A vestal virgin, detail of an engraving by Sir...A protest against the evangelical cult of virginity seems to be picking up steam in certain circles of mildly rebellious internet writing this week. It’s been going on for a while, and goes something like: evangelicals have been obsessed with modesty and virginity for too long, and it has distorted the self-image of their adolescents, particularly the female ones. It has promoted the pernicious idea that women are “responsible” for the lust they stir in men, and that they are “damaged goods” if they fail to save themselves for marriage (which is increasingly a very long time to wait).

These observations are not wrong; the problem is that they’re obvious. This stuff has been debated in various circles for years, and a large numbers of Christian and ex-Christian young people have adjusted their views about it to better reflect reality. No less a bastion of status-quo-ism than Relevant published a fairly damning case against the abstinence doctrine though, characteristically, the writer twisted it into a defense of holding on to all of the ideology the preceding pages undermined. Whether or not the much-touted 80 percent figure is correct, it is undeniable to almost anyone acquainted with 20-something evangelicals that most of them have premarital sex, and at least some of them aren’t sorry about it.

Like previous shifts, it’s just taken the public conversation in evangelical circles to catch up to what is actually going on. Christian publications like Relevant and Prodigal operate under (small-O) orthodoxies they will not challenge no matter how overwhelming the evidence. This leads to a lot of material that makes huge pretense to being provocative, but is fact mostly a faux-edgy affirmation of the establishment conservative-evangelical status quo. We’re getting, for example, a lot of confrontational-sounding talk about virginity, but very little actual confrontation with the virginity cult.

Before I give a couple of examples, let me say that I in no way mean to belittle the stands these writers are taking, to the extent it was emotionally or socially difficult to write what they wrote. (I’m also talking about a much larger pool of writers.) The modesty and virginity orthodoxies may still be more oppressive than I realize from the outside, in which case small steps carry a greater weight. If you are still part of one of these communities, measure what I say against what you know.

The first post this week was by Sarah Bessey, headlined “I Am Damaged Goods.” Unlike a great deal of the writing in this genre, Bessey actually confesses something: that she had premarital sex, and that she fought through a lot of condemnation and purity propaganda to come to the realization that a person’s “worth isn’t determined by their virginity.” Again, I’m absolutely not discounting the power of the shame Bessey was subjected to by the cult of virginity, or her courage in pushing back against it. But a tension remains unaddressed: if it’s not that big of a deal that you had premarital sex, it’s not that big a deal if anybody does. It’s difficult to end the virginity cult without getting rid of the whole “doctrine” that premarital sex is sin, and that remains an shibboleth no one can challenge in public.

The next article this week was by Emily Maynard, who I know a little bit and like a lot, entitled “The Day I Turned In My V-Card.” She describes “crossing a barrier” and realizing she’s “not a virgin anymore.” There’s nothing in the piece to suggest this was a physical event; rather, it sounds like an intellectual exercise: “Instead of an all or nothing approach, instead of reducing the scope of human sexuality to one specific act and stamping that act with a no until marriage makes it a magical yes, I’m building a holistic sexual ethic.” I suspect this is supposed to be somewhat shocking, that she’s refusing to call herself a virgin! Again, I completely agree that this is all a step in the right direction, but it’s pretty small one. Everybody’s saying virginity isn’t the gospel these days. But would they say that premarital sex isn’t a sin? Would they actually have sex, enjoy it, and say so? I kind of doubt it. And so virginity will continue to be idolized, because the basis for idolizing it has not been challenged in the least.

I’m all for religious believers having a well-considered theological sexual ethic, and am happy to hear the crazy, often abusive virginity cult being questioned. But for all the talk about it and apparent desire to appear edgy, there sure isn’t much bold questioning going on. The reality is, you can play at making the word “virgin” unimportant, and you can tell guilt-ridden teenagers that God still loves them just the same even though they did what teenagers do. These efforts aren’t unimportant, but they are also not as controversial as they’re being made to seem, and they don’t represent anything like a real challenge to the orthodoxies and speech codes of places like Prodigal and Relevant and many conservative evangelical churches.

The only way this stuff is going to change is when people who call themselves evangelical believers and write for an evangelical audience, stop playing this game of pretend edginess, and say it plainly: I’m not married, I’ve had sex, I’m not sorry, and I’m still just as much of a Christian as you are. And then get to work on a rigorous theological argument that exposes the inadequacy of the one they’re attacking. If you’re really an evangelical, and really a truth-teller, it will take more than a few confessions on hip websites to make a serious dent.

