Back in 1997, then-21-year-old Josh Harris burst onto the evangelical youth-group scene with a game-changing book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. In it, Harris tried his best to create a new kind of dating culture for young Christians. He promised big results, too! Coming as it did right near the height of evangelical dominance in America, courtship culture rapidly achieved widespread acceptance in that crowd. But recently, a new development has demonstrated just what a terrible system it has been–even for Josh Harris, its creator.
Disregard [those meaniepie Pharisees]! They are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.
Josh Harris is the son of Gregg Harris, who is a big huge name in the wacky-fundy homeschooling movement. Ironically (or maybe not at all ironically), Josh Harris had either no or very little experience with relationships when his first book on dating got published. All the same, he felt positive that his ideas represented the very best, the most Jesus-flavored, and the most biblical of all dating approaches.
He–like his father–felt that teen culture itself was The Big Problem Here in today’s modern culture. It’d been a big mistake to take teens out of the workforce, you see. Now, teens had nothing to do with all the spare time they suddenly had. Dating belonged to that invented, newfangled social world. Ugh, and look at all the problems it caused for TRUE CHRISTIANS™ in their pants!
So obviously, TRUE CHRISTIANS™ needed to stop dating! In Jesus’ Name rAmen! Yay Team Jesus!
Oh Yay, the Good Ole Days. Again.
Harris advised his tribe to get back to the Good Ole Days instead.
Instead of dating, teens needed to find mates the Jesus-flavored way: through his version of courtship.
Overnight, it seems, a whole subculture sprang up around this idea. Parents and church leaders taught children about how evil it was to kiss and hold hands with anybody but their divinely-chosen spouses. Adults stopped allowing teens to spend one-on-one time together until they married (or at least were heading that way). Some very sold out teens even refused to kiss or hug until their wedding day.
Early marriage and whirlwind courtships became a badge of honor for a couple. Harris convinced millions of Christians that this is what Jesus wanted them to do.
Jesus-Ing Harder in the Dating Game.
From the start, I Kissed Dating Goodbye faced criticism. So did Harris’ follow-up works. I remember hearing some at the time.
It just didn’t face much from right-wing Christians.
In 2004, over at Desiring God, an evangelical writer there lists off a number of Christian dating books. He declares Josh Harris’ follow-up book Boy Meets Girl to be “the book on this topic that seems the most sound theologically and practically.” In 2008, a Willamette Week article reveals how–and how completely–evangelicals plunged into Harris’ ideas.
The reason that so many Christians so wholeheartedly embraced courtship is simple.
Josh Harris had out-Jesused every one of them!
In a way, his accomplishment there is hilarious–maybe even brilliant. He took all their most wackadoodle beliefs about women, relationships, and marriage–refined as they were becoming in evangelicals’ battle against feminism, the same battle that produced complementarianism–and he simply amplified them.
This whippersnapper beat all the old white dudes in charge of his end of Christianity, and at their own game at that.
The Problem of Wingnuts.
Remember the problem of wingnuts? Once someone adopts a wackadoodle belief that is unsupported by reality (or even contradicted by it!), they no longer possess a valid measuring-stick for assessing claims. It thus becomes that much harder for them to reject future untrue claims. As long as a given claim fits pretty well with the untrue ideas they already hold and works for them, wingnuts will happily adopt it. Eventually, they build themselves a whole network of idiosyncratic, untrue beliefs.
Wingnuts can only spiral in the direction of more-untrue beliefs and worse and worse extremism. They can’t pull back without threatening all the other untrue beliefs they hold.
That spiraling process is how we end up with Young-Earth Creationists (YEC) who end up buying into the idea of a One World Government that requires them to start prepping by buying all the gold coins and freeze-dried buckets of slop that they can manage while living in ultra-dystopian, communal Christian cults and selling substandard junk through one multi-level marketing scheme (MLM) after another. It’s a rare wingnut who labors under only one untrue, weird, delusional belief.
You and I (and tons of big-name Christians) know that there has never been any real positive difference between the private lives of even the most zealous Christians and the heathens they consider their inferiors. Christian couples’ refusal to wait until marriage to do the nasty has always bedeviled their pastors.
To such Christian leaders, courtship culture represented the answer to all their problems.
One-Upping the One-Uppers.
Harris sold courtship culture to his tribe with tons of Bible verses and anecdotes, and he made sure it all fit into their existing belief systems. In fact, his ideas not only built off of their existing beliefs but amplified them.
Sex outside of marriage is bad? Well, so is dating without specific intent to marry. In fact, that’s just “divorce in training!”
Physical infidelity is bad? Well, emotional infidelity is a thing too and it’s equally bad!
Virginity is important? Well, your spiritual purity is even more important! Develop a crush on someone you don’t marry and you won’t even be able to “give [your] whole heart to [your] husband!”
Evangelicals sprouted purity balls, purity rings, and purity pledges, it seemed, overnight.
Josh Harris had sent them all to the next level of extremism with his absolute filth, and they loved it.
The Cracks Begin to Show.
But Josh Harris’ extremism suffered from the same exact flaw that Christianity itself suffers from:
Courtship is a faulty roadmap. Nobody who uses it can ever actually reach the destination Harris laid out.
It just sounded so super-duper-Jesus-y that everyone trusted that it could do what Josh Harris claimed it could do.
In fact, not only could it not produce stronger, healthier, happier marriages, but abuse erupted everywhere around its practice. Worst of all, even couples using Harris’ roadmap with totally good intentions found heartbreak and misery.
