Explaining in the Guise of Listening: A Review of Josh Harris’ New Documentary

Explaining in the Guise of Listening: A Review of Josh Harris’ New Documentary December 27, 2018

Josh Harris’ documentary, released last month, is titled “I Survived ‘I Kissed Dating Goodbye.'” When you watch the documentary, you realize that the I in the title refers not to those who were harmed by the book and made it out with scars and painful memories, but rather to Harris. The documentary’s byline makes this clear: “What if your views on sex and relationships as a 21-year-old influenced millions?” The documentary is not about us. It’s about him.

Harris spends most of the documentary interviewing a range of people, primarily other evangelicals who have written about dating, relationships, or sex. Harris does include clips of Skype interviews with a variety of ordinary people, some adamant about how much his book helped them and others talking about ways his book hurt them, but these interviews are short. They’re snippets. They don’t tell full stories. The only full story we hear is Harris’s.

Even Harris’ interview with Elizabeth Esther—which she has stated was highly abridged—does not go into detail on her story and experiences. At various points, we hear people talk about how Harris’ book made them afraid to talk to the opposite sex—some of these segments are particularly moving—but only in short clips. We don’t hear stories of women who married the first guy they courted because they believed they had to, only to find themselves stuck in an abusive marriage. We don’t hear the pain and hurt that can go on for years, the damage and broken lives.

Harris also does not question standard teaching about sexual purity. He does critique the focus on virginity—noting that there are many ways a person can sin, and that we don’t use “virginity” as a framework for people who haven’t lied, and so forth. He says “the focus of the purity movement overshadowed God’s message of grace.” He interviews Debra Hirsch, the author of Redeeming Sex, who says that “sexual sin damages who we are as people,” and that we should show more grace to those in sexual sin, because they’re hurting. It is still, however, framed as sin.

If Harris hasn’t changed his mind on viewing sex before marriage as “sexual sin” and on seeing it as damaging, what has he changed his mind on? Harris says he has come to terms with “the idea of dating being healthy.”

Oh—but not dating like Tinder. Indeed, dating is still presented as dangerous and scary. Harris interviews a woman who talks about all the problems with modern dating and dating apps. He concludes as follows: “Courtship can leave people broken. So can Tinder.” Whether intended this way or not, this statement—a direct quote, by the way—reads as a way of getting himself off the hook: sure, his book hurt people, but hey, so do modern approaches to dating!

This brings me to Harris’s biggest missed opportunity. Toward the beginning of the documentary, Harris sets out to examine what led to his writing his book. He looks in particular at 1990s purity movements like “True Love Waits” and “The Silver Ring Thing.” He discusses his participation in these and interviews experts on the phenomenon.

Harris goes on to conclude that this was all the sexual revolution’s fault. That’s right, he blames it on liberals. Harris claims that the True Love Waits movement (which he says drove him to write his book) bought into secular society’s focus on sex, sex, sex. The purity movement took this obsession with sex, he says, and used it to promote abstinence. If you wait until marriage, the argument went, you will have the absolute best, most amazing sex life. In effect, he argues, the purity movement adopted secular society’s focus on sex, which itself was born out of the sexual revolution.

“We had bought into the idea that sex was essential for fulfillment and happiness.”

This, Harris says, was the lie of the sexual revolution. This was the lie the purity movement used to sell abstinence. And, Harris says, because sex is only acceptable within marriage—something he never even hints at questioning—this obsession with sex resulted in a harmful over-focus on marriage. In this vein, Harris interviews several life-long evangelical singles who repeat the idea that evangelicalism shouldn’t be so marriage-focused.

To put it politely, this analysis leaves a lot to be desired. To put it more directly, this analysis is bullshit, and harmful.

Evangelicals are more obsessed with sex than American society as a whole. Evangelicals’ obsession with sex stems from evangelicals’ unbending efforts to stop young people from having sex. Their obsession, in other words, started with them and their own beliefs. It didn’t come from mainstream culture. Harris concludes that evangelicals should be more ok with not having sex. Given that one of the criticisms of Harris’ book is that his teachings resulted in marriages that are sexually incompatible (and that this has caused problems) this response feels tone deaf.

If Harris wants evangelicals to stop being so obsessed with sex, he could start by questioning evangelicals’ unbending insistence that sex outside of marriage is sin. But he doesn’t. At all. Instead he simply suggests that maybe it’s okay to not have sex, or to have unsatisfying or unfulfilling sex. Sex isn’t really that important, he says. Don’t be obsessed with sex. But also don’t have it before marriage. That’s sexual sin. That damages you. Don’t do that. It’s bad.

The above flubbed analysis is only one piece of the missed opportunity I mentioned earlier, however. What is the other part? Harris never examines why evangelical leaders were so quick to embrace a book written by a 20-year-old. Because there were reasons! Harris’ father was one of the leaders of the Christian homeschooling movement. This movement set out to created a carefully curated super-youth that would conquer and rule the world; in the process, they created a culture hyper-focused on the supposed profound teachings of teens with no life experience at all.

Any young person who parroted the party line was treated as a prophet. So wise! So mature! (Any young person who didn’t parrot the party line had been seduced by the world and need not be listened to.) Harris’ family was front and center of this movement. At sixteen, Harris’ younger brothers Brett and Alex founded The Rebolution. At nineteen, they co-wrote a book titled: “Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations.”

I would have liked to have seen all of this examined. Harris explains why he wrote his book—he says he was swept up in the purity movement of the 1990s—but he doesn’t explain why so many adult evangelical leaders were so quick to place a book written by a 20-year-old kid with almost no experience on the same level with the Bible. I, for one, would have liked to have seen the toxicity of late ’90s and early 2000s Christian homeschool culture examined.

