The year was 1993. I was a sweaty junior high kid who had recently gotten my first stick of deodorant and had begun experiencing sensations in my body that felt both good and confusing. But one night, as my brothers and I were laying on our sleeping bags in the middle of the living room, our dad asked us, “Have I ever told you about the worst sin ever?”
Sure enough, the sin turned out to be sex.
I grew up in a disembodied fundamental Baptist Christianity that fed on fear. We were warned about the dangers of getting caught masturbating when the Rapture happened. And it was certain to happen by Y2K. So we knew we weren’t going to be able to get married. Because the Bible says that the things that are done in secret will be shouted from the rooftops, we were convinced that God had piles of VCR tapes of us masturbating that he would kick off the first hundred thousand years of heaven at the Bema Seat publicly shaming us with.
“Because the Bible says that the things that are done in secret will be shouted from the rooftops, we were convinced that God had piles of VCR tapes of us … .”
Fear of our sexuality was everything to us. Don’t hold hands or it’ll lead to having sex. Don’t watch PG movies or it’ll lead to watching R-rated movies of people having sex and then you’ll end up having sex. The girls at our Christian high school had to wear culottes over their wind suit pants for P.E. outside during the winter or else we might end up having sex.
One night during a revival service, the evangelist was preaching about purity and pressured all the teenagers to come forward to sign a purity pledge and receive a virginity certificate. I had no plans of having sex before marriage. Still, something about that evening just made me feel so used and dirty. But I knew that not to sign the pledge would cause total panic at home. So with a bowling ball of shame in my stomach, I walked forward to get my virginity certificate. I turned around to see the face of a friend looking down at her lap. My heart ached as I pictured her being thrown into hell for having sex. Of course, she’s happily married with kids now.
In her book Pure, Linda Kay Klein explores the historical and political origins of this purity culture of the 1990s that she grew up in as well. She explains how the sexual revolution followed by the AIDS crisis led to many Americans giving in to fear. Every president from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush invested heavily in abstinence-only-until-marriage education.
The federal government has spent more than $2 billion on abstinence-only programs since 1981. Klein explains: “Much of this funding came through the Title V: Abstinence Only Until Marriage Program, which is still in place today. This program requires states to match every four federal dollars they receive with three state-raised dollars, presumably increasing the state-level contributions made toward abstinence-only programing in the process as well. The money is then redistributed to community-based organizations, faith-based organizations, local and/or state health departments, and schools.”
This multi-billion-dollar investment by our government allowed conservative Christians to flood the marketplace with purity paraphernalia such as jewelry, books, Bibles and any other product you can imagine.
The Silver Ring Thing claims to have hosted around 1,300 events, while convincing more than 684,000 young people to sign purity pledges. Another ministry claims to have reached more than 4 million teenagers. Klein says: “If that many young people have been reached by just this one curriculum, we can only begin to imagine how many have been reached by the vast array of other products.”
While there were a number of ministries that profited from federal money, the Southern Baptist Convention launched “True Love Waits” in 1993 and catapulted to become the most successful player in the industry. Klein explains: “True Love Waits actively campaigned the government to allocate money to abstinence-only-until-marriage programing and, a year after its launch, startled the country by bringing 20,000 adolescents to the National Mall where they staked 211,156 signed purity pledges on the lawn. Afterward, 150 purity activists had a special session with President Bill Clinton. Two years later, Congress allocated $50 million a year for the aforementioned Title V Abstinence Only programing.”
By the time I graduated from high school in 2000, I had just spent the previous decade in constant sheer terror. I was going to pursue a B.A. in Bible from Bob Jones University, the bastion of fundamentalist Christianity, where I desperately needed to find a girl to marry before the Rapture happened.
The only problem was that I also read a book by a 21-year-old named Joshua Harris. The name of the book? I Kissed Dating Goodbye. I had to find someone to marry before the Rapture. But I couldn’t date.
I Kissed Dating Goodbye went on to sell over a million copies. And Joshua, who was one of my generation, became the face of the entire movement. As we’ve come to learn since then, many lives were deeply wounded by his writing. And he has since recanted his entire theology and apologized.
While the things Joshua wrote were very abusive and immeasurably harmful, my bigger concern is with the person who groomed him, the conservative evangelical leader C.J. Mahaney.
In a 2011 sermon, Mahaney shared two letters from young men that totally encapsulate purity culture’s view of women. He read: “Each and every day on campus is a battle… . I’m thankful God has created me to be attracted to women. However, campus is a loaded minefield. There are girls everywhere. And it’s guaranteed that I will pass some attractive girls as I walk in-between classes. I either have to be actively engaging my mind and my spirit to be praying, quoting Scripture, listening to worship music, or simply looking at the sidewalk to make it through unscathed. Many days it takes all four to be safe… . The thing that women do not seem to fully grasp is that the temptation toward lust does not stop for us as men. It is continual. It is aggressive. It does all it can to lead men down to death… . To the girls who are ignorant, please serve your brother and have your dad screen your wardrobe. Ask him how you can better choose holiness over worldliness. He’s a guy. And he knows more than you do on the issue.”
