Joshua Harris
It inevitably sparks controversy when someone like Joshua Harris, who has made his opinions so public, openly changes them. (Image via Instagram)

Purity Culture: Thoughts on the Evolving Message of Joshua Harris

With his newest Instagram post, Harris has kissed public approval goodbye.

Thoughts x
Joshua Harris

With his newest Instagram post, Harris has kissed public approval goodbye.

At some point you, along with many other awkward preteens, probably received a version of the dreaded “birds and the bees” conversation. Whether it was initiated by a parent, grandparent or gym teacher, the gist of the talk is usually standard across the board. But what if your guardian filled the discussion with statements like, “dating is training ground for divorce” or suggested a woman should “ask her dad to evaluate every outfit she buys”? In “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” Joshua Harris propagates such ideas and presents his advice as a Christian approach to relationships.

Harris penned “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” at 21 years old in 1997 and eventually saw his brainchild sell over 1.2 million copies worldwide. Christian teenagers, already submerged in the famous True Love Waits movement, wholeheartedly embraced the book, and well-meaning parents and pastors distributed the relationship guide among impressionable kids, hoping to spread a “Biblical” view of marriage. The results, however, are complicated, and currently under fierce debate.

In his book, Harris advocates for abstinence, a common viewpoint among devoted Christians, but it doesn’t take long for him to break away from popular thinking and redefine chastity for an entire generation of evangelicals. Harris singlehandedly elevates the standards one must meet in order to achieve complete chastity. He introduces the idea of “emotional hookups,” and dubs premarital handholding, kissing or even lingering glances as defiling experiences.

“I Kissed Dating Goodbye” presents a person’s love as a finite commodity. If a relationship does not work out, even if the couple never had sex, both parties’ intrinsic value plummets. The book’s opening scene aggressively illustrates this point and eventually became a defining metaphor for its fan base.

Harris describes a radiant bride named Anna floating down the aisle toward David, her happy fiancée. Delicate sunlight streams through the windows, as friends and family watch in eager anticipation. Soon, however, the unthinkable happens during the ceremony: Before the minister can pronounce them man and wife, “A girl stood up in the middle of the congregation, walked quietly to the altar, and took David’s other hand.” Five girls follow her and form an ominous chain behind David.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t signify that the couple just needs better security at their wedding. As Anna looks tearfully at her betrothed, David whispers, “They’re girls from my past. Anna, they don’t mean anything to me now… but I’ve given a part of my heart to each of them.” In Harris’ mind, past relationships actively delegitimize any new grasps for romance, and if a relationship fails, each individual drifts away somewhat marred, like damaged goods from a capsized ship.

Throughout the book, Harris tries to downplay the implications of his opening scene; he references grace and forgiveness, encouraging readers to press on toward a bright future. Yet, for every affirmation he embeds in the book, it seems that there are twice as many words of subtle dehumanization. The result is a cleverly-disguised book of condemnation, filled with contradictions only an eager-to-please teenager could accept.

Unsurprisingly, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” is now under intense criticism; after all, the book’s initial fans are adults now, equipped with the necessary hindsight to pinpoint the flaws in Harris’ ideas. One woman, in a vulnerable Facebook discussion, described how the book ignited “… a lot of unhealthy attitudes in my family and church about dating. The responsibility it felt — to me — was solely on women to ‘protect their Christian brothers.’” On Twitter, another woman stated that the book “was used against me like a weapon.” However, in the midst of all these voices, an unlikely critic has arisen: Harris himself.

For many years, Harris devoutly supported the content of his book, and even wrote successful follow-up guides. However, it seems his viewpoint was not set in stone; in 2015, after 17 years of pastoring a mega-church, the author began to pursue formal education for the first time in his life. Harris had previously been homeschooled, and jumped immediately from this structure to the pastorate after achieving authorial fame, but his newfound circumstances kindled a radical change in thinking.

During his graduate studies, Harris connected with a wide array of students, and encountered mixed reviews of his book, but rather than ignore the criticism, he internalized the thoughts of his new peers. In a vulnerable TED Talk, Harris describes how he “stopped having to be constantly right about everything … and just became a student who was listening.” As it turns out, truly listening to this criticism transformed Harris’ mindset.

Newly determined, Harris set out to explore the full impact of his misguided relationship guide. He released the documentary “I Survived ‘I Kissed Dating Goodbye,’” which follows his journey to reexamine his bestseller’s underlying ideas. Throughout the film, Harris talks with the teenagers who once devoured his teachings and apologizes for the book’s harmful ideas.

Additionally, Harris is attempting to understand his younger self’s mindset and pinpoint the source of his problematic beliefs. What logic informed his youthful opinions?  In retrospect, he sees a fearful young man, who transferred his anxiety into a bestselling book. “Fear,” he muses, “is never a good motive.”

The emotion seemed to control his conclusions; Harris suffered from a “fear of messing up, fear of getting your heart broken, fear of hurting somebody else, and fear of sex.” An attentive reader can easily identify the trepidation in Harris’ writing, but a more interesting question remains.

Why did Harris’ terror almost become canon in evangelical culture? Fear, as the old saying goes, is a great motivator, so if a concerned parent is trying to scare kids away from sex, buying a fearmongering book is a practical choice. Nowadays, however, Harris is rejecting the motivational powers of fear.

In fact, he is actively fighting against the destructive impulse. In his TED Talk, Harris describes pursuing truth, even at the expense of one’s “livelihood… involvement in a community… and sense of identity.” Rather than clinging to a previous mindset, Harris is publicly wrestling with his own questions about life.

Recently, in a rare Instagram post, Harris announced that he has “undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus. The popular phrase for this is ‘deconstruction,’ the biblical phrase is ‘falling away.’ By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian.” In the post, he apologizes to women, LGBTQ individuals and anyone his book has negatively influenced.

Of course, the comments section of this post is overflowing with scathing rebukes. The remnants of his dwindling fan base are crestfallen and unashamedly express their disappointment; it seems that everyone has a bone to pick with Harris. Over the course of his life, he has effectively alienated both the sexually conservative and liberal.

In the constant clamor, a statement with a generally wide approval rating comes to mind: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” At this point, the most compassionate option is to allow Harris to wrestle with his worldview. It is not a choice he allotted to readers of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” but nonetheless, it’s the most gracious course of action.

 

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