[Eighth Day Institute, Feb 2019]
Back in my college days, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I was a hippie and a spiritual seeker. The range of spiritual options on campus was broad, and I sampled a bit of everything: Hinduism, Ananda Marga Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Hare Krishna, Transcendental Meditation. I say I was a “seeker,” but that’s not exactly right; I didn’t expect to reach a destination. I was, more accurately, a spiritual explorer, always journeying toward a new horizon.
There’s something about that era that I don’t understand, though. My friends and I savored all the more-esoteric religions, but for some reason we hated Christianity. We ridiculed it automatically, reflexively. The Jesus Freak movement had arrived on campus and, when I ran into newly born-again students, I enjoyed trying to shake their faith. I’d tell them that the myth of a dying-and-rising god isn’t unique to Christianity, but appears in religions around the world. I savored any opportunity for unsettling them and sowing doubts.
I don’t know why, but Christianity roused in us a kind of malicious delight. Somebody donated stacks of the paperback New Testament, Good News for Modern Man, and they were placed in all the dorm lobbies. My friend George, at his dorm, tore them up. When bystanders objected, he said, “It’s a bad translation.” We thought this was hilarious—a witty bit of revolutionary theater.
What’s more, we felt that Christians deserved this treatment, for some reason. We felt that it was right to hurt them, but also felt that it would somehow “do them good.” I can’t remember why hearing their faith mocked and insulted was supposed to help them. But some inner spark of mischief made us want to embarrass and sadden them. Other religions didn’t stir up this zestful cruelty; only Christians roused our desire to wound and gloat. The hostility was so inexplicable, and so intense, that you’d almost think it was tuned to some unseen spiritual battle.
We told each other that Christians were stuffy and judgmental, but the Jesus Freaks on campus weren’t like that, actually. They looked like us, like hippies, and were generally humble, cheerful, and amiable. And we found that annoying. I would say, “There’s something wrong with those Christians. They’re too clean.”
Looking back, I think the “cleanness” that irritated me was their purity. There’s something about purity that awakens in those who don’t share it a kind of malicious delight. And this desire to hurt them feels justified, even righteous; even when purity is just minding its own business, it feels like they’re preaching at you. So you want to see them shocked and hurt. It would be sweet to see their tears.
Our culture’s appreciation of purity hasn’t increased over the intervening decades; on the contrary, it seems like everything has been sexualized. And if it’s not specifically sexualized, it’s crude. I stopped shopping for greeting cards some years ago (I just make my own), because almost every one I picked up was organized around a fart joke. I stopped going out to see new movies, because gross-out scenes so often jump out with no warning. When this coarsening began, a couple of decades ago, it seemed flatly juvenile, as if everything was being marketed at 13-year-old boys. But, in time, that passed. I don’t mean the crudity; what passed was the sense that it was juvenile. Now it’s marketed at everybody.
Perhaps the biggest factor in this general coarsening is the overwhelming amount of porn now available. Pastors like my husband know all too well how pornography destroys marriages, friendships, families—in short, destroys people. It is addictive, of course; it’s designed to be. It is cumulative, of course, and when addicts become inured to shocking images, they are hit with something more shocking still. The trend is toward increasing degrees of violence.
When author Martin Amis was assigned to write an article about the porn industry, he had to watch some videos and filming. He wrote, “I kept worrying about something. I kept worrying that I’d like it.” Porn targets, he said, the “near-infinite chaos of human desire,” and if you unknowingly harbor some sexual demon, “sooner or later porn will identify it” and bid it come forth.
Given all the varieties of sexual upheaval today, critics tend to focus on gay marriage, saying that it destroys traditional marriage. But in terms of sheer numbers, porn is overwhelmingly more destructive. Men are much more likely than women to be enslaved by it, but that doesn’t mean they alone suffer its effects.
When I’m out with my little granddaughters, I’m aware that nearly any man we pass could have terrible images burned into his brain. That’s the world they will have to live in. When they’re a little older, they may unknowingly date such men. They may unknowingly marry one. (Remember, the next step is violence.) All their lives, my granddaughters will be walking through a porn-saturated community.
