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Leslie Ludy testifies about moving from the pain of dating to the joy of a courtship-like model: “I had come from a place of heartbreak, confusion, and compromise in relationships to a dream come true.” The only way to guarantee that a relationship does not cause pain and damage is to come to it when both parties are ready to actively move toward marriage.

A person’s first love is ideally—and, by implication, ought to be—also a person’s last love.

While the practice of “biblical courtship” itself did not penetrate to Christian culture at large, the messages underlying it soon became ubiquitous. Courtship proper—in which a young man pursues a young woman under the strict supervision and guidance of her fathers, earthly and heavenly—was (and is) practiced by a small, passionate core of very traditionalist Christians. It was unapologetically archaic, easy to write off as eccentric, and not something that the average evangelical family was ready to buy wholesale.

But the books that courtship advocates wrote became a phenomenon in Christian culture at large, exerting enough pressure to profoundly shift evangelical discourse about young men, women, and relationships. Thus courtship culture ascended.

It was, and still is, everywhere: the exaltation of purity (both physical and emotional), the rhetoric of danger and fear, the hyper-vigilance, the protective posture, the intensification of traditional gender roles. A quick scan of the love and marriage racks at a Christian bookstore offers more than enough titles that prove this paradigm’s staying power. A sampling: Sex Has a Price Tag. Waiting for Your Prince: A Message for the Young Lady in Waiting. True Purity: More than Just Saying ‘No’ to You-Know-What. Eyes Wide Open: Avoiding the Heartbreak of Emotional Promiscuity. Every Young Woman’s Battle: Guarding Your Mind, Heart, and Body in a Sex-Saturated World.

The general atmosphere has been and remains one of guarding, waiting, protecting, avoiding, battling, danger. The only safe way to engage in romance is in the context of impending marriage.

Today, both psychology and experience have made it more or less common sense that most teenagers are not prepared to pledge their lives to anyone. And so Christian culture at large tends to look on teen romance with suspicion and fear.

Tim Stafford, advice columnist to Christian teens at Ignite Your Faith, compares it to having a learner’s permit to drive a car: “You’re just figuring out how to deal with something that can easily get out of control.” In this atmosphere, crushes are seen as a distraction at best and a sin at worst. Young Christians are advised to put off romance until a time when they’re ready for marriage and to redirect their desire for each other toward a desire for God.

But teen desire is not that easily dispelled or sublimated. Some way or another, it will out, whether that means projecting onto Juliet and Romeo or furtively kissing in the youth group hallway.

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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First Love, Last Love: Courtship Culture and the ...