Is Josh Harris Actually Taking Responsibility?

Josh Harris was interviewed on NPR recently. I know this because my husband started yelling at me to come into the kitchen right freaking now and I was like, wait, you can’t just order me to drop everything like that, that’s not how it works, and he was like, trust me, you’re going to want to hear this. And there it was. Josh Harris on NPR, discussing his 1997 book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. After reading his apology two months ago to several bloggers who have, like me, spent years blogging against the problems caused by the purity teachings promoted by Harris and others, I started listening with some optimism. I was seriously, seriously underwhelmed.

Let me use some quotes from the transcript to explain why:

MARTIN: Joshua Harris has been reflecting a lot on the impact of his book. He’s heard from people who felt his writing taught them to be ashamed of their bodies and to feel guilty for having any sexual desires. The criticism came out recently on Twitter. One woman reached out and said the book was used against her like a weapon. Joshua Harris apologized.

HARRIS: I think I’m finally at a place where I’m really trying to listen to those voices. And I think it’s taken time for the consequences of the way that people applied the book and the way the book affected people to play out. And so I’m hearing these different voices saying, here’s how your book was used against me, here’s how it was forced on me, or here’s how I tried to – no one forced it on me, but I tried to apply it and it had this negative consequence in different ways.

I’m trying to go back and really evaluate, you know, where did my book contribute to that? Where was it too stringent? And where was that me and what I was writing, and where was that – the families and the church cultures and so on? So I feel like I’m on the front end of a process to help people in some way if I can apologize where needed and re-evaluate where needed.

Oh my god, really? I mean, “the consequences of the way people applied the book,” is Harris freaking serious with this? That is not what taking responsibility looks like. The problem was not that his book was misunderstood. The problem was what he said in his book. And I mean it wasn’t his only book, either. He wrote an entire book on lust. In that book he claimed that you are experiencing lust any time you feel sexually attracted to someone that is not your lawfully married spouse. Way to make people scared to ever look at anyone in public ever again! He also wrote that masturbation was sin, period, even in marriage, because sexual pleasure was always and only ever meant to be mutual, between spouses. You know, for starters.

But the real issue is how other people applied his book, probably. The real problem was the families and the church cultures, probably. Can we pause and remember that, in his book, he includes a story in which a boyfriend stops by his girlfriend’s home to pick her up, and sends her back into her house to change her clothes because he finds them too sexy? Can we remember that, please? And yes, that story was framed positively. And then there was the story about the woman who dreamed that on her wedding day, all of her former boyfriends came up to the front and told her groom that she had given each of them a piece of her heart, and that now he would never have her whole heart? I didn’t dream that story, and yes, again, it was framed positively. And it scared the shit out of me and thousands of other evangelical girls.

But you know, we probably just understood. Probably.

No. Harris was not misunderstood. This isn’t about people misapplying his teachings. This is about his teachings being wrong and harmful and dangerous. This is about his book and his teachings creating so many problems for young evangelicals that even the extremely conservative evangelical World Magazine took note and published an article expressing concern that Harris’s book had created a culture in which it was almost impossible for evangelical young people to find mates. Yes, really. You would think that someone who wrote a book that caused so many problems would be a bit more circumspect and, just maybe, a bit more willing to take responsibility.

But watch what happens when the host asks Harris directly what he would retract:

MARTIN: As you have gone back through the book, where have you changed your mind?

HARRIS: Honestly, I haven’t engaged that process of reading through the whole book and saying, this is what I think about all these different areas. I think one area I am seeing is that – where my book was used as a rule book to say this is the only way to do it. I know that that’s not helpful. That was not my intention. But I think one of the things that I’m changing in my own thinking is I just think people – myself included – it’s so easy to latch on to a formula. You know, you do these things and you’ll be great. You’ll be safe and you’ll be protected and you’ll be whatever.