There are plenty of people who could write that article and that theological book. I’ve met them, and I’m sure lots of writers from Relevant, Prodigal, et. al, have met them, too, and may in fact harbor these views themselves. But it always goes back to the conflict inherent people who aren’t fundamentalists but want to have “careers” of various kinds in the evangelical world. It’s difficult to be a truth-teller there—someone who actually challenges the shibboleths in the way some of these people seem to want to be taken as doing—and keep your platform very long.

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About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

  • http://jmjacob.blogspot.com JMJ

    I’m not sure what you’re saying here.

    Are you saying Christians who have had pre-marital sex are feeling condemned, not forgiven?

    Or are you saying Christians are wrong to teach that pre-marital sex is wrong?

    if the former, I agree. Christians, for some reason, seem to view sexual sin as the worst kind while giving most of all else a pass.

    If you mean the latter, I’m not sure how you can justify it from the scriptures?

    My confusion arises from your use of the word cult.

    J.

    • http://jmjacob.blogspot.com JMJ

      David,

      I have re-read your article, and I still have no idea where you’re going. In one of your comments below, you say you’re being deliberately provocative. Maybe I’m dense, but I’m missing your thesis.

      You seem to be saying a lot of good things about how the evangelical community deals [badly] with the consequences of sexual sin. Your condemnation of modern evangelicalism’s pharisee nature is clear.

      But what is still not clear (to me) is a declaration of whether sexuality outside of marriage is permissible per Biblical constraints or not. Are you saying that the Bible never says that the ideal is that both partners enter marriage as virgins?

      My second reading still makes me wonder whether you are condemning the notion of pre-marital purity as a cult, in addition to the condemnation of “judgmentalism”. Are you condemning us evangelicals for calling sin, sin because of the bad consequences?

      I would hope not.

      I’m not trying to be a troll here, honestly trying to understand what you’re saying.

      • http://slipstreamsunshine.tumblr.com Emily O.

        Now, I haven’t read the whole Bible, but I’ve read a pretty solid majority of it. And I can’t cite a single verse that comes out and says “premarital sex is a sin” in those words or any others.

        There is one verse in the Torah/Pentateuch that says husbands can prosecute their wives if the wife is not a virgin on the wedding night. And if that couple was having sex before the wedding night, chances are pretty good that the husband isn’t going to prosecute.

        Injunctions against adultery, to the best of my understanding, are limited to sexual liaisons in which at least one party is already married to someone else.

        New Testament remarks about sexuality seem to be pretty general: “Flee from impurity” and so forth. Well, that doesn’t help us define what constitutes impurity.

        So I think any Christian argument for absolute abstinence before marriage is fundamentally about the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law. And according to an argument for premarital abstinence, the spirit of Christian sexual law is “Any sexual act not sanctioned by religious and legal contract constitutes impurity.”

        And I think what David is implying here is that there is an alternative way of defining the spirit of Christian sexual law. It might read: “Sex is designed for committed relationships.” And then we can talk in terms of real human relationships, not superimposed legal contracts and magical sex licenses. Is marriage really defined by signing a physical contract, or is it an organic relationship that grows out of time and effort?

        • Patrick Sawyer

          Emily O.

          This is so dated you probably will not see this, but I thought I would respond in hopes that you might.

          Emily, you said “And I can’t cite a single verse that comes out and says “premarital sex is a sin” in those words or any others”.

          A basic teaching of the Bible is that all sex (in mind or body) directed toward or engaged in with anyone who is not their exclusive marriage partner of the opposire sex is sin.

          The Bible supports this claim from various angles in an ocean of texts. A passage that addresses what you are asking about specifically is 1 Corinthians 7 (the whole chapter is helpful). 1 Corinthians 7:2 says “Because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband” (ESV). The words “sexual immorality”, translated as “fornication” in the KJV are translated from the Greek word PORNEIA. The only possible antidote to sexual immorality is marriage to one person of the opposite sex as directed specifically by this verse.

          I say possible becuase one can still sin sexually after one is married.

          But what is important here is that this text is teaching that the way to avoid sexual immorality when engaging in sex is to be married when engaging in sex.

          I might add that this post (and some of the subsequent comments) reminds us that PATROL toggles between being post-Evangelical and post-Christian.

    • SKV

      Agreed- Not sure what the where this was supposed to go. I didn’t find it provocative only confusing.

  • http://menliketreeswalking.blogspot.com Matthew Loftus

    who, whoa, whoa… are you in some way suggesting that quasi-evangelical challenges of the conservative Christian conventional wisdom on sexuality ought to conform to the progressive conventional wisdom understanding of sexuality in order to be meaningful? HOLD THE PHONE.

