I don’t talk about my faith much, especially here on my blog and personal social media pages. In fact, I discuss it so little that you probably didn’t even know I am a Christian. Sure, I’ve talked about my previous experience with fundamentalism and legalism within Christianity on topics like sexual purity, purity rings and modesty, but I haven’t talked about my faith as it currently stands.
There are a few reasons for that, but they all come down to the friends I have made over the last few years. Specifically, my non-religious friends. Theses folks range from various forms of agnostic or atheist to strange mixes of pseudo-religious, but only barely.
I started making non-religious friends in college. While I was growing up, I heard about the dangers of college and how it could lead you away from your faith because of the secular curriculum taught and the pressure of peers to conform to the majority. This resulted in me having some trepidation about coming across these people.
Luckily, when I began attending classes at one of the bigger state universities, I was blessed with a Christian friend right off the bat and I didn’t feel quite so isolated. Soon after we became friends, things took a turn for the worst. We had an art class together and quite a few of the pieces we studied were about Christianity. When the class as a whole went over these pieces and were asked to talk about them, we were shown the true colors of several of our classmates. While I don’t want to get into specifics, we were told exactly what they thought of us, and it wasn’t pretty.
We learned that they hated us, they hated what we believed and they hated Jesus. We hadn’t said or done anything to them, but their venom towards us remained.
Nothing makes me more horrified than knowing someone thoroughly hates me purely because of my faith in Jesus.
I’d be disingenuous to say that the experiences with non-religious folks ended there, but those classmates, and people like them, are the reason I rarely talk about my faith anymore. It would be easy for me to say that they were all the same and that they were all genuinely hateful people, but that wasn’t the case. As the title suggests, I later made friends with at least one of these classmates and subsequently more people late in my pregnancy with Bubba.
While not all of my experiences with non-religious folks were good, I learned a lot about myself and my own faith through them. After listening to the stories of those who had been hurt by legalism within Christianity and those who had lost their faith because of it, I gained a new perspective on how to think about and interact with them. I’m grateful to these friends who not only respectfully shared their perspective, but unknowingly build my faith up.
I recognized a tendency in myself to be heavily influenced by what people who hated me because of my faith thought, and instead of completely shutting down that tendency, which would have been easier, I decided to try something else.
I learned to listen to their stories and reasons to be empathic, not to respond, minimize or argue. I prayed for and came to peace with not trying to debate and with the answer “I don’t know” for their hard questions, and for mine. I accepted the fact that they might be angry at me, or Christianity, but that wasn’t something that I am called to change (unless it is through the Holy Spirit’s work in me).
The way my faith strengthened the most during this time, was, ironically, through taking a page out of the book of those people who hated me and also those who were non-religious due to legalistic forms of Christianity. At the end of the day, they were strong in their lack of faith, not based on having all the answers (because many admitted that they didn’t, and I admit the same), but by saying “this is what I believe” and being unmovable in that belief.
If someone who professes to believe in nothing and will defend that position with tooth and nail (and sometimes attack and threaten the safety of those who disagree), I see no reason why I should waver in saying that I believe that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6) and I am unashamed of it.
I’m done with being silent, I’m done with being attacked and I’m done with wavering because of others.
A short while ago, I wrote a post for Bubba (my son) called Purity Culture: 5 Things I Want My Son to Know. This post touched on my own experience with purity rings and purity culture after being raised in a community with legalistic tendencies and what I wanted my son to learn from it. As you might imagine, purity culture was not the only area of my childhood that I have looked back on with skepticism. Modesty was one of the many ideals that was impressed upon me as well.
Modesty was a very popular ideal to focus on during my youth, and although both physical and spiritual modesty were discussed, the conversations heavily leaned towards physical modesty. After all, it was perceived as being measurable by inches of skin and this was far easier to enforce than being modest in spirit.
The various community events I attended usually upheld a certain dress code and while not everything within the dress code was unreasonable, there was a good bit that went beyond what was appropriate. There was a laundry list of rules that included rules on shoes, length of skirts, shoulders showing, the content of t-shirts and the neckline of blouses. Perhaps unsurprisingly, men were generally not included in these rules.
