the Walkman (and later, the Discman), and the battle between ‘Nsync and Backstreet Boys. Not that I was fully aware of all that pop culture at the time, because I grew up in a pretty conservative home. So until my junior year in high school (‘97-‘98), most of my radio (and cassette tape!) experiences were hallmarks of the CCM scene: Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant, Steven Curtis Chapman, Twila Paris, dc Talk, and the Newsboys. Even my early Nintendo experiences included the Christian games like Exodus and King of Kings. (The Legend of Zelda sadly got thrown in the burning barrel because “role-playing games can invite demon spirits.”)
But one of the biggest influences on my life throughout the ‘90s was the creeping, stifling power of purity culture.
Of course, purity culture wasn’t just a ‘90s thing. It had started long before that, its roots buried deep in the church’s response to the sexual revolution of the ‘60s. Gradually, it became a whole set of standards that, by the mid-1980s, were common practice for a large portion of Western Christians.
The funny thing is, if you try to research “purity culture” right now, it’s kind of…slippery. (Honestly, it kind of feels like cultural gaslighting.) There aren’t definitive guidelines. You’ll find a fair amount of critiques, but the original sources are harder to come by. There’s no one-stop-shop to tell you what tenets are upheld across the board. But almost everyone who grew up as a Christian in the ‘80s and ‘90s knows. The most basic rule is no sex before marriage. Which sounds fine at first, yeah? I mean, the Bible does talk about the repercussions of sexual immorality, fornication, and the like. But purity culture took it to a whole new level, with portions of the culture even going as far as to say that even being attracted to a member of the opposite sex before you were ready for marriage was sin, so that a generation of people carried around this innate sense of guilt within their own bodies, constantly.
And the one thing that was missing from all this?
When a person’s sexuality is compared to disgusting things (whether it’s a wad of chewed up gum, or a glass of water that an entire room of teenagers has spit into), it’s nearly impossible for that person to view sex (and their own sexual attractions) as anything remotely holy or beautiful. And usually, that sense of filth and unholiness gets internalized. Because with purity culture, it’s made out to be a one-shot deal: you only have one virginity. If you lose it, it’s gone forever. Sorry. No take-backs. And once you lose it, your worth is shot. You have no value. (Also, side-note, which I will not get into too deeply here: this particular point was often more heavily aimed at girls and young women, who were subtly and overtly taught that they were to be the keeper of EVERYONE’S virginity—theirs and any guys they came into contact with. But that discussion is for another time.)
But here’s the thing: this is a grace-less version of Christianity. And honestly, a Christianity without grace is no Christianity at all.
These ideas of virginity, shame, and devalued personhood based on sex were born out of the culture of conservative Christian legalism. Legalism is about as opposite from grace as you can get. Legalism says that in order to be saved, in order to be holy, you have to jump through all these hoops and follow all these meticulous rules and make sure you never step out of line. Grace says that the love of Christ is free and unearned, waiting to envelop you if you only believe. There is nothing we can do to make ourselves holy—that is the saving work of Christ and the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit in us. Once we are saved, once we are in that all-encompassing, bigger-than-everything love of Christ, then we are called to step into obedience to Christ. Not because others tell us to do so, or because our inherent worth or value depends on it, but simply because Christ calls us to obedience.
Once we are saved, once we are in that all-encompassing, bigger-than-everything love of Christ, then we are called to step into obedience to Christ. Not because others tell us to do so, or because our inherent worth or value depends on it, but simply because Christ calls us to obedience.
Purity culture is steeped in legalism—not just for those upon whom its tenets have been pushed, but also for those who have been the pushers of purity culture. Case in point: Joshua Harris. I’m only bringing him up here because of the latest “news” about his recent announcements about his separation and divorce and his continued deconstruction of his faith.
For those of you who don’t know, Harris penned the (in)famous book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, that heralded purity culture’s golden years. In IKDG, as it is commonly known, Harris laid out a plan for abandoning the supposedly sinking ship that was modern dating, which he believed led straight to premarital sex, unhappy marriage, and high divorce rates, and instead touted the ideas of courting—and even then only one person (like, ever) and only when you knew that person was the one. A lot of young people were sort of forced to read this book, either by their parents, their youth pastors, or other influencers in their lives, because the conservative Christian institution as a whole kind of latched onto this book and upheld it as almost as important as scripture itself. It was forced onto young people in a way that shamed and degraded them, especially if they had already been dating, or had had sex, or especially if they had been sexually abused and already carried the shame and pain of those experiences. Purity culture leaves no room for victims.
