Virginity from Mary to Miley

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CATEGORY: Academics
TYPE: Articles
RELATED PROGRAMS: Religious Studies

Students study Christian asceticism, Augustine of Hippo, the virgin martyrs of the Middle Ages ... winding up in modernity with selections from Josh McDowell’s Why True Love Waits.

Virginity from Mary to Miley is the catchy course title that attracted many students who enrolled in religious studies professor Susanna Drake’s first-year course. But judging by classroom discussions, the 15 class members soon moved beyond pop culture to become deeply engaged in the scholarly study of Christianity’s views on women, sexuality, gender, and the relationship between body and soul. 

Because Professor Drake’s research interests include early Christian and Jewish relations, gender and sexuality in late antiquity, and biblical interpretation in art and text, she was excited to teach a course on virginity. “I might not have gotten the same enrollment for a class called Introduction to Christianity,” she admits.

Rafi Schneider ’17 (Philadelphia), who calls himself a Jewish atheist, is fascinated by Christianity. “I was surprised to learn that in the Middle Ages, many of the people who were venerated were atypical,” he says. “Early Christianity seemed to be more accepting of people outside the gender binary.”  

Drake explains, “Many of the early Christian female virgins we studied were described as ‘manly women’ or ‘female men of God.’ The church fathers were more likely to describe holy women as ‘manly’ than to describe holy men as feminine.” 

The course has no single textbook but instead employs readings from a variety of sources. Beginning with the Mary of the New Testament, they go on to study Christian asceticism, Augustine of Hippo, the virgin martyrs of the Middle Ages, and the Protestant Reformation, winding up in modernity with selections from Josh McDowell’s Why True Love Waits and Christine Gardner’s Making Chastity Sexy

“It’s surprising how cyclical history has been,” says Theresa Duffy ’17 (Dell Rapids, S.D.), who brings the perspective of a practicing Catholic to the class. “In early Christianity, virginity was a choice about how you were living. Then it became a strictly physical phenomenon—once you had sex, you weren’t a virgin any more. Now with the ‘renewed virginity’ movement, it’s coming around again.” 

Each week the students share online their responses to and questions raised by the readings, so when class convenes they are primed for discussion. Recently, students met in small groups to compare their thoughts on readings, then collaborated on a whiteboard chart comparing late antiquity, the Middle Ages, and early modernity with respect to ideas about virginity, marriage and family, bodies, sexuality, gender, Mary, and violence. The discussion incorporated visual art in the contemplation of a Belgian altarpiece called “Virgin Surrounded by Female Saints.”

At a recent meeting it seemed as if everyone had something to say, making the 90-minute class pass quickly. “These are things that affect all of us,” says Natalie Kaplan ’17 (Chadds Ford, Pa.). “The ways they present in our lives are important to everyone.”

PUBLISHED: 11/01/2013