Months after Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber issued a call for Christian feminists to send her their old “purity” rings, the once-discarded jewelry has been completely transformed.
The purity rings ― symbols of an abstinence pledge ― were melted or pounded down and reshaped into a sculpture of a vulva emerging from a throne of flames.
Bolz-Weber, the progressive Christian theologian and writer behind the project, unveiled the sculpture on Thursday at the 2019 conference for Makers, a feminist media brand.
Purity rings were a cultural phenomenon that emerged in certain evangelical Christian communities during the 1990s and 2000s. They symbolized a promise to abstain from sex until marriage. Critics argue that the rings, and purity culture more broadly, taught young people to feel shameful about their sexuality and suggested that a person’s sexual thoughts and choices ultimately determined their spiritual standing in the eyes of God. There was also no room for queer love within this theology.
Bolz-Weber was the founding pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints, a queer-inclusive Lutheran congregation in Denver. Although she was raised in a fundamentalist Christian family, the pastor has become a prominent voice in progressive Christian circles.
The vulva sculpture project ― part of a promotion for Shameless, Bolz-Weber’s recently published book about sex and Christianity ― sought to prove that symbols of a harmful and patriarchal theology can be reclaimed.
Bolz-Weber told HuffPost that the purity rings’ transformation reminded her of Bible verses describing a utopia where people “beat their swords into plowshares.”
“It’s actually part of the tradition, that we can take objects that have harmed us and turn them into objects that help heal and sustain us,” the pastor said.
Colorado-based artist Nancy Anderson was responsible for transforming the rings into a vulva sculpture. Bolz-Weber told HuffPost that they received about 170 purity rings from all over the country, many accompanied by notes revealing more about the people who had worn them.
One ring was sent by a woman who wrote she remembered attending a purity ball with her father when she was just 11 years old, Bolz-Weber said. Another woman said she had gotten a second purity ring because she felt ashamed to wear the original after a sexual assault. One woman revealed that she faithfully wore her purity ring until her wedding day, believing in the church’s promise that this was God’s will. But the marriage apparently turned out to be “miserable,” Bolz-Weber said, and the woman mailed in her wedding ring.
Most of the purity rings people sent in were sterling silver. Those rings were melted into the vulva sculpture. The silver vulva sits atop red flames, meant to evoke a “Phoenix,” Bolz-Weber said.
Rings made from other materials were pounded and woven into a heart and wings in the middle of the sculpture. On the bottom, the word “Freedom” is spelled out in metal.
On Thursday, Bolz-Weber presented the sculpture to activist Gloria Steinem at the 2019 Makers conference. (Makers and HuffPost share a parent company.) The pastor said that Steinem’s writings on feminism and women’s bodies “changed my life.”
Bolz-Weber said she hopes the sculpture sends a message of “healing.”
“Our stories are our own. We don’t get to choose what happens to us, but we do get to decide what it means,” she said.