Watching clips from the new TLC series The Virgin Diaries, which debuted Sunday, is a bit like seeing Borat, The Yes Men, or another feature-length "you've been had" films. The show profiles virgins in their late 20s and 30s, most of whom are choosing to save sex—and their first kiss, in one case—for marriage. Debuting as a one-hour special this Sunday, it is casting for future episodes and has already prompted criticism for exploiting its subjects. The subjects kiss awkwardly at the altar, choreograph their first night while swinging and riding teeter-totters at a park, sing songs about abstinence, and discuss "reclaimed virginity" during a backrub chain in one woman's bedroom. Only the virgin by circumstance is shown in adult settings, like a dinner out with friends.
The trailers don't specify why the subjects are still virgins, but it's fair to assume that at least a few of them are waiting because they are Christians. So, if nothing else, The Virgin Diaries is a chance to bravely acknowledge our common ground with the socially awkward and other fellow believers who prove hard to love.
But there are other, subtler ways a show like this challenges us. Even the brief clips in the trailers get into your head as pictures of people who probably got here because they entrusted their bodies to God (at least in some cases). And what kind of God does that conjure in your mind? Be honest.
If you were to work backward from depictions like that to the being who created such people and whose instructions have supposedly shaped their lives, you'd probably think of someone with a flaky scalp, ill-fitting suits that could nonetheless serve as a tourniquet on wayward desire, and a voice not many wavelengths off from a fingernail on a chalkboard. Someone more interested in your adherence to (often petty) rules than your well being and joy.
A god like that is not someone you invite into your life. He's not someone to whom you cede control in the midst of crisis and success. That's someone you force yourself to talk to and then retreat from as soon as possible—which may partly explain why 80 percent of unmarried Christians have had sex, as Relevant magazine reported in September.
Is that a true portrait of God, or one of the caricatures author Matt Mikalatos calls an "imaginary Jesus"?
The biblical God is one who provides food for all creatures, from the biggest fish to the smallest mite. Who put many-colored beauty and diverse fragrance into even the most fleeting flowers. Who comforted a eunuch turned back from Jerusalem after a 1,000-mile journey with the words of Isaiah, which explicitly promises eunuchs "a name better than that of sons and daughters … an everlasting name" (NASB). Who gave up comfort, wealth, and intimacy to take up an itinerant life before experiencing a brutal death that cut him off from even his most beloved—all so that he could pardon even his murderers, should they repent and be reconciled to him.
I don't know about you, but to me that's a portrait of exquisite tenderness and beauty. And that's even without considering all the ways I have personally experienced God's kindness and care.
When I am standing in front of such portraits, revisiting such stories, I want to trust God. In fact, I want to entrust him with even more than I already have, because a God like that would surely bring about much better, more beautiful things than if I were to left to imagine and act on my own.
But when I am doubting, fearful, and tempted to despair that God could ever bring anything good in my love life, or a husband with whom I'd want to share my body, I'm thinking of a different portrait. Not a true one but a plausible one, when you listen to that insidious voice that, since Adam and Eve's debate on fruit snacks, has whispered: God is not good; he doesn't know best.
Perhaps this is why the Psalms and other biblical texts so frequently urge the reader to remember God's faithfulness. Remember how he brought you out of slavery to freedom and the wealth bequeathed with the Egyptians' gifts of jewelry and clothing. Remember how he stopped a mighty river so you could cross. Remember how he provided water and food in a desert where you had nothing to eat. Remember, remember, remember.
if we have committed our lives to God, we have done so because we are persuaded that he is real and good. But daily acting on that trust means repeatedly reminding ourselves of his character, in specific and concrete ways. After all, we have an enemy bent on spurring distrust.
So if you watched The Virgin Diaries this weekend, go read Song of Solomon or Genesis 2 or Exodus or Isaiah or the Gospels. Or ask a friend to tell you about a time God showed up and took care of him or her. Retell some of your own stories. You may even want to revisit physical artifacts of such encounters with his faithfulness, be they a car or a purse, a scar or a book or even a street.
There are too many sneering caricatures of our God out there for us to just passively trust him. Loving God with our whole heart, might, and soul takes deliberate, repeated retelling and richly embodied practices.
Anna Broadway is a writer and web editor living in the San Francisco Bay area. She is the author of Sexless in the City: A Memoir of Reluctant Chastity and a regular contributor to Her.meneutics.