Duct Tape Heart: Reflections on Christian Purity Culture

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I don’t remember the exact date but I was 11 or 12. Call it twelve-ish. Joshua Harris had recently kissed dating goodbye and purity rings were the accessory for the hip, young evangelical set to wear. My youth pastor at the time was especially concerned that we, his flock, should not touch one another’s naughty bits. He was in the middle of a sermon series highlighting the evils of premarital sexual relations. Maybe someone had gotten pregnant or school was about to start. 

The series culminated in the making of promises and the wearing of cheap, ugly rings that turned your finger green. In truth, I don’t remember much about that particular sermon series. In the nearly twenty years (call it twenty-ish) that have followed I’ve heard plenty like it and they all go the same way. But I remember one particular sermon from that series.

This sermon started off with a fun activity: ripping the hair of boys’ legs with duct tape. My youth pastor picked 5 boys. He took a strip of tape, stuck it to the first boy’s leg, and ripped it away. Anyone could see that it was painful. Then my youth pastor took the same piece of tape and stuck it to the next boy’s leg. This time it was not so bad. By the time he got to the fifth boy the tape barely stuck.

“Your heart,” my youth pastor told us, “is like this duct tape.”

He told us that, like the duct tape, our hearts would stick really well the first time but the more we dated and broke up the less it sticky it would become until finally we wouldn’t be able to stay with anyone. We would, I assumed, be doomed to wander the earth alone for the rest of our days, unloved and unwashed. (I was a dramatic kid.) That was the night I learned that love is a limited resource.

I understand that it sounds really stupid now. Of course love is not a limited resource. Years of therapy and a very expensive theological education have taught me that hearts are nothing like duct tape and love doesn’t shrink, it expands; one of our few truly unlimited resources.

God, after all, is love. I know all that, and yet, in my dark times and in my doubts I still hear echoes of that sermon these twenty-ish years later because, five years ago, instead of marrying my then-fiancé I ripped our duct tape hearts apart.

Did I damn us both to a lifetime of wandering the dating wastelands and *gasp* singleness? I hope not. I did incredible, immeasurable damage but I hope I did not damn us both. My youth pastor stuck that same piece of tape to the hairy legs of five boys. I can only hope we have four more chances.

Of course, our hearts will never stick as well as they might have—not now. And what if I squander the next four chances as well? What will become of me when I am a five-time failure at love? Years of therapy and a very expensive theological education and I still find myself wondering, what if my youth pastor was right about my duct tape heart?