Do I Know You? False Intimacy in Purity Culture

My book, DAMAGED GOODS, comes out February 10 and is available for pre-order. Do yourself a solid with that Christmas money and support your local blogger! 

Before I get to today’s post, I have a reminder: I’ll be in Portland for the Gay Christian Network conference from January 8-10! I’m holding an informal meet and greet at Ristretto Roasters on Couch St (about a 10 minute walk south of the convention center) at 6PM on Friday January 9th. Come hang out if you’re in the area! 

I’m also presenting in a workshop on bisexuality and faith with Eliel Cruz at 4PM on Saturday. I have to leave for the airport soon after, so if you want to chat, Friday’s going to be your best bet. But do come to the workshop to hear about how purity culture impacts bisexual people in the church! 

During my first week of work at my preschool, I had to sub in for another teacher who had to leave. I had the kids for library and story time and then snack and playing outside. At story time, I picked one of my favorite picture books – a tale about Mrs. Nelson and the substitute teacher. As I tried to learn classroom management for three and four year olds on the fly, the children declared that I was the nasty mean substitute teacher who looked like a witch.

They didn’t like that their regular teacher was gone and this new one was telling them what to do. I was an unknown quantity and they were testing limits. And I had to find a way to establish my authority while maintaining respect, which meant separating children, giving them a seating arrangement, and playing “the quiet game.” By the end of the week, the kids had picked up on a militaristic vibe, literally shouting “1 2 3 4 MARCH!” as we went from one place to another.

In other words, I kind of failed at classroom management that first week. In the months since, I’ve been able to get to know each kid individually, understand their personalities, and tailor my answers and instructions toward each one. Some require bright lines of what they can and cannot do or they feel paralyzed by the amount of choices. Others require choices so they feel some agency over their play (or it turns into a power struggle). Still others are perfectly content with being told to “go wild!” with whatever they want (which has resulted in children literally running around in circles).

But I couldn’t figure out which kid was which without spending some time getting to know them and making a few mistakes along the way. One kid, for example, will take a mile if you give her an inch and needs careful supervision. Another will stand in defiance with his eyes closed and a smug look on his face if you tell him to do something directly – so you have to angle things so they seem like his idea. Still others need to be encouraged to go play, to take risks, to attempt new things and realize that it will be okay.

It’s hard, when working with groups of these kids, not to try and govern by fear, not to go back to the old parenting standby of threats and “I will take that away if you don’t listen.” And sometimes we do have to do that – we have to put a kid in time out after they do something they were warned not to do. We have to separate kids who cannot stop talking when the teacher is talking. Many of the kids, by this point, know my “that’s not nice” face fairly well – to the point that all I have to do is say their name and look at them and they’ll know they need to stop.

I have gained authority, but I also have respect. The same kids who know my look of disapproval well also run up to me when I arrive, shouting “MISS DIANNA” with a huge grin. We’ve developed a balance that can only come from of a standing relationship.

When I was a kid, the thing I remember most about church was fear. I didn’t want to go to hell, I didn’t want to say the wrong thing, I didn’t want to be put into a position where I might offend God. God was not a loving figure, but a man of rules and regulations and fear and power. I remember being so afraid of swearing that in middle school, I invented clever new swear words that sounded like the real ones but weren’t. I never actually said the f-word until I was a senior in high school – and, for a long time after, I viewed that burst of outrage as a major spiritual failing. Debate had ruined me, I would say as I narrated the story of my faith. I was singing praise on Sundays and swearing on the bus on Fridays.

Such was the fear of punishment from my own sin that I ended up regulating myself to the point of misery. I was the worst of sinners, I thought – a thought not helped by my college theology department’s focus on Calvinist theology and human depravity. I remember, during one of those inevitable late night debates about Calvinism that happen at bible colleges, telling a friend that I couldn’t, in my gut, believe in Calvinism. He asked me why and I said that if Calvinism was true, there was no way I was one of the “elect.” That all my work would be for naught because there was no way God could have chosen me. I was so afraid of both God’s authority and my own self that I thought there was no way God loved me enough to save me from myself.

I wonder, often, if the church hasn’t replaced a loving relationship with rules, regulations and Westernized concepts of what “orthodoxy” looks like. This is certainly the case in purity culture, where remaining a virgin at all costs is valued higher than how you eventually treat your spouse. Sex outside the “right” context has the power to completely destroy a person’s standing, religiously speaking, regardless of the context of a relationship or the other ways a person behaves.

Instead of regarding our moral compass as borne out of an existing relationship with a loving God, we demand sola Scriptura and litmus test the orthodoxy of bookstores, peddling such fundamentalism as Gospel. We use sexual proclivities as evidence for moral bankruptcy and disregard all good acts because one thing violated our impression of “the rules.”

This sort of vetting process happens in almost every conversation I have with conservative or fundamentalist Christians about my work. Prying questions into my sexual life, into my religious practice, into my church attendance become de rigeur. I’ve become accustomed to such deflection, to such authority-testing. This kind of vetting is not done out of neighborly love, but rather testing for ideological purity. There doesn’t even have to be an existing relationship before I am forced to field the most invasive and intimate questions about my sexual practices.

And one of the worst things about it is that if I get defensive, I’m told that this is what comes along with writing about sex and the church – I should just learn to expect it when I open myself up to discussing sex in the public sphere. In our authoritarian, fear-based church atmosphere, I should expect to be vetted and dismissed because I talked openly about sexual topics. People who have no existing relationship to me position themselves as authorities on my sexuality because, they say, it is The Gospel Truth and heretics deserve to be known.

But I don’t think such actions reflect Scriptural precedence. There is much discussion in the Gospels of Jesus and his disciples and how Jesus knew their lives and their hearts. As such, Jesus was able to speak truth into their lives in a way that had impact, that mattered to them – because he knew them, he traveled with them, he knew their lives and their selves.

And – this is important – they knew his. He was open with them, he let them get close, he was in a relationship with these disciples and took time not only to know them, but to let them know him.

And this is where the current purity culture gets everything wrong. We presume to be able to speak into a person’s life, to “correct” their sinful failings, without any kind of a standing relationship, any kind of knowledge about what kind of person they are. The church is the substitute teacher trying to regain control of the classroom without even knowing the names of the students. Evangelicals are trying desperately to rule in the lives of people they’ve never spoken to but feel they know intimately, because God.

But people defy and resist categorization. People are so brilliantly diverse and wonderful and surprisingly different. Intimacy only comes with the knowledge of relationship, not with rules and regulations and double checking of beliefs.