As most of you probably know by now, Josh Harris has now announced that he is no longer a Christian. And that’s great, because now every evangelical out there is declaring that this is the reason Harris has walked back the ideas he made famous in his book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Awesome, that.
I really didn’t want to write about Harris again—I’ve done enough of that—but the fact that I can’t stop thinking about this suggests that I still have more to say about it. I cannot overestimate how much of an impact Harris’ teachings had on my teenage years and adolescence. Some years ago I found a diary I kept for about a year when I was fourteen, and there it was—I wrote about reading Harris’ book. And you know what I wrote? I wrote that I had now become convinced that having crushes on boys was wrong. So, that was fun.
Before a dive further in, let’s start with a timeline of sorts.
In 2015, Josh Harris left his position as pastor of Covenant Life Church, a megachurch in Maryland, to attend seminary—something he hadn’t done before going into ministry. A year later, in 2016, Harris apologized on twitter to a blogger who said she was harmed by the views he taught in his 1997 book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, and said on NPR that he was now listening to critics of purity culture. In 2017, Harris announced that he was participating in a documentary exploring his changing views.
It was at this point that many purity culture advocates, myself included, urged Harris to hit pause and slow down. The way he talked about his changing ideas on dating and purity suggested that he was still processing. We urged him to take some time to listen and sit with what he was hearing.
When Harris’ documentary came out in late 2018, just over six months ago, it was a mess. Harris insisted that sex before marriage was a sin, just like lying. He said that an obsessive focus on virginity undermined God’s message of grace, but he also included a positive interview with an author who said that “sexual sin damages who we are as people.” Even worse, he interviewed a purity culture advocate who said that many teenage girls who are still virgins have engaged in so much other activity with their boyfriends that they are dirty nonetheless, and nodded along. The focus on virginity was was still there.
What had changed? In the documentary, Harris said that he no longer believed that dating itself was wrong—that he had come to see that people can learn through relationships—that even bumps in the road along the way can help people learn what they want in a partner, and that having relationships can teach relationship skills. He no longer believed that your past relationships will hang over your head once you’re married. And … well … that’s about all that had changed.
Oh! Harris also said he’d become convinced that the purity movement he was a part of elevated sex and made it far more important than it was. He didn’t say this to suggest that maybe premarital sex wasn’t as bad as this movement had made it out to be—definitely not! In fact, to the contrary! “We had bought into the idea that sex was essential for fulfillment and happiness,” he mourned, and then interviewed some lifelong single Christians who argued in favor of celibacy.
So pardon me if I’m somewhat taken aback that less than a year after this documentary came out Harris is suddenly no longer a Christian. Pardon me if I’m a bit taken aback that, less than a year after releasing a documentary where he once again affirms that sex before marriage is bad because it’s sin, Harris announces he’s no longer a Christian.
Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like he could have held the documentary up for a bit while he straightened all this out in his own mind. It’s not like this is an important topic that has profoundly damaged people’s lives or anything.
But then, I’m still angry about spending my teenage years racked with guilt over having crushes on boys. Because let me tell you, that sucked. And guess what? I ultimately did have sex with my husband before we got married and it did not in any way harm our relationship. It’s almost like I spent the most impressionable decade of my life terrified that one little slip could ruin my future for no damn reason. So yeah, I might still be a just a little bit upset about that.
Let’s turn the lens slightly, though, and ask a few other questions. Since leaving the ministry, Harris has gone into business as a brand consultant. “Use the power of story to connect with your customers,” reads his website. The reviews left by companies he has consulted for suggest that he is good at what he does. But bits like this that feel, well, off:
I’m Joshua Harris and I know how to use story to reach an audience. I’m a best-selling author, TEDx speaker, and documentary filmmaker. I’ve reached millions of people through my books, articles, videos, and social media platforms.
I feel like he’s using me as his marketing stepping stool. Those books me says he’s reached millions with? He’s talking about I Kissed Dating Goodbye and its accompanying books, Boy Meets Girl and Sex Isn’t the Problem, Lust Is (originally titled Not Even a Hint). His documentary filmmaker experience? We discussed that above. TEDx speaker? That talk was also launched off his I wrote a best selling relationship advice book and then changed my mind drumbeat.
Cool. Cool. Cool.
Now, maybe I’m being uncharitable. Harris was homeschooled and never to college; it’s not like he has a cogent work history to build his current career on. But then, it’s not like he’s is the only one to have this problem. Far from it! Plenty of women in conservative evangelical or fundamentalist circles spend their entire adult lives being homemakers before being suddenly thrust into the labor market, and plenty of young adults are homeschooled and eschew college, only to find themselves flying in the dark when life changes and they find themselves thrust out of their family and church community.It’s just that most people in these situations didn’t publish best-selling relationship manuals at 21. You know what? Maybe we should take a moment to examine how that happened.