But that considers only the impact on them. What about the effect on the men themselves? What is it like to feel that your mind is no longer under your control, that you can no longer stop the rushing thoughts that repulse and frighten you?
Yet it’s so easy to begin. At the University of Maryland a few years ago, two student groups, Christian and atheist, held a debate. At one point the pastor made a reference to porn, and suddenly the room was filled with go-team hooting and applause. I was shocked; I guess I’m just naïve. I didn’t know this was something young men are proud of. But that brief reference to porn got the most enthusiastic audience response of the evening.
That brings us back to the question of why purity would be hated. Those who continue to think, quaintly, that it is beautiful and worthy of honor, are no threat to anybody’s freedom; their private opinion doesn’t impact anyone else. We are at a rare (perhaps unique) moment in history, in which everyone is free to seek any kind of sex they want. The old moral standards are long gone. How would it ever be possible that the pendulum swing back, and an understanding of the beauty of purity be recovered?
I’m a fan of old movies, especially the old black-and-whites from the past mid-century. And I came to notice that they can take for granted, or even celebrate, some behaviors that we would disapprove today. Or to put it another way, and hard as it is to believe, sometimes the pendulum swung back toward more conservative forms of morality.
One example would be drinking to excess, to the point of drunkenness. There was a period, during Prohibition and afterwards, where it was seen as very cool to be visibly drunk. Just as popular actors are now expected to do a nude scene, they were then expected to do a drunk scene, and most of the big names did so in one film or another. Drunkenness was cool because it was rebellious; it was a way of defying the prudes and scolds who disapproved of alcohol, the folks who supported Prohibition. And it wasn’t enough to just enjoy a glass of wine; if others were to be able to see and admire you, you had to be visibly drunk—in Southern parlance, “knee-walking, lamppost-talking” drunk. These scenes can be puzzling to today’s audiences, and the famous actors appear unpleasant or even repulsive. But back then it was very hip.
This remained fashionable for decades, and only gradually was reconsidered. When the comedy “Arthur” came out in 1981, with a perpetually-drunk lead character, there were some objections; some people could testify from family experience that alcoholism is not all that funny. Today “Arthur” is still good to watch, because of its excellent writing and cast. But the central premise, that someone bumbling around drunk is inherently hilarious, doesn’t make sense anymore. Visible drunkenness has now been broadly rejected (except among college freshmen), and today you’d never see it portrayed as cool.
Something that was firmly embraced as hip and cool has now been firmly rejected. People changed their opinion about that, changed for the better—spontaneously, it seems, without a government campaign or nationwide revival.
That’s good news. If behavior considered cool is actually causing pain, eventually people recognize that and, sometimes, turn away from it.
Something else that was thought thrilling and hip, even from the silent era, was male adultery. This was treated as something that should be taken for granted, that “boys will be boys,” and a wife should ignore such misbehavior. A woman who did so was admired as being wise.
In “The Women” (1939), famous for its cast of 139 women and not a single man, the lead character discovers her husband is having an affair with a saleswoman. She resolves to go to Reno for what was then called a “quickie” divorce (Nevada then required only a 6 week residency). But her mother counsels her to ignore her husband’s escapade, saying that it’s wrong for a wife to destroy her family just for her foolish pride. Note that it’s the wife, not the wandering husband, who is destroying the family.
Visible drunkenness and male adultery are two values that were celebrated in film for most of the 20th century, but are emphatically regarded in a negative way today. Those are just two of a list that could be much longer: cigarette-smoking, rough handling of women, and over-the-top racism. Once you start noticing such things, the examples are everywhere. We think, “Old movies uphold old-fashioned values,” and they do; we just have no idea what those values were.
So the culture has changed for the good in a number of ways—but notice that it wasn’t occasioned by widespread revival. It wasn’t because someone designed an effective public relations campaign, or the right people got elected. Apparently, it just happened; the behavior was accompanied by too many negative effects, and this became too obvious too ignore. I think one way this happens is when the generation who were children at the time, who saw how much these behaviors hurt their family, grow up and begin telling their own stories. As they present the damage done, others chime in, and the previously admired behavior is sometimes rejected very suddenly. It’s like it was just waiting to happen, like the collapse of the Iron Curtain.