    • http://www.thedailybeast.com/contributors/david-sessions.html David Sessions

      No, that’s up to them to decide. I am saying don’t be surprised that this kind of “challenge” doesn’t make much of a difference.

      • http://menliketreeswalking.blogspot.com Matthew Loftus

        Well, you’ve certainly given me a little more hope today that it won’t! : )

  • http://www.yallsettledown.blogspot.com Kimberly

    I’ve actually been very inspired by the posts I’ve seen recently. I see a renewed, prophetic fervor at addressing the issue – and I think it is going to open the doors for those emerging from evangelicalism & still shaking off the dust of the purity movement to really begin wrestling with our sexual ethics. First the deconstructing, then the building. And, yes, I realize that others have blazed this path, but I still think each new generation has to explore it for themselves as they come into maturity. I’m inspired by them. It’s giving me the kick in the butt to do some of the hard work of getting my thoughts down on paper, of actually working through the stack of books I’ve been gathering (from “Unprotected Texts” to “The Ethical Slut”). I applaud the women and men who have been opening up anew about sexuality, and I look forward to seeing a robust, wholistic conversation emerge.

    • http://www.thedailybeast.com/contributors/david-sessions.html David Sessions

      Kimberly, I’m glad you shared your thoughts. I admit that I was being intentionally provocative here, and cannot really speak for how this stuff reads to people who are still “shaking off the dust of the purity movement.” I’m trying to walk a fine line between understanding where these writers are at and identifying where they may fall short as critics of evangelical practice. I’m sure that there are more people who are inspired by what they write, and I don’t mean to diminish the significance of that.

      • http://www.yallsettledown.blogspot.com Kimberly

        I should also clarify, I do not count as their generation. ;) But I am still reconstructing my sexual ethic. Emily’s article was posted today on a friends facebook page, and has actually led to a robust conversation with a mother who originally commented just to oppose what Emily was saying. So, I’m trying to be a cheerleader for these young folks – I think there’s a whole generation still being raised up whose parents are still holding the hard line, and they need alternate voices.

      • http://www.yallsettledown.blogspot.com Kimberly

        Oh, and thank you for the article, David. I do think you clarified up front your own bias – I didn’t read this as an “attacking” article. At the very least, it gave me a few links I hadn’t seen yet!

  • Chris M

    I’m just glad that no one has ever been damaged as a result of the hook-up culture. Now that we’ve lost all these sexual constraints, people are much happier, healthier and better off

    • http://www.thedailybeast.com/contributors/david-sessions.html David Sessions

      If you want to explain what that has to do with my post, perhaps I can say more.

      • Chris M

        David, my point was that the individual and sociological damage done as a result of permissive attitudes towards sex is far greater than anything resulting from the supposed repressive approach of evengelicals. In other words, your potential solution may be worse than the problem.

        That being said – I do agree that evangelical subculture quite frequently exhibits shallow expressions of important theological truths.

        Do Protestants need a better theology of the body? Perhaps. But I would offer that the bigger problem is a deficient evangelical understanding of forgiveness, reconciliation and gratitude; or as us Reformed folk would call it – law and gospel

        Peace
        Chris

  • Katie

    So you want writers to be more bold, yet you yourself are not willing to be? What exactly are you trying to say here?

    • http://www.thedailybeast.com/contributors/david-sessions.html David Sessions

      I’m saying: Some critiques of the virginity cult that present themselves as boldly honest are not actually saying all that much we haven’t heard, and aren’t doing much to address the root causes of virginity’s inordinate importance in certain evangelical communities.

      The reason I don’t jump in and do it myself is that I do not claim to believe the things that these writers do, so why would an evangelical reader care that I don’t believe premarital sex is a sin? To have an impact, it would have to come from someone who shares their beliefs.

      • Owyn

        Bravo to intellectual honesty

  • http://www.onpoptheology.com Benjamin Howard

    I too have really appreciated a lot of these articles and the spirit in which they are written.

    My frustration is that they still hold onto a doctrine of sin that assumes sin is an action. I.e. You have a choice, to either sin or not sin. I’m almost confident that such a duality exists.

    The underlying cry in this conversation is not for a redefinition of sexual ethics, but for a redefinition of sin. How do you both take sin seriously as a systemic and real problem which infects reality and not look at it as a choice-based binary act?

    That’s the article I want to read.

    • http://www.yallsettledown.blogspot.com Kimberly

      Write it! Or at least start to wrestle with it, and write that for us! I love to watch the process of construction.

  • Mark

    Interesting article.

    The problem with your conclusion is that the person saying, ” I’m not married, I’ve had sex, I’m not sorry, and I’m still just as much of a Christian as you are.” would have to deny that pre-marital sex is a sin. There’s no reason to apologize for things that aren’t sinful.

