As you know, I had read all of Elliot’s books about her missionary work and many of her other writings from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s; and she and I had kept up an occasional personal correspondence for ten years. But I had not read this particular book, nor even knew about it, until you and I started writing to each other.
I remember your telling me about how much the book had meant to you during your teenage years when conservative Christian leaders were urging young people to embrace its teachings “as though it were right up there next to the Bible.” And judging from many of the comments on the Web right now (for example, on sites selling books and soliciting readers’ reviews), Passion and Purity is still similarly esteemed by many. So it was interesting to hear how different your feelings were upon rereading the book as an adult.
So much to talk about
There is so much we could talk about now that I have read the book, too; but three main topics jumped out especially:
1. Human sexuality in relation to our Christian faith
2. The paradigm that informs Elliot’s worldview and explains much of her opposition to gender equality
3. “Slippery slope” arguments and fears
Then and Now
Also, because you and I, Kimberly, as two women born almost a half century apart, are engaging in an intergenerational dialogue, I thought I might be able to provide some generational perspective on Elliot. She is essentially part of my generation, having been born just nine years before I was, and we had similar backgrounds in our understanding of the Christian life. Yet, as you know, she and I have gone in very different directions on gender equality and other issues. It might help to have some background.
Sexuality and God
I’m guessing that one reason Passion and Purity was so meaningful to you as a teenager was its message that our Creator is a personal God who cares about every part of us, including our sexuality, and that we can prayerfully seek God’s guidance in all aspects of our lives. I believe that, too. This image of God is not a punitive one, but rather a view of God as tender, wise, and caring—a God who wants the best for us.
When you read the book this time, however, parts of it struck you differently because I think you ran into some of the problems that occur when an author uses her or his own life story as a vehicle for moral advice and urges others to follow the same model. Reading it with new eyes made you aware of some attitudes and actions you definitely didn’t like.
For me, reading the book was like a journey back in time—a time before TV discussions about casual hook-ups or movies showing couples expecting to hop into bed together almost immediately upon meeting—sometimes before they knew each other’s names. A time before communication occurred through texting, the Internet, short “tweets,” and social networking. A time when many couples who, while preparing for mission work and other ministries, found their friendships deepening into love just when they would be facing long separations and would be able to communicate only through lengthy letters, as was true of Jim and Elisabeth.
Letters were a way to express both feelings for the loved one and one’s own personal faith journey. They helped many couples to get to know each other on a deep level, in spite of frequently long intervals between letters. Often mail had to be transported over great distances, such as when Elisabeth and Jim were separated by the Andes mountains and carriers traveled on foot or on horseback. (Unfortunately, apart from these natural physical barriers, as you pointed out, it was Jim who controlled the courtship and was the major decision-maker about whether, when, and how often the couple corresponded or got together, regardless of how his “Bett” felt about it—a pattern she accepted as part of the paradigm she espouses. More about that later.)
Memories of another era
In reading the story, I couldn’t help but reminisce, however. I was a student at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago about seven years after Jim and Betty had met at Wheaton College (Illinois), so there was an overlap in both our time periods and the Christian fundamentalist culture we moved in.
I, like many others who were studying in conservative Christian schools at the time, was memorizing the same hymns, reading many of the same devotional readings as Elisabeth quoted, and applying many of the same Bible verses to my life. And I have a box of similar letters exchanged between my future husband and me, illustrating how romance and spiritual life were personally intertwined and discussed in depth. So, as you can probably see, much of the book was very familiar to me.
Like Elisabeth Elliot, I remember hearing a guest lecture on sexuality by the Rev. Stephen Olford, a prominent preacher and orator at the time. I remember his telling Moody students that we should forget about embarking on any kind of ministry unless we had a complete answer before God about our sex lives. (In view of the sex scandals among all too many Christian leaders in our own time, that would seem to be sound advice!)
What evangelical young adults were reading
There weren’t a lot of conservative Christian books on the topic available during that time, but just as you read Passion and Purity as a young person in the 1990s, Kimberly, many young persons of the late 1940s and 1950s tended to look for guidance in two slim books, both coincidentally published in 1948:Heirs Together: A Christian Approach to the Privileges and Responsibilities of Sex, published by the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, and The Sanctity of Sex, published by Good News Publishers.
(The assumption in most materials published at that time was that everyone was heterosexual. Homosexuality was seldom discussed and not at all understood; and if it ever was mentioned, it was called a terrible sin that faithful Christians would avoid. But attitudes in the secular society at that time were no better.)
For real-life examples of a Christ-centered courtship, we drew inspiration from books such as The Triumph of John and Betty Stam, the story of a young couple who had met at Moody Bible Institute, served together as missionaries in China, and were killed by the Chinese Communists in 1934.
“Higher life” teachings as they were applied to romantic relationships
The particular “brand” of evangelicalism that both I and the Elliots experienced was rooted in the British Keswick holiness movement taught at the Keswick convention in England’s Lake District. The emphasis was on what was known as the “higher life” or “deeper spiritual living.”
