Review: Talking Back to Purity Culture

Image from Amazon.

Author: Rachel Joy Welcher

Publisher: Inter Varsity Press

For some, even hearing the phrase “purity culture” brings back mixed emotions and memories of our middle and high school days when we went to conferences, read books, and heard sermons all about our worth in relation to our sexuality. These emotions may be less mixed for some, bringing back only guilt, shame, and regret to the forefront of our minds and hearts. If you grew up in evangelical Christian circles, you most likely did not escape this topic and perhaps are still carrying around the messages today. If any of these things are true to you, Talking Back to Purity Culture is the book to read.

Rachel Joy Welcher digs through the good and bad of the Purity Culture movement in her book Talking Back to Purity Culture. A little tongue and cheek the title may be, the subject matter of the book is no laughing matter. This book is for people who “survived I kissed dating goodbye” and those who still struggle with all they were taught. This is for people looking for a new way to look at Christian sexuality. This is a book for those searching for empathy and validation for the resentment they hold towards books and teachers. This book is for parents struggling to understand their children’s struggles, and a book for parents wondering how to teach their children after they feel betrayed by the past. This is a book of healing, honesty, and hope.

Talking Back to Purity Culture deals with multiple aspects related to purity culture and how they affected today’s adults when they were teenagers. Welcher addresses both how the teachers of purity culture somehow made sex both a disgusting, violating thing and an idol, the ultimate prize once you were married. She talks about how virginity was the standard of salvation, and once lost was a ticket to a doomed life. Where teachers taught a works righteousness prosperity gospel of “if you do this, God will bless/curse you with that,” a legalism to the highest degree, Welcher helps divide what is a real promise of God and what was a pharisaical law of man. Further, the book includes discussion questions and activities to do with multiple people. Welcher specifically states that the book and these discussions are best done in community and not in isolation, as silence leaves room for secrets and misinterpretations.

Most of the book seems to be geared towards women, but I might feel that way because I am a woman and I felt that many of these messages were pushed at me rather than at my brothers. However, Welcher specifically speaks to the men, and I think many teachings taught about men and women need to be undone in the minds of both men and women today. That is to say, I think both men and women should read this book.

Furthermore, Welcher addresses all sorts of people within these two groups. She addresses the married and the celibate. Those who are single but still waiting for the one they were promised and those struggling with sexual sins of all sorts. She mourns with the reader, too. She mourns with those who believed the false promises and didn’t receive their happily ever after, whether they married or not. She mourns with those who were violated sexually and didn’t receive the love and comfort they should have from the church. As I said at the beginning, this is truly a book of healing and hope.

Even so, there were some points that I took some issue with. I think she could have better stated her views on marriage and singleness. I think in overreaction to purity culture, we forget that God does love marriage and families, and encouraging them (without belittling or neglecting the singles of various sorts in our lives) is a good thing. Even so, I loved that she reached out to those people who were told to “wait and prepare” for marriage and yet still find themselves waiting. Welcher recognized these lost people and explained how they are still loved and can still live holy and chaste lives to God that have more to do with His calling to us and less to do about idolizing virginity. I also wish she would have offered some more practical advice in her book. She combated certain messages, beginning to teach a better way, and even including a whole chapter on how we should talk with our own children. But she never fully fleshed out her ideas and I would have appreciated that.

One of the strongest messages that came across from the book – besides just that purity culture did more harm than good – was that our salvation or goodness isn’t because we stayed physically pure, and our worth isn’t damaged because we didn’t. Instead, our salvation is found in Christ alone, our worth is found in Him, our purity is for His glory (and is a heart issue), and we find forgiveness and grace in God. While I was not harmed as much by the teachings in purity culture as others were and are, there were a lot of mixed messages I needed to get out of my head and heart. This book helped me unravel some of them that I hadn’t fully dealt with. And at the very end, I was nearly brought to tears by the message of hope and healing Welcher wrote. I thank her for that.

Talking Back to Purity Culture strips back the false promises and manipulated hope that purity culture taught us, showing how worth and forgiveness are found in Christ, explaining what God has and has not promised, and laying out a law and gospel narrative for our lives. We’ve already been living in the law of the world, the false promises, and the consequences of our actions. But there is forgiveness in the Gospel and empathy for our pain. There is law in how we ought to live chaste lives, but this only brings us back to the Gospel as we only live this way because God has made us clean by His Blood. He has called us to live holy chaste lives because He is holy. He cares for us.

Welcher hopes to bring the negative reaction against purity culture back to the light of the Gospel. While many have rejected Christianity wholesale because of the prosperity gospel promises never fulfilled, she hopes to show the light of the Gospel and the promises God has made. She wants to bring forgiveness and healing and a start to what good Christian sexuality is supposed to look like. Sex existed in the garden. It was made for the marriage bed between one man and one woman. But we need to be honest about what it means to be abstinent, and what chastity truly means. We need to equip young people, support those around us, and love our neighbors – all of them. Instead of just overcorrecting in response to purity culture or secular culture, we need to talk about sexuality in light of the Gospel so we can move forward in hope, honesty, and healing.

Blessings to you and yours,

~Madelyn Rose Craig.

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