If Joshua Harris wanted to get people’s attention, he certainly managed the trick this past couple of weeks. Recently, he announced that he was moving away from the virulently extremist flavor of Christianity he’d believed in for most of his life. Evangelicals’ reaction came swiftly and inevitably in the form of their usual “Christian love.” This reaction shows us way more about themselves than they should want us to know, and yet they can’t help themselves. Today, I’ll show you why Joshua Harris’ tribemates reacted like they did–and why they felt they had to.
First: A Quick Overview.
Joshua Harris is famous (infamous, really) for writing a series of Christian self-help books about “kissing dating goodbye.” In these books, the then-21-year-old made a case against modern dating–indeed, against Americans’ newfangled understanding of adolescence itself. Instead of dating, he advised courtship culture. His claims contained not one single shred of credible, real-world support. All the same, he insisted that teens should court, not date. In fact, parents needed to help them court!
Nothing Harris wrote was new. I’ve got a binder on my lap right now from a Bill Gothard-tinged dating seminar I attended in the 1980s. It advised teens not to date without an eye toward spiritual development and mate selection. Really, Joshua Harris’ big accomplishment involved amplifying and one-upping evangelicals’ existing beliefs. And the adults in the room with him catapulted his ideas to canon.
He spent many years developing his courtship ideas. But then, he suddenly backtracked some of those same ideas. The tribe howled for his blood. Things quieted down for a while.
That’s where today’s post begins.
What’s Actually Happened?
So far, Harris has revealed very little to us. Here’s the most pertinent part of his July 26 announcement:
The information that was left out of our [July 17] announcement is that I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus. The popular phrase for this is “deconstruction,” the biblical phrase is “falling away.” By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian. Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now.
I tend to believe that professional writers choose their words carefully. (I’ve been wrong about that in the past, even the very recent past. But generally, it holds true.) If Joshua Harris had meant deconversion, he’d have used that term. I’m sure he’s encountered it. No, he used deconstruction. That word can sometimes lead to out-and-out rejection of Christianity itself. Just as often, however, it leads to the adoption of a more benign form of Christianity.
When he writes “. . . I am not a Christian,” he very distinctly ties it to the definition evangelicals use. Evangelicals tend to define other types of Christians clean out of existence when it suits them. They wouldn’t see a progressive, liberal Christian as a valid Christian. Thus, Joshua Harris isn’t that kind of Christian anymore. That doesn’t mean he won’t still end up as a Christian in the future. He leaves the door open to exactly that potential resolution.
It sounds like he doesn’t really know where he is label-wise or where he’ll end up exactly. That’s fine.
All he’s done for sure so far is reject some of the culture-war model–and thus part of the definition itself–of evangelicalism. It was enough, though.
Obviously, evangelicals overwhelmingly immediately accepted Harris’ posts with grace, love, and hope. Yes, they showered him with warmth and care while he struggles with his beliefs and past actions. They stood by him and admitted that they don’t know everything and can’t say for sure exactly what Jesus wants of them as Christians, so who knows, maybe he’s on to something. They knew he only took the steps he did after a great deal of consideration and prayer, and they don’t want to barge in on his private business so they’ll let him work his own salvation out with fear and trembling.
Haha, did I fool you?
It was that last bit, wasn’t it?
(Let’s Try That Again.) The Reaction.
No, evangelicals freaked completely out and attacked with all their pointiest bits extended at once.
Here’s a selection of the general overview of responses I saw to his post (screencaps linked, but it seemed silly to put them all up):
- One guy blames “Nietzsche-fuelled self” and “existentialism.” I also saw a lot of “postmodernism” floating around.
- Another Christian blames Satan for tempting Harris away from DA TROOF.
- Still another blames Harris personally for not being able to “finish the race.”
- And another blames “Bad Christians,” though they might be referring to Harris himself as the “Bad Christian.”
- One guy styles himself a Magic Christian, offering Harris a golden chance to “return home.”
- We can’t forget the Christian blaming Harris’ seminary education. Later this same account piles on him for caving to Satan’s Fabulous Gay Mafia. How indecisive!
- OMG and this nutjob who thinks that people leave evangelicalism because they “hat [sic] the Light” and are terrified of having their misdeeds exposed. Yeah, cuz Christians never hide misdeeds for entire lifetimes.
- And countless Christians like this guy threatened him with Hell and/or told him they were totally going to think hard at the ceiling for their imaginary friend to strong-arm him back to tribe-approved beliefs.
