Melanie Springer Mock is a professor of English at George Fox University in Oregon. When I wrote about evangelicals' hypocritical outcry against Victoria's Secret, Melanie reached out to say she'd seen the fallout of purity culture among her own female students. I asked Melanie to write about that for my blog today. You can find Melanie at Ain't I A Woman?, a site dedicated to examining the messages Christian culture sends to women telling them who they should be. Thank you, Melanie, for your contribution to this important conversation. EE.
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Kara was an amazing student: smart and composed, funny, a talented singer and actor, a woman whose strength I admired. Several weeks before graduation, I took Kara out for lunch to celebrate; she’d been my student assistant for the first four years of my teaching career, filing my paperwork, making my copies, doing everything necessary to make my life as a new faculty member easier.
But during our celebratory meal, Kara admitted to feeling like a failure. Despite everything she’d accomplished during her time at our evangelical college, she hadn’t received the “ring by spring” Christian college students tend to joke about: no fiancé or steady boyfriend, even.
Because she’d failed to live up to Christian cultural expectations for women, all her other accomplishments and gifts accounted for little--perhaps nothing.
I was only mildly surprised by Kara’s admission. A decade earlier, when I also graduated from an evangelical college, I had the same sense of failure; though I’d been by most measures a successful student and athlete, I didn’t have that one thing that showed I’d been blessed by God, the engagement ring reflecting God’s apparent desire for me to find The One.
In the years since my lunch meeting with Kara, I’ve counseled many other college women who leave school after four years feeling like they’ve failed, or that they’re damaged, or that God doesn’t love them as much as God loves their soon-to-be-married friends.
They believe these things, because they’ve bought into evangelical lies about what it means to be a godly woman.
My students, both men and women, hear those lies everywhere. The lies are embedded in the Christian popular culture artifacts they consume: in books and blogs, in music lyrics, in sermons, on websites and Facebook posts and Tweets. The messages are embroidered on t-shirts that claim Modest is Hottest; they are stitched into the fabric of purity balls and engraved on purity rings.
The message young people receive from Christian popular culture is this: to be a godly man, you must of strong mind and body, adventurous, courageous, a leader, protector, warrior. The world is open for a godly man to explore: have at it!
And to be a godly woman, you must be of chaste and pure body, demure, silent, a keeper of the home, a womb for your offspring, protected by a husband. The world is not open for a godly woman to explore, because the world is not her domain.
Given these kind of messages, it’s no wonder that studies completed over the last two decades reveal that male Christian college students graduate feeling more confident than when they arrived on campus, and female Christian college students feel less confident than when they started school.
Imagine the young women who has heard she is to be silent, but discovers in college that she has a voice to use; or who has learned that her greatest gifts are as a homemaker, but discovers in college she has a vocational calling; or who has not remained chaste, but continues to hear that keeping her body pure is the one thing she can offer to a beloved.
How can young women understand gifts, callings and self-conception when Christian culture has given them a narrow definition of who God wants them to be? How do they reconcile what they feel in their hearts and minds as they enter adulthood with what their Christian leaders, families, and pop culture have told them?
Recently, a number of writers (including Elizabeth Esther, in this excellent post here) have pushed back specifically against evangelicalism’s purity culture, critiquing the ways sacrosanct artifacts like purity balls and rings objectify girls in ways that can be just as damaging as the bogeys Christians tend to hold up as truly evil: Victoria’s Secret, pop icons, rock music that sexualizes girls and women.
Although I’m as eager to critique Victoria’s Secret and Beyonce as the next person, it’s extraordinarily problematic for Christians to avoid interrogating their own culture as well, and the ways evangelicalism also objectifies young women by focusing on their pure bodies—and later, their fertile wombs—as the best, most glorified assets those born female can offer to others, without giving so much as a nod to women’s other potential gifts as leaders, thinkers, doers in the world.
So here’s a suggestion: Why not refrain from focusing every Christian message for young women on the importance of purity and modesty and preparing one’s self for marriage and family? Why not avoid language implying that girls need to save themselves for The One, and that this should be their most important endeavor until marriage? And why not avoid the message that God blesses those who do find The One? Because, of course, the implication is that those women (and men) who are not married are not blessed.
Most crucially, we can tell those born female that they are created in God’s image, every part of themselves; and that by being created in God’s image, girls and women can also have strong minds and hearts, an adventurous spirit, an assertive voice, the capacity to lead others, the ability to speak truth.
Because until girls hear they are more than their purity, more than their bodies, more than their potential as a future spouse, they will lack the confidence and the freedom to be all God meant for them to be.
And this, in my mind, is truly scandalous.