Review: Talking Back to Purity Culture

When I saw Rachel Welcher inviting people to join a book launch team to promote her forthcoming book—Talking Back to Purity Culture: Rediscovering Faithful Christian Sexuality—I was a little sceptical. The book is billed as a response to “purity culture’s complicated legacy.” I had heard of this “complicated legacy” for some time, but I could not really relate.

I read Josh Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye when it was first released and found the book profoundly helpful. I admit to the proverbial rolling of the eyes when I started hearing some of the stinging critiques of it and other books inspired by it. As I heard people talking about how Harris’s advice had ruined their marriages, their view of sex, and basically their lives, I admit to being cynical. It didn’t help my scepticism when Harris was publicly critiqued by the likes of Carl Trueman and Aimee Byrd on the Mortification of Spin podcast and Joe Thorn and Jimmy Fowler on the Doctrine and Devotion podcast after the hosts admitted that they had not read the book. (Aimee Byrd had read parts of it twenty years before the critique.)

I was saddened when Harris himself began retracting much of what he said and asked that publication cease. When I listened to his story from his own mouth on Preston Sprinkle’s Theology in the Raw, I found myself coming mentally to his defence. It didn’t surprise me that he would feel pressure when so much of the critique was friendly fire from within the Christian, and even  the Reformed Christian, world and when many of the critics had not bothered to read the book before critiquing it. When news of his crumbling marriage and eventual apostasy struck, his earlier retractions made a little more sense. Still, I found it difficult to be overly critical of the content of the book.

Reading Talking Back to Purity Culture helped me, on the one hand, to understand to some degree why I was so defensive, and, on the other hand, gave me insight to the phenomenon known as “purity culture.”

Rachel acknowledges that I Kissed Dating Goodbye “was not the greatest offender.” Instead, his book was symbolic of something far greater—something called “purity culture.” Since I Kissed Dating Goodbye is the only title in the purity culture genre that I read, and since it was pretty much the extent of my exposure to purity culture, I was ill-equipped to critique critiques of purity culture. I had no exposure to purity conferences, purity rings, or other paraphernalia. My pastors  had never promoted a purity prosperity gospel and had made no grand promises of how great sex and marriage would be if we only kept ourselves pure. Reading Rachel’s book, I quickly realised that purity culture was a foreign concept to me but quickly understood how dangerous it can be and why she feels the need to “talk back” to it.

This particular critique of purity culture is refreshing, in no small measure due to the fact that Rachel has actually read and engaged with much of the material out there. She carries her own scars from purity culture and writes as one who has spoken to dozens of others who bear similar scars. She has engaged and re-engaged with the phenomenon she critiques. She writes as a woman who loves the church and the people of God and whose goal is to bring biblical truth to bear in an area in which many Christians have been deeply hurt.

Critiques of purity culture seem frequently to arise from those who are bitter toward Christianity or who have walked away from the faith. These critics betray scepticism toward the authority of Scripture and the place of the church in the Christian life. Rachel departs from this trend by rooting her commentary deeply in biblical truth and highlighting the central role that the church must play in the believer’s life. “We know that we need the church because apart from her we are just a wobbly leg or a useless finger.” While she is rightly critical of the approach that many Christians and churches have taken to sexual purity, she is not prepared to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. She clearly articulates a biblical foundation for sexual purity while showing how radically purity culture overreacted by placing extrabiblical and sometimes blatantly unbiblical fences around biblical truth. She maintains a gracious tone as she navigates a complex issue from a decidedly biblical perspective.

Rachel digs deep into Scripture to mine God’s wisdom for how Christians should think healthily about sexuality, highlighting that biblical sexuality is about far more than (though certainly no less than) guarding premarital virginity. She argues that God has created humans as sexual beings and that a full-orbed understanding of biblical sexuality is key to maintaining biblical standards for sexuality. She reminds us that we live in a sexually broken world but that there is hope, forgiveness, and cleansing available to the sexually broken at the cross.

Unlike many writers who wade into the waters of sexuality and purity, Rachel is careful to not construct marriage as a golden calf. While she does not deny that marriage is God’s good gift to humanity, she wisely demonstrates that a biblical approach to sexuality must take into account far more than marriage (and good sex in marriage) as the end goal. “The pursuit of sexual purity is not about virginity or reward but about so tethering ourselves to the power of the Holy Spirit and the truth of God’s Word that when the sweet music of sin enters our ears, we are able to keep steering the ship towards God’s glory—because God has become a thousand times more captivating.” Biblical sexual purity is for people from all walks of life—married or not. Her chapter on singles, divorcees, and same sex attracted Christians in the church is worth the cost of the book on its own.

Most significantly, Rachel wants her readers to avoid the gospel-like promises that much of purity culture has promoted and to instead remember that our acceptance before God is found in the person and work of Jesus Christ alone. “Too often, purity rhetoric hyper-focuses on what we should and shouldn’t do instead of what Christ has already done. It neglects the gospel and places personal striving above the finished work of Christ.”

Whether you have been burned by purity culture, are a parent wondering how to navigate the controversial waters of biblical sexuality with your children, are a pastor thinking through these issues with your church, or are simply a church member who wants to approach this issue and fellow church members wrestling with this issue with biblical faithfulness and sensitivity, you will find Rachel’s sensitive and wise handling of this touchy subject profoundly helpful.

Talking Back to Purity Culture is currently available for pre-order at Amazon and will be released on 10 November 2020.

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