Don't Blame Evangelicals for the Cult of the Virgin
Even in the midst of a sexual revolution, of a generation drawn to open relationships, hookup culture, and "polyamory," virginity still enthralls.
Yet another beautiful young woman is auctioning hers off. The cable show My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding juxtaposes a cultural expectation to maintain virginity until marriage with a flashy celebration on the day-of. Feminist defenses of virginity crop up on edgy websites. A burgeoning academic field is devoted to "virginity studies." Even the "first kiss" video that recently went viral is but a variation on the "first time" theme.
In the midst of this, younger evangelicals question the church's message to encourage Christians to maintain "purity" until marriage. They have a point: some of our efforts cross the line between encouraging chastity and venerating virginity. But as the examples above show, making an idol out of virginity is a problem that's much bigger than evangelicalism.
A recent article at The Other Journal that details virginity's history in the church moves toward correcting a myopic vision that can't see past the pews of personal experience to the broader historical and cultural contexts. Yet, the exaltation of virginity for virginity's sake began, and continues, well outside the church.
Rather than merely an evangelical hang-up, our adoration of virginity is a universal impulse with a long tradition. Throughout human history, virgins have been worshipped in paintings, sculptures, poetry, prose, and song. Today's church needs to do a better job at distinguishing between biblical and cultural views of virginity to develop a robust theology of the body, human sexuality, and chastity.
Chastity, sexual abstinence outside of marriage and faithfulness within it, has been a distinctive of the Christian church since its beginnings, brought into sharp relief by an array of sexual practices found in the surrounding pagan cultures. Unlike the balanced view of sexuality offered by the church—as a gift that promotes human flourishing when expressed within the limits of its Creator's design—ancient sexual practices embraced the extremes: homosexual pederasty, for example, on one end and sacred virginity on the other.
We see virginity being treated as sacrosanct in the 7th century B.C. and continuing for about 1,000 years with Rome's Vestal Virgins. These physically perfect girls, taken from aristocratic families between the ages of 6 and 10, were charged with keeping Rome's sacred fire burning (both literally and figuratively). Delivered directly from the authority of their fathers to that of the government, vestals were considered espoused to the state. Held responsible for the safety and wellbeing of the entire city, they were required to remain virgins for 30 years of service. A vestal who lost her virginity might be punished by having molten lead poured down her throat or by being entombed alive and left to die. On the other hand, their virginity was a source of power and influence denied to other women.
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