The First Family of Purity

I remember when I first heard about the Colorado Springs-based Father Daughter Purity Balls. The sun was setting over the California coast. A cool breeze rippled my surgical gown. I was getting my monthly abortion at Planned Parenthood, right before my date with my drug dealer. So when I learned of the family that would destroy my ability to murder babies carelessly and routinely (it’s just like tossing out a tampon you guys!), I waged permanent war on all those that would stand in my way.

Because this so-called culture war? Some people think of it as an actual war.

You choose either Jesus or Satan, locked in timeless struggle over your soul. Which side are you on?

Abortion rights is central to an ongoing political struggle between the religious right and everyone else. Everyone with any skin in the game sees abortion as the tip of a political-cultural iceberg, founded on the Constitution, the role of religion in public policy, the health care system (over a sixth of our GDP), the economy, race, class, ability. And, oh yeah, women.

Women’s and girls’ bodies are both the weapons and the spoils of this “war.”

This is one context for Mirjam von Arx‘s provocative documentary, Virgin Tales, which I was lucky to see at the Denver Film Festival this weekend.

Just a routine family photo sesh

Regular readers would be nonplussed to learn that I, too, see this struggle over women’s bodies pretty starkly: on one side fights those who want to control women’s bodies; on the other, those who don’t. And while I refuse terms like “culture war,” which puts a manichaean blanket over what should be reasonable and respectful political discourse, I remain firmly and passionately on one side of this debate. And I often feel that, actually, there are two sides.

While I still see reproductive rights in such stark terms, von Arx’s film blurred them.

Virgin Tales closely—some say claustrophobically—follows a year in the life of the Wilsons, the family that conceived and has hosted Purity Balls since 1999. (Von Arx actually took two years to film, though the documentary’s chronology is edited to feel like a full year. And it’s a long, long year for middle kid Jordyn, 20 at the start of the film and still. not. married.)

In filmic terms, the documentary is stunning: beautifully lit close-ups during emotional family discussions, well-paced editing, captivating dialogue, and just enough breach of their world to breathe a little and get our heads back on.

For example, while the family glorify their daughters’ new husbands in the military, and while they give their teenage son a sword as tall as him during his “Manhood Ceremony,” von Arx cuts in shots of what actually happens in Afghanistan.

But von Arx’s choice to stay with this one family is one of the wisest of the film.

Our immersion into their daily lives helps us on the secular left understand why so many women and girls choose to pledge chastity until marriage.

Despite reams of social science evidence that chastity and abstinence-only education does nothing but raise unintended pregnancy and STD rates. And despite our screaming sense that they’re dupes in their parents’ war on secularism.

Of course, the Wilson daughters’ choice is constrained: with a lifetime of home schooling by a mom who wants Jesus to come down and teach them algebra, with almost no exposure to a non-evangelical Christian world, and with parents whose livelihood depends on preaching abstinence, what else would they choose?

But von Arx shows the deep love and care this family shares. By choosing this “walk of purity,” they are choosing “integrity, respect, and value.” They kneel on the floor and get their father’s blessing every Sunday.

What I see, from the outside looking in on this weekly blessing, is a clear symbol of enforced subservience to the patriarchal dude in the family. What they experience is endless love, togetherness, and protection from a dangerous and degrading world.

And I agree with them that the sexualization of girls and women in our society is dangerous and degrading.

Of course, I also believe that enforcing a standard of “purity” is just as degrading to women. That with their heavy makeup, careful coifs, and elimination of all life options besides wife and mother, they are just as objectified as any of us. And that their dads, by charging themselves as the guardians of their daughters’ chastity, are sexualizing their daughters even more.

Keeping women uneducated and bound to the home, keeping them ign’ant, is a sure fire way to shut them up about decisions that would affect their lives: health care, investments, how to vote. Plus! the added bonus of perpetuating the system.

Two Wilson daughters, Khrystian and Jordyn, have launched out on their own, developing side businesses that monetize their talents. Jordyn runs a class and curriculum (for sale!) about how to be a more graceful wife and hostess. Krystian recorded a CD of original love songs to her warrior husband.

Their moves toward professionalism and independence only reinforce the strictures of their world.

Listen, you guys. Traditional gender roles are comforting. Everyone knows what’s expected of her. Our lives are circumscribed before we even begin them.

In the film, Jordyn says that, though she’s old enough to move out on her own, she stays with her family because it feels safe. Of course it does!

