Healing from Purity Culture (Grace & Space - A Newsletter from the Deconstructing Mamas)
In 2019, a Lutheran minister named Nadia Bolz Weber sent out a bat signal for the collection of certain pieces of jewelry made popular in the late ’90s in evangelical circles called, “purity rings”. She amassed enough to hire an artist to turn the abandoned rings into a sculpture of a vulva; as a form of closure for the women who needed to rid themselves of the symbols.
Most of the world had no clue what a purity ring was before this grand gesture made even the “secular” news outlets; no one understood why a ring simply meant to symbolize a commitment to sexual abstinence could hold such pain and suffering that women who owned one desired to watch it burn. No one but a handful of us who still had purity rings tucked away in the back of our own jewelry boxes.
I knew how to ascertain a boy’s, “spiritual development,” as a self-righteous measuring stick by which to gauge who might be worthy of my body and my attention before I was even old enough to date. I navigated the troubled waters of purity culture like a seasoned sailor too fixated on the high seas, the hidden rocks, and the lighthouse in the distance to notice the glory and freedom of the open water that the rest of the crew had (often) paused to appreciate. I’ve heard, there is nothing like a sunset at sea. I was too busy calculating the height of the waves to stop and notice. I knew that one of the biggest violations (outside of sex before marriage) was to be, “unequally yoked” and I was not about to be caught, bobbing in the ocean without a life-raft.
I knew exactly what characteristics I should be looking for in a suitable spouse. A strong prayer life, in-depth knowledge and reverence for Scripture, a penchant for hermeneutics, an unapologetic acceptance of the triune God, and a commitment to a governing church body (but not Catholic, obviously. They don’t even read the Bible, I had heard). I had them memorized while I was still watching cartoons in the morning and didn’t have to wear a sports bra most days. I knew the ins and outs of how to give myself over to a “man” before I ever really knew who I was, or what I would be sacrificing along the way. [It is a systemic showing of abuse to rear a child to submit her thoughts, her decisions, desires, and her own body to someone else for no reason other than they are male.]
It is fascinating to me that the same circles who taught me how to quantify my goodness by the status of my virginity are the ones who are most vocal about the “over-sexualization of our youth,” in films such as Pixar’s most recent, “Turning Red”. To speak openly and honestly about the emotional and physical transitions of adolescence seem much less damaging than the grooming of child brides, the instruction on how to deny oneself and submit to another, and the arrested development of exercises in worth, control, preference, and choice.
Having become a parent myself, it has been a strange form of equal parts terror and healing for me as we steamroll toward adolescence, this time, with me in the passenger seat. In preparation, I’ve made it a practice to write down the things I wished I was taught as a child in regard to sexuality and have decided, in all vulnerability, to share it with you. I imagine Brene Brown would be proud.
I wish I had felt permission to look at someone in simple appreciation of how beautiful they were without wondering whether or not they interpreted Christian doctrine in the same way that I was taught.
I wish butterflies, giggles and glances were normalized as a beautiful part of growing up, instead of sexualized, bonding shame and sex in a way that I am thirty years later, still healing from.
I wish I was taught to look for kind men, rather than “Christian” ones.
I wish I was instructed on what it felt like to be respected as a person such as men who listened and looked me in the eye when I spoke. Men who expressed concern for my well-being when needed. Men who owned their own wanting rather than tell me we were meant to be married because “God told him so”. (Spoiler: we didn’t marry.) The messaging I received was to look for men who read their Bibles and loved the Lord. Loving me well seemed to be negligible. It was a falsehood that shaped much of my most damaging relationship choices. I turned down men who were kind and loyal and trustworthy, but didn’t subscribe to the exact brand of Christianity I did and accepted offers of commitment from professing, “Christians” who were at best controlling and dismissive, at worst, downright abusive.
I wish I had had the guts to go after the kind ones- to see what it felt like to have allowed myself to love them in return. I would have learned so much more about what I was worth.
I wish I had known the difference between love and control.
I wish I had known harm wasn’t relegated to CNN tickers and, “other people’s stories”. That “Christian” men could often cut the deepest, operating under the assumption of their superiority and power as an authority “over women”. Truth be told, I don’t even blame them. Most of them were only doing what they were told.
I wish I had understood that holding them to a standard that grown men found impossible to maintain was ruining me and them, and the opportunities to gently and innocently transition into adolescence. I was ready to be a wife before I was finished being a child.
I wish my formative sexual experiences weren’t shrouded in shame.
