Do Joshua Harris’s Books Contain “Valuable Advice”?

Do Joshua Harris’s Books Contain “Valuable Advice”? October 24, 2012

Several weeks ago I had a twitter exchange with fellow blogger Dianna Anderson:

After this exchange, Jessica of Faith Permeating Life, a blogger who defines herself as a Christian feminist, took issue with Dianna and my statements. She responded with a post called  “What I Learned from Joshua Harris” in which she argued that Harris’ books taught her many valuable things, and stated that she continues to recommend them to Christian couples. In this blog post I’m going to respond to Jessica’s post, and in my post tomorrow I will outline what I learned from Joshua Harris.

For those who didn’t grow up in evangelical culture, let me explain a little about Joshua Harris before I go any farther. Joshua Harris is the son of Greg Harris, an early and extremely prominent Christian homeschool advocate and speaker. Josh, like his siblings, grew up homeschooled. As a young adult – I believe he was only 21 – he became dissolusioned with the dating scene and wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which became an instant success among young evangelicals many of whom, like I did, approached the book like a Bible. With this book, Harris singlehandedly started the courtship craze among mainstream evangelicals. He followed the book up a couple of years later with a book called Boy Meets Girl outlining his own successful courtship and marriage. Insta-hit #2. He then followed that up with a book called Not Even A Hint, in which he discussed how Christians should deal with lust and sexual desire. Insta-hit #3.

With that out of the way, I turn to Jessica’s post. Jessica begins by stating that she read Boy Meets Girl in college, though she never actually read I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Then she says the following:

I am not a proponent of the idea that you must be right about everything or agree with me on everything to make a valuable contribution to people’s lives. … So while I don’t think Joshua Harris gets everything right, his books were valuable to me, and I want to talk about why.

If I had come from a conservative, evangelical background, then perhaps his books would have reinforced for me ideas like “men are the head of the family” or “men and women have unique and specific roles decided by their genitals.” But that’s not where I was coming from when I read Boy Meets Girl. I attended public school up until college and was raised by a very liberal-leaning mother. I spent far too much of my time trying to get guys to like me and/or bemoaning the fact that nobody was interested in me. By the time I started college I had decided to stay single forever. Then a group of girls on my floor freshman year decided to do a book club (that only had one meeting ever) and read Boy Meets Girl.

So with that introduction, I wanted to turn to the three things Jessica says Harris’ book taught her.

The Value of My Life Independent of a Partner

When I read Boy Meets Girl I was still fairly determined to stay single, and it was clear from Harris’s perspective that was a valid way to live one’s life. Harris reiterates that God loves every person whether or not they’re in a relationship, and that your value doesn’t come from being in a relationship. After wanting throughout all of high school to be in a relationship, this was a lesson it had taken me a long time to learn, and I appreciated having it validated by this book. Here’s part that I underlined: “If you’re single, I believe that God wants you to see that your story has begun. Life doesn’t start when you find a spouse. Marriage is wonderful, but it’s simply a new chapter in life.”

Yes, Harris does say that that a woman’s life is valuable whether or not she is in a relationship, and he’s no the only evangelical to say this. Given that there’s lots out there in the evangelical/fundamentalist world that tells girls the opposite – Debi Pearl’s books are a prime example – this is good. But I read a lot of regular feminist blogs, and this is something they hammer all the time. In other words, Jessica could have encountered this validation of her singleness from any of a number of places. Harris didn’t come up with the idea. So I’m glad Jessica took this message from Harris, but that doesn’t mean that this is an idea people need to read Harris to get.

The Value of My Time and Emotions — and Others’

I got in a fight with another girl the winter of my senior year of high school because I was talking about how I didn’t want to start dating anyone as I’d be going to college in a few months and didn’t want a long-distance relationship. She was trying to get it through my head that I could just have a “fling” with someone, that I was 18 and it wasn’t worth taking my relationships so seriously. Note that very few people at our high school “dated” in the traditional sense of going out on a first date — you got to know people as friends through school or clubs, and then if you were mutually interested you decided to start a relationship and be boyfriend and girlfriend. To me, it seemed wrong and deceptive to make that kind of a commitment to someone with the intention of breaking it off in a few months.

