If you were raised in conservative Christian circles in the 90s, and especially if you were homeschooled, there is no way that you haven’t heard of the book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, by Joshua Harris. It defined adolescent relationships for a generation of homeschoolers. We were going to be different (and by different, we meant WAY, WAY BETTER) than everyone else: we were going to enter marriage not just pure in body, but pure in mind, having never given a “piece of our heart” to any person but our spouse. Yes, it is as ludicrous and damaging as it sounds.
The book made its way into the hands of thousands of Christian fangirls who swooned over the handsome sepia-toned image on the cover, and who firmly believed its message. Many fundamentalist parents were also quick to board the no-dating train. Haunted by their own prodigal pasts in the 60s and 70s, and determined to shut out sin’s influence on their children’s lives, they created from the book a new Law (“Thou Shalt Not Date”) that promised a new salvation in the form of The Perfect, Happily-Ever-After Marriage. Exactly how we were supposed to get from the perfectly protected bubble in point A to the perfect marriage in point B was unclear. But that didn’t matter. God had parted the Red Sea and multiplied the loaves and fishes; He could bring forth spouses for us out of thin air.
I was one of the Harris girls. My parents weren’t fundies, and they were a little weirded out by the book; probably skeptical of its extremism. But when your teenage daughter comes to you and says that she doesn’t want to date, what are you going to do? I turned down every request for a date I received in high school and initially in college. Sometime around my sophomore year, I started to wonder: how exactly was this going to work? How was I going to get married to someone with whom I’d spent zero quality time? How could I keep myself in emotional plated armor and still expect a guy to decide he wanted to marry me? So, I said hello to dating, and today, I’m happily married. I was one of the lucky ones.
I know that the turnaround from the I Kissed Dating Goodbye life didn’t go so smoothly for a lot of people. One of those people is Josh Harris himself. If you’ve been following his journey, you know that he’s hit a few bumps in the road. He became pastor of a huge church when he was very young. His denomination has been rocked by scandal, and now, in an odd reverse order, he’s going back to seminary.
Without knowing all the circumstances, I happen to think that a disproportionate amount of blame has been heaped on his head. One of the problems of homeschooled kids (at least the 90s version) is that we always seemed more mature than we actually were. We sometimes spoke and acted and dressed like little 30-year-olds, so it would be tempting to assume that we were ready to assume grown-up responsibilities when we weren’t. The people who put Harris in charge should have known better.
Right now, Joshua Harris is experiencing a fate that few of us would envy: being haunted by claims he made in a book he wrote when he was just 21 years old. Do you remember the stupid stuff you said when you were 21? How grateful are you that you didn’t write that stupidity down, only for it to be catapulted into popularity in Zondervan bookstores across the nation? For my own part, I’m extremely grateful.
We must take responsibility for our words and actions. But I also believe that we should we be given extra grace and leeway for the things we said from a place of youthful inexperience. The previous generation found forgiveness for their hard partying and hard drugs and the casual sex. In the parable of the prodigal son, our generation is the Older Brother who stayed home and did everything “right.” The problem is, we were trying to be our own saviors through our own righteousness. In the end, we needed to repent of our “goodness” as much as the Younger Brother needed to repent of his evil. None of us can save ourselves.
Apparently, Harris recently apologized on Twitter to someone who blamed him for not getting a prom when she was a teenager. On the one hand, I think it’s great that he’s willing to own up to past mistakes. On the other hand, Joshua Harris didn’t tell anyone personally that they couldn’t date or couldn’t go to prom or had to wear denim skirts with white keds. Their parents should have known better. As rational, mature adults, parents should have read his book and thought, “You know, this kid is 21 years old, has led a sheltered life, and isn’t married. We should probably hold off on implementing his system until we’ve gathered more wisdom on the topic.” But Harris was telling them what they wanted to hear, so they listened. There was a wide-open market for his message. Right place, right time. If it hadn’t been I Kissed Dating Goodbye, it would have been something else. If it hadn’t been Harris, it would’ve been someone else.
I bought into the no-dating vision because it fit with a worldview and salvational system that I’d already decided on, which was life by the law. Harris and others presented a romantic twist on the seductive lie I already believed: that my rulebooks could save me. It didn’t work for the Pharisees, it didn’t work in 90s Christian sub-culture, and it won’t work today. Because the only way to salvation is Christ. We can never do enough or be enough to win heaven. We need a righteousness that is not our own. We need Jesus.
There’s a lot of hard work that needs to be done to mentally and emotionally heal people from the damaged perspectives, and in some cases, from the outright abuse inflicted by fundamentalism.
But I’m pretty sure that the healing process isn’t much helped by labeling Josh Harris as The Grinch Who Stole Prom.