Copies of the 1997 bestseller “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” and its sequel, “Boy Meets Girl” probably still sit on the shelf at my parents’ home. Along with, it seemed, all the other homeschooled teens at that time, I read them, and our parents and churches encouraged it.
The basic message of Joshua Harris’s early books, written when he was barely out of the teenage years, is that dating can be intensely self- and sex-focused, as well as serial and unintentional. He had been hurt, and had hurt girls he dated, and he wanted to stop that. Before he had successfully done it himself, Harris suggested replacing casual dating with “courtship,” a more intentional approach to dating focused on marriage and commitment.
Now, 22 years after “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” came out, Harris is leaving his wife and his faith. It would seem a bit like major whiplash if you don’t know much about legalism, the homeschooling and evangelical subcultures, or Harris’s trajectory since his bestseller. But, after a bit of reflection, it’s sadly not that surprising at all.
Who Is Josh Harris? Not Exactly Who You’ve Heard
Harris is the son of Gregg and Sono Harris, who were major figures in the 1980s homeschooling revival and together had seven children (Sono died of cancer in 2010). They published well-known family and homeschooling books. My parents also owned Gregg’s “The 21 Rules of This House,” which included “We love God” and “We tell the truth,” complete with posters of each rule to stick around the house. Gregg and Sono’s children include authors Alex and Brett, twins I knew then through the Home School Legal Defense Association’s high school debate league, another major homeschooling network of the era.
Although Josh Harris didn’t recommend this, some of the Christian and homeschooling types that were his main audience took “kiss dating goodbye” concept really far. I have heard of things like fathers entering into agreements with selected young men to do A, B, and C before the father would allow the young man to “pursue” their daughter in very prescribed ways (“you interact in group settings, mostly with our family,” “the young man has regular ‘accountability meetings’ with the father,” etc.).
The idea was to reduce premarital sex and postmarital divorce, goals I support, but with sometimes bizarre and uber-controlling methods that, to be clear, Harris never endorsed. Also to be clear, this was extremely fringe, not at all a typical response. This kind of parent prevention of their kids’ emergence into adulthood well predated Harris’s books. See cult leaders like Bill Gothard. Harris had nothing to do with any of that. He mostly encouraged people to take dating seriously.
Yet Harris is frequently scapegoated for “purity culture,” which has faced public derision such as Nadia Bolz-Weber’s vagina statue made of melted purity rings. I don’t think Harris deserves all of that blame. Much of this kind of venom is not aimed at “purity culture” so much as at any discussion of the proper uses of sex. G. Shane Morris has some good observations about the hate-against-Harris dynamic here (read the whole thing):
I think many of Harris’ loudest critics are either using his now-repudiated book and the ‘purity culture’ label as soft-target stand-ins for Christian teaching on sex, or else are too eager to re-adjudicate twenty-year-old gripes against their youth group to notice that this is what’s happening.
It seems Harris has internalized rather than repudiated this error of his accusers.
Now Is a Good Time For Lots of People to Repent
Yet Harris’s struggles do raise some questions about what a radio host friend of mine calls “pop American Christianity.” For one: why on earth did a major Christian publishing house decide it was a good idea to publish the musings of an as-yet relationally unsuccessful young man on romance? Why did so many pastors and parents seize on the idea of “courtship” to give theologically garbage advice to young people about sex and marriage? Will there be any reckoning with this within American Christianity?
For Harris’s certainly isn’t the only major evangelical idea to go seriously wrong. There are major pastors and institutions behind debacles like Jim and Tammy Bakker, Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll, Bill Hybels and Willow Creek Community Church, the Catholic Church’s decades of sexual abuse scandals, and so forth. Many of the people who supported these shenanigans remain in prominent positions. This is an utter embarrassment.
Here’s another question: Is there going to be a public reckoning with evangelicalism’s major heresies that fuel cycles of this kind of legalistic faddishness? As Harris’s experience — and the history of American Christianity (indeed, of the world) — shows, legalism leads inevitably to antinomianism. Antinomianism is the fancy theology term for rebelling against God’s law after observing how hard it is to keep it. It’s how Puritans turn into Social Gospelers. Thus, as is human nature, people ping-pong between opposite sides of the gutter rather than taking a straight course between them. But Christianity delineates the straight course, not the gutters.
The answer to legalism isn’t antinomianism. The answer to finding you can’t keep all God’s laws isn’t to say thus God must not actually have any laws. It isn’t to say “I believed that God has careful designs for sex and marriage, but I and lots of people can’t stay in line with them so I’ll just pretend God isn’t real or maybe none of his rules are.” It’s to receive the truth that God perfectly kept all his laws for you, which prompts such great joy that you actually begin to want to do what is right — which the laws defined in the first place. It’s not law or gospel, legalism or license. It’s both, which is liberty.
No, This Doesn’t Invalidate Homeschooling Or Christianity
I am an orthodox Christian. So I critique evangelicalism as a friend, as a part of the family rather than as one of the jackals who love to gather and cackle viciously about the fact that so many sinners are Christians (all of us, in fact!). I also critique homeschooling as a friend, and someone for whom it was easily the best education option out of what was available to my parents, and who still recommends it in specific situations.
Homeschooling has weaknesses and is not perfect for everyone. Too many parents wrongly think if they homeschool they can control how their kids turn out. They can’t (although obviously we can deeply influence our kids). There was a huge wave of disappointment about that a few years ago. Discussing this is important. But I won’t countenance that discussion with people who aren’t willing to acknowledge the far worse rates of, for one thing, sexual and spiritual abuse in public schools. They are just looking to hate on conservatives rather than honestly pursuing what’s good.
We hear a lot about what evangelicalism and homeschooling do wrong because the cackling jackals simply want to use people’s pain to legitimize their own political and moral biases. But we hear very little about what they do right, and there is a lot of good in both, which is what attracts so many people.
Both evangelicalism and homeschooling are growing right now, and it’s not all because of reactionary rubes. Yet I do worry that the excesses of both will hurt more people, of which Harris may be an exemplar. (He also may not. Parents can do everything right and a child still just walks away sometimes. That happens to God all the time.) This is a good opportunity to talk about that so people can learn from others’ mistakes.
Perhaps because I took his ideas about romance merely under advisement, as some practical tips from a countercultural perspective that supported biblical restrictions on sex, Harris’s “I Kissed Dating” and “Boy Meets Girl” positively affected my life. They helped encourage my decision to delay dating until college and sex until marriage, both excellent decisions in retrospect, although difficult.
If my parents or youth pastor had decided to enforce “courtship” on me as if some personal guidelines are equal to biblical commands, I would probably be joining the chorus of hate that has prompted Harris to offer several very public mea culpas. As it is, however, I have gratitude for his public stand against the tide. It, and more importantly the Christian commands it took seriously, saved me a lot of grief. If Mary Eberstadt is right about the connection between sexual profligacy and losing religion, it may also have helped protect my faith.
It’s too bad that what Harris has learned from his youthful stand is to bow to evil instead of resist. Harris appears to be jumping off the other side of the boat of legalism into lawlessness, an extremely common swing. He’s switching from the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son to the prodigal. Both are wrong, and neither represents true Christianity.
If you go to church, don’t go to one that consistently gets this basic and important point of theology wrong. It will be bad for your soul. If you are a praying person, send some up for Harris and his family that some day he will find the Father of that parable, who calls the older brother and younger brother equally to repentance for their sins and a big, joyful party afterward.