Books

The church vs. the Sexual Revolution: What is 'purity culture' and why is it in the news?

The church vs. the Sexual Revolution: What is 'purity culture' and why is it in the news?

THE QUESTION:

What is “purity culture,” and why is it in the news?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

A particular U.S. Protestant campaign born in the 1990s sought to urge teens and young adults to follow the age-old Christian (also Jewish, Muslim, etc.) teaching against sexual relations before marriage. Outsiders and opponents called this the “purity culture” movement, and it’s currently in the news and the subject of intense online debate.

That “purity” label is confusing because critics of the phenomenon are not just secularists or those who scoff at old-fashioned morality. Conservatives who likewise advocate the sexual “purity’ taught in Christian tradition raise some of the most pointed objections to this movement’s specific theology, techniques, and claims.

The cause originated in 1993 with sex education materials under the “True Love Waits’ banner issued by the publishing arm of America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Within just one year of existence a Washington, D.C. rally drew 25,000 youths and displayed 210,000 sexual abstinence pledge cards on the National Mall.

The movement appealed to many moms and dads who were wounded by the sexual libertinism that began in the 1960s and wanted more wholesome relationships for their own children, fretting over increases in sexually transmitted disease, unwed pregnancy and divorce. The pledges of abstinence until marriage were reinforced by wearing rings popularized from 1995 onward by The Silver Ring Thing organization, reconfigured last year as Unaltered Ministries. Instead of high school proms, some churches held “purity balls” where dads escorted daughters.

The movement is back in the news due to its primary celebrity guru, Joshua Harris, who at a tender age 21 wrote “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.”

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Will everybody reach heaven? Are fights over hell about to grab some more headlines?

Will everybody reach heaven? Are fights over hell about to grab some more headlines?

Chances are churches frequented by your readers and listeners rarely if ever offer sermons about hell and damnation these days. And yet this rather unpleasant topic is eternally (so to speak) fascinating, and may be about to grab some headlines. That’s due to Eastern Orthodox lay theologian David Bentley Hart's acerbic Sep. 24 release from Yale University Press “That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, & Universal Salvation.”

Sample sentences: “No one, logically speaking, could merit eternal punishment.”

Also this: “If Christianity is in any way true, Christians dare not doubt the salvation of all,”

Yes, Hart is a Hitler-in-heaven sort of guy (see page 38), and your sources will have interesting responses. Lest Hart seem a rank heretic, the Very Rev. John Behr of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary blurbs that this book presents “the promise that, in the end, all will indeed be saved, and exposing the inadequacy — above all moral — of claims to the contrary.”

Heretofore Hart was better known for ridiculing non-belief, as in “Atheist Delusions.” The prolific author has held a succession of university appointments, most recently as a University of Notre Dame fellow. Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths (in the news when he resigned over Duke University’s “diversity” policy) proclaims Hart “the most eminent” theologian in the English-speaking world.

Terms Hart applies to centuries of traditional orthodox and Orthodox doctrines on hell and damnation include “absurd,” “ludicrous,” “nonsensical,” “incoherent,” “horrid,” “degrading,” “loathsome,” “diseased,” “perverse,” “cruel,” “wicked” and “morally repugnant.” He is mainly offended by the idea that punishment is everlasting, on grounds that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. Hart is open to some sort of cleansing to make sorry souls fit for heaven, but doesn’t spell out any version of Western Catholicism’s Purgatory.

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What is 'purity culture'? Why is this term in the news right now?

What is 'purity culture'? Why is this term in the news right now?

THE QUESTION:

What is “purity culture,” and why is it in the news?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

This was a particular U.S. Protestant campaign born in the 1990s that sought to urge teens and young adults to follow the age-old Christian (also Jewish, Muslim, etc.) teaching against sexual relations before marriage.

Outsiders and opponents called this the “purity culture” movement, and it’s currently in the news and the subject of intense online debate.

That “purity” label is confusing because critics of the phenomenon are not just secularists or those who scoff at old-fashioned morality. Conservatives who likewise advocate the sexual “purity’ taught in Christian tradition raise some of the most pointed objections to this movement’s specific theology, techniques and claims.

