Thursday, November 18, 2010

#202 Elisabeth Elliot

Elisabeth Elliot is an exalted figure amongst evangelicals. They regard her with similar reverence that NASCAR fans regard Ricky Bobby. She is most widely known as the widow of Jim Elliot, the missionary who gave what he could not keep to gain what he could not lose. Her book Passion and Purity recounts their chastely tormented five-year courtship and became the de facto dating manual for Christian culture in the '80s and '90s. Subtitled "Learning To Bring Your Love Life Under Christ's Control," it is responsible for countless Christian breakups and no-kissing vows after its readers became "convicted" regarding dating.

Passion and Purity decries impatience, praises "biblical" gender roles, and shows Jim's love letters to Elisabeth which should be in a collection of their own, so raw and throaty is Jim's eloquent agony for Elisabeth, or at least for his idea of Elisabeth. Jim tells her he is waiting on God for the word to marry her, and she shares her own beautiful diary entries of the time which say she is "clogged with wishes" and "oozing ache." The table of contents is scandalous to the youth group mentality but it was somehow given a pass by her Christian editor, the chapters titled things like "Four Bare Legs In A Bed" and "Little Deaths" (which seems an unwitting and ironic allusion to le petit mort). Separated by school and the mission field, Jim wrote to her "I have you now unravished" and "Thunder of great Heaven! What gaping bliss that would be tonight!" which made yet-unravished teenage girls swoon and then vow to stay pure if it meant a man would someday write us letters like that.

An exigent theme of the book is Elisabeth's assertion that kissing is superfluous and kind of stupid, and that she "deplore(d)" seeing couples parking (this was in the 1950s). The youth group demographic ate this up, and it may have single-handedly ignited the "Waiting until the altar to kiss" phenomenon that we've been discussing with morbid fascination.

Elisabeth has said many times that the theme of the book is to bring all you do "under Christ's control." But Christian culture is looking for steps to follow in all scenarios, so frightened they are of their own humanity that they cannot see how it could ever earn God's approval. And so the taking of steps is in order. Elisabeth's example is simple and clear-cut and Christian culture took after it in earnest. They love agreeable bits of information served up on small plates.

Passion and Purity was also largely responsible for Christian culture's next de facto relationship manual I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which was written by a guy this time (a preacher's kid! represent) and is a most agreeable blueprint that explicitly defines "defective dating" and decries the worldly notion that love and romance are to be enjoyed "solely for recreation." This book joined Passion and Purity as The Other Manual for evangelical dating and even reintroduced the courtship model as allegedly biblical and a deterrent to heartbreak. (The increasingly popular courtship model as Christian culture's answer to dating will be discussed in a future post, and with great enthusiasm, I might add.)


Cassie said...

Can you pleeeassse write about the Ludy's? I think their books have traumatized enough young Christians as well!

HeatherSedai said...

Yikes! That brings me back. As a junior in high school who had never been on a date, I joined the trend to read this book so that I could then have the gift of a "purity ring". It's kind of creepy when you think about it now--your dad was supposed to give it to you to wear on your left ring finger and it symbolized the promise to stay sexually pure for your future husband.

Anonymous said...

My preacher gave me this book for christmas one year. I was pretty excited about it then!

Unknown said...

I would love to read the sequel to this post.

stephy said...

Ah yes! Maybe I should write it.

carosene said...

I would love to see your blog about "I Kissed Dating Good-bye," if you're still thinking about blogging on it. :)

Brad Polley said...

Because when you read the gospels, the first thing that jumps out to you was Jesus' need and desire to control people.

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