Why I’m Concerned about Josh Harris’ New Documentary

Why I’m Concerned about Josh Harris’ New Documentary July 17, 2017

As a teen, I practically worshiped Josh Harris. Raised in a prominent homeschool family—his father was Greg Harris, a popular convention speaker—Harris was homeschool royalty, and at 21, he penned a book that would make him, too, a household name in homeschool families like mine. Harris’ book, cleverly titled I Kissed Dating Goodbye, was published in 1997.

In recent years, Harris has come in for harsh criticism from those of my generation. He has apologized—sort of—and has now embarked on a documentary project taking his ideas to task—sort of. And it’s that sort of that worries me.

Harris’ ideas once reigned supreme in homeschool circles. They came at just the right moment and hit all of the right notes. Harris urged young people to abandon dating altogether, which he suggested was practice for divorce. More than this, he preached the idea of emotional purity—that even dating someone else before meeting your husband meant that you would come into your marriage divided, unable to give your husband your whole heart. Harris’ writings were lauded as Bible truth.

In the past few years, a confluence of the democratic potential of the internet and the distance needed to see in full relief the damage caused by Harris’ ideas has led to a ballooning of criticism, most of it coming from young adults who practiced what Harris preached—and found their lives shipwrecked as a result. I was one of those voices (more here and here), though far from the loudest or most prominent. As the voices grew, Harris apologized (sort of) to one of his critics on twitter. This came a year after Harris took a leave of absence from the ministry to study at Regent College (having not attended seminary previously).

While at Regent, Harris has teemed up with Jessica Van Der Wyngaard, a graduate student with a background in film who was raised on Harris’ teachings. Harris and Van Der Wyngaard are now raising money for a documentary film directed by Van Der Wyngaard and featuring Harris. I have questions. Both Van Der Wyngaard and Harris are holding their cards close regarding what this documentary will actually do—and even about their own current beliefs. I am concerned that the promised documentary may offer a critique of some ephemeral aspects of book while upholding many of its underlying dogma regarding purity.

Yes, really—Harris and Van Der Wyngaard are asking individuals like yourself to donate to their documentary film project without stating what the message of their film will be. I find this troubling. I would like to see Harris and Van Der Wyngaard be more honest and more transparent about what they are doing here—and about the purpose of this project. I don’t feel this is too much to ask.

Some time ago, Harris asked individuals who were influenced by the teachings in his book to send him their stories. Many did. This week, Harris sent an email to those who sent in their stories, asking them for help funding his new documentary project.

Hello Friend,

This past year you took the time to share the story of how my book effected you. I read through yours and many other letters and it was quite the emotional roller coaster for me. Thank you for taking the time to do that.

Notice that there’s no acknowledgement of others’ pain. The only one Harris talks about this being difficult for is himself.

Since last summer I’ve been trying to figure out how to share what I’ve been learning. I’m writing to let you know about a project I’m working on as a result.

Notice that Harris doesn’t give any indication of what he has been learning. He’s asking those he’s emailing to trust him, and to assume on faith that he’s learning the right things from their stories. When has he shown himself worthy of this trust, exactly?

I would just say I’m excited about it (and I am), but that’s only half the story. I’m excited and terrified. This is one of the most challenging and intimidating endeavors I’ve ever undertaken.

Why? I’d like to know more specifics on this.

This project is a documentary and the goal is to capture my journey of reevaluating the message and impact of my book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Partnering with a fellow student, Jessica Wyngaard, I decided to tell this story through a film because I think this will let me highlight other voices, other stories and capture the process of critiquing my own ideas.

What other voices? The answer to that matters. A lot.

In the film I’ll engage with readers and with Christian writers and thinkers to help me process what was good, what was unhelpful and what can be learned from the culture created by the ideas in my book.

Notice Harris’ wording here—what was good, what was unhelpful, and what can be learned from the culture his book created. What about what was bad, what was damaging, and what hurt people?

“Unhelpful” is not a word I would ever use for the ideas taught Harris’ book. If I’m trying to get to from D.C. to Boston and you give me a map of Mexico, that is unhelpful. If I’m trying to get to D.C. to Boston and you give me a map that promises to take me from D.C. to Boston but actually takes me to Cincinnati, that is not unhelpful. It is harmful. It leaves me stranded somewhere I never intended to go, with no way to get back.

As long as Harris continues asserting that part of what his book taught was good, without clarifying which part, and portraying the rest as unhelpful rather than harmful, I can’t trust him. That may sound harsh, but then I’ve seen the damage caused by Harris’ ideas. And it’s not just this one book, either. Harris wrote a book titled Sex Is Not the Problem (Lust Is) that caused me almost as much damage as I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

I’ve seen a lot of people make excuses for Harris’ writing I Kissed Dating Goodbye on the grounds that he was only 21 at the time. What could he really know about relationships, at that age? Of course he was naive, and of course he wrote just what was expected by the Christian homeschool community his father had safely ensconced him in. But Harris’ book about lust was published in 2005, when he was 29. The harmful ideas taught in I Kissed Dating Goodbye weren’t just some youthful mistake Harris made at 21.

But we’re not yet done with Harris’ email. To continue:

I hope this documentary will serve the Church and help spark dialogue among Christians about how we teach and apply ideas about relationships and purity.

Nope nope nope.

Notice that Harris says he wants to spark dialogue about how Christians teach purity. But for many critics of Harris’ book, it is teaching purity itself that is the problem. Harris sounds like he is more interested in fine tuning his approach than in admitting that his ideas were built on toxic foundations.

We are funding this project through Kickstarter so that we can give the film away. I won’t be making anything from it.

I wanted to let you know about the film because your willingness to write me played a part in this vision. Thank you. If you think this idea has value, please help me spread the word about the documentary on social media.