The cause originated in 1993 with sex education materials under the “True Love Waits’ banner issued by the publishing arm of America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Within just one year of existence a Washington, D.C. rally drew 25,000 youths and displayed 210,000 sexual abstinence pledge cards on the National Mall.

The movement appealed to many moms and dads who were wounded by the sexual libertinism that began in the 1960s and wanted more wholesome relationships for their own children, fretting over increases in sexually transmitted disease, unwed pregnancy and divorce. The pledges of abstinence until marriage were reinforced by wearing rings popularized from 1995 onward by The Silver Ring Thing organization, reconfigured last year as Unaltered Ministries. Instead of high school proms, some churches held “purity balls” where dads escorted daughters.

The movement is back in the news due to its primary celebrity guru, Joshua Harris, who at a tender age 21 wrote “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” This 1998 book eventually sold nearly a million copies and fused the effort with a highly influential how-to methodology.

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Who is Josh Harris? This debacle isn't getting much ink from news media and it should

Who is Josh Harris? This debacle isn't getting much ink from news media and it should

In the past few weeks, Instagram has been flaming with a really good religion story about evangelicalism’s latest fallen star — Joshua Harris.

Harris, as I wrote about last December, has been a hot topic in the evangelical Twitter universe for months, but few religion-beat reporters have run with this story. Being that the guy hit his top fame moment 22 years ago — when many of today’s religion reporters were in elementary school — it’s a story lots of people don’t know much about.

With one exception: There’s a cadre of folks determined to dump on the “purity movement” of the 1990s as much as they can and for them, Harris is a gift that doesn’t stop giving. We’ll let the Guardian bring us up to speed in what was a straight forward news story:

The American author of a bestselling Christian guide to relationships for young people has announced that his marriage is over and he has lost his faith.

Joshua Harris, whose biblical guide to relationships I Kissed Dating Goodbye sold nearly 1m copies around the world after it was published in 1997, has also apologised to LGBT+ people for contributing to a “culture of exclusion and bigotry”.

Can’t walk back your views much further than that.

In his book, Harris, a former pastor at a US megachurch, urged young Christians to reject dating for “courtship” under the guidance of parents and observing sexual abstinence. Young couples should not kiss, hold hands or spend time alone together before marriage, he said. Dating was spiritually unhealthy and a “training ground for divorce”, the book argued.

The book, written by Harris when he was 21, was widely circulated within evangelical Christian youth groups, helping to promote a “purity culture” and vows to preserve virginity until marriage.

There’s a whole cottage industry of critics of evangelicalism out there and when Harris announced on Instagram that his marriage was basically over, it was a rich feeding time for the evangelical left.

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A curse and a curious description: Trump's famous 'Two Corinthians' gaffe makes headlines once again

A curse and a curious description: Trump's famous 'Two Corinthians' gaffe makes headlines once again

It’s the botched Scriptural reference that keeps on giving.

Three-and-a-half years after then-candidate Donald Trump referred to “Two Corinthians” at Liberty University, the future president’s botched pronunciation (in the minds of most) of “Second Corinthians” is enjoying another 15 minutes of fame.

This time it’s the New York Times focusing on this insider evangelical baseball:

Furious after he was criticized by evangelicals for stumbling in his reference to a book of the Bible during the 2016 campaign, Donald J. Trump lashed out at “so-called Christians” and used an epithet in describing them to a party official, according to a new book.

Mr. Trump’s anger was aroused after he stumbled in an appearance at Liberty University by referring to Second Corinthians as “Two Corinthians” as he was competing for the votes of evangelicals — traditionally critical to a Republican’s success in the Iowa caucuses — with Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.

Allies of Mr. Cruz’s, including Bob Vander Plaats, a well-known evangelical leader in Iowa, seized on the slip-up to taunt Mr. Trump.