It took me considerably longer to list these examples and set up their image URLs than it did to find them.
Amid the numerous dogpiling examples of Christians wringing their handsies and going on the attack, I found some Christians offering their support to him. I also spotted many ex-Christians and exvangelicals offering good advice and hopes for full recovery from his lifelong indoctrination. A few messages came from LGBT people extending grace and kindness to him–sometimes in ways that brought tears to my eyes.
These few kind comments simply stood out as a few nice flowers amid a huge dungheap. His former tribe sure wasn’t giving him any reason to reconsider his defection!
But that might not actually have been their goal.
You can tell a lot about a group by how its members treat the people who express dissent or leave the group. It’s worth your time, before adopting a label or affiliation, to look into this behavior before making a final decision. (See endnote.)
When someone defects from a tribe full of terrible people, that tells the other members experiencing doubts that leaving is a very real option for them. They can leave! Membership is optional! It’s like the wind that lifts our wings in a very real sense. It’s a burst of joy to realize we’re not actually trapped in that pit. The feeling of being trapped is, in fact, one of the marketing ploys used by toxic Christians. And it’s as false as all their other claims are.
In response to defection, a bad tribe makes leaving as painful and as horrific as possible. They must. If they can’t retain the member through being a decent group full of nice people, then they will do it through fear. And if that cruelty doesn’t bring the dissenter back to heel, then at least it will serve as a very potent warning to anybody else thinking of escape. The tribe models exactly what other dissenters can expect, should they make the same dire mistake as this first one.
If Christians really could be the loving people they falsely flatter themselves to be as an overall group, if they hadn’t totally warped the entire definition of “love” to include trampling and controlling people against their will, then look, nobody’d have a problem with them.
And maybe that’s kinda The Big Problem Here for them.
The Thrill of Coercion.
A big part of me thinks that the worst-of-the-worst members and leaders of evangelicalism get off on making others obey them.
It doesn’t matter to them that a million people happily attend their churches, tithe, and do as they’re told.
Instead, they want the thousands who want no part of their groups.
Power is no fun at all for the power-hungry unless it is contested. And power-hungry people aren’t having fun unless they are extending outward the borders of their control. This truth is a big part of why you cannot argue with zealots about the rightness of their cause, nor persuade them their claims are meritless, nor even convince them to be happy with the overwhelming and totally-unwarranted privilege they already possess.
Zealots cannot sit happily with what they have. Satisfaction lies completely outside their nature.
Love isn’t the reason they joined the sects they’re in, and it’s not what attracted them to evangelicalism in the first place. Nor is charity.
Power to command and destroy those who would refuse them, though? Oh, that’s sweeter than wine to zealots. For that, they’ll break the entire world under their heels.
Wait and See.
Way too often, Christians come through these crises of faith still clinging to some of the terrible ideas from their evangelical phase. Harris rejected the anti-LGBT culture war in that second announcement, yes. But he could still land on stripping women of their essential human rights. That’s what courtship represents, after all: a reaction to feminism and sexual freedom.
Similar pronouncements of Harris’ in the past have ended up tinged overmuch with his own self-interest at others’ expense. Since we know Jesus doesn’t change people, it’s hard to imagine Harris has been cured of that flaw unless he’s done a lot of work that we haven’t seen quite yet.
At the moment, the slow trickle of information feels way too much like a clever promotional stunt to set up his next gig. And evangelicals, as we’ve seen many times around here, can be very good at setting up their next gigs. Indeed, Harris would be a fool-and-a-half not to be wondering how he’ll make money after walking away from evangelicalism.
And his carefully-timed, carefully-worded social media posts tell me he’s no fool, at least about his own marketing. Still, I hope he’s sincere. Either way, the reaction of his tribe to his vague announcements tells us quite a lot about where they are and what they really want from the rest of us–and why we must continue to push back as hard as we can against their overreach.
I hope folks are listening to what this absolutely awful tribe of absolutely awful people is screaming in their out-loud voices!
NEXT UP: Poor Joshua Harris! Is he a Scotsman? Because the tribe has revoked his label! I’ll show you how and why they did it–next time. See you soon. <3
About vetting new spaces: In the same way, I always drive by a new potential home at night to see what the neighborhood’s really like. I’ve avoided at least one next-door garage band that way. (Back to the post!)
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