Christian teenagers, on the other hand, have almost no romance stories about characters their age that they can enjoy with impunity. This is because American Christianity has no good place to put the idea of first love and has, at least in my lifetime, lacked a narrative and pastoral language for addressing teen relationships in anything but deeply cautious terms. This can be attributed in part to the rise of what I am going to call courtship culture.
Courtship entered the mainstream conversation in Christian culture in 1997, when Joshua Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye took Christian bookstores by storm, followed soon after by When God Writes Your Love Story by Leslie and Eric Ludy and Her Hand in Marriage by Douglas Wilson. These books sounded an alarm: dating is dangerous. The souls of our congregants are on the line when we let them spend time alone with potential partners, as traditional dating encourages. Instead, we ought to be practicing (so-called) “biblical courting,” where a young man spends measured time getting to know a young woman with her family’s supervision and seeks the approval of her family (specifically, her father) to wed her.
Courtship advocates tend to make a two-pronged argument. The first prong is a reminder that someday, your prince or princess will come. Courtship literature encourages young people to imagine their future spouse as a real, embodied being, out there in the world waiting for them, whenever they need motivation to stay on the straight and narrow—a sort of Ghost of Marriage Yet to Come who warns against self-gratifying flings, or an enticing houri who promises rewards for chastity.
Joshua Harris opens I Kissed Dating Goodbye with a nightmare that his girlfriend shared with him: what if, on their wedding day, all of his former lovers showed up at the altar, too? In the nightmare, the girlfriend weeps, saying, “I thought your heart was mine.” Dream Joshua Harris pleads, “It is, it is. Everything that’s left is yours.” Courtship advocates conceive of a finite reserve of selfhood that can be given to a spouse and that can be diminished if given to any partners other than that spouse. Leslie Ludy writes of protecting a woman’s “precious pearl of her purity so it would become a sparkling, glistening, and untarnished gem for her husband.”
Such metaphors abound. In Restoring the Lost Petal, Danielle Tate compares a woman’s purity to a flower, with petals that are plucked away by each intimate encounter before marriage. At Femina Girls, a blog for Christian women, Rebekah Merkle compares a woman giving her heart away to trying to use a piece of tape too many times—eventually it loses its stickiness and “you find yourself with nothing more than a dirty, linty piece of cellophane.” Courtship urges us to protect the self we are meant to offer to a future spouse—to keep the gift of your heart and body whole and intact.
The second prong of courtship advocacy proposes another kind of protection: protection from pain. In Her Hand in Marriage, Douglas Wilson describes dating as a drift into “the zone of vulnerability”—“the place where one cannot leave the relationship without being hurt.” He conceives of marriage as a “fence of protection” so that a couple can safely enter the zone of vulnerability together without risking a divorce-like pain upon separating.