Harris does partially note that the failure surrounding his book was systemic. At one point, he pushes back against the idea that the teens and young adults who read his book should have been more discerning. He pointed out that, in many communities, if your parents gave you this book—or if your pastor endorsed it—you were expected to honor that. “It is not an easy thing, to just say ‘well this isn’t the Bible so I can disagree and reject this’,” he says. It’s hard to go against the flow. Harris says he often felt like he couldn’t go against the flow even as the pastor of a church. 

Out of the entire documentary, Harris’ acknowledgement that those reading his book did so within a climate that pressured them to believe it without questioning may be the only part I find myself appreciating without reservation.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Harris’ documentary—besides its focus on Harris and its failure to tell others’ stories in any but the most truncated way—is its constant “both sides have a point” feel. Toward the beginning of the documentary, Harris sits at a computer and has Skype interviews with dozens of people who were impacted by his book. Some gush about his book; others tell him his book made them afraid to have relationships. He leaves the room and goes out into the alley, looking overwhelmed and stretched thin (I told you this documentary was all about him).

The focus of the documentary throughout is on Harris grappling with what he believes now. This is not primarily difficult because it means admitting he was wrong in the past, however. Harris seems okay with that. Instead, it’s difficult because he’s not sure what he believes now. And one of the reasons for that is that even as he’s receiving feedback from his books’ critics, he’s also receiving feedback from his book’s fans. This, the documentary tells us, is really difficult for him. What is he supposed to think? Poor Harris! How hard! Don’t you feel bad for him?

One problem with this “both sides” atmosphere is that Harris never examines why so many people have told him his book helped them. What reasons do they give? Are these individuals who believe that those who have multiple dating relationships have given away pieces of their heart they will never get back, leaving them incomplete? If so, their claim that his book helped them is built on a faulty foundation. None of this is ever examined. 

Instead, Harris simply says things like this:

“Life is full of contradictions. My book hurt people. My book helped people. And the tension of both those things being true, I think, reflects the complexity of reality.”

No it doesn’t. It reflects the need to spend more time analyzing what actually happened. Why do some people say they were helped? What are their reasons? This analysis is not rocket science, and without it, the documentary feels half baked. It feels premature. It feels like an unfinished thought process. It feels like a great big shrug. Harris appears to have done less actual analysis of his teachings than I have here on this blog—or a dozen other bloggers.

He’s also frustratingly vague.

Toward the end, Harris says this:

“My thinking has changed since I wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbye. I think that its premise is flawed. I don’t agree with a lot of my own book.”

I watched this with question marks in my head. Harris never comes right out and says “these are the things I now disagree with, and these are the things I still think I got right.” I’m not even sure what he thinks was its premise. If I’d have to guess, I’d say Harris sees his book’s focus on rules—with its “money-back guarantee” of a perfect marriage, as Elizabeth Esther put it—as his book’s premise. But what about its focus on “giving away pieces of your heart”?

Harris came out against dating, in his book, because he argued you could not date someone without giving away a piece of your heart. Indeed, Harris opens his documentary with a painful reenactment of perhaps the most damaging section of his entire book. A man and woman stand at the alter—looking painfully young. Then, one after another, half a dozen other women walk to the front and line up on the man’s other side. The woman asks who these other women are, and her soon-to-be husband says they were the women of his past—other women he has dated.

Harris never takes the idea of emotional purity on directly, though, despite starting with this reenactment. Certainly, he says he now sees dating as something that can be healthy. But he never explains why. In fact, when one woman he interviews—the woman who talked about Tinder and modern dating—says she feels like she has given away pieces of her heart to each man she dated, Harris doesn’t question it. He doesn’t push back. He just lets it sit there.

Perhaps this is because his documentary is framed as a sort of listening tour. Harris listens to fans and critics (via Skype). Harris listens to academic experts on the purity movement of the 1990s. Harris listens to lifelong singles. Harris listens to other evangelical authors of marriage and purity books. He puts his hands behind his head and leans back, musing. He climbs mountains (no, really). He stands in alleys in Vancouver, looking conflicted and thoughtful.

At one point, Harris interviews a woman who writes books on purity for teenage girls. She talks about questioning whether to use the word “purity” in her ministry, given that in the Bible, the word “purity” did not mean “virginity.” She talks about how many of the girls she works with think they’re “pure” because they haven’t had PIV sex, when in fact they’re skanky whores. Okay, she didn’t use that term. That that is how she feels about these girls is crystal clear, however. Harris does not question any of this. Instead, he smiles, nods, looks thoughtful, and nods some more.

Do you know who Harris doesn’t talk to? Secular marriage counselors. Any secular counselors at all. Or basically, anyone who isn’t evangelical. Talking to Elizabeth Esther was the closest he got to getting outside of his bubble, and she has stated on twitter that he highly edited his bits with her in the final footage. He talked almost exclusively to other evangelical sex, dating, and marriage experts. He never placed himself in a position to be challenged. He does not appear to have considered that maybe—just maybe—non-evangelicals with expertise in marriage or relationships might be worth listening to.

Harris finishes by encouraging his viewers to question what they read and think things through for themselves, and by urging his versers to take time to listen to those who disagree with them (there’s that “both sides have a point” feel again). After his earlier comments about how hard it can be to question the party line in many communities, however, this feels inadequate. Where are his words to pastors and other church leaders? Why does it seem like he is only speaking to laypeople—and young ones, at that? Where is his condemnation of the system that created this toxicity?

Harris has put himself back on the podium he ostensibly vacated when leaving his pastorate to go to seminary. He’s preaching to those who read his book, offering them his new wisdom, sharing himself as a person—and, in the end, being explainy in the guise of listening. Somehow, despite wanting answers, I’m no more clear now on what Harris believes (and what he does not believe) than I was before I watched his documentary.

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