We are currently in a time, perhaps unprecedented, when talk about all kinds of sexual behavior is pervasive, even inescapable. (Advertising takes some of the blame here, for fostering the obsessive nature of the talk.) And we Christians who value purity are very much on the outside, expressing beliefs that the culture can’t even understand. There’s little likelihood that, if we could only find the right way to say it, we’d win people over; it’s the beliefs themselves that they reject, and changing the words won’t fool them. It’s still necessary to keep speaking out, and even more important to live up to our beliefs. But we should be expect to be ignored, or hated and attacked by those who can’t resist that surge of malicious delight.
In fact, we should be prepared to find that standing up for our beliefs just turns us into lightning rods. We could sustain damage not only to ourselves, but to the cause, because our opponents need a visible figure to caricature nobly oppose. Remember how alcoholism became fashionable as a way of rebelling against people who opposed alcohol? Today there’s the same kind of craving to find someone to cast in that role, to find some disapproving square to shock. It’s not rebellion if no one is trying to stop you.
That’s why people who do see the beauty in sexual purity, who try to practice it and encourage others, can find themselves unexpectedly cast as the bad guy in a stranger’s inner drama. No wonder those who value purity tend to do so quietly, keeping their beliefs within the context of home, church, and community. Purity has become a deeply unpopular opinion, fit only for religious oddballs.
And yet, in other contexts, we all value purity. Don’t we want purity to be top priority at the local dairy? On a stroll through Whole Foods, how many times do you see the word “Pure” on packaging? Dozens of magazines have “Pure” in their title, apparently believing that it sells magazines. About the only thing our fractured nation agrees on the necessity of guarding nature’s purity.
Everyone understands the beauty of purity in other contexts. So why is sexual purity the exception? Why does it elicit a zesty, flavorful hate, and a desire to wound and sadden those who love it?
Oddly enough, in the Orthodox Church we hold up as an example—literally, on our iconstases—a man who was killed for denouncing sexual impurity. In his icon, St. John the Baptist stands on a desert landscape, with a bowl at his feet displaying his severed head. A scroll tumbles open from his hand:
O Word of God,
See what they suffer,
Those who censure the faults of the ungodly;
Unable to bear rebuke,
Behold, Herod has cut off my head,
King Herod was “unable to bear rebuke” for marrying his brother’s wife; St. John was unable to stop rebuking. We know how that story ends, for St. John.
But, for King Herod, nothing changed. He did not find St. John’s words persuasive, and he continued in marriage with Herodias till his death.
Might anything persuade people to honor sexual purity, if they don’t instinctively sense its value? Persuasive words are hard to find, and even attempting to find them makes us look like tasty targets. Meanwhile, the world keeps advertising the availability of everything anyone might desire. What could ever change this situation?
Well, to take a very long view, there’s the fact that it’s false advertising. Wanting sex is not the same thing as having it. Every year, a fresh batch of 20-year-olds rolls off the conveyor belt, and every year everyone else looks a year older. Time is relentless. Attractiveness is fleeting. Alongside the exalting of “free” sex, the two-faced world maintains a barrage of ads for snacky, fatty foods; these may be irresistibly comforting in the wake of rejection, but they affect the figure in ways that render it ever more rejectable.
Some years ago I noticed that there was a word that, if I said it during a speech, the audience would freeze. The word is “loneliness.” The freedom to have no obligations to anyone else means, conversely, that no one has any obligations to you. The repercussions of that disconnection grow more terrible with each accumulating year. Sexual liberation has set us free, like an astronaut who cuts through his lifeline.
Those annoying prudes and scolds of earlier days had influence because they represented, not their own private whims, but their community’s consensus. They vocalized the commonly-held understanding of the bounds of acceptable behavior. The price of being in a community is reckoning with such commonly-held expectations; the price of not being in a community is despair.
To imagine the re-establishment of community interdependence requires a very long view, and in the short term we’re not likely to be any more successful than St. John was. Even attempting to present the beauty of sexual purity is likely to attract only that mysterious malice. But we can continue to exhort and encourage each other, and in our private lives do our best not to let the team down. We can be watchful about the material we allow into our minds, because it’s very hard to get it out again. We will find no better advice than this:
“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)