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I’ve recently had the opportunity to “put my feet up and take it easy” (Doctors orders, my how far modern medicine has come, and before anyone speculates, I’m not pregnant) so I’ve been working my way through a massive stack of books (I took all the books in my Amazon cart and put in requests at the local library).
One of the many books on my list was Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free by Linda Kay Klein.
I will start with a disclaimer, I was not raised in the Evangelical tradition — if someone can tell me more about it, or wants to clarify, the comments are open, and the book elaborates on this more than I can in a brief blog post. I can only speak to my experiences growing up in the South, with Evangelical and Conservative Christian friends/neighbors, as well as my experiences in Christian Science. The Evangelical movements have youth groups, youth pastors, youth out reach programs, purity rings and Christian Science has… Sunday School until you reach the age of twenty. Some CS have a little “cross and crown” pendent they wear on a necklace, but I never saw those until I got to Principia (and, to my disappointment at the time I never had one).
One of the first things that stood out to me was in Christian Science a woman’s highest calling is to serve God, not to be a “helpmeet” or a mother, marriage is a necessary evil to be tolerated until the apocalypse and Ms. Eddy — thrice married twice-widowed has a very different take on things than the patriarchal-heavy Evangelical movement.
Then there is what Christian Scientist need to avoid, the biggest worry is not sin, but error and mortal mind, and then there is sensuality which is a whole other mess unto itself. As I’ve said before in a previous blog post:
In Christian Science, sensuality is something to be counteracted as well. Sensuality draws your focus on “the unreal and material,” it interferes with your relationship with God, and that in turn leaves you open to more false ideas from mortal mind, error, sickness, sin, disease and death. From a very early age little Christian Scientists are introduced to the idea that there is “no sensation in matter” and every Sunday School closes with the Scientific Statement of Being as found on p. 486 of Science and Health:
There is no life, truth, intelligence, nor substance in matter. All is infinite Mind and its infinite manifestation, for God is All-in-all. Spirit is immortal Truth; matter is mortal error. Spirit is the real and eternal; matter is the unreal and temporal. Spirit is God, and man is His image and likeness. Therefore man is not material; he is spiritual.
This material body? It isn’t real. It is part of the Adam dream, and one day we will awake and know God and our true selves. Sensuality must be counteracted by God’s Angel messages passing to man (along with evil), because it distracts from man aspiring to his higher nature.
Sensuality is nice and vague and covers a full spectrum of things. From Merriam Webster – CS’s preferred dictionary
1 : relating to or consisting in the gratification of the senses or the indulgence of appetite : fleshly
2 : sensory sense 1
3a : devoted to or preoccupied with the senses or appetites
b : voluptuous
c : deficient in moral, spiritual, or intellectual interests : worldly especially : irreligious
Ms. Eddy does not have a chapter on Dating and Relationships, and takes it a step further to dictate what is permissible within the confines of marriage. I’ve sat through talks where Good Christian Scientists have attempted to justify physical intimacy within a marriage, they talk about “doing it” for “the right reasons” the “natural expression of love” and “not with lustful thoughts.” Oh please.
The recurring themes encountered during my dating years were as follows:
- the “it feels good, but it feels wrong” / “it feels really good, but it feels like too much” / “I love you but I don’t want to do more” discussion, which is often countered the “if you love me than you’ll do such-and-such”
- “I love them and I want to do more but we’re not married”
This appears to hold true with the experiences in Pure as well where Klein shares diary entries pertaining to a relationship with her high school boyfriend Dean. She ends up breaking up with him because that is what God told her to do (Pure p. 4-5)
Klein then goes on to recount several failed sexual encounters with another boyfriend — this time after she’d left her Evangelical church, and she was now in college. Klein writes on p. 7
The closer I got to losing my virginity, the more likely it was that the word slut would run through my mind on ticker tape. Eventually, I’d find myself in a tearful heap in the corner of my boyfriend’s dorm room bed, tormented by the same fear and anxiety that had driven me to break up with Dean when I was sixteen.
The Evangelicals clearly spell out the steps to sex: eye to body, eye to eye, voice to voice, hand to hand, hand to shoulder, hand to waist, face to face, hand to body, mouth to breast, touching below the waist, and sexual intercourse (p. 235)
I will not divulge how far my former college boyfriend and I got, but to his great annoyance, we never broke the Prin Code of Conduct when it came to what the college deemed “OSL-Abroad”-worthy “sex” — no oral/genital, no anal/genital, no genital/genital — this left a large grey zone of things you could do, but would rather not have your roommate walk in on you while doing (and the individual dorm rooms didn’t have locks).
Why did we never get very far? “Slut” never ran through my mind, but my roommate walking in on us was a huge concern (at least when he visited on campus). At home I was paranoid someone would find out, or I’d get pregnant, or it feels too good to be right, this is going to lead to something else, or the very real issue that he was pushing for more than I was willing to do.
During my time dating him, there was a period of time when I would wake up having a panic attack, feeling like I was being smothered (he was also regularly sending me long-stem roses because he felt guilty for cheating on me, but I didn’t learn about that until later). If things got into the grey zone — hand to body and beyond, I would not remember what happened the next day (this concerned him), or have such severe abdominal cramping he would stop out of concern… or both, I would forget what happened except that I had horrible cramps and we’d stop. This worried him. It probably should have worried me too, but I didn’t really have anyone I felt comfortable sharing that with.
