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Why do Evangelicals like purity?

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by Giles Fraser

The Evangelical Alliance has just published an impressive report, taking stock of where Evangelicals find themselves now (News, 27 October). For those who find them a frustrating puzzle, as I do, it’s a very helpful summary.

What I had never appreciated is the extent to which Evangelicalism seems to resemble a purity cult, not unlike that of the Pharisees or the Essenes. To those of us who don’t get it, the purpose of Evangelical Christianity can be mistaken for a re-assertion of an understanding of holiness that looks surprisingly like the religion of Jesus’s enemies.

The idea that one of the essential characteristics of God is purity is common enough — hence the need to protect God from impurity: things such as bleeding, disease, and death. From this starting point, the world is divided up into the pure (or the holy) and the impure. It follows that policing the division between the pure and the impure comes to be seen as the main task of religion.

Walter Brüggeman has argued that the Hebrew scriptures present an extended battle between this theology of holiness and a very different theology that understands proper holiness to be centred on questions of justice. Roughly, Jesus sided with this latter position, infuriating the advocates of purity theology, the Pharisees, by touching dead bodies, menstruating women, and so on.

Moreover, the very idea of the incarnation — of God’s being born in a shed — is impossible for purity theology. The conclusion of Christmas is that, for Christians, purity theology cannot apply, because the barriers between the sacred and the profane are now collapsed. Yet some Evangelicals seem desperate to reinvent them. They call Christians to a pure life, which is interpreted as waging a war against anything sexually messy. They want to build up the barriers between the sacred and the secular — contemporary equivalents of the holy and profane.

What is so extraordinary here is that it was the first Protestants who challenged these divisions in the Roman Church. Whereas Roman Catholics thought of vocation as about setting oneself apart (hence the insistence on clerical celibacy), the Reformers spoke of a vocation lived out in ordinary life, and of the clergy getting married and thus living a secular life.

Some Evangelicals seem to have missed the genius of the Reformation: its attack on misplaced claims to power that built up in theologies of the sacred; and its celebration of the secular as properly able to reflect the glory of God.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, and lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford.

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