Secrets of "Virgin Nation": True Love Waits, Silver Ring Thing, and the real story of how evangelicals linked purity to America's salvation

The amazing live performances and films that have talked generations of teens into waiting for marriage

Published June 28, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

   (<a href=''>Evgeniya Porechenskaya</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Evgeniya Porechenskaya via Shutterstock)

Excerpted from "Virgin Nation"

The Therapeutic Impulse of Sexual Purity

Though some references to health issues such as pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases  are in evidence, True Love Waits initially sought to position sexuality (and sexual transgression) within the trajectory of adolescent spiritual development, with less concern for the physical and emotional consequences of premarital sexual activity. For its part, Silver Ring Thing has worked for over two decades to perfect a live performance that effectively and efficiently presents the organization’s therapeutic process in less than two and a half hours.

The SRT event presents skits, videos, and testimonials that lay out a spectrum of seemingly  inevitable emotional, physical, and spiritual consequences that result from premarital sexual activity. The majority of an SRT evening is spent convincing the audience that the problem is severe enough to merit  a behavior reversal.

In order to pinpoint causes for the “eruption of the problem,” SRT strategically places its most attention-getting sketch in the first half hour of its live performance in order to clarify that  premarital sexual activity is, indeed, a problem  in need of a solution. Just after introducing SRT’s high-tech, multimedia program, the evening’s emcee, Matt Webster,  retrieves four volunteers from the audience: three young women and one young man. With humor, sincerity, and enthusiasm, he offers the young man a board on which was painted half a heart. He explains that this board represents the young man’s emotional life. He then motions to each young woman and explains that,  throughout the course of his life, the  young man had engaged in premarital, sexual activity with each of them.

Matt then places the young man’s heart-board into a vise, asks the volunteers to step aside, and retreats backstage. Seconds later, pyrotechnics explode, lights flash, music thunders, and Matt reemerges, sporting a hockey mask and operating a live chainsaw.  As the audience screams and the volunteers fall to the floor, Matt hacks the heart-board into pieces. As the noise subsides and the volunteers catch their breath, Matt explains once again that due to the young man’s intimate relationships with each of these young women, they will now each carry a piece of him for the rest of their lives.

After Matt gives the pieces of the young man’s heart-board to the three women, he holds up the piece of heart that remained. “This is what you will take with you when you get married,” Matt says as he displays the remaining heart-board, reduced to a jagged-edged splinter of wood. This sketch asserts that premarital sex causes a significant spiritual and emotional rupture. Like jagged splinters of wood, sexually active youth tragically move from one relationship to the next, leaving pieces of themselves like worthless debris. The remaining core of the self, the soul, is left weakened, incapable of genuine intimacy,  and less fortified against the challenges of married life.

“But tonight we’re gonna give you the chance to start over and right now I’m gonna give you a whole new heart”: Webster’s promise is not to the young man alone, but to anyone in the audience ready to remake his or her fractured soul into one suitable for Christian marriage. This is just one of the many ways, though certainly the most effective one, in which SRT marks adolescent premarital sex as a problem in need of a solution. Following the establishment of this problem, abstinence advocates must move onto the second stage of therapeutic discourse: confession and diagnosis.

The confessional stage is quite effective, because even adolescents who have not broken their pledge continually monitor themselves according to the well-established confessionalism embedded in the movement. Students who have attended SRT events indicated in a survey conducted in 2006–2007 that many held themselves accountable not only to physical abstinence but to sexual purity, a more spiritually holistic concept that monitors behavioral, verbal, imaginative, and emotional boundaries. Upon betraying these boundaries, the students were quick to acknowledge their transgressions and identify the causes for their misdeeds. Julie Breyer, a student at Midwestern Christian College, maintained her pledge yet still felt the consequences of an intense emotional connection that she described as giving “pieces of my heart to a guy I dated.” Her classmate, Jonathan Pierce, also noted struggles with lust and sexual temptation, “Even though I have physically kept myself pure, I know my thoughts have been tainted for a long time and it is a daily struggle to repent of that.” Still another, Walter Newsome, was even more frank about his own struggles:

I have not yet had sexual activity/intercourse (of any variety) and do not intend to do so before marriage. However, as a teenage male, I have certainly not been free from the ever-present and almost cyclical (as they sometimes seem) temptations of pornography and masturbation.

This continual self-monitoring allows students to diagnose and rediagnose their particular challenges and assess how they are faring according to the expectations of sexual purity established during their SRT experience. That sense of self-accountability has become a natural outgrowth of the therapeutic rhetoric of the abstinence movement. It is important to note that individuals who have moved through these stages have not necessarily done so in a linear fashion. As indicated above, the practice of self-accountability presumed that students were not cured permanently but, rather, were given tools to negotiate setbacks more effectively. Thus, the final stage, the cure, is often presented as a point at which to start over, rather than an achievable end point.

