This is the drum I've been beating lately: religious education. The podcasts with Tripp Fuller clearly helped move the conversation along, but I teach world religions every summer, and every summer I encounter students for whom I feel genuinely concerned, not because they have the life struggles with which many students struggle, but because they are under-equipped to handle a religion class, and the looks on their faces as we work through the material are genuinely distressing to me as an instructor, because my task is never to break someone down. It's best to start with a fresh example.
We started covering Hinduism today, and I always use The Ramayana as one of the points of entry to the faith. It's a fantastic and awful story. If there is a national story of India, it's probably this story of Vishnu/Rama and Lakshmi/Sita, Sita's abduction, and subsequent purity tests. For good reasons, Hindu feminists have been pretty clear since the horrific gang rapes in the past two years in tying the story to the status of women in India/Hinduism, and they are saying that India need to find a new story.
Part of the story is Sita's capture at the hands of the rakshasa Ravana, basically an unrighteous spirit in human form, and her rescue with the help of Hanuman, the monkey god. After she is safe, she is forced to prove her purity by walking through fire. Like many ancient cultures, early Hindu culture had a test of female purity, but not a test for male purity. (See Numbers 5 for the Jewish/Christian version of this test, also for females only.) Sita passes the first test, and when Rama asks her to do it again much later, she says that her mother (earth) will take her if she innocent. In fact, the earth opens and takes her, testifying to her purity.
In the context of Hinduism, dharma—sacred duty—is clearly the issue here, but to talk about this with a Western audience requires using different categories, the most important of which is purity. I asked a very simple question: why does purity matter? At this point, we can abandon (sort of) gender issues, because the Christian tradition considers purity important for men and women, and youth groups around America are subjected to an emphasis on remaining pure until marriage.
Before getting to student responses, it's important to point out that purity rules were always related to the exchange of females for money. Deliver a daughter with hymen intact, or you get no money. It's an ugly truth, but a truth nonetheless. Modern American evangelicals are long divorced from a tradition that makes these rules sensible (thankfully), but the rule remains in effect, at least as far as catechetical purposes are concerned. (In practice, all that is necessary is forgiveness for a transgression of the rule, but various traditions treat the psychological and relational fallout differently.)
The primary question is how to treat the rule in scriptures. The victory of conservatives in the rationalist/traditionalist debate in Islam and the literalist/progressive debate in Christianity has meant that the religions interpret sacred texts as the "words of God," not words mediated through culture and time. In other words, the rule is binding because God said it. God didn't say it to a culture where girls were marriageable at the onset of menstruation, which would make a no sex before marriage rule at least understandable; God said it for all time, and that means in a culture where women marry at 25, if they marry at all, the women are compelled to practice the rule.
This leads to the question I asked today: why does purity matter? I assume Christians and Muslims (and Hindus) aren't so cynical as to believe their god(s) cares about dowries or bride prices. Why, then, does purity matter? I'm going to insist you put aside physiological answers like disease and pregnancy. If those were the reasons purity mattered, they are easily addressed without such a strong prohibition, and, if those were the reasons, surely some mention in the text would have been helpful. Additionally, if those were the reasons, why not amend the rule as technology makes female sexual independence a reality? No, god(s) seems to care about purity.
The first student who answered has been referenced here before; he said he would give priority to the words of Jesus over Paul and Moses. For the record, only Anabaptists and those who have read the Anabaptists actually do that, and he ended up not being able to follow through with that promise. In honor of Bunyan, let's call him Christian. Christian offered that he had been taught that the first time should be special. Full stop.
Special. I can be a bit of a dick, and undefined, poorly defined, and hard to define words bring out the worst in me. My first time should be special. Will there be a marching band? If a guy is playing cymbals, will I be able to perform? What the hell does special mean? Not to make fun of Christian, as this is what he was told in youth group, but what does that word even mean? It clearly doesn't mean the sex will be good the first time, and it's not typically good the first time for people in and out of the faith, so what does special mean? The question completely flummoxed him. Completely, like head in hands, staring into space, don't know how to answer that question flummoxed. It's an awkward moment for students and professors, because he has just realized he's believed something for a long time that essentially has no real meaning. It's another of Zizek's empty signifiers, another affiliation creed, another boundary marker for his tribe, but it means nothing. He might as well have said it will be cooler the first time.
Jay Kelly read the first draft, and responded to "special." I'll quote him at length.
What I don't take you to mean is that his claim that the first time should be special was nonsensical simpliciter. He could have rolled out a fairly robust response about sex being intimate and that intimacy is typically intensified when the people experiencing the intimate moment are experiencing it for the first time. For example, U2 is my favorite band. I've seen them twice. The first time was otherworldly and nigh-unto-transcendent. The second was fantastic, but not as profound as the first. My dear friend Thomas has 6 kids. The first time his oldest walked, it was over the top amazing. The first time his sixth walked, he was disappointed because it meant there was now another feral animal who could cause trouble because of its newfound ambulatory capacity.
I agree with Jay about the nature of special here, but I find it hard to believe god(s) would tell us no sex before marriage just to ensure a special, in the experiential sense, moment. Purity must matter for a different reason. Christian wasn't the only student to offer an answer, though.
Here's the summary: not a single student who grew up in church could tell me why purity mattered. (I'm pretty sure it doesn't, but this was about The Ramayana so we had to talk about it.) Not a single student who believed purity mattered could explain it. One woman who is now LDS but grew up Pentecostal offered that Creflo Dollar said it was a blood covenant. First, the ick factor is really high there, but more importantly, many women don't arrive at their honeymoon with hymen intact. Is their blood covenant with the four-wheeler or gymnastics mat that "took their virginity?" It's bafflingly stupid and a clear indication that conservative Christians who are supposed to be leaders can't even answer the question. (Dear Christian minister friends, I am not comparing you to Creflo. Promise.)
Back to Christian. He was raised in church. From birth to college, he's been in church. He's a good kid. He thinks he's analytical because he questions his pastor's sermons based on his own reading of the Bible. He's flirted with neo-Reformed theology, so he thinks he understands logic. He's the poster child for an evangelical youth group success story. He is getting killed in my class. Killed. As in confused, scared, and catatonic. His categories are failing; his answers, so well rehearsed before he ventured into the scary world of college, are getting gutted, and it's not just me doing it. A skeptic student gently asked several questions today. I was impressed with her tone. She asked good questions, and in a classroom where all sacred texts are on the table, he got killed. Because all sacred texts are on the table. He's not allowed to pretend his text is the best, most reliable source, unless he can offer good arguments. He can't. ("Fulfilled prophecies" are not a good argument, by the way.)
Again, this is a catastrophic failure of Christian education. Please understand that I don't mean that churches should teach apologetics courses to buttress their young people's faith; that's just lying of a different sort. They should just tell them the truth. The complex, multifaceted, polyvocal, faith-challenging, doubt-creating truth. There is no better way to prepare your students for college than by helping them understand that much of life and truth flies in the face of the faith they have constructed. They will be required to repeatedly face truths that destroy, or at least challenge, cherished beliefs and doctrines. My job as a professor is not to spare them those truths, so I refuse to take responsibility for the Church's failure to adequately equip their young people—not to defend their faith, but to contextualize truth in the context of their faith. I am not hostile to faith; I am hostile to a system that presents itself as "the truth" while it lies to students about the world, or worse, distracts them with entertainment out of fear that real religious education would drive them away.