Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Why Virginity Matters (or, Hey! Where's my unicorn?)

I really wanted to write about real estate tonight. I wanted to write a cozy and encouraging post about shopping for houses, hardwood floors, and decisions regarding mortgages. However, some things I saw on Facebook tonight (this, this, and this, in particular) have compelled me to address a topic I've been brooding over for months: virginity.

"Virgin with Unicorn" by Französischer Tapisseur (15th Century)

For the last few years I have been trying to understand what's so wonderful about virginity. The culture at large treats virginity among adults like a joke. Meanwhile, the standard evangelical line, which tends to discuss virginity only in the context of sexual purity before marriage, doesn't do much for  those of us who are adults with no immediate prospects for marriage. Last summer I addressed this issue in one of my most-read posts, "True Love Doesn't Wait"(read it here).

Considering virginity has been a lonely reflection, mainly because it seems awkward to introduce "the delights of virginity" as a topic for discussion at dinner. And yet, I think that if we expect young men and women to remain virgins, we should have something good to say about virginity. For my part, I experience virginity as something beautiful, particularly when I see how the Bible consistently uses sexual states to represent spiritual conditions. When I sit in a room of married friends, I often feel that I possess something--in my relationship to Christ as an unmarried person--that they do not, just as they, in their marriage, know and experience something as Christians that I have not known. I don't have a word for that feeling. Nor do I know if it is a valid feeling, a Spirit-led feeling. I'm rather ashamed that I am only now, at the age of 29, even bothering to wonder about it. 

If I were approaching this question as a scholar, I would probably need to start by addressing  the historical and anthropological research on virginity, including a survey of the many ways ideals about virginity have been misused throughout history. However, I'm writing tonight as Bethany, not as Dr. Bear, and so I begin not with a scholarly literature review, but with a question I began to ask as a teenager. When I was 14 or 15, I read that according to medieval folklore, only a virgin could tame a unicorn, calming the notoriously violent creature. Madeleine L'Engle makes modern use of this legend in her novel Many Waters, and the legend has fascinated me ever since. Something about a virgin is so alluring, so powerful, that even the wildest creature submits to it. The virgin in this legend is neither defenseless nor worthless; she has more power than even the mightiest and most aggressive hunter who tries--and fails--to catch the mythic creature. 

This legend echoes through my imagination whenever I read 2 Corinthians 11, as Paul writes to the church in Corinth, "I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ" (vv. 2-3).  

Paul contrasts a "pure virgin" with Eve, and the analogy is telling: if Eve was deceived by cunning, a virgin sees through lies. If Eve was led astray, a virgin remains on the path he or she has chosen. Paul chooses the physical state of virginity to symbolize clear-eyed, undaunted devotion to Christ. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that many medieval writers saw the unicorn legend--the strange creature tamed by a virgin--as an allegory for Christ's relationship to his mother Mary. 

These are only preliminary, tentative thoughts on a vast and mysterious topic. I don't know if I will be brave enough or wise enough to write any more on this subject, but I do feel that I can draw two conclusions from tonight's reflections: 

1) Sexual purity is crucial to a healthy Christian marriage, but discussions of virginity can't stop here. Allowing virginity to become a relic of outmoded culture, rather than a witness to new life in Christ, is a tragic failure of imagination. 

2) As a virgin, I should live my life in such a way that it becomes a symbol for the life of Christ's body on earth: undeceived, committed, and focused on the Way. 

I cannot pretend that I have a complete picture of why virginity matters to a Christian, just as I doubt most married Christians completely understand the mystery of Christ and the church, which their state of life is supposed to symbolize. I hope to ponder this question with prayer and joy in the years to come, and perhaps you'll ponder with me. In the meantime, let's not forget that most American adults can say they found someone to marry them, but one of these days, a few us are going to show up at church with a unicorn. 


  1. Bethany, I know this post was inspired by something over at Rachel Held Evans' blog ... have you read _A Year of Biblical Womanhood_ yet? I just finished it, and found it both entertaining and enlightening. I think you would really enjoy it (if you even have time for extracurricular reading, that is!).

    1. _A Year of Biblical Womanhood_ has been on my to-read list for a while. I really enjoy Evans's blog; more than anything, her post today just reminded me that while idolizing virginity creates serious problems, so too does diminishing it. Thanks for reminding me about the book. I'll try to find a copy soon.

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I've been thinking about this topic a lot this week. I was asked to teach the sexuality unit for the high school sunday school class at my English church and heard a younger friend say, "I don't know what I will do if I'm 30 and not married!" Wondering how to respond and wanting so much to point to the Truth. Anyway, I really liked your blog and wanted to add one more voice to the conversation. http://gracefortheroad.com/2012/02/03/idontwait/

  3. It's hard for me, as your father, to weigh in on this without being assumed subjective, but I'm objectively telling you, Bethany, you are at the core of this matter and so many others when you point to the neglect of imagination. I've come to realize that nearly anything imaginative is presumed fictional, and that is not true!

  4. I think you should go out there and enjoy your singelhood as a free woman and have some sex just because it is a part of life.