Purity culture, like the bluntest instruments of American Christianity, arrives with heavy-handed metaphors and an accent of fear. In her poetry, Jen Stewart Fueston puts away both. Instead, she disassembles purity culture to its parts of speech, then puts it back together again, displaying its true burden and true lack.
Early in her new collection Madonna, Complex, Fueston pens the poem “Purity Culture.” It’s an adult’s clear-eyed rejection of the rhetoric that ruined young adults who were trying to keep themselves from ruin. Then throughout her book Fueston continues to reckon with the flesh she was taught to fear, a God who shows up in paradoxes, and the ineffable beauty of a world that fills us up and lets us down. The book’s final section is a consuming fire, as Fueston exposes the lie that we can separate our political and devotional selves. She writes of a women’s march like a catechism, rehearses the liturgy of protest and makes an icon of Christine Blasey Ford—even as she acknowledges that “no ordinary woman ever tried to be a saint.”
“Because love is not a fullness, it’s an / ache. Because one God I’ve known has loved me most / when He took everything away,” she writes in “To a Friend, Lonely in the Fall.”
This line signifies the spirit of Fueston’s work, which rejects needlessly confining categories to reach a God who wants to be found.
Through email correspondence, Fueston discussed her lyrical treatment of purity culture, mining each stage of her faith for what still matters, and how poetry does things preaching just can’t.
This article was curated by the Purity issue’s guest editor, Rachel Joy Welcher.
Danielsen: I don’t remember ever seeing purity culture receive such lyrical treatment. I realize poetry is your native tongue—but what gave you the confidence to thread these themes through “Purity Culture,” the poem, at this particular moment? In what ways does purity culture influence other poems, even if not as explicitly?
Fueston: When I wrote this particular poem, I had just finished several months of working on a long personal essay about my young adulthood experiences within nineties American evangelicalism (among other things). I envisioned that essay as a starting point of a longer memoir, which never materialized, about my life as a missionary in my twenties. At the same time, I also began exploring and deconstructing those experiences more obliquely through poetry. The poem “Purity Culture,” was an attempt at saying things I wanted to say in my essay, but more succinctly.
Other poems that made their way into my book (“Bodies of Water,” “Ascension,” “Bosporus Strait,” “Felix Culpa”) describe experiences I have written about in nonfiction, but which I tried to distill into narrative poems.
Danielsen: As I read “Purity Culture,” several lines elicited knowing nods. Several flat-out devastated me. I want to ask about a few. You start by restating a message you absorbed, that female purity could be wasted. You write “our bodies / the soft petals of white / flowers picked off / one by one, or soiled / like sheets.”
I imagine these images come directly from messages you heard. Why do you think these images hold such power? By repurposing them in a poem, do you feel as though you reclaim some of that power or broker any sort of reconciliation between your present self and the younger version of you that first took them to heart?
Fueston: When I think about the way that sex was discussed in school and youth groups growing up, it was almost always euphemistically, metaphorically. The vernacular of the youth group talk relies on short, memorable illustrations, so images like these—a wrapped gift, a stick of unchewed gum—are easy to demonstrate to teenagers, but the full implications of the metaphor often aren’t spun out. It’s the young poets in the crowd who remember and write about them decades later!
I do think this poem is my speaking back, not to individuals or institutions who did not intend harm in speaking them, but to the metaphors themselves, spooling out their inadequacies and hidden implications. I think that understanding a metaphor’s full power to shape thought and behavior is a step toward disarming it.
Incidentally, I think it’s really important for me to say how much the fact that these images rely on “whiteness” to convey purity is highly significant. My experience with purity culture is as a white woman, and I know that women of other races do not receive the same messages I did—in fact, they often receive the opposite message, that they’re impure, lustful, lascivious, simply by their skin color. I understand much better now than I did as a sheltered teenager how white women’s sexual purity has historically been the locus of a lot of racist control and patriarchal power.
Danielsen: The way you handle the notion of innocence is staggering—and feels so necessary. You write that innocence is “tricky to attain. / It only is / until it isn’t, a prize made / out of nothingness. / And purity is only ever lost.” How has your conception of innocence changed over time, and how has your faith affected that evolution?
Fueston: Purity in this conception is essentially passive. It’s something you possess and your only possible action is to lose it. It’s like Paradise Lost. A fall from sexual purity is metonymically linked to the fall. Something I thought a lot about growing up (through Christian high school, youth group and four years of Christian liberal arts college) is how easy it was to equate my spiritual health with my sexual purity. Those two things were nearly synonymous. Abstinence could be read as a stand-in for every kind of faithful obedience.
I don’t think I even need to spell out how false and dangerous such a construct can be for a young faith. I remember points in my young adulthood where I equated failing at abstinence to losing my faith. I wish I were exaggerating! What a grace-less conception of the gospel. As I’ve lived and grown, I’m ever more convinced that faith in Christ is not meant to be primarily about trying to live a pure and holy life, but about where we turn when we fail to.
