The Turning of the Screw: On Time and the New Year

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I’m sitting in a Starbucks on News Years Day listening to two complete strangers discuss how purity culture messed them up as teenagers. They are a man and a woman, and they don’t know I’m writing this. Both of them are married (to people who are not here) and they are discussing how their parents’ upbringing demonized their sexual feelings and didn’t allow them to feel “normal” as teenagers.

I am so amazed to be hearing this conversation – even though I feel bad that I’m eavesdropping. These are things I never imagined I’d overhear as a casual observer. Just four or five years ago, when I was completing my degree at Baylor University, questioning the whole Christian purity culture was simply not a thing you did. You were allowed to talk in coded words, emphasizing how you still believed but rejected the “legalism” and “fundamentalism” of your youth, but you were never really allowed to come out and say, “This damaged me.”

It’s a sign of progress that these things are being discussed, that people feel safe to bring them up. I can’t take credit for this – it’s not something I engineered or could have predicted – but I feel a bit of pride that we are beginning to swing in another direction. But I also know that maintaining this momentum takes all the work we can give it.

Modernist poet William Butler Yeats wrote in the poem, “The Second Coming,” of history’s march, of “turning and turning the widening gyre.” It is this poem that Chinua Achebe references in his famous work, Things Fall Apart. Yeats’ historical vision of time as “gyre” pervades his poetry and his work. The widening gyre is a reference to a spiral, of time moving back and forth and repeating, like the lines on a screw. But time, as it moves both up and back, becomes unstable – “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.”

When I studied this poem during my undergrad English classes, we focused on this march of time, this movement forward and back and out. Progress in society is never a straight line. We think that our time now is necessarily, manifestly “better” (with regard to race, to gender, to sexuality, to religion) than that of our parents. The picture of our parents’ generation, and their parents’ generation before them, as repressed, necessarily backwards in relationship to our own time aids both the progressive and the conservative view of history. In both views, the demonization of the past lends itself to the idea that this generation is unique, this world is better than This Other Thing. In a Voltaire-esque move, the idea of time and progress as linear allows us to create our time now as “the best of all possible worlds.”

“Surely,” Yeats proclaimed in 1919, “the revelation is at hand!”

“Surely,” cry conservatives and progressives alike in 2015, “society cannot stand this much longer.”

We are, in many ways, doomed to repeat the sins of our fathers in our insistence that time is a progressive, linear force. I’ve written before about how evangelicalism, in its fight for abstinence only education and its fear of demographic shifts, is repeating the battles of our forerunners of the early 20th century. This current conversation about purity culture is a part of that repetition – it’s a part of that ever-widening gyre. We will continue to repeat these things as long as there are people.

This does not mean the discussions or activism are useless – far from it, in fact. Lest we sit by and watch time pass, watch each new year come and go, we must become active participants in the movement of time. We must push ourselves onward and upward, fully aware that we are both repeating discussions of the past and making them new for our generation. This is the tension in which we live – the knowledge that what change we can make must be maintained by people over who we have little influence. And the future will likely repeat our circumstances and our situations, in albeit slightly altered ways.

We have hope, but we also have reality – we have the knowledge that we can make a little progress, in what ways we can, but that we must also maintain it.

As we enter 2015, I'm thinking about this march, this gyre, this circular progress that moves us two steps forward and one step back. I'm also taking heart in the idea that even as we repeat, even as we move back and forth in time, we are making things new, we are making progress. Without such change, I would not be sitting in this Starbucks, listening to people talk about their frustration with the things the modern evangelical church made their parents do.

We cannot necessarily protect the future generations from repeating our mistakes, but we can do what work we have in the time that is given to us. And as we enter into yet another New Year, we realize that these opportunities to make the world better are wonderful, special, treasured things. We can make the world better. This is my hope for 2015 - that we find some way to have heart, to have hope, even as we repeat the fights of our fathers. We can change the world - even if it takes the work of our sons and daughters to keep it that way.