Courtship seriously messed with the heads of millions of young adults all over the world. It turned entire churches turn into nanny states. And young women often didn’t even possess the vocabulary needed to describe the abuse they suffered, because courtship and purity had taken the place of consent and healthy male-female interactions.Spiritual Sounding Board has collected a great many of those abuse stories. But they’re not the only ones. And I spotted one older Christian guy who, in 2014, perceived “a spike in divorces amongst couples who courted.” Who’s surprised?
“I need to talk… about a guy I know who’s interested in you.”
–an adult Josh Harris to his future bride
(as recounted in the very awful Boy Meets Girl)
But Josh Harris laughed all the way to the bank. Courtship had made him a very wealthy household name. At 23, he married his wife Shannon, apparently by following courtship recommendations. They had some kids together. He became a pastor. Everything seemed to be running smoothly.
But he couldn’t hold back reality forever.
Josh Harris had included, in his awful books, some representative couples who put his ideas into motion. If one squinted enough, it looked almost like his roadmap had actually worked for these real couples.
Then, in 2011, word got out that some of those couples had already divorced (or were about to). Between 2012 and 2014, he and C.J. Mahaney confessed to covering up sex abuse, which really sucks considering Harris is, himself, a past victim of sex abuse.
By 2016, Harris was back-pedaling away from the most extremist of his ideas–for all the good it did. Mayyyyybe he’d gone just a wee bit too far. Mayyyyybe. (Oh, for some time he still sold the books and took the money, of course.)
Then, just like yesterday, he put a message up on his Instagram that changed the game.
The Usual Announcement.
Josh Harris and his wife are separating.
No D-word yet, but that news is likely coming once people chill out about the separation.
The announcement itself amounts to the usual rah-rah one sees from celebrity couples in similar circumstances. They tooooooootally still love each other and want to remain friends but gosh y’all, people change even in Jesus-Land. Still, they plan to be there for their kids and they hope everyone will respect their privacy and blahblahblah. Blahblah. Blah.
Dude made not one but two careers (writer, pastor) out of telling other people how they should live. But he expects everyone not to pay attention to what he’s doing.
“Freedom for me, not for thee.” It’s the Christian way!
The Roadmap Just Doesn’t Work.
We don’t know why these two now are separating. Many factors in this story would lead to serious friction and stress for any couple, even one with a tight, sure foundation (which a courtship couple won’t have had). A separation or divorce is neither a victory nor a defeat for any “side.” It just is what it is: a relationship that needs to end so the people involved can move on.
What we do know is that a guy who literally wrote the book on how to find one’s Jesus-approved, divinely-chosen soulmate couldn’t keep his own marriage alive, any more than the couples in his books could. We also have this: last December, he made an off-handed comment in an interview that leads me to believe that his work harmed him as much as it did his fans:
Harris said reflecting on his book forced him to think about the pressure the book and its ideas put on his own marriage to his wife, Shannon. “I think it’s made us realize how there’s heartache and there’s pain no matter what pathway you choose in life,” Harris said. “There’s no path you can choose that can protect you from that.”
So yeah. The system he created and honed to culture-war perfection could not protect him, any more than it can protect anyone in his tribe.
You can’t get to the destination–a strong, happy, healthy, lifelong marriage–using Josh Harris’ roadmap. He created it with pure wishful thinking and more than a little bubbling ultra-zealotry.
And we coulda told Christians that.
The Unsurprising SNAFU.
See, Josh Harris never once presented credible supporting evidence that his system actually worked. His tribe never asked for any, either.
Anecdotes are not data (“anecdata”). All Harris really had were anecdotes, however. Even those were filtered through the lens of a huckster trying to sell snake oil to the unwary.
All the same, he advised that people completely turn their lives inside-out and upside-down to follow his system purely on the basis of it sounding super-duper-Jesus-y. He recommended sweeping changes to how people lived, all on his say-so.
He came to his tribe armed with their Kryptonite: tons of Bible verses and smooth talking points. By outdoing all of them and one-upping everything they already believed, he slipped right past their defenses. Almost nobody in the tribe even questioned him, much less criticized him. He became the crowned king of evangelical youth groups everywhere.
Hopefully, the End of the Era.
I deconverted a few years before all this craziness got rolling. All of this stuff missed me. Still, I’ve read so many horror stories of young adults and parents who got caught up in courtship culture (and its pal, purity culture). The fallout is heartbreaking. And it is also infuriating.
People trusted this charlatan.
They trusted the other charlatans, too, who irresponsibly helped a near-child rise up through their ranks and find a platform. Those mountebanks made fat bank by playing upon the hopes of innocent people. For the trust people gave them, they repaid it with a system that flat-out doesn’t work, cannot work, and will never work.
Now the victims of those hucksters and shills struggle with the aftereffects of abuse and messed-up feelings that many are still detangling.
I can see that some of the proponents of this failed system still cling to it–a Reddit group has linked a video from two young evangelicals who still think courtship culture was ever anything but a cash grab by a bunch of assholes who apparently did not and do not have their best interests at heart.
I don’t reckon evangelicals will second-guess complementarianism because of this–not at leadership levels, anyway. But I really hope that it’ll give some of the rank-and-file some pause for thought.
NEXT UP: The entitlement of evangelical men, where it comes from, and the damage it does to everyone. See you next time!
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PS: Gosh, it’s a great thing that fundagelicals haven’t yet managed to create the Republic of Gilead that they want so much, which means that Josh Harris and his wife have the option of ending their marriage.
OPEN COMMENTS: If you have a “courtship” story you want to share, please feel free.