A few years ago I wrote an essay for The Lookout (“Right vs. Cool”) in which I talked about the importance of imagination in moral motivation. I said we are far more motivated to be and do good by our imaginative sense of what’s “cool” (honorable, heroic) than our beliefs about right and wrong. If we think something is right we will obey out of duty, fear or guilt. But if we see something as “cool” we will copy it in our own lives with passion and enthusiasm. The absence of any motivating image or hero, makes some moral truths hard to follow. Nowhere is this truer in our culture than with sexual morality. I recently saw a movie, however, that presented an image of hope.
No More Virgin Heroes
Cultures throughout history have praised the chastity of women. With men it’s been less so, but virginity and celibacy outside of marriage have been the Christian ideal for centuries. In the image of the medieval knight, even male virginity was celebrated. In the various tales surrounding King Arhur, for example, only a few knights were ever able to find the Holy Grail. Lancelot, was never able to find it because he was sexually impure. He was even defeated in open battle by one knight who did find the grail: Galahad was the purest and most holy of all the knights, and he was celibate. In all the oldest tales of medieval knights, a man’s virginity—his ability to control himself sexually—was the sign of his manhood, prowess, and strength.
We couldn’t be further from this image today. Every picture of virgin men presented in our culture is one of weakness, desperation, and a lack of manhood. Today manliness means being sexually experienced and having a knack for conquering even reluctant women. I see it with young men on a Christian University campus: those who are virgins feel embarrassed about it; those who are not feel guilty. The latter should feel guilty. The former should not be embarrassed at all! But all they’ve ever seen of sexuality is its association with manliness, and all they’ve ever seen of sexual purity is weakness. The church continues to stand for sexual purity. But it has lost the ability to paint a picture of the power, wonder, and glory of celibacy, especially for men.
A Little Help from Hollywood
In talking about the issue of male virginity with my college students, I have tried to paint a picture—in classes, Sunday schools, or sermons. I ask if the guys in the audience are in love. Then I ask if they’d die for the woman they love. Would they protect her, keep others from harming her, stop the sexual advances of other men, even take a bullet to save her life? I tell them that, if the answer is yes, then they need to start with themselves: they need to decide that no man will violate their beloved’s body, not even themselves. To protect a woman’s sexual purity from all attacks, including those spurred on by their own desires, is the most heroic act of love men can show women today. A few weeks ago I saw an image of heroism like this in the movie Twilight.
The Twilight series of books has been called the next Harry Potter in fantasy literature. It’s immensely popular, especially with young women. I think I know one reason why. I haven’t read the books (so I can’t recommend them), but I have seen the first film. In the movie, a teenage girl, Bella, moves to a new town, starts high school, and quickly becomes attracted to a teenage boy—or so he seems. Edward initially appears repulsed by Bella—as if he wants to gag simply when he looks at her. But the opposite is true. Edward is, in fact, a very old vampire, part of a family of vampires who have purposely chosen to live among people and drink only animal blood. To Edward, Bella looks and smells utterly delicious—literally. He hungers for her both romantically and physically at the same time.
Several times in the movie, Edward saves Bella from harm, but his greatest act of heroism is to save her from himself. One night Bella wakes to find Edward watching over her. Hearts aflutter and bodies on fire, they kiss. The kissing becomes more passionate, and Bella encourages Edward to enter her bed. But with great effort he stops them both, saying he can’t lose control. If he were to have sex with her, his desire to feed on her would become all consuming, and he would kill her. He loves her too much to give in to his desires. Heroically, Edward rescues Bella from himself.
How like the real spiritual life of sexuality is this scene? Every young man who gives in to his sinful desires to take his girlfriend’s body for his own pleasure outside of marriage is giving in to his dark, monstrous self and eating a little bit of her soul away—her eternal soul, the most precious thing she has. Conversely, any man who protects a woman, body and soul, even from himself, is saving her from physical pain, guilt, depression, insecurity, and maybe even from hell! It takes courage for a young man to be celibate. It takes a hero.
(Originally published in The Lookout August, 2009)