I wish I hadn’t been caught in such a vacuum that forced me to contort and manipulate circumstances in order to feel some sort of absolution from the inevitable guilt. Though “the word” instructed otherwise, we understood that there was a clear hierarchy of sin, the rules different for men and women. I began to distort the confining doctrines meant to, “protect me,” in order to believe that if I gave of my body but withheld the relational commitment, I could repent from the sin of desire and be absolved due to its “short-term” nature, but to commit to a person who wasn’t, “spiritually fit” (unequally yolked) was a sin I could never return from.
[This is what happens when the culture of purity is elevated above all else; even the God it is supposed to be honoring.]
But mostly, I wish I had known the real definition of an, “unequally yolked.” That tethering myself to someone for the sole reason that they check all the doctrinal boxes of my former faith tenets is about as unequal as it gets. As my husband and I have learned over the last seventeen years of navigating a young marriage, the things that have held us together haven’t been our rousing theological discussions or our Sunday morning commitments. It sure wasn't my quiet submission (I don’t have that gift) or his assertion as the head of our household (that was never a comfortable role for him). The only way we survived the things that broke us along the way was with laughter, music, food, communication, a support system, and forgiveness in elephantine proportions. Nary a devotional in sight. I wasn’t taught to look for kindness, but after much trial and error, we both found it, together.
So, with trepidation, I talk to my daughters about all of the things I wish someone had told me, much to their chagrin, and sometimes, embarrassment. I speak the truths of what I know to them while they pretend to pick at the lint on their jeans in the passenger seat of my car, but I know they are listening.
I can see already in the ways they carry themselves. The ways they won’t settle for less. The ways they feel about their bodies and their friends and their relationships with others. The way they confidently comment, in passing, about things I would never have dreamed of voicing aloud at her age. And as I watch them, as I get the honor of witnessing their ascent into the next chapter of her lives, I get to heal, too. I get the privilege of saying the things I so desperately needed to hear when I was their age; and they, in turn, get to roll their eyes and wish I stopped talking already.
Exactly as it should be.
Latest News: ESTHER'S STORY from MISSIONARY KID to DECONSTRUCTING MAMA was shared in Joy Vetterlein's "Sunday Soul Care" email yesterday. Since you might have missed it, this was the story:
My parents were evangelical missionaries in Ethiopia.
I remember laying on my bunk bed at boarding school, just nine years old, panicking that I couldn’t sleep because I had done a bunch of “wrong things” and should confess my sins. I would whisper the same thing for the umpteenth time, “Please come into my heart. I really mean it this time. I will be better tomorrow.” The only thing that brought me comfort was the image of Aslan, a loving lion who makes everything good and right in a strange land, and seems to adore children and even play with them. I love Aslan. I wish God was like Aslan. Why can’t He be?
I clung to a warped version of Jesus/God/Aslan as a behavior manager/get-out-of-hell-free-ticket/best friend for much of my life, diving deep into the evangelical church and almost full-time volunteer ministry. I was sure that my calling was to keep people out of hell and to get them to act righteously.
I believed wholeheartedly in the formula: just do it all right, make all the right, godly choices and life goes the way it should. After all, isn’t that what I’d heard my whole life from preachers and family and professors and authors and friends and even from my own head? Things like, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in step with the wicked…whatever he does prospers” (Psalm 1).
Until the formulas stopped working. Good people got divorced. My kids weren’t all that well-behaved at times. Many teens, including my own, made “not-so-wise” choices and some of my children’s friends struggled with addiction. Well-educated people had a hard time finding a job. Many lost their jobs. Successful people were anxious and depressed, including me.
My idea of how the world worked came crashing down. I didn’t know what to think. Anxiety took over. Hopeless thoughts came much more than I wanted them to. I kept trying harder. It just got worse. Finally, I came completely unraveled. UNRAVELED. My carefully-built-rubber-band-ball-of-how-life-works began snapping. If not this, then what? What do I do now? How do I live?
This brought me to the place where I had to seek out other voices in my life… ones that could lean into complexity and nuance and grief and pain when the formulas are thrown away.
Authors like Richard Rohr, Rachel Held Evans, and Paul Young started to chip away at my concrete thinking. I watched as the evangelical church's response to suffering with more behavior management and "Biblical counseling" did not work for those who were already in hell, and watched the "us/them" mentality permeate the church and Christianity.
At first, I hid—staying in my faith community, but not being my full self. It was exhausting and I felt very disintegrated, as if some parts of me were in competition with other parts. I only said out-of-the-box things to those who were "safe," hoping people in my faith community or in my very conservative family wouldn't find out. As I began to write publicly, I tempered my words so as to not offend anyone, leaving things only half-said. I was mostly afraid of being kicked out, dismissed, losing respect and influence, and finding myself alone. My sense of belonging was incredibly tied up in my belief system.
