I always wanted a really sexy testimony.
That’s not the word I would have used, of course. Growing up in the evangelical Christian church, I knew good girls were never supposed to be “sexy.” The word “sexy” was said only in hushed tones, like “whore,” “vagina,” or “feminist.”
A “testimony,” as used in the evangelical church, is a story someone tells about how God intervened in their life during some major difficulty. Invariably, the speaker describes some terrible time in their life that pushes them to desperation. Then, God steps into the story, to let them know He was in control the whole time and He loves them “anyway.” Redemption. Salvation.
It seemed like giving a testimony was the best way to prove to God and my church that I was a good Christian, deserving of the love humans inherently don’t deserve. (I know, it’s a paradox, don’t think too hard about it.) I needed to get up on that stage. Get that mic. Bare my soul to my church family, confess my sins and hardships, captivate them in my despair, then inspire them in my joyful understanding of the all-encompassing grace and love of my God.
Turns out, I just want to write stories. But my story, the story of my relationship with God, never seemed to wrap up as nicely as the ones I heard as testimonies. It was volatile, and smothered in the shame of knowing that no matter how hard I tried, I could never be good enough to be loved by God just by being me. I had to be “washed clean.” I had to be “made anew.”
I had to be “pure.” And no one could tell me exactly what that meant.
Reading Pure by Linda Kay Klein
I read Linda Kay Klein’s book, Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free, because I left the evangelical church years ago and still deal with that shame. I wondered if Klein still dealt with flashbacks, paranoia about sex, and other repercussions of internalized shame. I wondered if she was like me. I wondered if she got better.
Klein joined her church at age 13 and tried to be a good, “pure” Christian. Years later, while studying abroad in Australia, she found out that a youth leader she had known at her old church was caught sexually assaulting a little girl, and that his previous violations had been covered up by other churches. Klein left the church at age 21, disgusted.
But leaving the church is not always as simple as deciding not to attend services on Sundays. There may need to be a paradigm shift in thinking to break out of the shame that comes with purity culture, and it may take years, or a lifetime, to dig through. For Klein, this meant realizing that sex was difficult for her. Her shame manifested in a fear of becoming pregnant that was so consuming, she took pregnancy tests even when she was still a virgin. Klein wondered if other evangelical women had similar problems trusting themselves and living life without so much fear and shame.
She decided to go back to her hometown and interview women she’d known from her days in the church. This turned into a 12-year project, with Klein interviewing women all over the country who had been affected by their time in the evangelical church.
The stories she told in this book were at times shockingly painful. To me, they were also a surprising source of validation.
Living a Life of Submission
Submission is key in an evangelical woman’s life. In my church, if a woman can’t find a husband to submit to, it is implied that she should submit to God instead, serving Him with her life’s work through church ministries or by becoming a missionary. I’m an outspoken person with an annoying habit of solving problems by myself. I couldn’t see myself “submitting” to any of the Christian men I knew, so I decided early in life that I’d become a missionary.
I studied abroad in Cairo, Egypt. I loved it. I started learning the language rapidly and prayed daily for this to be my mission field.
The 2011 Arab Spring revolution happened right outside my door. I threw myself in with the people I’d grown to love, thanking God for the opportunity to give my heart selflessly to this place, to their cause of freedom and peace. But then, my school called. Things had gotten too dangerous. They said if I didn’t evacuate immediately, they would record it as a withdrawal from the university, and I would lose my credits.
I flew home.
I came back broken. I didn’t understand the out-of-body experience this trauma caused, the severe inability to move or interact with reality. The depression I’d had all my life continued to go undiagnosed and worsened severely. I thought God had abandoned me. I must have done something terrible to be given such an experience, and then have it taken away. I couldn’t talk to anyone.
Then I met a particularly attentive Christian man. I wanted to stop thinking, and he was all too willing to make decisions for me. I decided: alright. I guess I’m not supposed to live my own life. God, if this is how you want me to submit, fine. I’ll do it Your way.
And I did.
I had been conditioned, raised, and encouraged to act in the perfect way for this manipulative man to take full advantage. He controlled me, abusing my unhealthy mental state. We didn’t have sex, but he’d do other things, saying as long as we prayed about it we were acting according to God’s will. We talked about marriage. He wrote in my diary. We lived two hours from each other, so I’d visit every weekend and Skype him every day, neglecting homework, friends, and often hours of class.
We slept in his car so we could be together as much as possible without sharing a bed, thus staying “pure.” I think back on those hours of cold, uncomfortable darkness with deep numbness. I never got more than a few hours sleep a night. Between the sleep deprivation, the long drives, and the suicidal ideation, that relationship nearly killed me.
Becoming An “Exvangelical”
I never knew the term “purity culture” until I left the church. When you’re in it, you don’t call it anything. It’s just the way things are.
I left that man. Then I left the church, evangelicalism, and purity culture altogether. I broke from everything. I was sick of feeling sick and tired of being tired, and although I longed for community, I would never have gone home like Klein did to find it. I stayed in my college town, somehow graduated, and started going to therapy.
I was 23 when I had sex for the first time, with a non-Christian man who treated me with all the care in the world. But no matter how sweet he was, shame still came into that intimate space. Sex was often extremely painful. Worse, I couldn’t tell him when to stop, because I’d never known that was an option. No one talks about “consent” in purity culture. I also couldn’t come out as bisexual without feeling like the lowest, dirtiest creature to walk the earth. Acknowledging my sexuality still felt like it would cause irreparable damage to my soul, and to my worth as a person.
This year, I finally found a community to whom I could relate. My (atheist) partner introduced me to the works of Chris Stroop, a writer who talks about his own experience leaving the evangelical church. He calls us all “exvangelicals.” I read his blog and started following the exvangelical hashtag on Twitter, and a whole new world opened up for me. I met other people who’d left their faith and were still reeling from the aftermath of the way they — we — had been raised. I learned a term for this process: exvangelicals call it “deconstruction.” Each exvangelical’s deconstruction is unique. Mine included lots of therapy and writing a book about magical gay mermaids. (It’s in draft phase; you can’t rush art.)
Klein’s deconstruction seems to have included researching and writing this book. By the end of her story, she joined a church that affirms her, even singing in the choir as part of a Pride parade. Other women she interviewed also found ways to keep a semblance of their old traditions or faith outside of the evangelical church.
I do not long for the community I left behind. I never wished to join another church. Losing the evangelical black-and-white thinking was disorienting, and figuring out my own identity has not been easy. But I’m grateful for the chance to do it at all. My favorite part of this gratitude is that, mostly, I can direct it toward myself.
Klein’s book was written to share the testimonies of people who were discouraged from speaking them aloud. It is not the whole picture, but the beginning of a conversation about purity culture in the evangelical church. It is an invitation, to myself and others, to step up and share our true testimonies with others who need to hear them.
I guess my testimony is just too sexy to be told in a church.