But it wouldn’t if she were queer. Or interested in a career. Or if her dad protected her chastity a little too vehemently.

One of the reasons for the global rise in fundamentalism, as well as the rocketship growth of the chastity movement, is that our economic chaos—by which I mean the whole morass of the post-industrial economy, not simply our recent recessions—makes us yearn for simplicity and stability at home.

With daily observance of strict religion, you don’t need to guess at right or wrong. You just need to consult scripture. Or your rabbi. Or your imam.

And by dressing up abstinence as “purity,” the Wilsons have compelled their children to chase a mythic ideal that humans have been chasing forever: the myth of pure connection to the divine, of separation from the chaff, of authentic human existence undiluted by moral ambiguity.

This same compulsion makes us want to hike, meditate, gaze at babies and try to make them smile, and, for some, have sex.

Von Arx showed this compulsion in her short scene of the Wilson family singing at church, with parishioners waving their hands in the air, closing their eyes tightly, praising the lord.

The problem is, purity doesn’t exist. Authenticity doesn’t exist. Some Jewish scholars even interpret Genesis as having nothing to do with innocence versus sin. The fall, for them, was a move into greater knowledge, which the Wilson family rejects on principle unless its a strictly defined form of spiritual knowledge. (“Dear Jesus! Please come down and teach these kids algebra for me!” Lisa Wilson hyperbolized to her home schooling convention, arms spread out Christlike and everything.)

What we get instead is a world divided into warriors and princesses, both virginal until marriage, both ignorant of the world outside evangelical Christianity.

Here’s Randy Wilson, on the manhood ceremony, one of many rituals that he and his wife created to reinforce purity as often as possible. Genius move, really: We sensed the incredible privilege and responsibility we have to stand courageously as mighty warriors of God calling our sons to “fight the good fight” (1 Tim. 1:18) for the sake of the cross.

The carefully, thoughtfully constructed world of ritual and imagery helps reinforce children’s sense of otherness and siege by the secular and non-Christian worlds.

Helps reinforce their sense of being at war with those that don’t believe like them.

Helps them know just what to choose, when it’s time for them to choose.

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5 thoughts on “The First Family of Purity

  1. […] legislate belief. And also, this particular belief is pretty much not practiced by anyone. I mean, there’s a movement and all. But evidence shows that the chastity and abstinence-only ed movements produce more STDs […]

  2. Anna Telling says:

    I think all Christians need to educate them selves and realize that not everyone follows what they believe in!!!

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks for your comment! I’d say that all people, though, should recognize that their beliefs are not universal and seek more education about people outside of their own communities.

  3. “With daily observance of strict religion, you don’t need to guess at right or wrong. You just need to consult scripture. Or your rabbi. Or your imam.” My major problem with the secular left, is the insight into religion that they THINK they have that the majority of them DON’T actually have. This is such a vast and flippant oversimplification of the majority of people’s faiths.
    There is arrogance on both sides, but the arrogance that comes from thinking that people who have a faith don’t have to grapple with right and wrong because it is ‘prescribed’ for them is simply laughable. Especially in light of the numerous theological and philosophical works on morality and ethics in numerous faiths.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting! You are right–I should not have claimed that strict religious observance is some kind of moral shortcut. I was wrong and disrespectful. I am sorry.

      I do believe that the rise of fundamentalist religious practices is connected to the chaos of social change and economic precarity. I do believe that a god-given path to spiritual and moral righteousness, regardless of how difficult it may be to follow, is a comfort in a chaotic world. I find meaning and comfort in my own religious practice, such as it is. That was what I meant, and I should have said it that way.

      As for arrogance and the secular left. I don’t think the left is very secular, just as I don’t think the US is very secular. At all. I do think there are some vocal public atheists who display offensive arrogance and disrespect. Maybe that’s what you mean? That guy who says that religious schools are more harmful than pedophiles?

      There’s also a tendency on the left to mix religion in with sweeping generalizations about political partisans. And to treat Islam, Judaism and Christianity differently, depending on the politics involved. And perhaps a general disrespect toward religious people for political reasons. Which a. Doesn’t help and b. Ignores the ways US culture is not at all secular, no matter the number of people that attend religious services.

      In any case, what I loved about this film was the respect it showed its subjects, who occupy a world very different from my own and from the filmmaker’s (which I can say because I was lucky to meet her.) I think such empathetic and respectful work is important in overcoming the kinda of social and political divides you describe.

      Thanks again for your comment! Be well.

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