The Toxicity of Christian Purity Culture

2013-05-08 Richard BeckThe blog Experimental Theology has an excellent analysis of Christian purity culture as a follow-up to the recent comments about it from Elizabeth Smart. In it, Richard Beck points out that the purity ideal is based on human intuition about food and specifically that once food is ruined it can never be rehabilitated. Intrinsic in the idea of purity is that once you lose it, it never comes back. Beck then points out two additional things:

1. No other sins are framed with the purity metaphor. Instead, other sins are generally framed as performance failures and in that case if you mess up you just try again.

2. Sexual sin, and especially the loss of virginity, is only framed as a matter of purity for women. For men, it’s still filed under the same category of sin as everything else, and an easy route to rehabilitation is implicit in the metaphor. (If you fall, pick yourself back up.)

This is an excellent analysis of exactly what is so toxic about Christian purity culture, but there’s one thing I want to add that Beck doesn’t mention. That is simply this: Christian purity culture is un-Christian. To use a metaphor for sin that suggests hopelessness is to defy the Gospel. The good news is that sin, all sin, can be overcome by Christ’s atonement. To use the purity metaphor–and therefore to say that some sins can’t be cleansed–is to repudiate the heart of Christianity.

6 thoughts on “The Toxicity of Christian Purity Culture”

  1. This Christian purity culture must be more of a Protestant issue, because the points outlined here are not part of Catholic theology. I agree with your thoughts on it, and I remember hearing a lot more about it when I was more immersed in an Evangelical Protestant culture. I also see the mainstream cultural battle among Christians and the secular world. Catholics are fortunate to have JPII’s “Catechesis on Human Love” and “Love and Responsibility” (or Theology of the Body as some know it), which expand on past writings as well. I hope to read it all eventually, because it is lengthy. Of course, that doesn’t mean Catholics personally always understand the theology or get it right in their own lives. We have plenty of misunderstanding, cultural influences, confusion, and sin to go around!

  2. That’s a good perspective, LT. My own experience (I’m not Protestant or Catholic) matches your own: Protestants (especially Evangelicals) are much more into purity culture than Catholics. Mormons are like Evangelicals on this matter, unfortunately.

  3. You and my sister, who has read much more of JPII’s writings and just sent me an article yesterday, have inspired me to pull up his addresses on Theology of the Body. In scanning the titles, #50 seems particularly relevant to the analysis you posted, even going into the food origins. It’s so hard to choose just one address — I need to read all of them to fully understand his meaning and not just start at #50, but I thought I would link to it.

    For all 129 general audience addresses:

    And then I still need to read the book :).

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