Imagine American evangelical abstinence culture in the 1990s and early 2000s. “Courtship” was a big word back then. Dating was for suckers. It was common knowledge that sex before marriage was a sin. It was believed that the only way to have truly fulfilling sex was to enter marriage as a virgin. Tied up as it was with national issues like abortion and moral issues like divorce, an uneasy alliance between evangelical Protestants and conservative Roman Catholics meant that abstinence-only curricula were pushed at local school-board meetings as a solution to spikes in unplanned pregnancy. The “true” Christians signed True Love Waits pledge cards and read I Kissed Dating Goodbye (1997) by Joshua Harris at least once in their early teenage years. They were the bulwark against the culture in the war for America’s soul against all the Communists and Liberals that threatened to possess and overthrow it.
I know because I was one of them.
For that reason, I think, something inside me groaned when I picked up Dawn Eden’s The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On. The cover of my copy sports a red badge which reads “Catholic Edition.” All the “t”s are little crosses. It slapped me as yet another installment in the long, theologically vacuous, pastorally inept, tired series of Christian sex books I had been expected to read in high school.
And then I started reading it. Let’s just say that I think it has a lot more to say to an Anglican audience than I thought.
Unlike my expectation, Eden is not the protagonist of an evangelical Protestant morality tale. She begins the story as a secular Jew and a single, professional woman working for a New York newspaper. She converted to evangelicalism first, yes, but only found her own fulfillment in the fullness of the Roman Catholic Church. The first edition of the book, now ten years old, was written to a general audience. This book embraces the John Paul II’s theology of the body in ways that are stunning, accessible, and illuminating. At the writing of the first edition, Eden still hoped for sacramental marriage. By the time the second edition was published, she was completing a pontifical doctorate in theology and had made a personal consecration of her celibacy to the Sacred Heart of Jesus through the Immaculate Heart of Mary (xiv).
This is not I Kissed Dating Goodbye. It’s more like I Kissed Jesus Hello.
Eden writes mostly about her own experience, the book taking the form of a thematic memoir. Each chapter has a point, but she delivers it with her own story. In this way, she is the consummate pastoral theologian. She pays attention to her own experience in detail and then engages theologically with it. Her move to evangelical Christianity first, and to Roman Catholicism second, happened because she began to see that Christian faith illumined her own experience in ways she could not have expected. She found in the Church the “aha” that described, if not made sense of, her own experiences of sexual abuse, longing for intimacy, rushed sex, and depression.
When Eden engages with Catholic theology and practice, she does so with tact and precision. She describes it like she describes her life. It feels like a fact to her. She’s not arguing it. It just is. “This is my experience. This is what best describes my experience,” she seems to say. The book is charming in its simplicity, scope, and faith.
However, the book is uneven. The rhetoric feels forced at points. Turns of phrase at the ends of chapters land less than they should. As a reader, I found myself wanting more from chapters with fantastic titles and good leads, but that petered out with no delivery. As an Episcopalian, I found myself saying, “Yes, but…” quite a lot, grappling with the proper appropriation of Roman Catholic theology into more Protestant theological contexts.
Across the parapets of partisan conflict, I Kissed Dating Goodbye and The Thrill of the Chaste appear to be siblings that impose the same, stale cultural mores on minority experience. However, looked at differently, one is about a fear of sexuality, a negative, while the other is about holiness, a positive. As Eden says, “When it comes to vocation, no one, and I mean no one, is called to celibacy …. It belongs rather to the fulfillment of the primary call ….” (120-21). No one is ever called to a negative, she says. We might say that everyone is called to participate positively in God’s mission, and that we might need to leave some things aside to give it our best.
The relationship of terms like holiness, chastity, abstinence, sex, and love are still up for debate in the Episcopal Church. Even if we ultimately disagree with Eden about how she tells her story, it would be foolish to disregard her experiences, which remind us of three things that any of us should remember going forward.
First, she reminds us that some traditional teachings about chastity may still be compelling precisely because they are pastoral. For many, they are liberating, not oppressive. For many, they still narrate human experience and being to heal the experience of abuse, grief, pain, and loss. How do we continue to narrate that liberating experience for all Christians?
Second, she reminds us that chastity isn’t about denial. It’s about love, defining chastity as “the virtue that enables us to love fully and completely in every relationship, in the manner that is appropriate to the relationship” (117). How can we reclaim the theologies of friendship and fraternity that have fallen by the wayside in debates that equate sexual intercourse with emotional intimacy?
Third, she reminds us that any theology of sexuality must be positively related to mission. Chastity isn’t about being good. It’s certainly not about being better than other people or denying the experience of our others. Holiness is about travelling lightly for the sake of the Christian’s missionary calling to participate in God’s mission for the healing and reconciliation of the world. Can we still find a frame in which all human sexuality is ordered to God’s redemptive purposes?
In other words, she reminds us that chastity is not thrilling because it is about sex or the denial of it. This book, though imperfect in many ways, reminds us that chastity thrills because it is about love, and not just romantic or erotic love, but the true love that embraces us all.