What Joshua Harris suggests is that it eats up a lot of time and emotion to “date” anyone you can’t envision being with long-term. Interestingly, what I took away from this is the opposite of the traditional Christian idea, as well as cultural message, for women that seeking a spouse is an important part of your life. Parents and friends will ask a single person when they last went on a date and exclaim that they’re “not even trying” to find a mate if they’re not dating regularly. I didn’t want any part of that. Even after Mike and I became close friends, even after I was pretty sure he was interested in me, even after I started to admit that I liked him, I had to ask myself whether there was a possibility that our relationship could lead to marriage. If there had been no way I could envision ever being married to him, then I wouldn’t have invested my valuable time and emotion in dating him.

There seem to be two ideas put together here: (1) You don’t have to be constantly dating people if you don’t want to be and (2) dating takes valuable time and emotional energy, so you shouldn’t date someone if there isn’t at least a possibility it will lead to marriage. I wholeheartedly agree with the first point, and like I said, you don’t have to go to Harris to find this idea. Every feminist blog I’ve ever read will tell women that they should be able to choose when and if they want to date. But then there is the second point, and that’s where I start disagreeing with Jessica.

While it’s true that dating does take time and energy, Jessica seems to think that this a priori means that it should not be done unless for the purpose of marriage. If that’s the choice that she wants to make – not to date unless it might lead to marriage – that’s totally fine with me. But she seems to assume that it’s some sort of universal truth. It’s not. The reality is that there are other worthwhile things besides marriage to be gained from dating: companionship, relationship skills, and, yes, sex. So yes, dating takes time and energy, but it does have a payoff even if it doesn’t lead to marriage. And even if Jessica doesn’t see this as a universal truth – even if she allows that not wanting to invest the time and energy into dating if it won’t lead to marriage is just her preference, and other women might assess the pros and cons differently – Josh Harris does see it as a universal truth. In fact, Harris teaches that in every relationship you have with a person you don’t marry, you give away a piece of your heart that you can never get back. In essence, he teaches that if you date around before finding the one, you will be compromised. The idea that Jessica could read this and simply come away with “it’s okay to choose if and when I want to date” is mind boggling.

The Value of My Body and Setting Boundaries

When people in high school would start “going out” (being in a relationship), it seemed to come with it some kind of implied consent: You are my girlfriend, so I’m allowed to hold your hand or put my arm around you or kiss you. I hated that because it seemed to strip me of my bodily autonomy and instead put me into a role with pre-set boundaries (or lack thereof).

I read Boy Meets Girl well before Mike and I started dating, and it gave me a needed opportunity to reflect on what I was and wasn’t comfortable with in a relationship. I made a decision at that point that I wanted to save my first kiss for marriage because I was fiercely protective of my body and felt that there were certain things I didn’t want to share with anyone who hadn’t promised a lifelong commitment to me. Mike read Boy Meets Girl around the time we started dating and it caused him to give much more thought to his body and to the physical component of our relationship than he had previously. It gave us a vocabulary to discuss our physical intimacy, and we regularly checked in with one another that our physical intimacy was growing out of our emotional intimacy and not outpacing it or being an end to itself.

Um. I know I’m starting to sound repetitive here, but read any feminist blog, talk to any feminist out there, and you will hear the importance of being able to set your own physical boundaries affirmed enthusiastically. No one can make you do something with your body that you don’t want to do, even if that someone wears the title “boyfriend.” In fact, feminists have worked long and hard to dismantle the idea that being boyfriend/girlfriend – or being husband/wife – implies consent. That’s why marital rape wasn’t criminalized – or even acknowledged to exist – until after the emergence of feminism. So that Jessica had to find the idea of “consent” (i.e. that she gets to say what she does with her body and when) from Harris and hadn’t ever heard it anywhere else – even from her “liberal-leaning mother” – is astounding.

The thing is, Joshua Harris does not teach that everyone should be able to set their own physical boundaries as they feel comfortable. I find the idea that he teaches women that they are in control of their bodies and can choose when to say yes and when to say no almost laughable. Harris’ goal is to teach people to say no. He teaches that sex before marriage is sinful, and that other acts of physical intimacy, depending on the couple, may make waiting for sex too tempting and should therefore also be put off, for those couples, until marriage. In other words, Harris says that you should set boundaries to ensure that you don’t slip into “sexual sin,” not that you should be allowed to set boundaries because it’s your body and you get to say what you do and don’t do with it. This is an extremely important difference!

