Nietzsche & the Kool-Aid Man

whoever fights monsters
should see to it that in the process he (or she) does not become a monster
and if you gaze long enough into an abyss
the abyss
will gaze back into you


Deconstructing Love

True love waits. At least, that’s what I was taught when I was growing up. My adolescence began with the birth of grunge and graduated with the publication of I Kissed Dating Goodbye. In the years between 1991 and 1997, purity culture took root in evangelical churches, leaving its well intentioned mark (ahem, scars) on my generation. Looking back, I am fairly confident this is the source my emotional baggage and the reason I am a psychological mess.

My experience isn’t unique. Instagram, Tik Tok, YouTube, and Twitter are littered with the wreckage of grownups like me, who lived through the 90s, and flailed our way through the last 20 years wondering what the hell happened to us. One testimonial after another, first hand accounts, teary-eyed disclosures, secrets people kept buried for decades. Even the author of I Kissed Dating Goodby disavowed his book as garbage, apologized for the harm he caused, and delivered a TED Talk admitting he was wrong.

But why? What was so misguided about the pursuit of purity? How did messages about abstinence and love lead to an abundance of former youth group kids trying to navigate adulthood through sexual dysfunction, broken marriages, depression, anxiety, body dysmorphia, and abysmal self-loathing? I have some thoughts.
Photo courtesy of Gratisography

1. It used confusing terminology. Dating was discouraged as if it was sinful. They taught us dating and breaking up only to date and break up with someone new created an unfaithful pattern we would take into marriage, ultimately leading to an inevitable divorce. Instead, boys were told to court girls. The emphasis in courtship was to prepare you for marriage. Unfortunately, neither term (dating or courting) are in the Bible and such teaching completely ignored biblical wedding traditions. Sexual lessons resembled American Puritan values more than those of the first century church. Besides, there really isn’t any actual difference between the two. You can still break up courtship just like a dating relationship. Dating can prepare you for marriage just like courting. Courting is nothing more than a fancy term for dating. Condemning one in favor of the other is like kicking your own ass.

2. It misunderstood human biology and brain chemistry. As a result, boys were provided excuses and girls got assigned blame. The church took scientific ideas about hormones and attraction, made dozens of assumptions, then spit out restrictive rules with neither scientific or biblical basis. Boys like me were instructed to avoid all temptations, but we were also told we were helpless to resist our urges. Girls were never cautioned against their temptations, rather they were warned to not be a temptation for boys. When boundaries were pushed and broken, the same people who claimed boys will be boys also asked the girls what they were wearing.

3. It demonized everything. The music we listened to, the nooks and magazines we read, the movies and television shows we watched, all of it was painted with a broad brush of being inherently evil. Any mention of sex was taboo, depictions of romance in pop culture, and secular descripdeclarations of love were deemed the devil’s attempt to lead us astray. We were encouraged to boycott everything from Disney to Levi’s for their unholy embrace of love outside of God’s design. This fostered an unhealthy “us vs them” mindset which festered into the isolationist beliefs currently staining our world.

4. It turned modesty and purity into idols. The Bible frequently talks about having a pure heart. The lone biblical reference to dressing modestly was about about wealth - modesty over extravegance. I don’t want to claim that either are bad things. However, these admirable goals become problematic when they become the most important thing. Christians should strive to be Christlike above all other things. What good is remaining sexually pure if you’re dishonest? Does dressing modestly matter if you’re cruel to those who don’t? The book of 1 Peter says “be holy because I am holy.” Not “be pure.” When you preach “don’t have sex” more frequently than “pursue God” purity is an idol. When boys can wear tank tops but girls can’t, modesty is an idol.

5. It failed to teach the true meaning of love. The 13th chapter of Corinthians listed off qualities of love - the things it is and the things it’s not. You know what word isn’t there? Pure. Neither is the word modest. Yet somehow, the pastors and leaders running youth groups when I was a teen seemed to to preach and teach modesty and purity as if they were the essence of love. And waiting? The phrase “true love waits” was inescapable. While the first definition provided in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth says “love is patient,” true love is more than just waiting. I love French fries but if I wait to long to eat them, they’ll get cold and gross. There is so much variety in both the meaning and application of love glossed over or deemed unimportant. Perhaps it’s the laziness of the conservative evangelical movement or the unfortunate inadequacies of the English language, but the depths and power of love were never discussed with my generation. We never pondered the mystery of how the word we use to explain how we feel about a romantic partner is the same word describing our appetite for pizza. True love doesn’t just wait. It’s committed. It’s a bond of friendship and intimacy. It’s familial and erotic. And it is a long suffering which ensures hardships and continues to love when everything else has given up. These truths were never a part of the Wednesday night youth group discussions at Marysville Nazarene through the 90s. Judging from conversations I have had with friends across the US; from stories told and retold through books, blogs, seminars, and videos by exvangelicals, I know my experience isn’t an anomaly.