In the video, Mahaney identifies women with such terms as “battles,” “wars,” “loaded minefields,” “ignorant,” “dangerous,” “scathing,” “unsafe,” “threatening of death,” “choosing seduction,” “bait,” “needing to be avoided at all costs,” “a continual barrage,” “careless,” “distractions,” “disappointing” and a whole myriad of other derogatory, shame-fueling labels.
Mahaney’s solution is clear: Women are supposed to ask their dads to screen their wardrobes. Men are supposed to ignore and fight the women at all costs by praying, quoting Scripture, listening to worship music, or simply looking at the sidewalk. And in both cases, they are to look at penal substitutionary atonement, where God was eternally angry at them but decided to get his anger out on Jesus at the cross instead. Then Mahaney celebrates, “This is the gospel!”
But even then, even with God having gotten his anger out on Jesus, there apparently is still a danger of the guys dying in the battle. For some Arminian theology, this would happen by masturbating too much and losing your salvation. For Mahaney’s Calvinism, it would happen by masturbating too much and revealing that you were never saved to begin with.
With all of these pent-up hormones and denial of desires, there had to be a release somewhere. For my generation, worship music became the perfect outlet. We’ve all heard the stereotypical “Jesus is my girlfriend” worship songs that are so easy to mock. Some of the lyrics I’ve read have sexual repression written all over them.
Former worship leader Michael Gungor joked about sexually repressed worship to comedian Pete Holmes on Pete’s “You Made It Weird” podcast, saying: “We had started this church. I was the worship leader. It was the hot thing in Tulsa. In three years, it already had a few thousand people coming to it. And it was like all the hot college girls writhing in the front. It was the scene.”
Linda Kay Klein shares about a study in 1912 by Emile Durkheim, where Durkheim identified “collective effervescence” as the emotional high we experience during religious group settings. She writes of the philosopher Rudolph Otto who in 1923 spoke of religion’s “heat, vitality, passion, energy … all coming together to create a consuming fire.” Imagine if he had seen today’s worship environments with the lighting, fog machines, dancing, rock music and attractive young worship leaders singing about being intimate with Jesus. She concludes: “I have never seen collective effervescence as intense as when a bunch of evangelical adolescents fired up on hormones get together. Here the adolescents’ most extreme emotions are called forth time and time again.”
“I have never seen collective effervescence as intense as when a bunch of evangelical adolescents fired up on hormones get together.”
With the teenagers of the 1990s leaving home and going off to college, the worship culture was about to change dramatically. In a January 2001 music column for Campus Life, a CCM industry insider said, “We’re always getting new CDs here … . We get all types — pop, rock, alternative, hip-hop, hardcore, gospel … . About the middle of last year (2000), we started noticing a trend. Seemed like every other CD that arrived here came with this label (or something like it): Praise & worship music … . Whatever they called it, we started getting tons of it. We started hearing it on Christian radio more and more. And we started singing the same songs in our churches and youth groups.”
In her book Singing the Congregation, Baylor University’s Monique Ingalls explores how CCM record labels capitalized on this sudden explosion of modern worship music beginning in the year 2000. They began pushing their artists to release worship albums and shaped the worship discourse to be one of creating an experience of feeling.
While I’m sure there are many factors that fed into the suddenly explosive growth and reshaping of modern worship in the 2000s, I can’t help but wonder how much of my generation’s disembodiment fueled by the purity culture of the 1990s led to the sexually repressed worship culture of the 2000s as soon as we graduated from high school and left home for college.
“What if our worship has become our purity culture trauma moving through our bodies?”
On a recent episode of “The Liturgists” podcast, Hillary McBride said: “When I think about singing in worship music, I think … about the fact that vibration in our voice box activates the larynx branch of our vagus nerve, which signals that it’s OK for trauma to move through our body. Humming is a self-care practice because it signals to your nervous system, ‘It’s OK. You can move it through. You can talk about it. You’re safe. You can connect. You can ask for help.’”
We are bearing their abuse in our beautiful bodies. We are wearing our wounds in our worship. What if our worship has become our purity culture trauma moving through our bodies? What if the things we dislike about modern worship music are actually a subconscious cry for help?
What we need is not a theological reformation of worship lyrics, but a healing of our minds, hearts and bodies from the shame of purity culture. When we discover and embrace the beauty of ourselves, we’ll converge in love for our neighbors. And together, we could reshape worship gatherings into a new consciousness and freedom beyond anything we’ve experienced.
Rick Pidcock is a stay-at-home father of five kids. He and his wife, Ruth Ellen, have started Provoke Wonder, a collaboration of artists that exists to foster child-like worship through story and song. Provoke Wonder’s first album, Consider the Stars, was released in March 2020. Their first children’s book, What If, will be released in 2020. Rick is pursuing a master of arts degree in worship from Northern Seminary.