And I just don’t think that’s the way life works. I don’t think that’s the way the life of faith works. And so when we try to overly control our own lives or overly control other people’s lives, I think we end up harming people. And I’m – I think that that’s part of the problem with my book.

. . .

I mean he can’t be serious with this, right? He wrote his book in a very authoritative “I’ve figured it out” voice. He presented various principles as, yes, rules. And yet he’s all “my book was used as a rule book to say this is the only way to do it” and all “that was not my intention.” So in other words, when asked for something specifically he changed his mind on that he wrote in his book, all he can come up with is well, everyone else applied my book wrong, I never meant for them to use it as a rule book.

And in his last paragraph? Notice what he still can’t say. He says that we shouldn’t latch onto formulas and that when we try to control other people’s lives “we end up harming people.” Not “I harmed people.” He can’t seem to admit that his book caused hurt. Instead, everything has to be passive voice, or plural, or vague, or someone else’s fault (i.e. the churches or communities or those reading his book).

Some may think I’m being too hard on Harris. I suppose it’s possible. He does seem to admit, in the very last sentence above, that his book itself does have problems, apart from the way it was applied by individuals, churches, and communities. But even here it’s not clear what he’s talking about, or what he means. What problems is he referring to? Does he mean his book focused overly on controlling other people? Or does he mean his book presented a formula? Why can’t he be direct? And why didn’t he lead with the problem with his book rather than leading with the problem being how other people applied the book in ways he never intended?

This lack of directness suggests that either Harris is in the very beginning stages of rethinking his writing (stages where he’s still primarily blaming others for misinterpreting it), or that Harris wants to portray himself as reformed, improved, and better while still teaching the exact same freaking things. Which, by the way, brings me to the next section.

MARTIN: That’s such a hard needle to thread, though, right? If you’re Christian, you believe that there’s a way to live a life. There are rights and wrongs. And so how do you stay true to that and at the same time be open to other people’s views that may exist in contrast to those rights and wrongs?

HARRIS: Well, you’re exactly right. I believe that the Bible does give certain commandments and guidance and so on. I think, though, that it’s really easy for Christians to take truths from God’s word and principles and then in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways add extra human regulation onto it. For example, there are clear things in statements in Scripture about our sexuality being expressed within the covenant of marriage. But that doesn’t mean that dating is somehow wrong or a certain way of dating is the only way to do things.

I’m sorry, what?! Did I very much miss something, or is the title of Harris’s book not I Kissed Dating Goodbye? If he no longer believes dating is wrong, why didn’t he mention that when the host asked him what he’d changed his mind on? I suspect I know. I suspect Harris doesn’t think his book actually told people not to date. I mean, what he really meant was that people should make sure they’re focused on finding a marital partner, not just, you know, having fun. I suspect he thinks the whole “don’t date” thing is just how other people applied it. But again, I point you to the title of the book. This isn’t other people misapplying it. This is what he taught.

Lest we get bogged down in semantics, let me point out that the idea that every relationship must be marriage-focused—an idea that Harris most definitely taught in his book—is itself a problem. I wish I’d understood, growing up, that sometimes being in a relationship is about learning more of what you want in a partner, or learning to be a better partner yourself, that relationships needn’t always and only be about marching toward marriage. Harris teaches that you shouldn’t start a relationship until you are ready to marry, because the entire point of getting to know a member of the opposite sex romantically should always and only be marriage. That’s a problem, not only because dating around before marrying can help people learn what they want in a partner, but also because a laser-like focus on marriage can result in people getting too serious too quickly. But I very much doubt we will ever see Harris admit any of this, for reasons we see below.

Looking at the above passage again, for a moment, notice Harris’s inability to take direct responsibility. He doesn’t say “I took God’s word and added extra regulation to it, and I should not have done that.” No, he says “it’s really easy for Christians to take truths from God’s word and . . . add extra human regulation onto it.” The problem, once again, is other people. It’s possible that Harris means to include himself there, but even if he is, his inability to say “I made a mistake” or “I added to God’s word” or “I caused harm” is quite striking.