Thinking back on this and analyzing what we learned and absorbed through this influence, I see that when it was applied to issues of love, romance, and sexuality, the Keswick model primarily emphasized these principles:
- concern about finding God’s will in the choices of both Christian service and the right life partner,
- an expectation that there would be spiritual struggles while making these decisions,
- caution lest we fall into idolatry by exalting the loved one to a higher place than God in our lives,
- the practice of self-discipline and deferred gratification in the physical expression of love.
You can see all of these standards coming through in Passion and Purity as Elisabeth Elliot recounts her and Jim’s courtship.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that their experience was really not that unusual in this particular evangelical subculture. Many of us followed similar guidelines in which couples, moving toward marriage, first kissed each other at the moment they became engaged. (I don’t recall, however, ever hearing any teaching quite as extreme as is promoted in the 1998 Dave Christiano Christian film,“Pamela’s Prayer,” where a young girl is constantly admonished by her father to steer clear of even so much as a kiss until the minister at the wedding ceremony pronounces, “You may now kiss the bride.”)
The 1948 book mentioned earlier, The Sanctity of Sex, for example, was a bit more realistic in suggesting that the engagement period should be not only a time of deepening friendship and growing knowledge of each other, but also “the time to discuss in a prudent and godly manner, matters of sex; so that the final experience of marriage brings no shock, but is the physical consummation of the spiritual unity already established. . . .A measure of caressing and petting is legitimate, but beware of one touch leading to another and of any handling or stimulating of the erogenic zones. . . .Let each betrothed pair enjoy the sacred liberty of courtship in its pure and fullest measure, but keep watch also for the moment when the least suspicion of embarrassment arises” (p. 59). Exactly where the lines would be drawn would be up to the couple, not by a formula or prescribed set of rules.
As you can see, this was a very different world from the social and sexual culture of today.
You said you were troubled by the controlling attitude Jim Elliot displayed in Passion and Purity, and you wondered how Elisabeth could acquiesce so readily to his delays, demands, and criticisms in spite of feeling hurt. Some of that deference comes from the way certain Scripture passages were interpreted to teach male headship and female subordination. But much of it comes from her own embellishment of such teachings, laying the groundwork for the incorporation of specific extra-biblical sources she appears to have added over the years.
“Mutual submission (God knew when He set up His hierarchy) will not work,” Elisabeth declared in her scathing critique of the first Evangelical Women’s Caucus conference in Washington, DC in 1975. She had attended and covered the gathering as a correspondent for The Cambridge Fish, a quarterly newspaper of conservative Christian commentary then published in Massachusetts by a group called the Cambridge Fish Fellowship. They took their title from the fish symbol used by early Christians as a secret code to identify themselves as followers of Jesus. In her article about the conference, she wrote:
For the tremendous hierarchical vision of blessedness—often compared to a Dance in which initiation and response are the movements—the feminist substitutes a vision of blessedness which holds all human beings on a level plan—a faceless, colorless, sexless wasteland where rule and submission are regarded as a curse, where fulfillment depends on the denial of that “graduated splendor” which we see in all creation, of which the differentiation of male and female is earth’s most splendid. (From“Feminism or Femininity,”Cambridge Fish, Winter, 1975-1976, p.6 ).
Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, a literature professor and noted Milton scholar and author, responded in the next issue. She pointed out that Elisabeth Elliot’s views in that article were “based far more on Medieval and Renaissance Neoplatonism than on the Bible. And particularly in her assertion that God knew mutual submission would not work, she has placed herself in overt contradiction to the entire emphasis of the New Testament where human relationships are concerned” (Cambridge Fish, Spring/Summer, 1976, p. 3).
Dr. Mollenkott was referring to a paradigm embraced by Elliot, a paradigm rooted in ideas of Plato and Aristotle, which by the medieval and Renaissance periods had developed into a vision of the social order as a mirror reflecting the supposed hierarchical order of the universe.
Understanding that paradigm can help us understand the whole system on which Elliot bases her ideas of male-female relationships and why she is so adamantly opposed to feminism. Take away the paradigm and everything falls apart.
The paradigm, sometimes called the “scale of nature,” or “the Great Chain of Being” (see Arthur Lovejoy’s classic book by that title), offered a picture of the cosmos as a great chain stretched between heaven and earth, with graduated links from Perfection (in religious terms, God) down through the lowest possible form above nothingness.
The idea was popular into the 18th century and was used to justify an unequal social order by appealing to the claim that “the universe is a system whose very essence consists in subordination,” as Soame Jenyns wrote in 1757.
“According to this conception,” explained C.S. Lewis in his Preface to Paradise Lost, “. . . . Everything except God has some natural superior; everything except unformed matter has some natural inferior.”
This “chain” metaphor was used in preserving economic and social inequality, including justifying slavery and the concept of racial inferiority. Divine Providence was said to have designed a place for every created entity, and it would be violation of that divine order to leave one’s designated place out of a desire to enjoy equality with those assigned a higher place on the scale. (For more about this, see my essay, “The Great Chain of Being and the Chain of Command,” in Kalven and Buckley’s 1984 book,Women’s Spirit Bonding.)
The Re-emergence of the “Chain of Being” Idea
What does all this have to do with Elisabeth Elliot? Because we need to recognize the infusion of the chain-of-being philosophy into her writings, even when she is claiming to be presenting “what the Bible says.”