According to a new book, “American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump,” by Tim Alberta, the chief political correspondent for Politico Magazine, Mr. Trump was incensed by Mr. Vander Plaats and others “hanging around with Ted,” and referred to them in the most vulgar of terms.

I’m curious to know exactly what Trump reportedly said, but I couldn’t find any longer reference to the president’s (alleged) words in a quick Google search.

Trump’s reported reference to “so-called Christians” is fascinating, especially considering how many of the president’s critics have used similar language to characterize him.

But the Times doesn’t elaborate on that reference or offer any additional context. This is a quick-hit political story, not an in-depth examination of faith in the Trump era.

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Heavenly visitations? Slate lifts the curtain on evangelical insider battles

Heavenly visitations? Slate lifts the curtain on evangelical insider battles

Last week, a story came out about a kid whose near-death experience developed into a book about how he saw heaven while comatose later became an embarrassing mess when the child denied the whole thing.

Written by Ruth Graham of Slate, it’s a meticulously researched piece about the boy, his mom, a dad who’s evaded press interviews until now and the gullible Christian book industry. It’s long, it’s detailed and it’s rather sad.

It’s pretty unconventional in terms of religion news. How many sites would run something this detailed about a kid (or his father) who takes the Christian book industry for a ride? If you pay attention to the details, this is a sobering look at the sometimes confused state of evangelical doctrine, these days.

After describing the car accident that nearly killed the boy, the article continues:

Six years later, a book was published that would become a sensation. The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven—with Kevin and Alex listed on the cover as co-authors—tells the saga of Alex’s improbable survival. But it wasn’t that medical miracle that launched the story to fame. In the book, Alex claimed he had spent time in heaven after the accident, and continued to be visited by angels and demons after he emerged from his coma two months later. He wrote that he traveled through a bright tunnel, and was greeted by five angels, and then met Jesus, who told him he would survive; later, he saw 150 “pure, white angels with fantastic wings.” Heaven has lakes and rivers and grass, the book says. God sits on a throne near a scroll that describes the End Times. The devil has three heads, with red eyes, moldy teeth, and hair made of fire.

Of course publishers jumped at this bait.

The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven sold more than 1 million copies and spent months on the New York Times’ bestseller list. It was also on the leading edge of a boomlet of “heaven tourism” stories in Christian publishing, including Heaven Is for Real, a memoir about 4-year-old Colton Burpo’s experience that came out later in 2010 and was eventually adapted into a movie starring Greg Kinnear. Time magazine published a cover story in 2012 titled “Rethinking Heaven,” opening with Burpo’s story — even more detailed than Alex’s — about seeing a rainbow horse and meeting the Virgin Mary.

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Trump, China tariffs and God's holy word: Is there really a chance of a Bible shortage?

Trump, China tariffs and God's holy word: Is there really a chance of a Bible shortage?

This Associated Press story got really wide play this week, so you — like me — may have read it in your local newspaper, assuming you still subscribe to your local newspaper (and as a journalist, I hope you do).

I’m talking about AP’s news report out of Nashville, Tenn., on Bible publishers’ concerns about President Trump’s trade war.

It’s a fascinating piece on an industry that — I’ll admit — I don’t think about as much as I used to. It’s not that I don’t consider the Bible important anymore. As a Christian, I most certainly do.

It’s just that I personally do most of my Bible reading on my iPhone and iPad these days. I don’t even own a personal copy of the Scriptures in written form anymore.

But what about those people who do? Is there really a chance of a Bible shortage?

Here’s the news from AP:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Religious publishers say President Donald Trump’s most recent proposed tariffs on Chinese imports could result in a Bible shortage.

That’s because millions of Bibles — some estimates put it at 150 million or more — are printed in China each year. Critics of a proposed tariff say it would make the Bible more expensive for consumers and hurt the evangelism efforts of Christian organizations that give away Bibles as part of their ministry.

HarperCollins Christian Publishing President and CEO Mark Schoenwald recently told the U.S. Trade Representative that the company believes the Trump administration “never intended to impose a ‘Bible Tax’ on consumers and religious organizations,” according to a transcript of his remarks provided by the publisher.