There’s another problem here, too. Notice that Harris still believes that sex should only occur within marriage. A lot of the critique of purity culture teachings more generally revolves around the way in which they make people who have had sex (particularly women) feel like they are ruined, dirty, second-rate, damaged goods. There’s a whole book about this. Harris cannot truly engage with that problem while still teaching that premarital sex is a sin.

But actually, the problem is deeper than that. Harris isn’t just talking about sex. He says that the Bible is clear that “about our sexuality being expressed within the covenant of marriage.” Our sexuality. What does that mean? It means that it is wrong to awaken sexual desire before marriage. It means that it is wrong to make out, to kiss, and possibly even to touch. I’d like to imagine this isn’t what Harris means here, I really would, but that really is what it means when an evangelical pastor says that our sexuality is only to be expressed within marriage. And if Harris hasn’t changed on this point, at all, he can’t correct the problems he caused with his book.

And so it comes down to this: The problem, for Harris, appears to be not what he said in his book, but rather how others applied it. The problem, for Harris, appears to be that others made it into a formula or a rulebook, which he certainly didn’t intend! But when pressed on what teachings he’s actually retracting? He can’t say, and from where I’m standing, it looks like he can’t say because he’s not retracting any. Oh he says dating is not wrong, but given that he said our sexuality should be reserved only for marriage in the same breath, that sounds to me like nothing more than semantics. What really is he changing? Ponder that. What, specifically, is he taking back?

It’s become all the rage for would-be hip pastors like Harris to denounce formulas. They deride any attempt to add rules to the word of God—that is, until some young Christian blogger points out that the New Testament is way more hung up on greed than it is on sex before marriage, and that maybe we should be focusing more on love than on how people use their private parts. And then, suddenly, these hip pastors are a-okay with standing up and shouting “NO NO NO THE BIBLE IS VERY CLEAR ON THAT” as though they aren’t, in fact, adding to the Bible by doing so. They’re all about not using formulas, except for, you know, their own formulas. These hip pastors are all about Christianity being a relationship between a Christian, God’s word, and the Holy Spirit, until, that is, some young, well-read Christian dares to disagree with them. Then it’s suddenly very important to have a pastor dictating what God really said, and creating rules and requirements.

Look, I grew up in a conservative evangelical megachurch where I was constantly told that Christianity is a relationship, not a religion. I get it. It’s incredibly typical for evangelicals to rail against formulas while at the same time using formulas to police the boundaries of religious belonging. I know because I lived it. It was never just about the ordinary Christian and their Bible, because I still believed in the Bible and loved Jesus when I was cast out of the fold for transgressing the invisible borders of belonging. Don’t tell me you don’t have formulas. You bloody well have formulas. I’m sorry, but rejecting formulas means a hell of a lot more than proclaiming on NPR that you’re rejecting formulas. Actually, no, I’m not sorry.

Nice try. Not enough. Try harder.

For what it’s worth? I read I Kissed Dating Goodbye when I was fourteen years old. I know this because I wrote about it in my diary, which I still have. I wrote in my diary, upon finishing the book, that I’d realized it was wrong to have crushes. That’s right. Up till then I regularly wrote about my crushes in my diary. I never even talked to them. It was all about whether they’d been at this event or that, and so forth. And then I read I Kissed Dating Goodbye. And then I realized that my crushes were sinful, and resolved to stop, and felt guilty when I still crushed on boys, rinse, lather, repeat. I did the same thing with masturbation, by the way, a horrid guilty cycle.

Would Harris suggest that I was misapplying his book, at fourteen years old? Would he retract the teachings that caused me so much pain and confusion? Or would he say his teachings in these areas were biblical, and my guilt was real? That I don’t know shows just how far Harris is from actual, real, meaningful change.


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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.