    But that doesn’t seem to be the source of your angst here in this article. Rather, the shaming that comes from overzealous pastors and well-meaning but disappointed parents seems to really be the source of your ire. You’re not wrong, we can (and should) do better for our teens.

    However, lets not dismantle the “cult” of virginity so quickly. You seem to leave out (not surprisingly) the data that shows that premarital sex leads to depression, other forms of sexual deviancy, STD’s, unplanned pregnancies, etc. Sociologists and counselors would agree that pre-marital sex isn’t a positive force in the lives of teens and young adults.

    To offer no solution other than “Those other guys are wrong” is unfair and uninformed.

    • http://www.onpoptheology.com Benjamin Howard

      Mark, I wonder whether it is premarital sex as an act, or the kind of disposition one must adopt to overcome the stigma of premarital sex that leads to many of these risky sexual behaviors.

      I wonder how many of the negative affects of sexual activity are part of a selection bias based around the act itself being viewed negatively.

      • Mark

        Benjamin,

        No doubt, there are many factors in a teens life that will make them more likely to engage in pre-marital sex (not the least of which are raging, raging, raging hormones) but biblically, there’s no allowance for “acceptable” sin. It’d be difficult to label it selection bias. Maybe a better way to look at it would be age related teaching. Teaching teens how to resolve marital conflict has little value compared to teaching them the value of abstinence.

        BTW, thanks for your reply!
        Mark

    • Owyn

      Losing your virginity before marriage is deviant? And what sorts of sexual practices are you calling deviant?

      I’m not sure which counselors you have been listening to, but your universal statement on their behalf is far from the truth. Perhaps you have study from the APA to back up your statements?

  • Jeff

    “I’m all for religious believers having a well-considered theological sexual ethic”

    …unless that sexual ethic takes the traditional Christian view of extramarital sex?

    “The only way this stuff is going to change is when people who call themselves evangelical believers and write for an evangelical audience, stop playing this game of pretend edginess, and say it plainly: I’m not married, I’ve had sex, I’m not sorry, and I’m still just as much of a Christian as you are.”

    Granting that the “cult of virginity” has problems, it’s absurd to suggest that the only way to change it is to abandon what Scripture and two millennia of church doctrine has taught: that sexual unchastity is a sin. Like all sin, it is to be repented of; like all sin, you can’t say “I’m not sorry” and continue to call yourself a Christian; like all sin, forgiveness and grace are freely available for those who do repent.

    There is MUCH to be said to get beyond the hurt the cult of virginity has done. Sexual sin doesn’t mar you forever. It doesn’t make you worse than everyone else. It’s not worse than other sins. It doesn’t ruin your prospects for a good Christian life, a good marriage, or a good sex life. Sexual fidelity can’t be reduced to virginity. Etc. There’s much more than can and must be said, but “I’ve had sex, I’m not sorry, and I’m still just as much of a Christian as you are” isn’t part of it.

  • Adam Caress

    Sorry David, can’t resist a comment here. This article seems to be continuing a longstanding pattern at Patrol, namely looking at the flawed Evangelical approximation of a given doctrine (in this case chastity) and using that flawed approximation in order to criticize (and argue for throwing out) the doctrine as a whole without actually addressing the original Orthodox doctrine that the Evangelical approximation was based on. It’s very confusing—for instance, in this case it was hard to tell if you were using the term “virginity cult” to describe those who ADHERE TO the doctrine of chastity or if you were using the term “virginity cult” to describe those who HAVE DISTORTED the doctrine of chastity. At first, I thought it was the latter, but by the end you were clearly advocating throwing out the doctrine of chastity altogether. I’m not sure that makes you “less of a Christian,” but what do you call people who claim to be part of a religion but don’t seem to believe in any of its core doctrines? (Not knowing you personally, this might be an overgeneralization, but Patrol spends far more time challenging and criticizing core Christian doctrines that affirming or explaining them). In the Catholic Church, such people are called “heretics.”

    On some level, I get it. I grew up in an Evangelical church which taught that we should wait to have sex until we were married, without much explanation beyond that. This was unfortunate and sometimes confusing. Luckily, I had parents who were able to do some helpful supplemental explaining. But it was only later in life that I actually discovered the richness and profundity of the holistic Christian doctrine of chastity (as an Evangelical, I had grown up thinking chastity was synonymous with celibacy). I discovered this doctrine through the Catholic Church—it is well-explained in the Catechism, as well as books like the excellent “Love and Responsibility” by Pope John Paul II (written long before he was pope). But I have also come to realize that there are many protestant scholars and teachers who also ascribe to the Orthodox doctrine of chastity and do a good job of explaining it (similarly, I’m sure there are countless Catholic leaders who don’t do a poor job explaining the doctrine).