Why does any of this matter? How did these teachings of purity culture warp how my generation viewed ourselves and approached relationships? What led these good intentions to cause so much damage? We can follow purity teaching to its furthest logical conclusion and we see this in the behaviors and outlook of my peers who, like me, grew up in 90s era churches.

Using confusing terminology creates confusing boundaries. At many Christian colleges, there was an impression that any boy asking a girl out for a date – even something as innocent as getting a cup of coffee – meant the boy was interested in marrying the girl. It left people clueless about the intentions of anyone thinking they’re cute or even saying “hi.” It made maintaining friendships with members of a different gender difficult, if not impossible. It led to numerous unhappy couples who rushed into marriage without learning the kinds of things you learn while dating.

Giving boys excuses for their behaviors while blaming girls for the same actions creates an environment where rape and sexual assault thrive. It fosters men’s worst proclivities, allowing them to be abusers with a free pass. This is why #yesallwomen, #metoo, and #churchtoo have all been trending topics over the past few years.

Demonizing every product of pop culture teaches kids to be ashamed for liking the things they like. They feel bad for listening to their favorite songs or watching a popular TV show. They hide their interests and nothing good happens in hidden shame. They grow up developing guilty pleasures and destructive addictions. Make the topic of sex taboo and you get people embarrassed to discuss it – even in the confines of an intimate relationship.

The focus on purity and modesty distract from other essential qualities: kindness, humility, fidelity, affability, honesty, and perseverance. Kids were instructed to be sexually pure but they weren’t taught how to be good people. They’re awkward and malicious but at least they’re virgins.

When the only message kids get about sex and love is “true love waits until marriage,” you get young adults in a hurry to get married just to have sex – like it’s the only reason to get married. They’re ignorant of the nuances, commitment, and passion it takes to have a healthy and happy marriage. They’ve been told to wait but not what to do when the waiting is over.

My generation took the tenets of purity culture and thought we had the secret to lasting wedded bliss and yet so many of us still found our marriages ending in divorce. Many of us abandoned the ideas of purity culture, evangelicalism, and even Christianity due to the harm caused by the faulty teachings of our youth. However, what hurt me the most and twisted my psyche in ways I’m still trying to untangle were the incompatible and contradictory elements of what I was taught.

One of the most fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith is God IS love. From the youngest ages, we were taught this through song: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Over and over, teachers and pastors and church elders reminded us: God loves you unconditionally. According to scripture, there’s nothing we could do that could separate us from God’s love for us. Then as we got older, we began hearing different messages from the church. Leaders started telling us we were unlovable. We were taught that we did not deserve love – especially if we didn't adhere to purity rules. God loves you but you’re worthless. God loves you but you’re undeserving.
Photo courtesy of Gratisography

This is one of the many reasons why I deconstructed. Despite a crippling deprecating image of self, I did everything right. I believed God loved me and I didn’t deserve it. I waited for marriage. I married a Christian woman. I remained faithful. I was active in church. I followed the doctrine of purity culture. And I still got divorced. Doing all of the “correct” things doesn’t guarantee success. Purity doesn’t inoculate you from the pain and suffering of broken relationships. Even the author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye ended his marriage. Purity teachings doesn’t work. Looking at the tattered lives of my generation, it’s safe to say it did more harm than good.

Now I’ve deconstructed what I thought love was. I meditated on 1 Corinthians 13. I studied every mention of love in scripture. I read all of the Bible stories of sex and marriage from Genesis to The Song of Solomon to Revelation. I concluded the evangelical church led me astray.

The Bible teaches all people – men and women were created in the image of God. If (as I was taught) we are unworthy of love, then God would also be unworthy of love as we reflect God’s image. This idea of being unconditionally loved by a worthless lover is illogical; I refuse to believe it. It is also completely unbiblical. The book of 1 John tells us “God is love.” If we bear his image, then humanity was created to love and be loved. We need love and deserve love.

It’s time to reclaim the definition of real love. The type of love that is selfless and kind. The love that is devoted in the midst of hard times.The love that celebrates the successes of others. The love that lifts and elevates their communities. The love that flourishes in equality and justice. Love that always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love that loves the way God loves us. A love that loves when it waits and loves when it doesn’t wait. A love that deserves love.

The kind of love that craves Chinese food on a stormy night. That too.

ps: I love you