I was really affected by Josh Harris publicly announcing that he’s leaving the faith. I assume most people reading this know about it already but a recap: Josh Harris wrote a book in the 90s called I Kissed Dating Goodbye that advocated a type of purity culture that was hugely influential in evangelical Christianity, especially during my 20s. He went on to become a megachurch pastor. Then it all reversed. He resigned from his pastorship. After considering the harm it had done, he renounced I Kissed Dating Goodbye and had it pulled from bookstore shelves. He announced his divorce on Instagram in July, then announced that he no longer considered himself Christian a couple weeks later. This all happened many months ago but I’m only now ready to talk about it.
I’m not entirely sure why it hit me so much. I know some people were angry; some people were actually gleeful. Me, I was just profoundly sad. For a while.
I did a bit of a deep dive after the announcement and in retrospect, there were signs beforehand about what he was struggling with. One of the most astonishing (to me) interviews I read was one he had with Sojourners last February. The topic of the interview was him coming to reject purity culture. But you can see him also entertaining serious doubts about his faith. This section is very telling:
I think that there’s a push by some people to say being sex positive means â€” the kind of the historical sexual ethic related to sex outside of marriage, related to homosexuality, is basically laid aside, and embracing a healthy view of sex means just accepting all that as fine within the Christian tradition. â€¦ I do think though that, for me, in that change of interpretation of such a fundamental level when it comes to sexuality, it’s just hard for me to … In a way it’s almost easier for me to contemplate throwing out all of Christianity than it is to keeping Christianity and adapting it in these different ways.
I don’t know if that makes sense, but I think I’ve just been so indoctrinated in a certain way of interpreting scripture and viewing sexuality that it’s just hard for me to see the scriptures and its kind of overall, you know, commands and principles and so on and see how that can be consistent….
But I think what you saw in that moment in the film is it is a real struggle for me. I’m really struggling with â€” I think that rethinking some of these things and having had my faith look so specific for so long that now as I’m questioning those specifics, it feels like I’m questioning my entire faith.
I mean wow, it seems like that’s exactly what happened – he didn’t know how to reconsider aspects of his faith without questioning faith altogether. That makes me sad. And though he talks about teachings on sexuality, I think it’s really he got caught up in a particular type of Christian culture – when you look at his writing, he wrote a lot more about culture than about faith itself – and when he (rightly) started questioning aspects of that culture, he didn’t know how to separate culture from Christianity. So he just abandoned it all. I think partly why I’m so sad about it is he’s definitely not alone – how many people besides Harris are doing the same thing? Seeing the shortcomings of Christian culture and not knowing how (or wanting to) navigate faith without it?
I found this Christianity Today interview most helpful in terms of navigating Harris and people like him leaving the faith. Some of the advice: don’t speculate on why they really left, don’t argue, affirm your love for them, don’t say that “God will bring them back”. It’s also interesting that the majority of people who leave the faith of their childhood, it’s not because of some sudden event, it’s just that they gradually drift away.
In retrospect, that whole I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Purity Culture that dominated evangelical Christianity in my 20s was pretty nuts. This Slate article that discusses its impact is pretty right on. The way it played out in many places, including a little bit in my college fellowship I think, was that it placed a simultaneously elevated and dim view of dating. As the article says: “the book was so convincing in its arguments against casual dating (e.g., ‘Intimacy without commitment is defrauding’) that many young people who read it are now afraid to pursue relationships at all unless they know they want to marry the person, which leads to a kind of paralysis. One student told Olasky that the book led her peers to ‘think we should never hang out unless we want to marry. In the 1990s, casual dating was the culprit. Christian couples will rush into relationships, saying, “we intend to marry,” because they think they are not allowed to date unless they intend to marry.’ Some of the specific harms that Harris later acknowledged is that it led some people to never marry out of fear, and some to rush into marriage too quickly, without really knowing the other person, resulting in many divorces.
There’s also a common criticism of purity culture articulated by Katelyn Beaty – it amounted to a sort of sexual prosperity gospel, the belief that “God will reward premarital chastity with a good Christian spouse, great sex and perpetual marital fulfillment.” That’s a prosperity message – if you do this action, you will get a specific reward. And unfortunately, it’s not true.
Incidentally, I don’t even know if he remembers it, but I still remember something Tim Dalrymple did at Stanford while we were upperclassmen at Stanford. He extended invites to various men from different Christian fellowships to meet one night at Sundance Steakhouse. And there he gave a message – Christian men at Stanford should be dating more, asking Christian girls out. As leaders of our fellowships, we should be setting examples. I was shocked, because it flew so much in the face of the I Kissed Dating Goodbye culture that then held a grip on our fellowship. But his rationale was, if we don’t ask Christian girls out, non-Christian guys will. And in retrospect, it was very wise. In fact, the effect he described did play out to some extent. He was ahead of his time.
Anyway, I am personally glad that Harris renounced his book and that casual dating isn’t taboo (or is it? I actually have no clue). But it’s kind of crazy that so much of the evangelical world decided to follow the lead on love and marriage advice from a not-married, home-schooled 21-year-old. What were we thinking? The guy had no experience; no matter how well-intentioned he was, how much could he really know?
I continue to be sad about Harris. I appreciate his honesty, and he seems like a man that’s truly searching. I do hope he finds what he’s looking for.