    In any case, when I first began grappling with the full doctrine of chastity I was surprised to find that—far from a simple and prohibitive list of dos and don’ts which its critics portrayed it as—the doctrine of chastity begins with an affirmation of the dignity of the human person and places our sexuality in the larger context of our humanity and our responsibility to ourselves and those around us. For instance, the opening section of “Love and Responsibility” is called “an analysis of the verb ‘to use.’” It’s heady and convicting stuff and has served as an invaluable guide throughout my subsequent life. The doctrine easily transcends the condescending classification as a “crazy, often abusive virginity cult.” And only someone unfamiliar with the full doctrine of chastity would so flippantly dismiss it as such. It seems sad to me that a “religion writer” for a major publication like Newsweek/The Daily Beast wouldn’t bother grappling with the actual Christian doctrine of chastity before exhorting his readers to jettison the doctrine en masse.

    Sorry to be so harsh, but in reducing rich and beautiful Orthodox doctrines into straw men and blowing them down, you display an ignorance—whether willful or oblivious—that is painfully obvious any Christian actually familiar with the doctrines themselves. Luckily, the Orthodox doctrine will always be there to be discovered by those with inquisitive minds and hearts, the contrary opinions of a handful of bubble-bound, post-Evangelical pop culture writers notwithstanding.

  • AC

    Against the State, against the Church, against the whole machinery of dead institutions of the past, the woman of today arises.

    A mutual and satisfied sexual act is of great benefit to the average woman, the magnetism of it is health giving

    The most merciful thing that a family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.

    Margaret Sanger

    • http://www.christianvagabond.com Christian Vagabond

      The full quote is: “”Someone once said the most merciful thing that a family does to one of its infant members is to kill it but I reject that view”

      It has a different meaning when you put it in full oontext.

  • AC

    Adam, thanks for waking out of your slumber….

    Sessions writing about Orthodoxy is like Luther writing about the Jews….he is a typical progressive journalist that looks to control info & grossly misrepresent his opponent….it’s people like him, writing on Religion for major publications, that will bring about the persacutions of Christianity or at least drive us underground….the guys at Relevant are wannabe agnostics…while Sessions is a shameless one

    http://vitalcommentaries.blogspot.com/2012/12/open-letter-to-david-sessions-jim_9.html?m=1

    • Owyn

      Having met And known David youre accusations are ridiculous. As far as I have read in this blog, the goal is to square Christianity with modern cultural critique and philosophy. Not with modern culture per se.

      Adam, one of the best men I know (a Jesuit priest) has spent his life questioning the doctrines of mother church. One of the beauties of liturgical churches is the freedom to do exactly as David has, question and challenge doctrines and traditional beliefs.

      • AC

        ‘ the goal is to square Christianity with modern cultural critique and philosophy. ‘

        “We make Scripture the standard of our thinking, and not our thinking the standard of Scripture.” -VanTil

  • Jen

    Wow. I totally agree that so much needs to be said in regard to sexuality. True Love Waits is a punch line for a bad joke these days. But, I think a lot of it has to do with the total lack of serious, deep theology and conversation in Protestant evangelical circles. On the Catholic side of things, the Theology of the Body is profound. We Protestants have nothing like it is explore, describe, understand and really honor the sexuality of being human. Instead, we have lists of dos and don’ts–courtesy of what you call the “virginity cult.” If anything is missing, it’s a deep and abiding theology of the human body; I would be very, very careful before I tossed out the reality that we can–and do–sin sexually, and that in doing so we violate ourselves and God’s intent just as much as those on the opposite end of the spectrum do.

  • http://www.christianvagabond.com Christian Vagabond

    I’m not sure how I feel about this. On one hand, I think your post, while it has many very good points, is a bit harsh on what has been a powerful series of discussions on other blogs. The step these blogs are taking is crucial. Just because you’re at a place personally where you can stand back and objectively analyze the problem, that doesn’t mean that others are at the same place emotionally.

    Christians online (not just you) tend to forget that we’re all at different stages of our spiritual walk, and it’s a process that has to unfold at its own pace.

    However, I do agree with your core point that these arguments against the current mentality towards chastity are milder than they need to be for real change. But I’m not sure how to effectively carry that change out in real life. In real life these people are either without a church or members of congregations where hundreds or thousands of members totally buy into the virginity cult. It’s far too easy for voices of protest to get ignored or shunned in such cases, leaving scorned members to write blog posts because they feel powerless to do anything else.

