Elisabeth Elliot is an exalted figure amongst evangelicals. They regard her with similar reverence which with Catholics regard the Virgin Mary. 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” about dating.
Passion and Purity decries impatience, praises “biblical” gender roles, and displays 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 was “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, then vow to stay pure if it meant someday a man would write them 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 their humanity and spirituality could co-mingle to God’s satisfaction. And so taking 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 became the new 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.