In other words, Jessica says that Harris taught her that being single is okay, that she should be able to choose when and if to date, and that consent is important in boy/girl relationships. The idea that Jessica, raised by a “liberal-leaning mother,” first encountered these ideas in Harris’ books points to a real failure on the part of feminism in getting its ideas out. But Jessica also says that Harris taught her that dating without the possibility of it leading to marriage is a waste of time and energy and shouldn’t be done, and unless she ignored half the book she can’t have not come away without the idea that voluntarily choosing to have sex before marriage is sinful, even with total consent. More on these things tomorrow.

A couple more things before I finish. Some of Jessica’s paragraphs left me wondering if we’d read the same books. This one, for example:

I also appreciated Harris’s acknowledgement that different people have different comfort levels. Some couples who want to save sex for marriage can kiss without feeling that that tempts them to cross the boundaries they’ve set for their relationship. Some can’t. One is not morally superior to the other; it’s about being honest with yourself (as a couple) and making choices for yourself about what’s important to you and what works for you. Similarly, Not Even a Hint didn’t condemn masturbation in and of itself, but instead talked about particular issues with fantasizing about and lusting after another person’s body independent of the rest of that person. I took away questions more than specific commands: What effect does this have on you and your relationship? Are you being honest with yourself and your partner?

Seriously. The idea that Harris is simply suggesting that some couples choose to save sex for marriage, and that for those couples kissing before the wedding can sometimes be too much temptation … what? Even her description of Not Even a Hint doesn’t sound like the book I read. The idea that all Harris is combating there is the sexual objectification of women is just … bizarre. Especially when his definition of “lust” is “desiring sexually what God has forbidden.” Also, as for masturbation, in my memory Harris condemns any sex act not done with your partner, so unless we’re talking about two people masturbating themselves while naked in bed together, masturbation is out. Again, I’m feeling like surely Jessica and I must have read two completely different books!

Jessica finishes with this:

So for someone raised in a conservative Christian environment, Joshua Harris’s books may well be more of the same. But for someone like me, coming from a liberal, secular background in which my peer group and media told me my value came from being in a relationship; that I should always seek to date even with no intention of making a long-term commitment; that physical intimacy is dictated by social norms and not my own comfort level — Joshua Harris’s books were a breath of fresh air.

Here was someone telling me it was OK if I wanted to put very high standards on who was allowed to kiss me or have sex with me.

It was OK if I didn’t want to date anyone I couldn’t see myself being with for life.

It was OK if I wanted my spouse to seek sexual satisfaction from me alone, and wanted to keep porn out of our relationship.

Did I take his books as a word-for-word manual of how to conduct my relationships? No. Did I get validation I needed about my value and guidance for a healthy relationship? Yes.

Somehow Jessica read Harris’ books and came away with solely feminist messages about things like consent and choice. How in the world this could happen is utterly baffling to me. This is basically the opposite of what I got from Harris’ books! His books aren’t about “you can choose what you want and set your boundaries.” They’re about “here is what you have to choose and here are the boundaries you have to set.” Don’t date unless it might lead to marriage. Dating except as a vehicle to marriage is bad. Don’t have sex before marriage. That’s sin. Eliminate anything that might lead you to have sex before marriage, even if that means waiting to kiss until the alter. Also, girls, put on some more clothes. You wouldn’t want to make your boyfriend think sexual thoughts about you, because that would be sin. Oh, and in every relationship you have that doesn’t lead to marriage, you give that other person a piece of your heart, which will mean you have less to give the person you ultimately marry. This isn’t simply my interpretation of Harris. This is what Harris says.

Also baffling to me is how someone come from a “liberal, secular background” and not know anything about consent, or about the importance of being in control of one’s own body, or that who and when to date is a person’s choice and totally up to them. I get that Jessica says she got these messages from peers and media, but how could her “liberal-leaning” mother not work to counteract those messages? Was there nothing to counter those massages? Doesn’t sex education cover consent? How? How? How? I don’t understand!

Again, I’m glad Jessica somehow found feminist messages in Harris. However, she could have found these same messages from any feminist source, and without the baggage. And additionally, I and many others who grew up on these books came away with messages so different that they might as well have been the opposite. In fact, they were the opposite. I suppose Jessica’s post teaches us that once in a while it’s possible to read something toxic and somehow, miraculously, come out intact.

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