  • Bruno

    I’ve never heard the expression “the cult of virginity” used to describe Christian sexual ethics but it has a certain provocative flair, definitely moreso than chastity or celibacy. The whole notion of sexual purity is central to Christian belief, beginning with the doctrine that Jesus was born of a virgin. What does that belief imply? That sex is impure and not worthy of a god even in marriage? The virgin birth doctrine and the idea of sexual sin have led to more bad marriages than good ones. Better to marry than to burn is advice that only a bachelor could give and a bad marriage is its own version of hell on earth. A little sexual honesty is necessary at this point. Sexual desire is not impure. It is the essence of our existence, how everyone on this thread came to life. The ideal of marriage is exactly that- an ideal. Not every person, or Christian if you will, is monogamous or even heterosexual. I doubt that Jesus cared about a person’s sexuality. Celibacy may have been necessary to his spirituality, but not necessarily to yours. The essential feature of Christian ethics is the practice of love. For most Christians, that love may include a sexual dimension. Do not be ashamed of it.

  • Tom Hinkle

    So when Paul said to “flee fornication”, what the heck did he mean? You are totally disregarding the Biblical witness.

  • Karl Kroger

    I’m all about pushing back against the ways in which we’ve idolized virginity and demonized young people (mostly girls) for their actions, but are you sure the best response is to suggest that Christians should simply go ahead and “responsibly” sleep around before marriage? You’re losing creditability.

  • AC

    Karl, David is just showing his true colors…he’s been holding back….this is what fringe-Christian/lib-progressives do….

    They write convuluted, confusing essays that go nowhere while planting little seeds of disdain for Christian essentials/absolutes that run contrary to his radical social agenda….this is the real David! you guys are so gullible.

    • http://www.thedailybeast.com/contributors/david-sessions.html David Sessions

      I’m so much worse than that, AC. If only you knew!

      • AC

        David, you have a 2-fold agenda, I believe one comes from a good place while the other comes from too much brain-washing on the other side….sounds like you went from one extreme to another…

        Your good side wants to reach out to the wounded youth who have grown-up part of a repressive, legalistic, controlling family-church dyamnic

        Your bad side wants to bring down/disparage any remnants of Christian exclusivity/Christian morality (that does not violate the golden rule)

        This is all fine, it’s your gig….but I think many of your readers are confused, they think you’re merely defined by the former agenda…..while, the truth is you have fully embraced the later…..

        You’re smart enough to know that you fall so far outside orthodoxy that you’re barely a Christian….

        While my agenda is to expose all liberal Christians as falling too far outside Christianity to be considered a voice that is rightly viewed as an insider merely providing constructive criticism…. You have embraced the role of an outsider looking to take Christianity down or more accurately….making us look stupid

        • http://www.thedailybeast.com/contributors/david-sessions.html David Sessions

          This is actually not too bad a guess. I do want to “reach out” to Christians, but not to “save” them from repression or legalism or whatever. I just think it’s important remain in dialogue/debate with all kind of people, even after you’ve rejected their beliefs. I’m not trying to pose as an insider, though I have a certain appearance of being one thanks to spending most of my life as an evangelical. Nor do I want to “bring them down” from the inside or the outside. I want to respect them, debate them when I believe their ideology is wrong or destructive, and expose them (in my role as a reporter) when they are committing abuses or crimes through religious institutions.

          I see it quite simply: a lot of people in my world (non-believing “secularists” or liberals or whatever) have no contact with actual religious believers, and think of them as a monolithic bloc to be opposed. I freely admit that I oppose many of the political implications of some Christian beliefs, and there are a number of orthodox/mainstream Christian doctrines I believe are deeply wrong. But overall, I take a friendly position toward religion; I think discussion, debate and interaction is healthy for all of us whenever we have enough common ground for it.

      • Bruno

        Laughter I have pronounced holy! Sessions- You’re my hero

  • Emily

    David,

    Thank you for your mention of my piece. I appreciate that you acknowledge the difficulty of speaking as a progressive voice in a culture while still being in that culture. I have seen many people make the statements and critique you request, and they are dismissed or bullied into silence quickly. Most of them leave on their own. I’m not sure what hope I place in Evangelicalism or if I’m even trying to “save” anything. But I am certainly speaking as someone from that culture about the results of that culture. I am grateful more people telling stories, because I believe there is more likelihood of change if the important cultural critics (especially those outside) are bridged with real stories. That collective force is mighty.