With that, let’s turn to Harris and Van Der Wyngaard’s kickstarter.

In 1997 a 21 year old single Christian wrote a revolutionary book on dating. This book would go on to be an international bestseller and catapult its unsuspecting author, Joshua Harris, into the Christian spotlight. I Kissed Dating Goodbye “turned the Christian singles scene upside down” and continues to shape the consciousness of how Christians view singleness, dating and the roadmap to marriage.

Through the connective platform of social media, Harris has been dealt a battering of online criticism from disenchanted Christians in recent years. Some have lashed out at Harris directly for I Kissed Dating Goodbye and others have set up websites dedicated to Harris’ “victims”. Many online have called for Joshua Harris to apologise for what they believe was hurtful teaching, while others are applauding him for his stance and encouraging him to stand his ground. Harris has felt pressure from all sides to do or say something.

In this documentary, we see Joshua Harris finally ready to speak out about I Kissed Dating Goodbye, 20 years on. 

Seriously? That’s the lede? Not only is there no hint at all about what side Harris will come down on when he speaks out, there are also quote marks about the word victims. This is not auspicious.

Next, Jessica Van Der Wyngaard explains her own reasons for doing this documentary:

Like many of you, I read I Kissed Dating Goodbye when I was a teenager. At the time it had a profoundly positive impact on me. While I was still in high school and beginning life as a young adult, its teachings made total sense. I was part of a church culture that was also affected by the influence of the “anti-dating” craze that was sweeping the (evangelical) church at large, thanks to I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

As a single Christian female approaching 30 I began to question the effectiveness of the book’s teachings in my own life. I was doing everything right, where was my future husband? Despite having these questions I stayed connected to church and my Christian friends. Together we’d often vent our frustrations at the church on how it was handling, or not handling, issues facing their growing single demographic.

It was during this time that I began my MA in Theological Studies at Regent College. Also at this time I felt compelled to respond to the growing frustrations I saw in my fellow believers who grew up reading books such as I Kissed Dating Goodbye and were now feeling let down by its teachings.

I wanted to make a documentary so a greater spectrum of Christian voices could be heard on this important topic that affects all of us. 

While she admits to questioning the effectiveness of I Kissed Dating Goodbye because of her singleness, Van Der Wyngaard also positions herself as “responding to” the frustrations of “fellow believers” who “feel let down” by Harris’ teachings. Nowhere in these paragraphs is she clear on the nature of that response. Responding to critics is manifestly not the same thing as admitting some of the original ideas were wrong. Also concerning, Van Der Wyngaard phrasing puts her in a different group from those critics.

Now yes, I’m reading a lot into these paragraphs. Van Der Wyngaard, after all, also states that she used to vent with fellow Christians about how the church “was handling, or not handling, issues facing their growing single demographic.” It’s possible that she intended to group herself with those who feel let down by I Kissed Dating Goodbye, and the confusion on that point in the third paragraph above is simply the result of bad writing.

However, this is about far more than one sentence. It’s about the sum total of the fundraising materials for this documentary project. As it stands, Harris and Van Der Wyngaard could put together a documentary defending I Kissed Dating Goodbye, adding some small adjustment or ephemeral change while bolstering its core ideas, without being accused of false advertisement. After all, nothing in these materials—either the email or the kickstarter—promises more than a twenty-years-on revisiting of the ideas, with a response to critics.

It’s not as though there isn’t precedent for this. Almost exactly a year ago, two brief months after apologizing to a critic on twitter, Harris went on NPR defending his book. He talked about how other people twisted his book. He talked about how other people applied it wrong. Yes, he said that he was trying to evaluate whether and how the things he wrote in his book contributed to these problems. However, as I noted at the time, his interview overall felt like a defense of his book. Listening to it—and I overheard it live—hurt.

So forgive me if I’m not willing to assume, on faith, that Harris and Van Der Wyngaard’s documentary will be anything more than a defense of Harris’ book. Forgive me if I’m not willing to assume that critics’ stories will be addressed as anything more than a misapplication or misunderstanding of Harris’ ideas and teachings.

After all, here’s another quote from the kickstarter:

Through following Joshua Harris as he engages his critics, his fans and various Christian leaders, we get to see the complexities surrounding sexuality finally given expression and attention.

That does not inspire confidence. Harris won’t just be engaging critics, he’ll also be engaging fans—and various Christian leaders. What Christian leaders? This matters—a lot. Are we talking Doug Wilson, or Rachel Held Evans? Michael Farris, or Samantha Field? And what about Dianna Anderson, whose book, Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity,  included stories from individuals harmed of Harris’ teachings and mapped out a new, and still Christian, approach to sex and relationships?

Note that Harris is still being treated as an authority. It is Harris we are following, not his critics, not those whose lives have been damaged. Others’ perspectives will be filtered through Harris—through his questions, through his filler, through his choices. This is the Harris show, curated by Van Der Wyngaard.

As far as I’m concerned, this entire project is overshadowed by a fundamental lack of honesty about its content and purpose. Now, maybe Harris has questioned the fundamental problems underlying his teachings. Maybe he has arrived at a completely different place. Maybe the Christian leaders he interviews in his project will include individuals like Evans, Field, and Anderson. Maybe this project will be everything critics of I Kissed Dating Goodbye want to see. Maybe—but it isn’t being advertised that way.

This lack of transparency doesn’t incline me to give Harris the benefit of the doubt. And perhaps that is what bothers me—this project is based on assumption that people trust Harris enough to to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume (based on faith) that he has it figured out this time. I can’t do that. What’s mystifying is that Harris seems to think I can. He appears to believe that his critics still trust him to the extent that they would be willing to fund his documentary without any information about the story he will tell in it.

The arrogance of that is boggling.

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