Is It All Josh Harris’s Fault?

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image credit: amazon.com

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.

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10 thoughts on “Is It All Josh Harris’s Fault?

  1. Such good points!
    HaHa, yes. Very glad I didn’t write down anything from my twenties. Even my thirties…
    It’s been a long time since I read his book, so I can’t remember exactly how pharisaical it was…but I do think that there’s a happy medium between dating and “courtship” (as in most everything) and you were probably blessed enough to find it…

    • For me, it was really important to depart from the term “courtship” and just date. I know it works for some people, but for me personally, it’s connected to a lot of hypocritical/Pharisaical attitudes I held in my teens.

      And yes, I’m picturing some journals from my late teens/early 20s filled with half-finished stories and bad poetry. Glad those are safely in the basement… 🙂

  2. I think that it played right into the complementarianism being promoted at the time. I remember my deacon teaching out of a John MacArthur book where it said that men were to initiate relationships and women to respond to them. The problem is that everybody is waiting on God to introduce them to Mr. or Ms. Right, nobody is really giving anybody else a chance to be that Mr. or Ms. Right. In ‘Courtship in Crisis: a Case for Traditional Dating’ by Thomas Umstattd Jr. the author makes a point of it that his grandparents had one strict rule when it came to their relationships: they couldn’t date the same individual two times in a row. The logic was that if you didn’t date all sorts of people, how could you know what you were looking for or, at least, what you weren’t looking for? I do think though that Joshua Harris wasn’t biblically qualified for the position and the people who hired him should have looked for an older more mature Christian, but at least he’s recognized that and grown in a way that he couldn’t have had he remained in charge. There’s something rather sad about his corner of Christianity in that they tend to promote young men up the ranks while denying the gifts and calling of young women. It may only be a matter of time before their brand is so tainted by scandal that the marketplace will be flooded with accounts about how complementarianism failed them just as courtship failed so many young millennials..

    • Hi Jamie,
      Although gender roles weren’t my main focus here, it’s true that sexism and fundamentalism often go hand-in-hand. Courtship in Crisis sounds like a book I need to read; I did see an article recently that was making a great case for bringing back old-school dating, and I thought it was fabulous.

  3. I confess to all the above stereotypes of a homeschooler lol! You definitely hit it on the nose when you say that Harris’ approach appeals to our belief that rulebooks can save us. I’m sure I still buy into that lie at times. My biggest problem with the “courtship culture” framework is the subtext it promoted that if you do these certain things for God (keep your heart pure, wear a purity ring, don’t kiss before marriage ect.) you will be rewarded (and maybe even owed by God) with a passionate, perfect marriage and no broken hearts. Our walk with God, and our relationships, cannot be reduced to a do this, get that result strategy. In my own life and those of others I know courtship was a response to fear of a broken heart, but sometimes broken hearts are part of God’s beautiful plan too. We can’t, and shouldn’t try to avoid the risk that comes with love, whatever way you slice it.

    • Yep, I hit every single homeschooler stereotype as well (I think they may have designed the stereotype after me, in fact…). What you said is so true: we can’t shouldn’t try to avoid the risks that come with love. For me, courtship was just one part of a whole broken system of self-salvation (or at least self-sanctification) through rules and law. I’m very grateful to have made it out of that lifestyle.

  4. I really liked this blog post. You made a good about Mr. Harris. He may have been at fault for writing that book, but in the end, he was still just a young, naive kid. By the way, I only recently discovered your blog, and i find it very entertaining; I wish it got more attention.

    • Thank you very much! I’m always surprised that people enjoy my blog (it is literally just a random collection of whatever I feel like writing about at the moment), but I’m glad they do. I’ve been happily posting away for almost seven years, and I love the chance it gives me to connect with people, even if momentarily. Twice, when it’s gotten a little attention because of being featured on another site, I haven’t coped too well with the conflict that comes with that attention. So it’s probably a good thing that it has stayed relatively obscure.

  5. Hi Emily, just popping in to say that I totally get this post, and thanks for writing it! I also read IKDG as a teenager, and fell for its compelling message. I mean, what’s simpler and more beautiful that “protecting your heart”? It sounds so noble, like something virtuous women of old did. I can easily say it was a damaging philosophy to incorporate into my “love life”, but that is another story. Anyway, lovely blog post as usual!

    • Thank you so much Abby! You’re right–the whole IKDG argument was framed in such way that made it super hard to oppose: no, I don’t want to protect my heart? I don’t care about having a good marriage someday? I think we should always be suspicious of rhetoric like that. What it’s often disguising is a new law and a different gospel, and our legalism-inclined hearts are so susceptible to falling for ways that we can save ourselves. Whew, I’m glad we both made it out!!! 🙂

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