Danielsen: How might art—specifically a poem like this—lead the way in reshaping our ideas about purity culture in a way works of history or theology just can’t?
Fueston: As I was putting together my book, I had a couple interchanges with my editor about a few of these poems that “appear to misrepresent what our attitudes as Christians should be.” I remember thinking to myself, I’m writing a poem, not a devotional. A poem, at least a poem worth reading (or art worth discussing), isn’t constructed to carry a message, rather it’s a vessel for experience. It’s not supposed to simply distill doctrine and behavioral advice.
Hopefully, a decently written poem will help—through language, detail, specificity—bring you into those moments of doubt, disobedience, failure, surprise, delight, and joy that are the essence of life as a human. Poems connect us to one another through this empathic response.
If you think of the poetry of the Bible we know so well, the Psalms, David and the other psalmists say some really audacious things to God, about their enemies, about despair. But you don’t lift a single verse from the Psalms and build a theological system on it anymore than you would lift a line from a poem and conclude that’s the poet’s final say on the matter. It’s an emotional experience at a moment in time, and hopefully we can live into it in such a way that we emerge more open-hearted.
Danielsen: Heading back to the beginning of the book, the first line of the first poem (“Dualism for Beginners”) is worth the price of purchase, and could be turned over in someone’s mind endlessly: “We don’t choose what we believe in.” Why did that feel like the best opening statement for the book? Do you see threads of that line in what follows?
Fueston: The collection is structured as a spiritual memoir, each of the book’s four sections charting my own life through phases of belief and struggle. I wanted to start with the statement that as children (certainly for myself as a pastor’s kid), we are born into fully encompassing belief systems, whether our families are religious or not. Even if we’re part of a faith community that stresses individual choice and action, a lot of thinking and believing has already been done for us before we even got here. That’s where the line comes from. It’s a plain fact of life, so it’s a good place to start a book as well.
Danielsen: Perhaps my favorite poem in the collection is “On Being Asked if I Share the Gospel with My Students.” Can you share a little of the inspiration behind it? How might this work outline, as I mentioned above, the difference between preaching and poetry, more explicit statements of faith and the language art relies on?
Fueston: This poem got its start as a prompt from a friend. He suggested I use the phrase “on being asked” as a springboard somewhere (hooray for prompts and friends who can give you a push). I immediately thought back to a pointed question I was once asked after a missionary talk I gave at my home church when I was raising support money. I was teaching university-level writing and literature courses at a Christian liberal arts college in Eastern Europe at the time, so my “ministry” was not the kind that is easily recognizable as such—not Bible translation, discipling, social work, or healthcare.
After my talk, I was asked, “Do you share the gospel with your students?” The question gnawed at me (obviously enough that I remember it years later) because I knew I could not explain at that moment that, by that point, my understanding of what the gospel was so much wider than simply sharing the Four Spiritual Laws, or walking up to strangers and asking them if they died tonight, did they know for sure they were going to heaven. In short, it was a moment when I understood my faith had outgrown the categories of my upbringing, and I no longer really shared the vocabulary of missionary work that most of that community relied upon.
Your second question about how this might illustrate the difference between poetry and preaching is a good one. The same person who would want to reduce the gospel to a formula would probably also want a poem to function didactically. Neither the gospel nor poetry can be pinned down in any other way than experientially. I think this is why Jesus was always saying, “the kingdom of God is like.” He tells a parable, a story, in which we experience a feeling—belonging, welcome, justice, care—and that feeling conveys the actual thing itself. We know the kingdom of God when we’ve experienced it—we recognize it internally. I think poems work the same way for me—like Emily Dickinson said, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
Danielsen: The final section of the book is the most directly political. How do you feel like the rest of the book sets up that section? Additionally, I think one job of the poet is to twine realities, to show that everything connects. In these last poems, you do that by wrapping the cords of all your concerns together. What do you hope they reveal about how we’re whole people—political, spiritual, creative, thinking, desiring beings?
Fueston: The faith journey of the first three sections of the book has to do with what to do about the fact that we have bodies, and that those bodies are how we engage with the world, through sex, through mothering, through delight, and though physical pain. Growing up in what I jokingly (kinda) like to refer to as the casual Gnosticism of the contemporary evangelical church, it took me a long time to see the value and significance of my body. Inevitably, once that reconciliation with my embodied self took place, the next question was and is: What does that mean for how I care for this world and the people in it?
This is a political question, and I also think it’s a natural outcome of a life that is trying to take physical relationships and community seriously. I think, too, there is a very natural turning outward and a deepened concern for the state of the world once you have kids. The already-high stakes just become higher.
The poems in the book’s final section are very much the “now what?” of my faith journey. They don’t sum things up, but they’re spaces where I can try on belief, or doubt, or anger, or resolve. If those words at the book’s opening “we don’t choose what we believe in” are true of the child, what words are true of the adult? What do I choose to believe in now that I’ve journeyed, now that I have the choice?
Cover image by Ugo °.