What I Learned from Joshua Harris

With his books I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Boy Meets Girl, Joshua Harris singlehandedly made the word “courtship” popular in mainstream evangelical circles. Yesterday I responded to a post another blogger wrote about what she learned from Joshua Harris. Today I’m following up by discussing what I learned from Joshua Harris. I don’t own a copy of Harris’ book at the moment, but given that this post is about the messages his book gave me at the time, not simply a review of his book, I think that’s fair. When I finish reviewing Created To Be His Help Meet, I may start in on I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

I read Joshua Harris’s books while I was in middle school and high school. They had a huge impact on me, and on how I viewed relationships. I read I Kissed Dating Goodbye almost immediately after it came out. I was in middle school, just starting to develop and have questions about boys. I was a blank slate when it came to relationships. It was the first thing I read, followed later by Boy Meets Girl and Not Even A Hint.

Courtship, Not Dating

As the title of I Kissed Dating Goodbye makes clear, Joshua Harris is not keen on dating. Instead of dating, he endorses “biblical courtship.” Now to be fair, Joshua Harris’ definition of courtship is not the same as the ideas put forward by Christian Patriarchy leaders, which stress parental involvement and control. Rather, for him courtship is “dating with a purpose.” In other words, you shouldn’t start a relationship with someone unless you are actually ready to get married and think the person in question is likely the one you want to marry. Harris condemns “recreational dating” in no uncertain terms.

Interestingly, conservative evangelical World magazine published an article last year about how Harris has messed up the dating scene for evangelical youth. As they explained in an article last year, many evangelical young people today are afraid to date. They avoid asking each other out for fear that a relationship might end in failure and leave them sullied. Indeed, asking someone out has become almost equivalent to asking someone to marry you.

Joshua Harris taught me that dating was wrong. He taught me that having relationships that didn’t lead to marriage was wrong. As a result, my first romantic relationship was serious from day one. It was all about “is this the person I’m going to marry or not?” I obsessed over that question. I knew that if I broke up with him I would be damaged goods, but also that I should break up with him immediately if I felt our relationship was not leading to marriage. I regret this. I wish I’d known that it was okay to date without being being immediately serious. I wish I’d known that dating around helps you learn what you want in a spouse, and helps you gain valuable relationship skills. I wish I had dated around. Instead, I married the first person I ever dated, due in no small part to Joshua Harris’ teachings. Of course, I don’t regret marrying Sean. I do, however, regret not dating around beforehand and making our relationship so serious so fast instead of letting it develop more naturally and with less stress.

Emotional Purity

The reason that Joshua Harris condemns “recreational dating” is not simply because it is in his view a waste of time but also because he believes in a concept I have termed “emotional virginity.” Harris teaches not only that sex before marriage is wrong, but also that if you have a romantic relationship with someone you do not end up marrying, you give that person “a piece of your heart” that you cannot get back. This means that when you marry, you will not be able to give your spouse your whole heart. In other words, every time you have a romantic relationship that does not end in marriage, you are emotionally cheating on your future spouse. He even offers a scenario that has since been the nightmare of many an evangelical teen:

It was finally here. Anna’s wedding day, the day she had dreamed about and planned for months. The small, picturesque church was crowded with friends and family.

Sunlight poured through the stained-glass windows, and the gentle music of a string quartet filled the air. Anna walked down the aisle toward David. Joy surged within her. This was the moment for which she had waited so long. He gently took her hand, and theyturned toward the altar.

But as the minister began to lead Anna and David through theirvows, the unthinkable happened. A girl stood up in the middle of the congregation, walked quietly to the altar, and took David’s other hand. Another girl approached and stood next to the first, followedby another. Soon, a chain of six girls stood by him as he repeated hisvows to Anna.

Anna felt her lip begin to quiver as tears welled up in her eyes. “Is this some kind of joke?” she whispered to David.

“I’m…I’m sorry, Anna,” he said, staring at the floor.

“Who are these girls, David? What is going on?” she gasped.

“They’re girls from my past,” he answered sadly. “Anna, they don’t mean anything to me now…but I’ve given part of my heart to each of them.”

“I thought your heart was mine,” she said.

“It is, it is,” he pleaded. “Everything that’s left is yours.” A tear rolled down Anna’s cheek. Then she woke up.

Anna told me about her dream in a letter. “When I awoke I felt so betrayed,” she wrote. “But then I was struck with these sickening thoughts: How many men could line up next to me on my wedding day? How many times have I given my heart away in short-term relationships? Will I have anything left to give my husband?”

After reading I Kissed Dating Goodbye, I was afraid to so much as have a crush on a boy. I had always been taught that I should be sexually pure, but adding emotional purity to the mix raised everything to the next level. For me, it was easy to be sexually pure. None of my friends were dating, and I didn’t even really know any guys my age anyway. As for sexual thoughts, I was pretty good at sublimating them. I was not, however, very good at not having crushes on boys. I would make up elaborate daydreams of how this boy or that would ask my father’s permission to court me, and there were of course roses and romantic walks and eventually a ring. But because of Harris, I now believed that these daydreams were wrong. They were a form of cheating on my future spouse. It got to the point where I was afraid to so much as think about guys for fear of cheating on my future spouse.

I wish I’d realized that love is infinite. I wish I’d realized that my girlhood crushes were harmless. I wish I could have enjoyed those feelings instead of hating them and feeling eternally guilty.