You’re supposed to demonstrate Christian Science is working, not share your struggles with it. You’re supposed to radiate joy, success, fulfillment. As one of Klein’s interviewees put it
I wasn’t allowed to experience anger or sadness because that was just evidence that you’re giving into the Devil and him wanting you to feel that way — not having joy in the Lord, and all that stuff. (Pure p. 45)
As Klein puts it
If you spend enough time in the subculture, and experience a few shaming to help show you the way, you eventually figure it out: Express lots of emits here, perhaps even falsifying emotions if you don’t have them, and out on your “joy” mask the rest of the time — disconnecting from or hiding feelings that don’t fit. (Pure p. 48)
Replace the Devil with Mortal Mind or error and having joy in the Lord with demonstrating Christian Science. Yep. The terminology is different but the results are the same. As my father reminded me, if you can’t behave like a young lady, fake it. I got very good at faking it.
Kline also discusses “stumbling blocks” — things that cause people (usually men, in Evangelical circles) to sin, have lustful thoughts, or fall from grace.
The first “stumbling block” in the purity movement is identical to the first stumbling block for those raised in Christian Science: if you are suffering, it is your fault. When taken to heart, this message can make us miss — or when we do see it, dismiss — our suffering, until one day, it’s too late. (p. 61
This is followed by the second “stumbling block” if purity culture / Christian Science it doesn’t work for you, it is because there is something wrong with you. In the purity culture this is gender role expectations, in Christian Science is it is everything else – with a heavy emphasis on demonstrating healing.
The third “stumbling block” for Evangelical Christian women is the purity myth, as talked about by Jessica Valenti:
The cornerstone of the purity myth is the expectation that girls and women, in particular, will be utterly and absolutely nonsexual until they day they marry a man, at which point they will naturally and easily become his sexual satisfier, ensuring the couple will have children and never divorce: one man, one woman, in marriage, forever. (p.77)
This expectation plays out differently in Christian Science with really toxic results and amazing mental gymnastics. As I mentioned before, with in CS, sex even with the person you are married to is a distraction and really best to be avoided, unless you want to have children, and even then,Ms. Eddy’s take on biology is questionable at best.
What happens when one stumbles in their faith, or in CS terms, is swayed by Mortal Mind?
SHAME! ALL THE SHAME! The little voice telling you that you are a failure, and you have failed Christian Science. Never has Christian Science failed you, you failed it. Also, you’re the only one this has happened to. What does this result in? Well, I started a blog, Linda Kay Klein wrote Pure, and clearly people have been reading our work, and finding it relatable. On p. 186 Klein writes:
Religion has a way of getting inside the most private parts of your life. Though I no longer attended an Evangelical church, I still found myself analyzing my thoughts, obsessing over my mistakes, and seeking out even the tiniest sins in hopes that confessing them would free me from the feeling of impurity that was always there.
I have been leaving Christian Science for nearly a decade now, my relationship with intimacy has changed for the better, but other areas, self care and healthcare, while noticeably improved, remain complicated. I no longer experience anxiety-related freak-outs during intimacy. The context has changed: I’m no longer a sophomore at Principia College, I’m married to a wonderful man, and my bedroom door has a lock. I do struggle with self-care and healthcare, I regularly push myself a little farther than I should, and have on occasion put off having problems looked at. I acknowledge this, and I’m working on it.
I still keep a stash of home pregnancy tests in a drawer in the bathroom, but that is more about concerns my methods of birth control have failed than it is about the phantom baby. One of Klein’s interviewee’s explains:
Surely you’ve heard of the “phantom baby”? How nobody has had sex but they all think they’re pregnant? I’ve never met an evangelical woman who doesn’t irrationally believe she’s pregnant at some point. (p. 195-6)
That happened to me. My very sweet fiancee was in town for a few days, and brought me a home pregnancy test (I was living at home and terrified what would happen if my parents found out), and I wasn’t pregnant. My cycle was approaching 45 days (instead of 32), and I was stressed beyond reason, living at home and working with a menopausal woman, a pre-menopausal woman, a woman who was stacking her birth control pills, and a women who had a hysterectomy. This was in stark contrast to living in a dorm where hall mates regularly seemed to sync up. My period appeared about 2-3 days later much to my relief. This also happened to a never-CS friend of mine, only hers was “he came in the hot tub with me in it!” By that time, I was at a place where I could talk her down, and reassure her she was not pregnant.
Not teaching sex-ed and basic reproductive biology is a problem.
Some of the women in Klein’s book have moved on to more accepting church communities, I have chosen not to. I last set foot in a church the summer after my father’s death. I had gone home to help my mother deal with the house. My mother was filling in as the second reader and I went to be supportive. One of Klein’s interviewees compares church to a dementor.
I am struck by how appropriate the metaphor [Rosemary] draw about the dementors really is. In the Harry Potter books, the dementors are like trauma triggers. They “force their victims to relive the worst memories of their lives, and drown, powerless in their own despair.”
That neatly sums up my experience revising the church, I held it together: the good girl and supportive daughter facade, turmoil raging inside me. I sat in the back off to one side, counting recessed lights, pews, windows, and pretending to follow along in the Quarterly. My father’s decade-long struggle with failing health before he passed, somewhat ostracized because he was not fully relying on Christian Science, the deaths of beloved Sunday School teachers, and close friends. I’m pretty sure I had chocolate after that, I’m having some now.
Christian Science encourages a cherry-picking of quotes, often out of context. Take the good, leave the bad. The Bible is allegorical. Ms. Eddy didn’t really mean that. The blogger at Emerging Gently calls the process “mental gymnastics” and that is quite an apt description.
Although Christian Science is more sedate than Evangelical Christianity, there are no mega-churches, no super-star pastors, no best selling must-read books beyond Science & Health (and that’s more a mandatory text than popular literature https://kindism.org/2012/09/30/authorized-cs-literature/), the lasting impact on women’s lives, the shame, anxiety, and other issues is similar. Acknowledging that there are issues is a good start, but in Christian Science, at least, I’m unsure if there will be anyone left to rectify them within the movement.