Sexual Purity and Adolescent Spiritual Formation

The therapeutic rhetoric of contemporary evangelicalism compels believers to understand their personal spiritual commitments in light of their individual well-being and self-development. For the purity movement, this means cultivating narratives that demonstrate the indistinctiveness of spiritual awakening and personal care. One such narrative appeared in a Silver Ring Thing newsletter and tells the story of Anna, who had lost her virginity at the age of fifteen and only slowly came to realize the repercussions. By the time she started feeling remorse for her sexual choices, she also began to recognize that she felt dirty, weak, and burdened. In short, Anna had sinned, and had done so so badly, she no longer had the ability to resist further temptation. Anna was already an active member in her church youth group, but her sexual  activity marred her  Christian commitment and her reputation among her peers.  When Anna and her youth group attended an abstinence event hosted by SRT, she heard a story very similar to her own, but with a very different  ending.

As an evangelical Christian organization, SRT situates  sexual delinquency within  a traditional conversion  narrative that begins with the act of sin, followed by the conviction and repentance of sin, and culminates in the acceptance  of Jesus Christ and obedience  to God’s will. Sexual sin is central to the salvation history of humanity and, according to most evangelical  leaders,  begins  the  metacycle  of  sin  and  redemption that frames all of human existence. Groups like Silver Ring Thing have modified this formula  only slightly with revival-like events at which students like Anna are called forward to an altar that offers both personal  salvation and sexual purification.

With sex as sin and purity as salvation, audiences are offered the gift of a new birth, an idea that  revivalist Jonathan Edwards popularized during the Puritan awakenings of the eighteenth century. A new birth, of course, means a new body, and for Anna, whose “body had been tarnished by the fingerprints of others,” this was a transformative moment. Anna’s story followed the narrative formula of conversion testimony,  except that her salvation was not only a recommitment to obey God but a renewed hope that she would meet the man “whom God has set aside for me.”

Anna’s testimony exemplifies the relationship between sexual purity, marital ambitions, and personal salvation, a formula that the contemporary purity movement has found highly motivating for adolescents. The careful construction of sexual behavior as religious practice is as old as the Christian tradition itself. But the work to identify sexual purity as a central practice of Christian faith commitment is unique to the twentieth century because of its particular concern for the spiritual formation of adolescent believers. The evangelical purity culture has grown up around attempts to elevate sexual purity from moral code to Christian creed. For evangelicals who focus more on personal spirituality than theological tradition for the formation of Christian spiritual life, private, sexual acts, rather than doctrinal statements, are sites for reinforcing orthodoxy, especially during the formative years of adolescence.

The Bible as text and as object of personal devotion plays a central role for evangelical purity advocates. Creating a seamless relationship between sexual purity and personal salvation happens almost effortlessly, since, from their perspective, sexual purity is upheld  by the Bible’s narrative of sin and salvation. The production and marketing of Bibles whose titles and parabiblical commentary center on themes of abstinence, sexual temptation, and purity further reinforce the connections between biblical authority and sexual purity.

Compelled by the idea of new beginnings, especially after defilement and destruction, purity advocates turn to scripture to help adolescents understand the creation of sexuality, its strictures, and the consequences for defying those strictures. When purity speaker and author  Doug Herman writes for his younger audiences he encourages them to regard the Bible as the ultimate authority  for sexual behavior. He asserts that the Bible incontrovertibly  condemns premarital  sex and helps  readers   recognize where and how the scriptures define appropriate sex. Most notably, he highlights the sexual metatext of the creation  story,  in  which the  first humans defy God’s command to abstain  from eating the fruit of a particular tree. In his retelling of the story, Herman exchanges the word apple— the object of desire and source of delinquency in this story—for the word sex, and  in doing so shows his readers that  “anything outside of God’s plan brings  death.”

Purity is an inherently theological concept  for Herman, who subscribes to the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity. To be human is to be impure and unclean, a state all are born into and can only escape  with superhuman intervention. Though purity codes, especially in the Hebrew scriptures, addres  far more  than sexual matters, the purity  movement has elevated the value of sexual purity to such a degree that other ways of approaching the theological value of purity have become obsolete. Sexual purity began in the beginning, with Adam and Eve, whose complete acceptance of one another was a physical, spiritual,  and  emotional union. Herman’s readers learn that “this is the spiritual and physical foundation of our  sexuality.”  Sexual purity  for evangelicals  is a new beginning, a sign of a new creation, and a chance to restore humans’ relationship with God and return to the original paradise.

Evangelicals who insist  on purity as a biblical mandate are not solely reliant upon textual evidence. The two most prominent purity organizations, True Love Waits and  Silver Ring Thing,  produce and distribute abstinence-themed Bibles that affirm the mandate both materially and visually. Whereas  Broadman and Holman Publishers created  and marketed the True Love Waits Bible, Silver Ring Thing produced its very own and thus provides a more accurate representation of how the purity movement utilizes bibles.