    My piece, nor Sarah’s or anyone else’s was intending to dismantle the cult of virginity. That sexism is too entrenched to die in a clever word or many. It will require dismantling with the same forces that built it: broad cultural change, individual conversations, the way we tell our stories, youth group curriculum and probably all sorts of other ways I can’t think of right now. It’s erroneous to dismiss one facet of this process because it is not complete or your preferred form of critique.

    My real concern is about the way you dismiss what I say because of speculations that you make about my sexual choices. You said “There’s nothing in the piece to suggest this was a physical event; rather, it sounds like an intellectual exercise” and proceeded to argue that because I didn’t state anything about my sexual history, I am still promoting the cult of virginity.

    In truth, my sexual experience is none of anyone’s business but mine. I make that point very clearly by refusing to define myself by the words virgin or non-virgin. I simply don’t care and I stated this in my piece. You attempt to make my sexuality public, without my consent, in the same way that the virginity cult does, in the same way that sexualized, abusive capitalism does. You’re still basing the validity of my piece, my person, on whether or not I’ve had sex.

    I respect that these efforts aren’t controversial to you. I don’t expect them to be. And in truth, they aren’t controversial to me because of my experience outside of the Evangelical world. I don’t think it’s a big deal what people did with whom and when. Because it’s none of my business what adults do with their sexuality or if they feel it’s “sin” or not. But these posts are clearly controversial to those people who are read and responded to these posts, who have never encountered these ideas because they have never been brought up in evangelical circles.

    I agree that a large change is necessary and the task is difficult, but I think this is part of it. And as long as I choose to be a part of it, I will.

    • http://www.thedailybeast.com/contributors/david-sessions.html David Sessions

      Emily, I recognize there’s a strange element to me lecturing evangelical writers about what is controversial and what stands they should take. I consider myself an outside observer who still cares because I grew up in this world and many people I love are still involved in it. But ultimately, I can’t really tell people like you what to do. I can say what I see, but I admit it’s a bit unfair of me to judge. If stories like yours and others make people think, provoke discussions, etc, they are worthwhile no matter what I think of them.

      But I must respond to this charge:

      “You attempt to make my sexuality public, without my consent, in the same way that the virginity cult does, in the same way that sexualized, abusive capitalism does. You’re still basing the validity of my piece, my person, on whether or not I’ve had sex.”

      I categorically have not attempted to “make your sexuality public.” I have no ability to do so; I know nothing about it other than what you have written publicly, presumably of your own free will. You’re basically accusing me of invading your privacy by quoting what you wrote about yourself on a freely accessible website. I’m sorry, but that’s not how this works; you don’t get to make yourself the center of your writing and then claim your personal life is off limits.

      I’m sorry you think I’m dismissing you because of your sexual experience or lack thereof; my critique had nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not you’ve had sex. I simply pointed out that, for a general evangelical audience, there’s nothing all that new, edgy, or challenging about refusing to play the virginity game, despite the way Prodigal clearly wants to present it (“handing in my V-card,” etc). True Love Waits has been questioned for years, and a number of writers and bloggers have argued that the virginity emphasis is excessive and destructive. A truly frank and controversial discussion that built on those developments would have to go even further in confronting some of the root issues, which might involve people revealing their own sexual experiences, or at least revealing a theological position against the idea that premarital sex is a sin. (There are numerous ways it could be done; I never said that someone’s personal sex life must be revealed for it to be valued.)

      The reason I care about this is that conservative magazines like Relevant and Prodigal buy a lot of their prestige by having smart young people like you write things that appear to be controversial but don’t actually threaten the orthodoxies they want to uphold. (This is a well-known feature of dictatorial states: allowing certain kinds of harmless dissent that create a false appearance of free speech and further consolidate their grip on expression.) Threatening evangelical orthodoxies may not be your goal, and that’s fine (though I think your public self-presentation somewhat suggests otherwise). I tried to make clear that, to whatever extent what you write provokes thought and impacts people’s lives, that’s fantastic. I don’t expect you to sacrifice yourself to bring down the virginity cult. But I’m saying there are lots of young writers who have much more dramatic experience and much more controversial beliefs than they let on, and Relevant, Prodigal, etc get to capitalize on them only hinting at what they really think. There is a real (and understandable!) tension there, because if they really were frank and challenging, they probably wouldn’t have an evangelical writing gig or book deal. It’s fine with me if they’d rather keep their real thoughts quiet, but they don’t get to present themselves as people who are “speaking truth to power” or “stirring things up,” which is very often how these magazines present their content.