You can see this in her “graduated splendor” comment in the Cambridge Fish article quoted above. You can see it in Passion and Purity where she claims, “We all crave order, design, harmony. The way we live and behave ought to have some congruence with the fundamental order of the universe.” To make her point, she adds, “Is it significant at all, we may ask, that it has, until very recently, seemed incongruous for women to lead and men to follow?” In her mind, female leadership is a violation of the hierarchical pattern of the cosmos.
We see the influence of her philosophical model when she says everything in life stands for or represents something else, serving as a kind of mirror reflecting a divine order. We see the paradigm’s influence again when she says men were created to initiate and lead, and women were created to respond and follow—and that this principle means that a woman should not even ask a male friend out for coffee. The man must always be the initiator. She even claims that such an initiation-response distinction is built into the design of the male and female reproductive organs.
She is teaching a particular system of thought as though it is a biblical mandate.
In Sunday school curriculum that she wrote in 1975, she was explicit. She spoke of God’s establishment of “a hierarchy of beings under God” from the highest order of angels through “paramecia and microbes and who knows what yet undiscovered beings? Every creature is assigned its proper position on the scale.”
I referred to this material in my chapter in Women’s Spirit Bonding, where I wrote:
She emphasizes that “every creature—whether the horned ox or the scaled fish, the man or woman, the clam or the archangel—glorifies God by being what it is, by living up to God’s original idea when he made it.” Elliot says that she understands that “women, by creation, have been given a place within the human level which is ancillary to that of men,. . .an inferior place within the human locus.” She hastens to point out that by “inferior” she is referring to position and not worth. (Excerpt from Letha Dawson Scanzoni, “The Great Chain of Being and the Chain of Command,” in Women’s Spirit Bonding, edited by Janet Kalven and Mary Buckley, Pilgrim Press, 1984, p.45, quoting Elisabeth Elliot Leitch, I Am Somebody, a curriculum booklet for the Sunday school Lifestyle Course series published by David C. Cook Publishing Company, 1975. [For a short time, she added her second husband’s surname, Leitch, though later dropped it to return to her own better-known name.])
A revival of the “chain of being” type of thinking seems to occur in times of social change—when the status quo is questioned and hierarchical arrangements are challenged by efforts to implement justice and equality. Some variation of it may emerge in different forms. I’m sure you can think of ways this philosophical outlook figures into aspects of the economic, religious, and political situation today.
Slippery slope anxieties
Those who want a static view of social order, with a designated place for everything and everything in its place and who operate on the assumption that all the answers are already in, do not encourage questioning.
So in an attempt to prevent change, they will often use another metaphor, “the slippery slope.” Dare to question the foreordained-place-for-everything idea, abandon this or any other paradigm or a particular biblical interpretation, suggest a new way to think about something, and you will slide down a slippery slope leading to __________. The blank may be filled in with words assumed to incite the most alarm among particular groups in different times and places. It’s a scare tactic—a method of control.
In a future discussion, I hope you and I can talk more about how the slippery slope argument operates — especially among many conservative evangelical Christians, as some of our readers noted with their excellent comments after your most recent post, Kim. I had hoped to talk about that right now, but space will not permit all that I would like to say.
But I do want to say this: You mentioned in that post that you were especially appalled at Elliot’s claim that feminism can lead to homosexuality, incest, and bestiality, and in essence eventually leads to the fall of the universe. As you pointed out, such statements bear false witness against both feminists and lesbian and gay persons. It is sad to see this tactic used again and again to warn people away from feminism while also at the same time vilifying LGBT people. Such vilification is all the more disturbing in view of the recent reports of so many tragic suicides by gay young people. I hope you’ve had a chance to watch the video of the gay city councilman in Fort Worth who tearfully told his own story because he wanted to offer hope and help to young people who are bullied and harassed because of their sexual orientation.
On a related note, I noticed in another book by Elisabeth Elliot that you told me about (The Mark of a Man: Following Christ’s Example of Masculinity, 1981) that she takes issue with Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? A Positive Christian Response, the book I coauthored with Virginia Mollenkott, which is based on the Scriptural admonition to love our neighbor as ourselves. Elliot says that she considers our positive acceptance of the committed love relationships of same-sex couples to be a “rearrangement of society,” which is “not an improvement, but a profound disorientation of God, man, and the world, leading finally to disintegration and chaos” (Mark of a Man, p. 31). She predicts, probably tongue in cheek, that books will eventually be written with titles like, “Is the pederast my neighbor?”(Mark of a Man, p. 41). Slippery slope panic could not be more clear.
Well, I’d better sign off. This is much longer than intended, especially since in your last post you told our readers that we had agreed to start writing shorter posts and making sure something new was up on this blog monthly. Well, at least, by getting this posted in October, I fulfilled the monthly part, if not the “shorter” part of our agreement! Did you see the recent Slate article about the blurring of distinctions between blog posts and articles? I guess this one could be categorized as an article. You can tell I’m from the generation of long letters!
Hope your studies at Yale Divinity are continuing to go well.
Your longwinded but loving friend,