I’m sorry, I’m dating Jesus
A barrage of evangelical dating manuals encourage Christian youth to direct their sexual desire at Jesus, and keep their hands off themselves. Ex-evangelical Jonny Scaramanga looks back at a mis-spent youth
It began with I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Josh Harris’ 1997 million-selling book taught young Christians that they shouldn’t date. Instead, they should preserve their purity by waiting for God to reveal The One to them, whereupon they would enter a chaste courtship with a view to marriage. I only knew one person who read it, but we evangelicals were comfortable living our lives according to books we hadn’t read.
Suddenly all my friends at church and Christian school talked about marrying the first girl they kissed. Harris also provided a convenient response for Christian girls to ward off undesirable suitors: “I’m sorry, I’m dating Jesus”. This became the evangelical equivalent of “I don’t want to spoil our friendship”. And then it became something much weirder.
The women at my church knew in precise detail exactly what The One would look like when he arrived. One of them knew that The One would present her with a diamond ring and a grand piano when he proposed. Her sister, meanwhile, wouldn’t tell me how her husband would propose. She had told God, and He would take care of it.
In the meantime, “dating Jesus” somehow came to refer to Jesus as your literal boyfriend. Christian singer Kathy Troccoli came out with a book, Falling in Love with Jesus: Abandoning Yourself to the Greatest Romance of Your Life. Such was the success of this that Troccoli had to come up with ever more vomit-inducing subtitles for the sequels, Living in Love with Jesus: Clothed in the Colors of His Love, and Forever In Love with Jesus: Becoming One with the Love of Your Life.
This was simply the tip of a Mills & Boon iceberg that includes such titles as The Wild Romancer: Uncovering the Romance Jesus Longs to Lavish on You and When a Woman Meets Jesus: Finding the Love Every Woman Longs For. There’s even the parody-defying His Princess Bride series from self-styled "humourist, Bible life coach and award-winning author" Sheri Rose. Titles include My Prince Will Come, Love Letters From Your Prince, and Fit For My King: The His Princess Diet Plan. Evidently, Jesus doesn’t do fat chicks.
Even as boys, my friends and I were not immune to the powerful de-sexualising effects of such attitudes. In Women on Top, Nancy Friday describes how the “Nice Girl” narrative – that sex isn’t something good girls do – damages girls’ self-image. This narrative conflates erotic feelings and romance, associating sexual stirrings with soft music and walks on the beach. For evangelicals like me, sex wasn’t something good boys wanted either. Friday’s description describes my emasculated teenage self perfectly, desperately trying to persuade myself that sex wasn’t something I really wanted so I’d be worthy of my future bride.
I lost what should have been the best wanking years of my life to a bitter struggle to give up. When I failed, I suffered a double humiliation. First, there was Jesus, present in the room with me, crying at my continued sin after he’d shed his blood on my behalf. Then there was the disappointment of my future wife, who would one day learn that I had committed adultery in my heart a thousand times before we’d even met.
Still, I got away free and I’m now in something approaching a healthy relationship, so this isn’t a tragedy. But I worry about the single women in the churches I knew. The woman who expected a grand piano is still single and still eagerly awaiting the day God brings him into her life. It’s almost 15 years since I saw her. I hope Jesus has been a good interim boyfriend.