Hiding didn’t work, so I tried to straddle the two worlds of evangelicalism (and the black-and-white thinking that came with it) and a more curious ideology (leaning into questioning and doubt), convinced that I could bring healing and help to the faith community I was in. But as soon as I began to live in authenticity, and came out of hiding, I was given a choice: sign a "leadership covenant" that didn’t align with my more inclusive and holistic beliefs, or leave. I chose to leave. In that moment, in one fell swoop, the power for influence toward change was ripped away. My heart broke as I had poured more than 20 years of my precious resources (time, energy and money) into my particular church, and the option to effect change was taken away because change was not wanted.
Instead of plunging ahead into a new “faith community,” I believe a much-needed Sabbatical was crucial in order to process my grief and give space to figure out my next right thing. Just having permission and freedom to be my whole self, without having to hide or pretend anymore, has been so healing and life-giving.
However, as all faith shifts go, the unsettling feeling of being very much on the outside (and no longer part of the inside where I had a secure sense of belonging) has been difficult and beautiful. Losing certainty, formulas, fitting in and leaning into mystery and wonder has felt foggy and clear, peaceful and nerve-wracking at the same time.
I’ve had to grieve the death of what I thought I knew was true and the community that held those "truths" at the same time.
Like all grief, it hits you when you least expect it and the pain is palpable in many ways. All there really is to do is dive deep, work through it, and try not to "rush to joy" as Emily P. Freeman says.
One glimmer of much-needed hope my husband gave to me in the middle of it all was that no one was allowed to silence my voice and perhaps there would just be a different means to using it. I’ve seen that begin to happen in my much more integrated, vulnerable and authentic writing, as well as my podcast, which has provided a much-need outlet for using my unique gifts and passion, for which I am very grateful.
To coin a phrase from scripture (that I view very differently now), "The harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few." I've always felt a calling to help those who are hurting, to bring hope and healing to them, and I have found that I don't have to look or go very far to find others in pain, especially those who feel rejected and abandoned by those to whom they entrusted their spirituality.
My personal great hope is that there can be a new and transformative kind of faith community/church/Christianity, one where questions and doubts are fully welcome, and there is a discussion of differences, not a conformity to sameness. Somewhere that the priority would be to express unity, but not demand uniformity. Somewhere that decisions are led by love, not pushed by fear.
I want for the Church and others what I want for myself: Integrity. Wholeness. Freedom. Healing. Inclusion. Life. Love.
A summer BONUS EPISODE is coming out NEXT TUESDAY (August 2)! We can't wait to share it with you! July is flying by and we want to give you something to look forward to. We know we are! Don't forget to sign up for our private and exclusive Deconstructing Mamas community on Facebook for those of you who want to move to the next level with us via our Patreon platform.
DIPPING YOUR TOES At this level, for as little as $3, you can ask questions, experience a safe and welcoming community with others who are deconstructing and receive special surprises along the way from Lizz and Esther.
You will also have access to our private Youtube podcast videos that are solely for Patreon supporters (coming soon). Head to this LINK to sign up!!
Resources If you feel like a misfit on this deconstruction journey (and we all do), check out Joy Vetterlein's Sunday Soul Care email. She has so much good stuff (like Esther's story, LOL), but actually, she has so much to offer. (You can sign up for it HERE). PLUS, SHE'S COMING ON OUR PODCAST FOR SEASON TWO.
From the Podcast
Jenny Vanderberg Shannon, our guest for Episode 7, and the author of that beautiful look at "purity culture," is someone that is worth listening to, reading and getting your hands on (or should I say hearts). As a former worship leader and minister extraordinaire, she understands (in deep ways) the complex nature of what most of us are going through as we deconstruct from toxic belief systems. We loved our conversation with her and every time we hear her sentiment, "You don't have to be good," it touches our hearts in ways that heal us on the spot.
So if you haven't given it a listen (and even if you have), give yourself the pleasure. To say it will be your best form of weekly self-care is an incredible understatement. CHECK IT OUT HERE: YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE GOOD
FOLLOW JENNY on SOCIALS Websites: Eat My Words
Facebook: Jenny Vanderberg Shannon
Instagram: Jenny Vanderberg Shannon Subscribe to her newsletter HERE.
We want to again remind you that we are so glad you are here. We wouldn't be the same without you. You will always find GRACE for where you've been and who you are now, and SPACE for who you are becoming and will be.
Carry on, our new-found friends. Welcome to the twisty-windy, full -of-adventure faith path that's laid out before us all. Love,
Lizz & Esther P.S. One last bonus thing....here are two pictures of... what Lizz was doing this week (hint: follow the yellow BRICK road)...
and what Esther was doing (hint: it was BRICKtastic!)
Now we are really saying "so long" till next week!