Women and girls who did not dress modestly were often treated differently and gossiped about. Even if they did adhere to all of the dress code, they could still be accused of being immodest by how they wore the clothing or walked in it by some unspoken and arbitrary rules that were also in place. While it was the general consensus that these ladies were “out to get attention” and there was no indication of thought towards why that might be. I personally tend to view someone’s clothing and jewelry as revealing what they think of themselves. If they tend to show more, I usually assume that they might be insecure and overcompensating, though I know that there are exceptions to this. Regardless of the reason, there was never any grace and empathy towards these “types” of ladies.
In order to enforce this dress code and gain more willing compliance (especially among the young ladies who were viewed as rebellious) among the group’s youth, incentives were used. Phrases like “Modesty is Hottest” were a way to encourage the desired behavior while simultaneously leading the young girls to believe that this behavior would draw Godly men into our lives.
There were more than a few times where warnings were issued about “tempting” the young men. “Men are visual and can’t help themselves” was a popular refrain that led me to begin fearing my peers and the possibility of being raped because of a bra strap slip. While this may sound outlandish, to a child who didn’t know better, it was terrifying. This influence was reinforced by literature and horror stories of girls who had been molested by men who claimed that the girls (most often legally below the age of consent) had been tempting or immodest.
When there was doubt on whether or not an outfit was modest, it was usually up to the fathers to decide. I remember thinking, “Do fathers just have an internal sensor for this sort of thing?” right before the sickening question of “What if I’m tempting to my Dad and that’s how he decides whether this outfit is okay?” I was always too afraid of the answer to ask.
Modesty, in the context that I knew it in, had a variety of negative ramifications. Aside from the seeds of doubt that had been planted against my male friends and relatives, I also developed a sense of shame about my body. If it was so terrible that it lead men to be unable to control themselves, then I needed to cover and punish myself for being a “Jezebel”. This manifested in an eating disorder that took root and poisoned my mind. I was conveniently able to conceal my withering frame under layers of “modest” clothing.
Although the eating disorder has been treated, the emotions attached to modest had not resolved. They spilled over onto my wedding day as I held on to anxiety about the strapless wedding dress I had chosen, which caused me some anxiety about my own husband and the level of self-control he possessed.
I was surprised to find the rules of modesty changed after I got married. I was no longer bound by a list and a ruler measuring inches of skin. My husband even picked out clothing for me to wear in public that I once thought was immodest. I was unsure of what to do with this new freedom, and a little bit daunted by it. I had always wanted to wear so many different things, mostly sun dresses and spaghetti strap tops, so naturally I set out to find some. While spaghetti straps may not seem racy to the general public, my first time wearing a dress with them was nerve-wracking. I felt gorgeous and confident, but also guilty because this outfit, I had been led to believe, was supposed to be something that would cause a lack of self-control in men.
While I continued to have mixed emotions about the new wardrobe freedom I had, I soon had a bigger and more emotionally taxing situation to deal with. I was pregnant, and pregnancy is known to be counterproductive to modesty. Between exams, ultrasounds, cervical checks and actual labor and delivery, I was repeatedly traumatized and modesty, as I understood it, had been stolen from me.
In a similar way to purity culture’s take on virginity, I saw modesty as something I could not get back, and my actions showed that when I went against my own comfort and judgement by breastfeeding uncovered in public because I felt like I had nothing special to lose anymore.
The emotions that I’ve felt throughout my life regarding modesty have been many and varied. Among them have been frustration, anger, resentment, empowerment, comfort and confidence. Unfortunately, I’ve experienced more of the first few than the last. While I never believed that modesty was bad, or purposefully wanted to rebel from it, I felt it to be a burden throughout my young life.
Only recently, after careful consideration and intentional blocking out of the spectrum of opinions, have I been able to listen to my own conviction on modesty. I came to my own conclusions and see clearly that you cannot enforce a definition of modesty that goes against someone’s own conviction and expect to have good results.
Here are 7 things I want Bubba to learn from my journey:
- Modesty is defined different ways to different people.
- Modesty, in the sense that I knew it, had unintended (and generally bad) consequences.
