Happy Lent to my fellow Christians! Although I’m not entirely sure if “happy” is the appropriate sentiment. Lent is the Christian season of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving (giving money to charity) that comprises the forty days before Easter, not including Sundays. Catholics, Orthodox, and plenty of Protestants participate in this period of spiritual preparation for Christianity’s most important holy day. There’s an element of spiritual purification to the season. But most people today have really strange ideas about purity, and these ideas have infected our popular culture. Snow White follows all of the “rules” for female purity, and still gets punished. On the other hand, the story of King Arthur thoroughly exploits the near-total ambiguity of male purity.
Today we think of purity as something that is perfect, clean, and good. Because purity is such a good thing, it’s only natural that impurity must be bad, right? The more pure our gold jewelry is, the more valuable it is. The more pure our bottled water is, the more a company can charge for it. That’s why plenty of people think that women who lose their virginity lose their purity, and so lose their value (unless a man deigns to stoop down and save them through marriage… but I’m getting ahead of myself). Purity is good, impurity is bad.
But that’s not what true religious purification is about. Religious purification certainly has an element of purging sin and evil from our lives. During Lent, we give away money to practice generosity and detachment from earthly goods, we fast from food and other fun things to teach ourselves discipline, and we pray to bring ourselves closer to God. But this isn’t the only dimension of religious purity. Religious purity used to be about maintaining separation between the spiritual world and the material world. In Ancient Judaism, someone became impure every time they “crossed the boundary” between the worlds. People crossed the boundary when they engaged in spiritual activities like burying the dead, touching the sick, and even giving birth. There were lots of rules that governed purity. You couldn’t do certain activities until you were cleansed. Think of it this way: crossing the boundary is like walking through a really deep puddle. When you get back home, you don’t just sit around all day in soaking wet jeans. No, you have to go and change your pants before you make dinner and watch Netflix. Changing your pants is like getting spiritually purified, or cleansed.
This was the world in which Jesus lived, so many of these ideas about purity were incorporated into Christianity. Jesus challenged a lot of the ways the religious leaders practiced purity. He criticized people who were more concerned with having to “stay pure” (so they could work in the Temple) than giving aid to those in need. But Christianity still retained a strong focus of personal purification in the form of avoiding sin and trying to grow closer to God, by imitating Jesus.
The results were a bit of a mixed bag. While the strong personal virtue element remained, with it came an equally strong stigma that purity was good and impurity was evil. While asking forgiveness for one’s sins has certainly been a popular practice since the beginning of Christianity, early Christians had to do a lot of penance in order to be accepted back into the community. I’m talking literal sackcloth and ashes, often for many weeks or months. So as a result, personal purity was something good, but once you lost it, it was really, really hard to get back (if you ever did).
We see this perception of purity all over the place in our popular culture. The first Disney Princess, Snow White, is the epitome of our perceptions of feminine purity. Nearly every trope about purity can be applied to Snow. She’s young, beautiful, one with nature (animals do her bidding!), and afraid of the dark (aka evil). Her charity is easily manipulated (by the Evil Queen) and she has the power to turn dirty old men into paragons of virtue (even Grumpy smiles!). Snow White proves too good for this world, and falls into a coma upon eating a poisoned apple. She is saved with the loving kiss of a Prince, who whisks her away into the sunset on his white horse. Snow never actually does anything wrong; she was tricked into eating the apple, and yet she still has to be saved by a worthy man.
This highlights the two ways purity is played out by men and women. Pure women tend to follow the “virgin power” trope. Women who are virgins get all kinds of special powers, including riding unicorns and being the secret ingredient to nasty black magic. The latter usually puts them in some form of peril and in need of a hero to save them. Pure men, on the other hand, get to enjoy the “only the pure of heart” trope. Except no one really ever quantifies what counts as “pure of heart”. “Virgin power” is very cut and dry: women lose this power when they have intercourse with men. It’s very specific. “Pure of heart”, however, is far more generalized. We might see a hero be a generally good person, or show one or two instances of him being especially kind. But that’s about it.
King Arthur is a pretty typical example of the “pure of heart” man. Arthur was the first born son of King Uther, but because the kingdom was in turmoil, Merlin the Magician advised that Arthur be raised in secret with a secret identity. Years later, Arthur becomes king when he pulls a bewitched sword from a stone, proving his birthright to the world. King Arthur gathers some knights, marries the beautiful Lady Guinevere, and sets up his household in Camelot. He and his men embody courtesy and chivalry, save damsels, and go on a quest for the Holy Grail. He obtains the sword Excalibur from the Lady in the Lake, and with it slays many foes. While King Arthur certainly embodies a lot of medieval virtues, it’s still unclear what being pure of heart really means. Arthur becomes king because he’s next in line, not because he’s wonderful. Arthur gets the magical sword Excalibur from the Lady in the Lake, but there’s no agreement on what (if anything) he did to earn it. Purity of heart seems to be something you just have, or don’t.
Both tropes concern the character’s worthiness, and both seem to be about something to do with a quality of the character’s being. Except this isn’t entirely true. Virgin power comes from a physical trait, and purity of heart comes from personality. Virgin power is something one is born with and can lose by doing something (having sex), but purity of heart is ambiguous. Do you work up to having a pure heart with a lifetime of good deeds? Are you just born with a pure heart, and good deeds are the natural manifestation of it? And how do you lose a pure heart—or are the pure of heart incapable of doing anything wrong or having selfish motivations? Sometimes these questions are answered by the stories. But more often than not, we never really find out if someone can stop being pure of heart.
King Arthur and Snow White show us just how different purity standards are between men and women. Men get all kinds of prizes for being pure of heart: swords, women, and loyal friends. Women get to be the prize, if they don’t screw up. The biggest threat to a woman’s power is a relationship with a man, and more often than not her story arc will end with her forfeiting that power through marriage. Snow White doesn’t have to worry about the Evil Queen or the scary forest anymore now that she has her Prince to take care of her. Having a relationship with a woman will actually confirm a man’s power and authority, because it shows that he can raise up and protect his own household. King Arthur only comes into his own as king once he takes a wife. And even so, any plot involving Guinevere is meant to show off another one of Arthur’s virtues.
So what do these tropes have to do with Judeo-Christian ideas of purity? To start, they’re products of a mangled perception of Christian purity. Christian purity is very focused on the individual, has something to do with who they are as a person, and can be easily lost (at least when it comes to women). It’s strongly associated with right and wrong. But if we go back to the ancient perceptions of religious purity, we find a very different picture. Purity has less to do with who you are as a person and more to do with what sort of things you’re doing. Purity isn’t necessarily about being good or evil, but more about whether or not you’re doing material things like eating, cleaning house, generally living your life, or doing spiritual things like burying the dead, giving birth, or sacrificing to God.
Imagine the kinds of stories we could write if we adopted this version of purity. Snow White spent her day helping the poor, so the Seven Dwarves will have to do the dishes and cook dinner instead, because she can’t. King Arthur and his men would have to be cleansed before eating with their families because they just came back from killing men in war. This idea of purity puts the focus on the actions, and emphasizes how important they are. In this case, Snow White is a wonderful person not because she is beautiful or young or hasn’t had sex yet, but because she helps others. King Arthur’s example underlines the seriousness of killing people, even in war. Using this standard of purity would help defeat harmful tropes and open up more dynamic ways of storytelling.