In 2015 Joshua Harris quit his job as pastor of Covenant Life Church and moved nearly 3,000 miles – to another country none-the-less – to attend seminary school for the first time. His actual motivation to move is unclear, but there is no doubt the sex abuse scandal he got swept in was likely a huge factor.
This move was a huge change, considering he’d be involved in Sovereign Grace Ministries since 1997, was one of the main founders of Covenant Life Church and lead pastor since 2004. As he attended seminary school he found that other students came to him with criticisms of his 1997 book about courtship, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. As he discusses this in the documentary I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye, I realized that he may have never been confronted in a serious way on the ideas of his book before. Perhaps he had been insulated for 20 years in the bubble of Christian praise or maybe he’d chosen to never listen to others before.
I can’t dismiss all my critics as haters. I need to listen to people who disagree with me. – Josh Harris
I mistakenly thought that the documentary was Joshua Harris’. It was actually created, directed, and produced by a fellow student of Harris’ at Regent College, Jessica Van Der Wyngaard. The documentary was her thesis project about the issues surround Christian relationships and it was Van Der Wyngaard that approached Harris on the project, not the other way around.
The documentary was hard to watch. Painful, in fact. On my first viewing I was confronted with the narrow-minded and restrictive views of my former belief system. I have avoided views supportive of this way of thinking since my 2015 deconversion. I had wrestled with my own criticism of them for another 6 years prior to my deconversion, to the point where I had to leave church. The Christian vernacular is one of double-think, with twist and turns, a hidden coded language. It’s not straight-foward, it’s weird, off-putting and manipulative.
As I watched the documentary my head spun as it would do in the months as my faith was slipping away, even after it was gone, when I had tried to pray. When it felt like my brain was glitching. Something happened in my brain when I deconverted and there has been no going back. In most cases artistic expression of language is beautiful, but the coded language of Christening is maddening.
In the documentary Harris Skyped with at least a dozen people who had been affected by his book and travelled all around North America to talk to Christian authors, psychologists, and professors who had some alternative views on dating, courtship and relationships. I found some of the ideas interesting, but what nearly all of them came back to was the concept that the Bible is the Word of God and sex outside of marriage is sinful.
The only exception to this rule was when Harris discussed modern dating with a reporter from The Washington Post, who writes about single life and dating. As she discussed the secular world of modern dating Joshua Harris listened with interest and his facial expressions seemed to indicate this idea of approaching relationships was totally new and fascinating to him.
The reporter spoke of dating apps, the shallowness of modern dating, the pain of being ‘ghosted’ and expressed to Harris that she could identify with the idea of giving her heart away to each person she’d dated, but shared she believed there is not a finite amount of love, and certainly she would not feel as if her former boyfriends were with her on her wedding day.
The documentary then showed Harris attending a cabaret, featuring singles artistically expressing their loneliness and desperation through comedy. The brief foray into the secular dating world was meant to cast a contrast of one extreme to the other extreme, how both casual dating and courtship can be damaging to oneself.
In the documentary Joshua Harris hear from people who tell him his book was harmful, others who tell him his book was helpful, and he comes to the conclusion that he no longer agrees with the teachings of his book. You can tell from his responses and his expressions that he really seemed to be listening to others’ experiences, but the documentary seems to be making the statement that the book was a simple miscalculation – that it perhaps should not have been taken as reverently – that its’ cookie-cutter formula was wrongly assumed to be right for everyone, and that we (they) as Christians need to think of relationships differently.
The documentary and Harris himself purports that he is a victim of the True Love Waits movement. This was the most interesting part of the documentary for me. The discussion that the movement enthusiastically elevated sex as this very great wonderful amazing thing and was a prosperity gospel of sorts, in that if you waited to have sex until you were married you would have a great marriage, and mind-blowing sex for the rest of your life, and it was totally worth it.
I was profoundly disappointed in the lack of specifics of how this movement affected the millions of people in terms of their sexuality and their relationships. One of the leaders in the purity movement acknowledged the idea that virginity equaled purity as being harmful to many people, especially girls who had experienced sexual abuse or were no longer virgins (but of course now dedicating their lives to Christ), but I as someone who no longer believes sex to be a sin I realized I was sickened by the message.
Shame. Guilt. Sexual dysfunction. Marital rape. Toxic relationships. Silencing of womens’ voices. Misogyny. Spiritual hierarchy. Incompatibility. Erasure of sexual minorities. Emotional and sometimes physical abuse. Forced pregnancies. Divorce. Why was none of this discussed as consequences of the True Love Waits movement, of purity culture, of evangelical Christianity’s view and approach to sexuality and relationships?
Perhaps that was not the point of the documentary, but that is what I hoped for. And, of course, I didn’t get it. Big surprise. What I got was, “Okay the way we did relationships in the ’90s and ’00s was wrong and we need to ask questions about how we can walk with the Lord without that rigidity. “
To be honest, it left me wondering how Joshua Harris could keep his hands off his mega-hot wife (not even kissing her!) before they got married. Is it right for me to judge this as being really weird? Even as I wrote that sentence I felt shame for having been a highly sexual person who, never in a million years, would have ever been able to achieve that standard. Lots to unpack there regarding the simple shame it involks.
Anytime you have a 20 year old writing about something you might want to give it a second thought. I think it was a good book…well, not a good book, but a well-intentioned book. I just liked him, so I would have done any dating model to get him. – Shannon Harris
While I was listening to Shannon Harris, who is soon to be or maybe is already Joshua’s ex wife, it struck me that while she was supportive of his journey it seemed as if it was his alone and that she had no part of it. I wonder if this may have had a huge hand in their splitting.
As long as I’ve known you, you’ve had a pastor’s heart. I know, as your wife, the reason you are doing this documentary is because you want to help people. I see this as a way for you to let people know that it’s okay to have struggled with…your book. It’s okay that they have regrets. I know that you carry this on your back. This is a way for you to make peace, in a way, for yourself. More importantly you want other people to know it’s okay. – Shannon Harris
I found this part of the documentary really telling, in regards to his subsequent deconversion:
I need to take a journey of asking hard questions and letting the answers lead me to wherever they will, even to places and conclusions I might not like. I don’t know where this journey will take me or what it’ll cost me, and that’s a little scary, but I’m ready to start. – Joshua Harris
After watching the documentary I’m a little less angry with Joshua Harris as I do sense humility and remorse in his persona. Listening is actually a really good first step:
My thinking has changed since I wrote I kissed dating goodbye. I think that it’s premise is flawed. I don’t agree with a lot of my own book. But whether you agree with me today or what I wrote 20 years ago I hope you will think for yourself and I hope you will engage with people who have stories different from you. I hope you take the time to listen to them. Listening to people has changed me. I want to say to anyone who was hurt by my book that I’m so sorry, that I know that’s coming too late and I know it doesn’t change anything for you, but I never meant to harm you and I hope somehow that me going back and evaluating all this, and owning up to mistakes in my book, will somehow help you on your journey. I used to be so afraid of getting something wrong but I’m not afraid anymore. You can change your mind about things. You can make mistakes. Honestly, there is something so freeing about saying I was wrong.
However I can’t get over his obliviousness over the seriousness of the consequences of his former teachings. Is he not admitting things publicly to protect his self image? Is his psyche protecting itself by compartmentalizing? Or does he simply not know?
Next time – unless I get distracted by something else, of course – I’m going to write some about how these teachings affected me personality and some of the ways I’ve had to grapple with undoing these harmful teachings. It’s an ongoing process.