The two largest Bible publishers in the United States, Zondervan and Thomas Nelson, are owned by HarperCollins, and they incur close to 75% of their Bible manufacturing expenses in China, Schoenwald said. Together, they command 38% of the American Bible market, he said.

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Evil, sin, reality and life as a 'Son of God': What Marianne Williamson is saying isn't new

Evil, sin, reality and life as a 'Son of God': What Marianne Williamson is saying isn't new

Early in the 1990s, I made the leap from full-time reporting in a mainstream newsroom — the Rocky Mountain News (RIP) — to teaching at Denver Seminary.

My goal was to pull “signals” from mainstream media into the world of people preparing for various ministries (key summary document here), helping them to face the ideas, symbols and stories that were shaping ordinary Americans, in pews and outside traditional religious groups. I wanted to pay attention to valid questions, even if traditional believers couldn’t embrace the media world’s answers.

In my main class, I needed a book that could open a door into what I called “Oprah America.” Thus, in 1992, I required my students to read “A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles,” by Marianne Williamson. Some of these evangelical students were not amused.

This, of course, leads us to that massive New York Times feature that ran the other day:

The Curious Mystical Text Behind Marianne Williamson’s Presidential Bid

The New Age author was drawn to an esoteric bible in the 1970s. It made her a self-help megastar. And now it has gone mainstream.

To my shock, the world’s newspaper of record dedicated large chunks of newsprint to the religious content — the doctrine, even — at the heart of Williamson’s life, ministry and her politics. I would say this story gets the equation about 75 percent right, but the Times team needed to back up a bit further in order to understand why so many Americans will — if told the roots of her thought — find her beliefs disturbing.

Hold that thought. Here’s the key question: How would the Times, and other elite media, have handled a feature about the beliefs of a Oneness Pentecostal or a faith-healing preacher who sought the presidency as a Republican? With this light a touch?

Now, here is a crucial chunk of that Times feature, which comes after a brief discussion of her remarks in the recent debates featuring a flock of Democratic candidates:

She was … drawing directly from a homegrown American holy book called “A Course in Miracles,” a curious New York scripture that arose during the heady metaphysical counterculture of the 1960s.

This is not some homey book of feel-good bromides. Rather, it is taken by its readers as a genuine gospel, produced by a Manhattan doctor who believed she was channeling new revelations from Jesus Christ himself.

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Grab a company charge card: What religion reference works belong in newsroom libraries?

Grab a company charge card: What religion reference works belong in newsroom libraries?

My May 30 Memo proclaimed the third edition of the “World Christian Encyclopedia," due next year, as a “must-buy” for media organizations because it will provide current overviews and statistics about each religious group in each country on earth, and much else.

This time around, The Guy proposes other religion works media shops savvy enough to maintain reference libraries should have on hand for unexpected breaking news as well as timeless features. Writers might want some items in their personal collections. The following covers print, but some e-editions are available.

Basics

The first essential is a couple comprehensive one-volume encyclopedias or dictionaries describing all world religions, as issued by several reliable publishers. You’ll also want the hefty ($215!) “Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.”

Save money by using a good public or college library for the multi-volume encyclopedias on religion, Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaica, Islam, etc. However, via amazon.com you could get the 1987 “Encyclopedia of Religion” for only $275. (Publishers: We really need a 21st Century equivalent of James Hastings’ less abstract “Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics” from 1913!)  

Acquire similar one-volume reference books on Catholicism and Judaism, which on some matters can be supplemented by century-old, multi-volume encyclopedias online here and here. For Protestantism, there’s the latest “Handbook of Denominations in the United States” and more comprehensive one-volume “Encyclopedia of Protestantism.” For Islam, get John Esposito’s dictionary and/or Cyril Glasse’s one-volume encyclopedia. For other world faiths, if those overview volumes do not suffice  tap experts as needed.  

 Baylor professor Gordon Melton compiles the remarkable “Encyclopedia of American Religions,” pretty much mandatory for describing gazillion offbeat sects you’ve never heard of.

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