The Abstinence Study Bible, developed especially for SRT, is the most critical resource the organization provides its audiences. This Bible is only available to students who attend the SRT show and purchase a purity ring or make a public commitment to Jesus Christ.  Tracy Webster,  the SRT staff member who guided  the Bible project and created  much of its content, believes that a commitment to sexual purity is futile unless  that commitment is rooted  in “the Word of God.” For SRT, that word is best spoken through the  New  Living Translation (NLT), so SRT president Denny  Pattyn  and Webster  adapted  a structure for the  scriptures that would highlight the significant  role of sexual abstinence to one’s Christian faith practice.  To do this, they organized two sets of reading plans: one for new believers and another for confirmed believers needing support in their abstinence commitment. New believers can utilize a section, entitled  “First Steps  for  New  Believers,”  that provides an  introductory reading plan to the Bible itself. Webster  found  the commentary provided by evangelical minister Greg Laurie in the NLT to be a useful tool for explaining the  central tenets of Christianity and  responding to questions asked by new converts. These questions included:  Why did Jesus have to die for me?  Who is God?  Who is Satan? What does God say about marriage?

The SRT portions of the Bible, located both before and throughout the actual scriptures, offer resources to young people, including dating advice such as “always go out in groups,”  “keep the lights on,” “avoid the horizontal,” and “keep your clothes on, in, zipped and buttoned.” More important,  SRT connects  this set of advice to particular scripture passages that reinforce the primacy  of sexual abstinence in the Christian faith. The primary  text used by the organization is from  the New Testament epistle  1 Thessalonians. When  I interviewed  her,  Tracy Webster recited the passage without  hesitation: “This is the will of God through sanctification  that  you  should  avoid sexual immorality that  each  one of you should  learn to control your bodies in a way that is honorable.” The NLT translation reads more directly: “God wants you to be holy, so you should keep clear of all sexual sin. Then each of you will control your body and live in holiness  and honor.” The most interesting aspect of this text is the note regarding the clause, “then each of you will control your body.” The note provides an alternative translation for “control your body” that reads, “or will know how to take a wife for himself.” The Greek translation, also noted  in the NLT, provides the missing link between  these differing interpretations: “will know how to possess his own vessel.” The evolution  of  this passage reveals a striking undercurrent to the quest for sexual purity. According to the initial note, there is a direct correlation between refraining from  sexual immorality and  taking a wife. Though SRT never  addresses this underlying message of the text directly, the organization performs the subtext perfectly by asserting that God blesses people who wait to have sex before marriage. In our discussion of this particular text, Webster noted,

And we really believe that God blesses people who wait until they are married to have sex in a ton of different  ways. And so it’s not just  the fear-based thing of like “God’s gonna strike you down if you have sex.” But more  in the sense of you get so many blessings and good positive things when you do things God’s way and you wait until you’re married. Whether it’s a first time commitment or even a recommitment. That this is all huge.  So that’s the main verse that we really focus on.

Webster further explains that abstaining from sex before marriage is only part  of her  organization’s campaign. SRT, like TLW, emphasizes sexual purity, a concept that expects adolescents to learn to control their bodies. In this sense,  Webster  argues, sexual purity,  or control of one’s body, is practiced  and learned;  it is not simply the automatic result of one’s commitment. It is this practice of bodily control that requires a personal  commitment to Jesus Christ.

According  to Denny Pattyn,  one of the most pressing challenges for someone ministering to adolescents is verifying the authenticity of a person’s spiritual transformation. He considers the difficulty of this transformation especially for students who, as was his experience while a young person, do not have the support of a Christian family and thus are more likely to fail in their commitment. Some of his students, he recognizes, make a commitment and never follow through, while others  “mess up a couple of times” and then find their way back and get serious about their commitment. As a student who “messed up” more than once, Pattyn is not quick to give up on an adolescent who strays. But he is concerned with differentiating between those who are authentic and those who are not. Pattyn’s own wisdom  advises him  to notice an adolescent’s use of scripture.  Students indicate an authentic spiritual transformation, according to Pattyn, when they are regularly reading the Bible and finding inspiration for their lives.

This type of inspiration is best understood in evangelical parlance  as “the work of the Holy Spirit.” For Pattyn and his organization, the third person of the Trinity is not merely concerned with the creation of a born-again identity.  This same inspiration or work of the spirit is central  to a successful abstinence commitment. According to Pattyn,

When you have the Holy Spirit living in you and you’re in the backseat of a car . . . what you really need is a voice within you that says “not with this guy, not with this girl, get out of there.”  That voice, that’s very important to the process of what we’re all trying to do, which is help kids wait.

In making sexual decisions, adolescents, Pattyn believes, are not likely to turn to medical descriptions of STDs or to the conclusions of social scientific studies for encouragement. Instead, Pattyn argues, a silver ring with a biblical inscription helps remind them of a commitment to God and their future spouse.  This biblical inspiration is a sign of the Holy Spirit working in the lives of teenagers, a sign that a student has been transformed both spiritually and sexually.

Excerpted from "Virgin Nation" by Sara Moslener. Published by Oxford University Press. Copyright 2015 by Sara Moslener. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Sara Moslener

Sara Moslener is assistant professor of religion at Central Michigan University

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