  • AC

    I don’t know David, from what I’ve read and checking out a few of your tweets I think you’re too immersed in progressive liberalism to actually take ‘a friendly position toward religion’

    I’m gonna leave you with this, find an Evangelical you may respect, Ravi for apologetics/Sproul for theology/Beeke on Christian Living, and start over.,..then maybe try Axe & Wells/Sarfati for criticism of ToE….

    I’m gonna leave you alone, I mean it this time, and since you were nice enough to respond to my comment Im gonna remove your picture and name from my critical blog posts, God Bless AC

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  • http://paulvanderklay.wordpress.com Paul VanderKlay

    This article seems somehow related to another piece I read today on Nashville publishing: http://www.wisconsingazette.com/faith-gaze/jesus-is-getting-a-makeover-by-new-publishers.html

    Not having grown up in the Evangelical greenhouse this pattern of pushing back appears to be a response to an oral tradition within a thick culture.

    If you grew up in a cabin at some point you might find the walls of the cabin inconveniently placed. Not enough elbow room, product of someone else’s vision. Blowing them up is one way to address the claustrophobia.

    If you grew up in a field a walled cabin might sound nice even if the walls weren’t exactly where you might have liked them to be.

    Sometimes we pursue these conversations with the self importance of imagining our prescriptions and standards will dictate the behavior of others. That’s usually not the case, especially when it comes to a drive as strong as sex at a time in our lives when we have little self-knowledge or self-awareness.

    What we hope we may do is offer guidance and wisdom that will bring life to those who care to listen to us. Maybe that thought can govern our conversation.

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  • Jacqui

    I’m a little late to this show, but I just want to say that I do hear what you’re saying and I agree with you.

    I nearly got myself banned from doing youth ministry by suggesting, in the company of only adults, that I was not entirely sure that premarital sex is a sin. That sex within a marriage was not automatically healthy and “sinless” just because it happened within the structure of a marriage. Unhealthy, violent, non-loving sex happens within marriages all the time. This, to me, is sin. So if the presence of a marital covenant is not the determinant of sinfulness, can we definitively say that sex outside of marriage is sinful because of the absence of that covenant? I don’t think so.

    I’ve had premarital sex. I didn’t hate it. Were there sinful elements of it? Absolutely. And that absolutely left places of brokenness in me that have taken a while to heal. But the sinful pieces were how I used sex – it was a reaction to brokenness within that relationship – brokenness that would have existed with or without a marriage license.

    Thank you for your boldness.

    • AC

      Actually Jacqui, forget about the article YOU taught us all the proper way to speak on issues such as these….without an agenda & without contempt….I will admit being guilty of both..

      Now, although I disagree with your view of fornication outside marriage….I do know it happens and it even happens within a loving relationship outside the bond of matrimony….my first son was conceived this way & I proposed to my wife a few months later….is sex outside marriage a reality for many young Christian couples, of course….is it an unpardonable act? Of course not! Should we still hold to a faithful standard of marriage/intercourse – yes! Are we making our life much less complicated if we do so (& are we healthier emotionally when we do?) I believe most are!

      Lower the judgement & excessive stigma of committing an act of fornication, without minimizing sin & Biblical faithfulness – I believe that is reasonable

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  • http://dancingpastthedark.com Nan Bush
  • Emily O.

    Christian mystic Simone Weil, in her book “Waiting for God,” states that all sexual sins boil down to one thing: the more or less complete desire to do away with consent (not-quite-verbatim paraphrase). She goes on to define consent not as a verbal “yes” but as a “yes” that goes to the core of one’s being and is eternal. That is to say, truly consensual sexual relations are those which come from an eternal spiritual commitment to love one another unconditionally. And any sexual relationship not founded on this kind of consent is, by Weil’s definition, sinful.

    In my earlier comment to JMJ, I proposed that a better Christian ethic about sex would be based on commitment, not marriage (insofar as we define marriage as a legal, social, and religious institution). I add Weil’s views because I believe they express my sentiment in these comments better than I can otherwise.

    Finally, I would suggest that Weil’s definition of sexual sin is, if anything, more strict than traditional Christian ethics – despite its potential to condone premarital sex.

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  • TilWeHaveFaces

    I have little use for the overemphasis on virginity myself, but having seen the wreckage in marriages done by premarital sex, I believe he’s doing real damage to real lives by propogating untruth. In the Bible God says that those who cause His children to stumble should have a millstone placed around their necks and be thrown in the ocean. Find me a millstone and I’ll be happy to do the job.

  • Adrienne

    The church is losing too many good young people because its stand on premarital sex. I think they have lost an entire generation, and I don’t see it getting any better anytime soon. You can be a good Christian and still have a caring, sharing and mutually beneficial sex life outside of marriage. I love Jesus and decided not to wait for marriage many years in the future.

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