Joshua Harris, author of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” and inarguably the biggest name in so-called 1990s evangelical “purity culture,” announced on Instagram last week that he and his wife are divorcing. Shortly afterward, he renounced the Christian faith. This comes after several years of apologizing for his early work, which some say harmed them or drove them away from Christianity.
Anyone who believes a word our Lord Jesus said should mourn this news, whether they had a strong opinion about “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”or not. I don’t know all of Joshua Harris’ story. I do know he’s suffered family tragedy, denominational scandal (for which he was not at fault), and decades of what I view as outrageous scapegoating over a book he wrote fresh out of high school. I feel sorry for him, and I pray that he returns to his First Love (not to mention his wife). Christ has worked greater miracles.
What I want to say here has less to do with Harris and more to do with those who’ve used his mea culpas as an occasion to re-air their grievances with evangelical teaching on sex and marriage. I’ve written here about why I think those blaming Harris for their sexual and emotional dysfunctions twenty years later need to grow up. I’ve written here on what that growing up looks like. I’ve written here on the idea that “purity culture” taught Christian girls that male lust is their fault. Here in defense of the pedagogy often used by Harris and others to teach the importance of sexual purity. Here in response to the straw-men raised about Harris’ work. And here about how silly it is for Christians my age to trash “purity culture” and then pine for the very things its best teachers offered.
Through all of these entries, I have made one point more frequently than any other: what’s being debated here isn’t recreational dating, or a particular way of teaching the Christian sexual ethic. What’s at issue is the Christian sexual ethic itself. Let me say this again in a different way, so no one misses it: I think many of Harris’ loudest critics are either using his now-repudiated book and the “purity culture” label as soft-target stand-ins for Christian teaching on sex, or else are too eager to re-adjudicate twenty-year-old gripes against their youth group to notice that this is what’s happening.
As far as the non-Christian world (and too many in the Christian world) are concerned, Joshua Harris has never been the one on trial, here. Neither has “purity culture” (however you define that). For a watching world, Christian morality has been the thing on trial, and “purity culture” has become a convenient shorthand for anyone who believes that the marriage bed should be undefiled.
Two things convince me of this. First, several of those who’ve written most prominently about Harris or “purity culture” here, here, here, and here have either admitted to engaging in extramarital sex, or outright endorsed it. Of course, we all make mistakes. And not all of these writers are bowing before Nadia Bolz-Weber’s vagina-shaped idol. But even the best of them—those who still say they hold the church’s historical view on sex—talk of their failures with a breeziness that hints they think Harris’ book was a far worse sin:“I opted for more conventional forms of kissing and bade farewell to my virginity…” writes Abigail Rine Favale in the Catholic magazine, “First Things.” “Nonetheless, the ideas in Harris’s book influenced me—if not my habits, certainly my sense of self.”
She goes on to tell how his “fear-and shame-based rhetoric” traumatized her and an entire generation of her peers. We’re left with no doubt who the real transgressor of the story is.
Secondly, well-meaning critics like former “Christianity Today” editor Katelyn Beaty have taken to the nation’s top newspapers to condemn Harris’ book and “purity culture” before asking for alternative “guidance” in their “intimate lives.” One imagines the editors and readers of The New York Times had reams of helpful sexual advice to give. But this airing-out of in-house grievances before a secular audience is more than just distasteful. It’s representative of the naivete displayed by so many Christians who celebrated Joshua Harris’ apology for his book, only to mourn his departure from the faith.
Although I make no claims about what ultimately led Harris to where he is now, we must admit that his apology for his teaching on sexual purity was a step on the road that led him to abandon the faith. Those Christians who cheered that apology, celebrated it in religious and secular publications, and even piled on Harris when he was at his lowest, should have known better. I am not blaming them for his de-conversion. I am insisting that what he wrote was innocuous, and that those who jumped on the bandwagon to condemn his book and books like it should have noticed where that bandwagon was headed, and how many of their fellow passengers hated Christianity.
Caving to the spirit of the age always results in short-term validation. I’m sure the endorphin rush was first-rate when many children of the 90s denounced “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” “virginity pledges,” “purity rings,” “true-love-waits diaries,” and all of the humble kitsch of a church trying its level best to keep kids’ heads above the cultural water. I’m sure the pats on the head from secular betters were gratifying—so gratifying that some didn’t notice they were no longer abjuring a way of teaching purity, but purity, itself.
Now that Harris has renounced Christianity, those who applauded his earlier retractions owe it to themselves to figure out when they should have stopped clapping. For the rest of us, this is a time to recall that Christian conviction was never supposed to make us popular with the world. Our beliefs—quite apart from any book or youth group exercise designed to teach them—are strange. And if we find ourselves too often agreeing with people who hate those beliefs, we should ask whether we’re exchanging this fabled culture of purity for its opposite.