My almost-middle-school-aged daughter recently asked me if she could watch a specific movie. It wasn’t Pets 2 or Toy Story 4 or some other animated movie. It was one of those newer live action movies based on anime. I took a look and then told her she could, but since I wouldn’t be able to watch it with her, I added this: “Pay attention to the relationships,” I told her. “Think about whether people are communicating in healthy ways.”
This seemingly unrelated hum-drum moment keeps coming to my mind as I think about the recent news that Josh Harris, who literally wrote the book on courtship, has separated from his wife. I can explain.
Growing up in a Christian homeschooling family and an evangelical church community, the only advice I was given about relationships was: marry someone who is a strong Christian; and don’t have sex before marriage. (Heck, don’t kiss before marriage. Draw the line at hand holding. Or better yet, just before hand holding.) I was never taught the importance of communication in a relationship; I was never taught to recognize unhealthy relationship dynamics—or even that unhealthy relationships were a thing.
When the news hit that Harris and his wife are separating, many of those who grew up in homes influenced by Harris’ book wished both Josh and Shannon well. (After all, being able to recognize when a relationship is no longer working and take steps to move on from it is a good thing.) Many also spoke of a feeling of vindication—not against Harris personally, but as though Harris’ separation was the nail in the coffin of ideas he taught.
Harris’ 1997 book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, took both the mainstream evangelical Christian world and the Christian homeschool community by storm. Harris was only 21, and still unmarried, when he wrote this book. Like me, Harris grew up in a large Christian homeschool family. His father was an early big name in the Christian homeschooling world. Harris may have packaged the teachings he received in a way that was accessible and relatable, but he didn’t come up with them whole cloth. They came out of the community and the milieu in which he grew up.
In recent years, an increasing number of 20-something and 30-something ex-evangelicals—myself among them—have spoken about against what we call “purity culture,” a collection of ideas and teachings that are ostensibly designed to ensure virginity at the altar but actually go much further. There is the policing of women’s dress, which is included in Harris work but did not start with him. There is also the policing of emotions. Harris argued that even a physically pure former relationship left a woman incomplete, having permanently given part of her heart away.
Harris’ separation announcement didn’t come out of thin air. As online criticism mounted, Harris began to apologize for aspects of his book. His apologies always stopped short of what his critics wanted, however, and a documentary project in which he participated left many of his critics—myself among them—disappointed. Harris had undergone other change as well. A few years ago, Harris stepped down from the pulpit, stated that he had never really received the training he needed for his pastoral role, and began attending seminary (something he had not done previously). Recently, Harris has begun retooling himself as a brand consultant.
See, purity pushers’ problems go far beyond their policing of women’s clothing or their insistence that every relationship must end in marriage or not be attempted. We don’t talk enough about their failure to offer relationship tools in lieu of pat formulas. If you marry a strong Christian and don’t have sex until marriage, the assumption appears to be, you don’t need to know how to recognize unhealthy relationship patterns, or warning signs of abusive tendencies. All you need to do is follow the (magic) formula.
Until that formula fails, of course.
That’s why I started this post where I did. I want my daughter to have what I didn’t have—tools. Every time I watch a TV show with her, I talk about relationships. Is that couple communicating effectively? What is the root of the conflict between them? Are there mismatched expectations that they need to talk about? Did that character’s boyfriend have any right to ask that of her? To talk to her like that? What is keeping that character in a relationship that is unhealthy?
I am not suggesting a replacement formula. The idea that you can—or even should—prevent young people from ever making mistakes is another flaw in purity culture ideology. Every adolescent will make mistakes, and that’s okay, because it’s just a part of life—there will always be things that have to be learned through experience.
And there’s the rub. See, within purity culture, mistakes are fatal. Having had sex before marriage will leave a permanent shadow on your entire life. In real life, in contrast, mistakes are things we learn from and grow through. Perhaps that is why purity culture advocates are all about a formula to prevent mistakes, while my focus is on providing my daughter with tools that will help her navigate through mistakes.
There never was a magic formula, only false promises.
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