Lust and Modesty

Another scene I remember very clearly from I Kissed Dating Goodbye: A guy went to his girlfriend’s house to pick her up, and she came out wearing a tight top, and he told her to go in and change because the shirt was too immodest. The whole point is that we females need to protect our “brothers in Christ” by dressing modestly. I keenly felt the sting of the embarrassment the girl in the story must have felt. I resolved never to give someone reason to send me changing, and was careful to cover up any sign of sexuality. I felt embarrassed by my body, and strove to hide it under loose fitting clothing. Can you say body image issues?

Of course, the whole modesty thing is predicated on how Harris defines “lust.” In Not Even A Hint he defines it as “desiring sexually what God has forbidden.” In other words, the only sexual thoughts or desires that do not count as “lust” are sexual thoughts about your wife. Anything else is sin. Now, it just so happens that women, like men, are also sexual beings. This meant that, naturally, any and every sexual thought I had as a teen I saw as sin. As a result, I suppressed every sexual thought I had, and I got pretty good at it. So good at it, in fact, that by the time I was actually in a relationship I had for all intents and purposes killed my own sexuality. I might have wondered if I were asexual if I had known what that was, but as I sought to open myself up I found over time that I was a sexual being after all. However, those years of repression permanently shaped my sexuality. I wish Harris hadn’t taught me to see my sexuality as a problem to be combated.

Harris’ teachings on lust caused very real problems in my marriage as well. I believed that every time my husband cheated on me every time he had sexual thoughts about another woman. This meant that when we were walking down the street in the summer I would watch his face as well as the people in front of us, looking to see if his eyes lingered on some woman’s legs, breasts, or ass. Any time we passed an attractive woman I would pounce, asking if he had looked at her, or if his mind had lingered on her. If he was away for the day I was waiting when he came back to ask if he’d seen, and thought about sexually, any attractive women that day. This all naturally drove a wedge between us. I felt I couldn’t trust him, since I was taught both that men are extremely sexual beings and that any time they think about sex they are de facto cheating. I feel like what I was taught was “Your husband will cheat on you no matter what. Be ready to resent him for it, and also to resent those sluts who set your husband up for this by their appearance.” And resent I did. He, in turn, felt that I was being unreasonable and that no matter how hard he tried to show me it I couldn’t see that he was head over heels in love with me. If we had gone on like that, Harris’s teachings about lust might have tanked our marriage. Fortunately, I eventually rejected Harris’s teachings about lust, and when I did, my marriage blossomed.

Who’s the Purist One of All?

In I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Harris tells about a car ride with two newly-married friends. The couple was holding hands even though one was in the passenger seat and the other was in the back, and Harris commented that it must have been hard to avoid sexual sin while they were dating, if they can’t keep their hands off each other like this. The couple then told him that they hadn’t kissed each other until their wedding day. Why? Because they knew that they were both such physical people that if they started kissing each other it would be impossible to stop there, and that they would end up having sinful premarital sex. Harris commends them for this, and holds them up as an example.

While Harris says that not everyone has to save kissing for the wedding, that wasn’t enough to counteract his ringing commendation of this couple’s strong chastity. This passage made a strong impression on my middle-school self. What that passage taught me was that there were different degradations of purity. Sure, a couple might save sex for marriage, but if they were already kissing before marriage were they really pure? They sure weren’t as pure as they could be! With that passage Harris raised the bar. Purity became a contest. “Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the purist one of all?” Today there are couples who not only don’t kiss, but actually don’t hug, or even hold hands, before marriage.

Conclusion

Reading Joshua Harris’s books seriously warped my view of sexuality and relationships. I am not engaging in hyperbole when I say that my life would have been very different had Joshua Harris not put pen to paper. Sure, I still would have been taught to save sex for marriage. I still would have been conditioned to feel guilty when having sexual thoughts. But I doubt that I would have ended up seeing purity as a contest without Harris’s raising of the bar, and I don’t know that emotional virginity was even a thing in evangelical circles before Harris championed it. The extent of my repression and guilt would have been less if I’d never heard of Harris, and if his ideas hadn’t permeated evangelical culture. And more than that, without Harris I wouldn’t have seen dating as something wrong, or believed that having relationships that didn’t end in marriage would leave me sullied. I wouldn’t have believed that any relationship had to immediately be 100% serious and marriage focused. And without that, my life would have been very different.

More than that, I’m honestly not sure whether my parents would have been caught up in the (parent-controlled) courtship movement had Harris not made the term mainstream among evangelicals. My parents, after all, dated, and to my knowledge they didn’t see a problem with this until after Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye came out (in 1997). If Harris hadn’t made the term “courtship” common and normal among evangelicals, I doubt that Doug Phillips et al could have swayed so many with their dreams of strictly parent-controlled courtships and, more than that, with their teachings that adult daughters remain under their father’s authority.

You have to understand that by the time Josh came around, the Harris name was already widely respected. His father was a prominent Christian homeschool leader and speaker going back to the 1980s. People like my parents trusted him, and they put a lot of weight on his son’s books as a result. They accepted them without the level of skepticism they might have applied had the Harris name been unknown. When Josh Harris normalized the courtship ideal, he also unwittingly gave credibility to more extreme voices, and that the courtship and stay-at-home-daughter movement came into full bloom in the years following the publication of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, and not before, is not surprising. Harris was the gateway drug.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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