So I want to begin my review of this chapter of Aimee Byrd’s book with some agreement. Although I differ strongly with her overarching thesis, I also want to make it clear that I believe she is reacting to some genuine problems in the “purity world.” I have seen some of those problems myself, and since this chapter addresses the issue of purity, it should not be surprising that we might find ourselves agreeing at various points.
Having agreed, I want to propose an alternative explanation that accounts for the problems she identifies. But having tired of all the agreement, and half afraid that a friendship might break out, thus undermining my entire case, I want to move on to what can only be called a head-on disagreement.
Sanctification is not a paint-by-numbers process. It cannot be mastered in three easy steps. It is not something you get from Amazon through their “buy now with 1-click” option. On top of that, it cannot be easily bought with purity rings and pledges. “We don’t need a movement with pledge cards, customized Bibles, and silver rings” (Loc. 989). And it cannot be achieved through isolation or, as Aimee Byrd would put it, through avoidance.
On top of that—in violation of the old sales adage to “under promise and over deliver”—too many preachers and parents in the purity culture did do the opposite. Managing to remain a virgin until marriage is not the same thing as knowing how to be married. You can remain sexually inexperienced without becoming wise. If you have the kind of wisdom that knows how to be married, then of course bringing sexual purity into a marriage is greatly to be desired. It really is precious. But sexual purity all by itself is utterly inadequate. Virgins can be stupid, as the Lord’s parable revealed.
In short, I don’t think that Aimee Byrd is tilting at windmills when she points out the existence of simplistic conservative solutions to sin. That does happen.
Anecdotal Does It
I will now be appearing to change the subject too abruptly, but I am not really. Bill Hybels is one of the recent casualties of the recent round of allegations about sexual misdeeds. Here is a link to a NYT story about a recent accusation that surfaced concerning him. It is important to note that Hybels denies this allegation, but for the purposes of our topic under discussion right now, there are certain things that are undeniable.
Here is a relevant excerpt from the article.
“In 1984, Ms. Baranowski was walking to her car in the vast parking lot of Willow Creek one night after services. She had just been praying about whether to apply for a job at the church she saw posted.
Suddenly a car screeched to a stop beside her, and the driver rolled down his window. It was the church’s pastor.
“Could I drive you to your car or something?” offered Mr. Hybels, who was then 33. Her car was nearby, but she accepted the ride.
It seemed like a sign from God.
Mr. Hybels later also described the meeting as a miracle: He had been driving out of the parking lot when God urged him to go back and find the woman he drove by.
“That night I had no idea how offering help to a person who probably didn’t need it would affect my life and ministry,” he wrote in one of his first books.”
Secondly, Hybels acknowledged to his congregation, although not in so many words, that Mike Pence is one smart cookie.
“In April, Mr. Hybels announced to the congregation he would accelerate his planned retirement by six months and step aside immediately for the good of the church. He continued to deny the allegations, but acknowledged, ‘I too often placed myself in situations that would have been far wiser to avoid.’ The congregation let out a disappointed groan. Some shouted “No!”
And third, he gave Baranowski a hand-written note (which she kept) that concluded with, “P.S. Plus, you are a knockout!”
In short, there were various purity lines that should have been better marked, spray painted in neon, more brightly lit, and more thoroughly policed than they were—on everybody’s account.
Now what does this (unfortunately not rare) kind of story do to Aimee Byrd’s thesis? By itself, in isolation, nothing, even though it does provide some embarrassment for it. But Byrd can always respond that she is advocating genuine wisdom and genuine purity, not predatory pretenses. She can say that she is arguing for a holistic approach that honors Christ in everything. Hybels is alleged to have followed her methods on the outside, giving a lady a ride, but not from the heart.
Yes. And courtship advocates, avoidance preachers, and purity ring manufacturers can all say the same thing. Nobody is traveling around the country hoping to persuade people to act like idiots. In short, neither side should be faulted for the behavior of people who don’t do what they say.
Ah, But They Still Do Act Like Idiots
And so here is my explanation for why there are actual problems out there in the purity culture for Aimee Byrd to critique. It is because the purity culture is made up of people, and people are foolish and people are sinners. They are sinners when someone is teaching them about courtship, and they are sinners when someone is teaching them that purity is not avoidance. To use that great Seinfeld line, “People! They’re the worst!”
Let’s run a thought experiment in which Aimee Byrd and I both get to address an enthusiastic crowd of a thousand teenagers (in different cities). These teens—or to use a more scientific descriptor, these hormones with feet—respond to our two different messages with total buy-in. Aimee’s crowd goes wild, as does mine. It is my settled conviction that, despite the agreement with our respective messages, a significant percentage of each crowd will get the whole thing distorted. There is going to be somebody in my crowd who thinks that a silver ring will keep impurity far away, the way garlic does with vampires, and there will be some guy in her crowd whose application of the truth that a guy and a girl can have a shared interest in theology might end up later that night, with any luck, with him whispering theology into her ear.
Now I am happy not to blame Aimee Byrd for those train wrecks who wrecked their friendship train because they didn’t do what she said. The only thing I ask is the same courtesy in return. The dangers that she points to—in the homeschooling culture, in the purity culture, in the courtship culture—are dangers that I have been warning about for decades. For example, in this chapter, she cites a critique of courtship culture by Thomas Umstattd, a gent I have responded to before, and in that response I granted a number of his (and Byrd’s) points.
So we differ on a number of things, but let us not magnify it by differing where we agree.
And Yet . . .
