Our theme for the month of June is “sex and the church.” To read posts from our first pass at this theme, check out our June 2018 archives.
Did you make a list? Maybe you folded it into the pages of your Bible or scrawled it into your journal.
As I approached my teen years, older women I respected, who wrote to girls like me in Christian publications and taught us in Sunday school, advised my young friends and me to make lists of qualities we would look for in a future husband. And bold at the top, the very first and most important qualification should be “He must love Jesus.”
Even as a pubescent girl with a mouth full of braces, living her life in swooping italics and torrents of feelings, tacking a Pygmalion-style myth onto the faith I saw as rational seemed absurd. You couldn’t “Build Your Own Boy.” It didn’t work that way. God didn’t work that way.
So, I never made a physical list. But still, that first monumental qualification loomed large, etched in my brain if never on paper—“He must love Jesus.”
Unsure of how to proceed, I mostly put dating off.
But recently, Facebook, with its unsettling psychic powers, began gently nudging me toward a newish “Christian” dating app—Upward. My little sister has been nudging me less gently. It piqued my curiosity.
If Christianity is just one characteristic among a laundry list of the compatibility markers we use to select potential partners, is a Christian dating app any different from, say, Farmers Only (a real dating app with a name like an SNL sketch)?
Apps are the tool for people dating with a checklist. Apps enable you to sift through your options by location and preferences. And that underlying philosophy was also my great problem with the apps. The whole process of swiping through faces seemed, to me, altogether too much like looking for furniture on Craigslist—skimming objects available in a conveniently local radius, looking for something that fits my needs.
I don’t want to shop for romance. I don’t want someone to shop for me. I don’t want to be measured in a few brief seconds against someone’s “Dream Girl” checklist.
And yet, another distinguishing feature of apps, and their redeeming quality for me, is that they offer you the option to have long conversations over text before you meet a potential romantic interest. Without the ability to lean on physical attraction or an entertaining venue, connections can depend solely on communication. Apps then are potentially the only dating format that offers you the option of privileging connection between beings instead of heat between bodies.
So, as I drafted a bio on Upward, I considered two possibilities. Either the Christian dating app experience reduces what should be a life-shaping to a mere preference on par with height or age. Or Christian dating—which I would argue should be the philosophy most concerned with cherishing people as whole and holy rather than a collection of pleasing parts—is, in fact, best served by the unique communication conventions of an app.
I’ve been at it for about thirty days now. And honestly, I’m reminded of the one Christian high school dance I attended with some friends.
“Leave room for Jesus” we girls giggled as we got ready together in Hanna’s bathroom. We were awkward, silly, and self-conscious. We didn’t need the trite reminder of some divine chaperone to wobble stiffly with a boy at arm’s length.
My experience on Upward has largely been a similar strange dance—two people wobbling with Jesus awkwardly in the middle.
“Is the fact that I’m not a ‘virgin’ going to be an issue?” one man asked, the heavy burden of shame heaped on him by the church almost tangible in his texts.
“What are your opinions on LGBT issues?” began another conversation which rapidly plunged into an argument about hermeneutics.
“No excuses,” read the text I opened as I was about to leave for a date. “I have to reschedule. It’s just what I feel God calling me to do.”
I slumped down on my bed, my wet hair still wrapped in a towel, makeup half applied. I have seen “Jesus” in many shapes between me and my app matches. Some of the shapes were distorted by legalism and human brokenness. Some were pale, flat shadows of the vibrant Jesus I know. But this was entirely different. This was a Jesus who stepped in to actively and inexplicably prevent a date.
And it dawned on me. Here was the real crux of the whole thing, not just Christian dating apps but Christian dating.
I feel like Eustace standing on the bank of a pool in layers upon layers of dragon skin. The top layer is an ugly, selfish, lustful, run-of-the-mill desire of the flesh. It’s a bald, basic desire for another human to make me happy. That must be stripped off. But there is another layer underneath, and this layer is more insidious because it calls itself Christian. This layer of desire still demands to be satisfied and worshiped and proposes that what will make us happiest is someone who fulfills a list of legalistic qualifications—“purity,” the right denominational affiliation, etc. This layer must also be stripped away.
The tender, naked, tingling love underneath selfish desire is simply awe of someone’s relationship with God and a desire to be joined to them in that. To love someone, stripped of all layers of lust, is to be woven together in the joy of purpose and delight in shared cosmic significance. “We two,” we say, “are infused with the breath of God and called to dance into eternity! Can you believe it?”
We can gently hold our someone’s past without judgment. It is the story they walked with God before us. It was for God’s purpose, not ours. We do not require any part of them to be preserved for our exclusive use.
We can pursue justice and truth through discussion and debate without anger or hurt because we both desire to know God more.
We can celebrate the mysteries of another’s relationship with God as a wonder distinct from our own spiritual journey and never feel slighted because we know and love people as prisms that make the light of God visible by fracturing it.
Christian dating is dating with Jesus in the middle, but not as an obstacle, as a mediator. Surprisingly, it took a dating app for me to get it.
Emily Stroble is a writer of bits and pieces and is distractedly pursuing lots of novel ideas and nonfiction projects as inspiration strikes. As an editorial assistant at Zondervan, she helps put the pieces of children’s books and Bibles together. A lover of the ridiculous, inexplicable, and wondrous as well as stories of all kinds, Emily enjoys getting lost in museums, movies old and new, making art, the mountains of Colorado, and the unsalted oceans near Grand Rapids. Her movie reviews also appear in the Mixed Media section of The Banner and her strange little stories of the fantastic are on the Calvin alumni fiction blog Presticogitation. Her big dream is to dig her hands deep into the soil of making children’s books as an editor…and to finally finish her children’s novel.