Since at least 2017 (though likely for several years before as well), Harris has been grappling with the repercussions of that message he’d written 20 years prior and ended up recanting most of what the book upheld. He even had his publisher pull the book from publication, and he offered a public apology at the conclusion of the documentary about his journey. Obviously, as he’s continued to deal with the issues that came up in that initial journey through his former beliefs, he’s come to some new conclusions, and with the announcement of his impending divorce and his changing ideas on faith, there has been some vitriol spewed at him. While he has stated that he’s gotten a lot of love and support from places he traditionally wouldn’t expect that to come from, some people who were deeply hurt by his work and how it was used against him have lashed out, almost spitefully, hoping for his demise. And this right here is what I wanted to get to.
Many of the people who are lashing out at him are among the generation who grew up under the tight reign of purity culture. My generation, and the one that came after me. We grew up in an atmosphere devoid of grace. One wrong move, BAM! Hellbound. No second chances. No redemption. And it’s become so ingrained in us over the years that we turn it back out into the world. It’s easy to do when we’ve carried that shame and hatred for ourselves for so long. When we’ve believed the lies that nothing can save us, that we are damaged, that we are worthless, that because of that one mistake back in high school our spiritual lives are ruined forever… We’ve created a defense system, possibly as we’ve done some of our own deconstructing work, so that all that shame and hatred kind of mirrors out back toward the people and the institutions that hurt us.
I have done this myself. I experienced some church hurts within the past 20 years, and as a result, I held onto bitterness. It took me a long time to come to a point of forgiving those in the church who had failed so painfully at being the leaders I needed them to be, who had taken out their own anger and inner turmoil on me at times of my own extreme vulnerability. I know forgiveness isn’t easy, especially in cases of abuse of any kind. And that journey of forgiveness is one you have to walk in your own time, as God leads you faithfully step by step. No one can rush you or force it on you.
But I think that growing up in a culture that failed to offer grace for my mistakes and failures made it easier for me to not offer grace for the mistakes and failures of others.
This breaks my heart. We are a generation that missed out on truly knowing the beauty and freedom of grace. We weren’t taught grace in Sunday School; instead we were taught that God punishes mistakes. We weren’t shown grace in our interactions with adults. Our youth leaders told us that if we messed up, then we were damaged forever and no one would want us. We were denied grace, and so without seeing and experiencing grace, there is a void within us now that causes us to be a bit more cynical, a bit less believing, a bit less hopeful.
But here’s the thing: Grace is greater than ALL our sin!
Every single sin of mine or yours, of everyone in the history of the world, combined, cannot overthrow the grace of Jesus Christ. Whether or not you’ve had sex before you got married, or with someone else while you were married, or if you are a thief, a con artist, a drug addict, a murderer… The grace of Christ is bigger than all of it! There is room for you in the love of Christ! There is redemption through Christ! Grace shatters shame in the name of Jesus!
Again, getting to the point of being able to offer grace to those people who have hurt us…it’s a journey. That’s for sure. And one that nobody can force you to walk. (That’s part of grace—it’s not legalistic, see? So it doesn’t force you to do things.) One thing that I want to point out about grace, though, is that just like forgiveness, it doesn’t allow people to stay in abusive or damaging patterns of behavior. God’s grace is definitely enough to cover all our sins. But it’s the same grace that says, “Your sins are forgiven. Now, go and sin no more.” Grace allows for our humanness, allows for our flaws, for our inherent mistakes that will be made (and bad decisions perhaps made on purpose, even). But it tells us that we can do better, but only through Christ. We can never reach perfection on our own. That is the work of the Holy Spirit.
Grace pulls us into a tight embrace when we’re at our lowest, reminds us of our worth, and shares with us the glorious vision God has for our lives.
So, to all my Xennials and Millennials out there, my deepest prayer is that you can receive the grace that Christ offers you. Despite what conservative Christian culture, what purity culture, taught you when you were growing up, know that your worth is inherently woven into the heart of God, your life pulses with the flow of the blood of Christ, and the Holy Spirit longs to fill you with light and vision and passion for the God who offers you grace beyond understanding.
(And that goes for you, too, Josh Harris. My prayer for you is grace and peace and wisdom.)