I didn’t grow up in the Catholic church, so I’m not sure how big of an impact someone like Joshua Harris had on Catholic teenagers. I do know he had a huge impact within the evangelical world.
I was sixteen when I Kissed Dating Goodbye came out. Before that, boys and girls in my church were expected to stay chaste. After that book came out, we were expected to stop having human thoughts and emotions.
If I held a boy’s hand, I’d given part of my heart away and cheated on my future husband.
If I even had a crush on a boy, I’d cheated on my future husband.
When you teach this to teenagers, there are two paths they usually take. They might become obsessed with policing their every thought and action to the point of scrupulosity or they might give up on trying to remain chaste. If holding hands is just as bad as having sex, and you’ve already held hands, why not just have sex? The latter was an especially big problem in churches that preach all sins are equal.
At least two generations of young Christians were raised to believe if they felt some sort of attraction to someone, they’d better marry them or they were sinning against God and their future spouse. That’s not a recipe for healthy adult relationships or for a healthy relationship with God.
I’ve known people who waited until their wedding day to have their first kiss. I’ve known people who decided to court instead of date. Most of them are divorced now or still single because they’ve built up all of these expectations for “the one” that nobody could possibly live up to.
I only know a couple of people who followed the ideas of the courtship movement and came out of that culture undamaged. I’m honestly glad for them, but they aren’t the norm. Most of my peers came out of it with deep spiritual and psychological wounds.
The cloud of the purity movement hangs over a lot of us. Some of us have so much baggage we don’t know how to have healthy relationships. Some of us knew holding hands wasn’t a sin, but we didn’t have any sort of guidance to determine what was a sin, so we swung too far in the other direction. Some of us were victims of sexual assault and endured feelings of guilt and unworthiness over something we had no control over.
Two years ago, Josh Harris started talking to his critics. I’ve been keeping an eye on him since then. Yesterday, I read a statement he posted.
I no longer agree with its [I Kissed Dating Goodbye’s] central idea that dating should be avoided. I now think dating can be a healthy part of a person developing relationally and learning the qualities that matter most in a partner…[I]n an effort to set a high standard, the book emphasized practices (not dating, not kissing before marriage) and concepts (giving your heart away) that are not in the Bible. In trying to warn people of the potential pitfalls of dating, it instilled fear for some—fear of making mistakes or having their heart broken. The book also gave some the impression that a certain methodology of relationships would deliver a happy ever-after ending—a great marriage, a great sex life—even though this is not promised by scripture…
In light of the flaws I now see in I Kissed Dating Goodbye, I think it’s best to discontinue its publication, as well other supplemental resources tied to it (this includes the two books I wrote after it whose content is similar).
First of all, I appreciate that he’s taken the time to listen and reevaluate his work. The older I get, the more I understand just how young and inexperienced he was when he started writing these books. Part of the responsibility for all this damage is on his shoulders, but part of the responsibility is on the shoulders of all the adults who were publishing and promoting him. And part of the responsibility lies with the greater Christian culture of fear. His views were pushed so hard because adults were afraid. It was reactionary and that’s never a good way to make decisions. The gospel isn’t based on fear. It’s based on love, and love drives out fear.
It also makes me reflect on what a great responsibility we all have when we choose to speak, preach, or teach. Our words have real consequences, and we’re not always the ones who have to pay up. If I get something really wrong, and I go out and teach that, I’m not the only one who has to pay the price for my mistakes. There’s a reason most people shouldn’t be teachers.
When I was younger, I was such an evangelist. I loved God and I loved people, so obviously I wanted to hook everyone up with God. I loved God so much I wound up putting my blinders on and following along with some toxic beliefs. Instead of discernment, I went with blind obedience. I wound up teaching some things I shouldn’t have been teaching, and that hurt some people. I’ll never know just how much damage I did back then. Even if I only turned one person away from God, how many people might that person have positively influenced toward God if I’d just kept my trap shut? Our words matter.
I’ve seen some of my fellow ex-evangelicals expressing their forgiveness to Josh Harris. I’m not sure I’m at that point right now, maybe because I haven’t forgiven myself for the part I played yet.
I wish I’d had an older, wiser mentor back then to help guide me, but who knows if I would have listened. When we believe we’re on a mission for God, we don’t hear so well. I wish Josh Harris had been exposed to some older, wiser adults who could have told him, “Hey, why don’t you just go out and live life for about twenty years before you try influencing other people?” Maybe he would have listened and we’d have been spared all this pain.
People get frustrated with me sometimes because I’m not an ideal convert. I don’t get all worked up and excited about all these new things I’ve learned and then go tell all my friends so they can see how awesome and right Catholicism is and join too.
For someone who has been blogging about her spiritual life for over five years, I’m unusually tight-lipped about theology. That’s because I’ve already been that new convert before, back when I got saved as a teenager. I’ve been that fired up person who is so excited and wants to include everyone she cares about, which is everyone. And I know just how much damage a zealous person can do when they aren’t equipped to be out there evangelizing. A person can grow in their faith and live it out without running around acting like they know everything. I promise it’s possible.
Back in the 90s, Josh Harris and I shouted, “Come on everyone! Join me!” and jumped into the deep end of the pool before we could even swim, and other people wound up drowning because of it.
Yeah, sure, I’m swimming around in some deep theological waters here (I’ve never been one for shallow faith), but I’m not goading anyone else into coming with me. If I drown, I drown alone. I need to learn how to swim better before inviting anyone else in. If I pull someone in and they start flailing, how can I help them if I can’t even keep my own head above water?
Before we go around telling everyone else what they ought to be doing, we need to live with those decisions ourselves for a long time. Count the real cost. Determine what the long-term consequences are. Evaluate whether this is a decision that’s right for just me in my particular circumstances or right for everyone in all circumstances.
We have to stop being motivated by fear and blind obedience. We have to stop drowning people.