And yet, it should still be fully appropriate to disagree where we obviously disagree, and to point out the dangerous consequences of applying what she specifically says to do. I would not fault her for those who snatch at her book for rationalizations of their manifestly suspect desires. But I believe there are problems right on the surface.
For example, she chides those who would object to a “stimulating conversation with another person’s spouse,” such that it “is deemed inappropriate” (Loc. 915).
So let us envision just such a stimulating conversation with another person’s spouse. As you are walking away from that stimulating conversation, I have some questions for you to answer—and I don’t much care what the answers are. I actually care whether or not you have enough data to answer them one way or the other. Here they are: “If you were not married, and if she were not married, would this friend that you are having a conversation with be someone you would ever consider as a possible romantic interest? Do you know enough to know that? Did you enjoy that conversation enough such that you would, if you were free, think about asking her out?”
I am not asking whether you are on fire. I am asking whether or not you know that the combustible materials are there.
Now here is the set up for a follow up question. Suppose the answer is no. You would never think about asking her out. Your enjoyment of the conversation had nothing of that nature in it. You just love talking to people about whether the highways should be privatized. You would have enjoyed it just as much if she were male, named Bruno, and had a severe case of five o’ clock shadow. It just happens that she is a girl, and it just happens that she has a silvery laugh. But no, you would never be interested. She is not your type.
Having had that stimulating conversation (or a series of them), I have the same set of questions for you about her perspective. If you were both unattached, are you her type or not? Would she ever be interested in you? If you can answer that question, you have not just had stimulating conversations, you have had intimate conversations, and you are already in big trouble. And if you can’t answer the question (from her perspective), you are messing around with something you don’t understand and which might easily destroy you. You don’t know the answer, but if the answer is maybe or yes, which is a real possibility, then you are walking through a minefield, hands in your pockets, whistling. Ignorance is only bliss until the moment when it isn’t ignorance anymore. The fact that you are whistling because you are careful to think about her in non-reductionistic and holistic ways does not matter in the slightest. In fact, that is what is making things worse—that is what she admires so much about you. You are the first man who has ever treated her in such a holistic way. All the lights on the dashboard of your frontal lobe ought to be blinking at you angrily, and there ought to be a claxon alarm going off in your cortex.
The fact that this is a real problem is evident from an anecdote that she tells about a women who differed with the approach she is urging. The woman told Aimee that, a few years before, some men had driven her to the hospital to visit her husband. At that time, she had experienced “inappropriate feeling of attraction” in the course of the ride, and concluded that she had done the wrong thing by taking the ride.
Aimee Byrd’s response to this is telling.
“But is this woman less pure because she felt attracted to other men?” (Loc. 1003).
The answer is yes. She was right to feel ashamed of her reaction, and she was right to act on that by putting distance between herself and any future occasions of it. She went on to say that she felt “loved and cherished” by her husband because of his standard to not offer a woman a ride, or take one himself. This is also a wise response.
Incidentally, this is as good a time as any to address something Aimee wrote earlier in the book. Having this standard is not permission to leave sisters in the lurch, abandoned in difficult situations. It may mean the situation becomes a bit more cumbersome, but that’s fine. One time a man in our church was leading a high school Bible study at the home of one of our kids. After the study, one of the girls was stranded without a ride, as sometimes happens, and so the Bible study leader grabbed one of my grandsons, who was already home—“c’mon, let’s give so-and-so a ride home.”
Ironically, the mistake that underlies the thesis of this book is the same mistake being made by the organizers of the Revoice conference. As long as a thought doesn’t translate into an overt action prohibited by the Ten Commandments, you can assume that you are doing okay. And thus it is that an internal dalliance with sin can be mistaken for a stalwart resistance of sin.
Aimee Byrd says, quite rightly, that temptations must be dealt with through confession and offering them up to God. “Temptations to sexual sin must be confessed and offered to God” (Loc. 977). But one very biblical method of resisting temptation is to flee from it. “Flee also youthful lusts: but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Tim. 2:22). Get some distance, son.
When a person realizes that this other person is the kind of person he or she would be interested in (if free to be interested in), then of course, any heart yearning and so on must be confessed and offered to God. Byrd would agree with this; she says this plainly. But doing this just deals with that particular incident. All the same chemistry is still there, and next Sunday’s fellowship hour is coming. Now what?
She refers to “someone who can’t offer a service for a person in need because they can’t deal with attraction” (Loc. 1006).
But if someone doesn’t have a head for heights, is the counsel really to have him walk along the edge of the cliff? My illustration presupposes that one-on-one close encounters are a cliff edge for regular people, who don’t have severe personal problems.
For those who can’t walk through a crowded room without dancing along several cliff edges in the course of fifteen minutes, I am inclined to agree with Aimee that this is a personal problem, not a relationship problem. The person grappling with these reactions should have that looked at. If a woman simply says hi, and he is over the edge because he thinks she is flirting with him, then he is the one with the problem. But then again, he is the one falling in love with the models in the J. Jill catalog.
“While it may seem safe to impose rules that separate us from ordinary encounters with the other sex, this isn’t the virtue of purity. It is overly sexualizing of others” (Loc. 1026, emphasis mine).
Now I do agree with this on the surface, but everything rides on what we mean by ordinary encounters. If the attractive wife of one of the deacons stops you as you are walking out of church and asks, “Excuse me, is Bob still inside?”—Bob being her husband, and your response is “Gaaa! Jezebel!” then I am entirely on Aimee Byrd’s side. We are the family of God, we are brothers and sisters, and we should be able to have ordinary encounters. The question is whether a forty-five minute tête-à-tête off in the corner of the church potluck is an ordinary encounter. The answer, boys and girls, is no, it is not.