The article discusses the growing concerns about the "purity culture" in evangelicalism. Abigail cites my work in Unclean (summarized in this post) regarding the psychology of purity metaphors and how they are used to regulate female sexuality.
For the article Abigail sent me some questions, and some of my answers appear in the article. I thought I'd post here all her questions and my full answers. Not everything I said could be used in the article. I am, it must be admitted, a bit long-winded (it's a professional hazard).
But more importantly, as Abigail and I discussed via email, this is an important conversation that I'd like to keep going. And to be clear, I don't have all the answers. But here, for your consideration, are the answers I gave to Abigail's questions (with slight edits):
You've written about why you view the purity metaphor as problematic. Do you think ditching this metaphor requires evangelicals to move away from the ideal of premarital abstinence?
I don't think the metaphor has to be ditched.
My main concerns have to due with the narrow and particular use of the purity metaphor, how the metaphor is used almost exclusively to regulate female sexuality. The metaphor is being used unevenly, picking out a particular class of moral failures (sexual sins) and focusing on a particular population (women). So my initial response isn't that the metaphor has to be ditched but used in a more reflective, careful and balanced way. By balanced I mean applied both equally to males and females and used as a general, rather than particular, metaphor for sin.
But perhaps more important is the theological care the metaphor is given. Psychologically, the purity metaphor is the "atomic bomb" of moral metaphors. It is the metaphor that activates, viscerally, emotions of shame, guilt and self-loathing. So you cannot activate those emotions without providing a route toward rehabilitation, grace, love and self-acceptance. That is rarely, if ever, done. The abuses of the purity metaphor occur when the metaphor is used without this context and care and is simply a means to use shame to regulate behavior, specifically the behavior of young women.
What do you think a "post-purity" evangelical narrative of sexuality should look like?
I think a "post-purity" sexual ethic will focus less on the physical act of sex and how that physical act is "defiling" and more upon issues related to covenant faithfulness, care, and harm. The narrative about sex becomes about how, in the sexual sphere, we are maximally exposed and vulnerable. God's interest in sex, then, is less puritanical than a concern about how we hurt and damage each other, physically and emotionally, in ways that often leave lifelong scars. Covenant faithfulness, thus, is attached to human sexuality as a form of protection, as a form of care. Covenant faithfulness represents God's interest in making sure that sex and love are always united.
Basically, the conversation about sex shifts away from purity to love, trust, faithfulness, and care. Sex becomes about learning the hard and lifelong work of love.
What is the distinction between "covenant faithfulness" and marriage?
"Marriage" is a pretty contested term. I don't think that is news. But I also think it confuses the ritual for the reality it is supposed to be representing. Thus you have the spectacle of evangelical culture with divorce rates as high as those in the general population. Along with the tendency to ignore the poor marital examples of high profile personalities when the politics coincide.So I find the debates about marriage to be both distracting and often wildly hypocritical. My assessment is that until the evangelical culture gets its moral witness together regarding marriage it should forgo broad denunciations about sex. Evangelical culture should be in a confessional and repentant posture. That's the discussion it needs to be having but is largely avoiding.Because if the moral witness of evangelical culture were to be rehabilitated then I think the wider culture, along with our young people, would tolerate a conversation about sexual purity. Because even if they disagreed there would exist the recognition that these people at least practice what they preach, and that the way they love, marry and make love leads to joy, well-being and demonstrable human flourishing.