Let’s time-travel to the year 2003. There I was, 17-year-old Janelle. I strolled up confidently to the podium of my speech and drama classroom. I had pages full of notes and my neurons were charged in complete excitement. It was the feeling I got when I was about to perform and knew my character inside and out, completely in costume, ready to win everyone over.
I was not in costume though I picked my best school-picture perfect, blue-eye matching Express blouse for an attractive delivery. I was not playing a character, though I was a strange character for a girl attending a public high school. I gazed over the audience. There was the corner of tech theater “freaks” who mostly wore huge, black Hot Topic pants with safety pins and big pockets. There were the preppy popular kids, taking over the sofa, posing as if they were in a J. Crew ad. Most of them took the class for an easy A, but a few of them became swayed by the love of drama. Then there was my crowd– a slightly geeky, slightly preppy, slightly indie eclectic group– that actually had a few different Christians. We had the overall commonality of being quirky and most of us had been in a lot of the school’s plays. I acknowledged each group– the freaks, the geeks, the preps, the punks, the drama kids (and a bit of every other group introduced in the Mean Girls cafeteria scene).
With complete ease and almost cocky composure, I proceeded to give my speech. The title? “Why We Should Not Date.”
That’s right. I literally preached to my public high school speech and drama class about why all of us should kiss dating goodbye. I of course based the entire speech around Josh Harris’ best-selling page-turner. And as far as my memory serves, I made it all about the ethos. I argued statistics. 50% of America is getting divorced. I connected. Dating is only practice for divorce. Finally, I drove it home with a wrenching gut-digger: dating only causes pain. Don’t date and avoid pain.
I expected questions at the end. I received an awkward silence. It did become a running joke with my Christian friends in the class. Though I was floored that they would not take the same stance after hearing such a definitive presentation.
Flash forward 10 years. I am 27 and still single. I would have never believed it back then. But I believe that little book was a great influencer. I do not blame Josh Harris. My actions are on me (and it’s ultimately been up to God). The book helped me form the way I viewed dating even when I started dating. When I let the book go and began dating in college, I became an awkward, shy girl whenever I liked a boy. And my life became determined by certainty. I ran away from guys who probably liked me. I only liked guys who didn’t pursue me. I was confident that the man for me to marry would meet a long, complicated list of requirements and that somehow we would have the best sex right away after the marriage. Josh Harris might as well been in cahoots with Disney princess movies that taught me that Prince Charming would sweep me away. Dating, uncertainity, ambiguity and pain were not needed. I would just be swept up.
So I avoided.
I avoided relationships. And I abhorred ambiguity, which still gives me trouble. Even though I quit the philosophy of I Kissed Dating Goodbye a long time ago, it still helped form how I’ve approached relationships. The patterns I set up at 17 actually shaped my practically non-existent adult love life. I want desperately to be certain, but that has only sabotaged my ability to be intimate with people I felt uncertain with.
And I needed certainty in how I view sex. Sex was a definite list of do’s and don’ts. And I followed the rules. I was never perfect, but seeing my lack of perfection has only compounded shattering shame. If I kissed a guy who I was not in a relationship with, I felt like a slut. I believed I was as good as ruined. I focused on how I broke the rules, rather than seeing how I wasn’t loving myself or that guy very well at the moment.
Purity culture has kept me certain. It has kept me a virgin. It has kept me in line at times when I would start to wander away. Instead of seeking forgiveness, I would completely focus on fleeing from the sin scene. But it has not help me to even begin to see celibacy the way the Lord would like me to see it.
God allows for ambiguity in our lives. We are not created to know the will of God. He wants to keep things hazy for us. He wants us to depend on Him completely. Even if ambiguity means reaching towards pain. We are created for relationships, but because of the Fall, relationships are painful. If Christians are called to be agents of change in this world, we need to accept the ambiguity and haze that relationships lead us into.
I am starting a Coursera class this summer offered by Arnold Weinstein of Brown University. It’s called the Fiction of Relationships. He’s been discussing the purpose of fiction in his introductory lectures. A novel is not a sermon. It does not in itself create good people. He says that reading fiction stirs up trouble in our lives instead. And fiction is a mirror of the very real, troublesome relationships we have. God likes to stir up trouble in my life. It’s taken me a long time to learn that being a Christian is not safe territory that protects me from harm and pain. Weinstein’s talk about fiction illumines a lot about relationships. He says “Art is trouble. It complicates things we thought we knew.”
When we see ambiguity approach, especially in dating relationships, we want to run away. We decide that we will be super practical and treat relationships like a math or science. When really it is art. And trusting God is a dance, that we are invited into however clumsy we are when we attempt a complicated move.
“Seeing the ambiguities of life is not always welcome news. But it does make for a more interesting world.”- Weinstein