- Generally, if an adult is obsessing over a child’s outward appearance (in this case, clothing), there is a certain level of unhealthy behavior going on.
- Fear of men and their levels of self-control was one of the “side-effects” of modesty as I knew it.
- Your definition of modesty might change as you age, and that is okay.
- Modesty isn’t just about girls.
- You don’t have to be a slave to your mind and body, please learn self-control.
I hope you are able to learn from these mistakes, Bubba. <3
New Crunchy Mom
If you were home schooled or ran around in Fundamentalist Christian circles, you’ve probably heard of something called purity culture or purity rings.
You can get a purity ring in just about any Christian book store, or at any purity culture event, like the Silver Ring Thing.
Mine looked like this…
Some children actually signed a contract when they received or bought their rings. These contracts were not legally binding because the youth were underage at the time of signing them, but many children were led to believe that they were.
I grew up in a fundamentalist-minded, Christian homeschool group. The parents in this group wanted the best for their children. So, they turned to the purity culture promises.
Do this and your child will never have a broken heart. Follow this formula for your child’s relationship and they’ll never deal with the pain of a break up. Do things God’s way and your child’s relationship will be blessed.
Except the promises of purity culture crumbled. They were well intended lies, nothing more.
Kiss dating goodbye, but don’t kiss before marriage. If you screw up, you are the equivalent of chewed gum, spat in water, dirty, unclean, a whore, etc.
But you know what? That’s wrong.
To think that there is a formula for relationships to work out perfectly is foolish!
Those parents wanted what they thought was best for their kids. They suffered broken hearts and didn’t want to see their children do the same.
But they were wrong.
What they didn’t know is this: If you follow all of the rules, all of the legalism, and buy into all that purity culture says is true, your spouse will still break your heart.
I do not know one single couple on this earth that has not experienced a broken heart.
My husband has broken my heart before. And you know what? That’s okay. I knew that someday that would happen, because we told each other it would.
We weren’t waiting with bated breath for it to happen, but we weren’t surprised either. We had realistic expectations on our side.
Relationships are hard, whether you choose to wait or not. And waiting will not guarantee that you will always be happy and love each other the same way you did when you fell in love.
I don’t regret my decision to wait, but I do regret the purity culture lies that I believed to make it there. I was naive. I was a jerk to people who chose not to wait. If you are one of those people, I’m sorry.
I want my son to learn from this. I want him to know:
- Whether you wait or not, that is your choice. I’ll love you no matter what. There are risks and benefits to every decision you make in life, and this is no exception. If anyone tells you otherwise, they are literally trying to sell you something.
- If you decide to wait and mess up, you can always find forgiveness. Your mistakes don’t define you. You aren’t dirty.
- There is no magic ring or formula that will protect your heart from the world and the pain it holds.
- It’s normal to have your heart broken, it’s part of the world we live in. People are imperfect humans and it will happen someday.
- I followed the purity culture, and I’d do it again if I had the choice because it was part of who I now am, but I want better for you.
I love you, Bubba!
New Crunchy Mom
If you enjoyed this post, please consider buying my book on purity culture, legalism, and spiritual abuse called The Scarlet Virgins!
“A chewed up piece of gum.”
These cringe-worthy phrases from Christian purity culture ingrained themselves in the minds of the impressionable youth of my generation. Fearing the destruction of their children’s bodies and souls as the world around them became caught up in pushing a progressive sexual agenda, our parents and thought leaders rose up and sought to fight back against the lewdness and promiscuity surrounding us.
Unfortunately, their approach was entangled with fear and pain, going so far as to criminalize all forms of affection. This bore fruit of unprecedented physical, mental, and spiritual consequences as our worth and identity were found in what we did and didn’t do sexually, not in Christ and His sacrifice for us. The heavy-handed and legalistic emphasis on sexual-purity-at-all-costs left a legacy of emotional and spiritual devastation in its wake that follows many even into adulthood.
This book takes a vulnerable look at these issues through the eyes of someone who experienced it firsthand. It seeks to identify what purity culture got wrong and bring peace to the hearts of those whom it has wounded so deeply, by exposing the truth: It is Christ who makes us pure.