Harris is the son of Greg Harris, one of the most prominent Christian homeschool leaders of the 1980s and 1990s (if not the most prominent). It was this association that gave Harris’ 1997 book the legs it needed to take off. In other words, Harris wasn’t a random homeschooled kid who penned a book. He was homeschool royalty.
Here, I’ll let Harris tell it:
I’ve been on a unique educational path my whole life. For the first 17 years of my life I was homeschooled by my mother. My father was a well-known homeschool advocate who traveled the country teaching parents the biblical principles for and advantages of home education. I was “Exhibit A” of my dad’s philosophy that you could learn by doing, be directed in study by your delights and succeed outside of the “system.”
At age 17, when most kids my age were going off to college, I started a ministry called New Attitude. I began publishing a magazine and putting on conferences for teenagers. I felt a clear sense of calling from God to speak to my generation and call them to a passionate pursuit of God. When I was 21, I wrote my first book, which met with a good deal of success.
That’s when I met C.J. Mahaney [senior pastor at Covenant Life Church in Maryland]. In C.J. I found someone who understood me and who was willing to train me. He was a charismatic pastor (in all senses of the word) who pastored a mega-church, led a national network of churches, and embraced both reformed theology and charismatic practice.
Like me, C.J. got his start on the conference circuit before becoming a pastor. Like me he had never received formal theological training, and the group of churches he led, which grew out of the Jesus Movement in the 1970s, at that time didn’t place a high value on seminary training. So instead of attending seminary before becoming a pastor, I moved into C.J.’s basement, worked as an intern in the church, traveled the country with him and began preaching. It was on the job training and I soaked up everything C.J. taught me.
Seven years after I arrived at the church, I was set in as the hand-picked replacement for C.J. I was 30 years old, with no formal theological training and no formal training in organizational leadership, and I was the Senior Pastor of a 3,000 member church. That my friends is a crazy, backwards life!
The above statement is how Harris announced his decision leave Covenant Life Church to attend seminary in 2015. The magazine and conferences for teenagers that Harris started up at age 17? That wouldn’t have happened outside of the star power of his dad’s name and connections. Same with the book. Same with meeting C.J. Mahaney.
Harris is starting a brand new secular career with no formal job training or work experience in the area, or indeed in any area outside of being an evangelical child star and a woefully underprepared (by his own admission) megachurch pastor. I get that that’s hard. There’s just something about him launching this new career on his success publishing a book that did untold damage, his mess of a documentary, and his TEDx talk about being “strong enough” to be wrong that feels …
… well, let’s just say there are feels.
As I talked my feelings on this through with a friend, she noted that Harris was both “victimized” and “played a role in the victimization of others.” I think she’s onto something. Like many child stars, Harris probably didn’t have much choice over his early direction; his trajectory was determined by his family. There isn’t a lot of room in families with this kind of star power to say “actually, I want to go to Oregon State University and get a degree in accounting.” Harris’ father, Gregg Harris, wasn’t exactly keen on college, and it’s possible that Harris’ education didn’t prepare him for college.
Even as Harris’ trajectory as a young adult was profoundly influenced by his family, though, the options available to him were still far more expansive than those available to others raised in similar families, but without the star power and connections. Most individuals raised in fundamentalist homeschool families and denied the option of attending college (or, in many cases, the education necessary to do so) weren’t offered a book deal, or a megachurch pulpit to step into.
And Harris also participated in the victimization of others, particularly through I Kissed Dating Goodbye but also through his role as pastor of Covenant Life Church, where he participated in the coverup of child sexual abuse within Sovereign Grace Ministries. Yes, Harris wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbye when he was only 21, fresh off a painful breakup and surrounded by family members telling him that yes, the pain he felt was evidence that dating was wrong and ungodly, why don’t you write a book about it. But the conflict at Sovereign Grace Ministries occurred when Harris was in his 30s.
This isn’t a story made of clear-cut lines or easy answers. Harris is probably a good fit for his new chosen career as a brand marketing consultant, and I hope he’s successful, but I also think the ghosts of his upbringing, and his actions, will likely follow him his whole life. I find myself wanting more from him—I want to know why he went through with a documentary project that shamed women for their sexual choices only months before giving up his faith entirely, and I want him to offer more transparency on his role in the sexual abuse coverup at Sovereign Grace Ministries. But somehow, despite all of that, I also find myself grudgingly wishing him well in his new career and life.
Don’t get me wrong, I am still angry. But at some point, I have to ask myself—am I really angry at Josh Harris, or am I angry at the culture and forces that created him?
The truth is, we were all damaged.
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