Writer and one-time Pastor Joshua Harris is once more trying to reach American Evangelicals through media. But this time, his message departs from his conservative teaching on sexuality and dating. Harris has made a documentary titled “I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” in reference to his book on dating “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” In the film, produced and directed by fellow graduate student Jessica Van Der Wyngaard, Harris reevaluates his beliefs.
Twenty years ago, a 21-year-old Harris became a leading voice in the Evangelical purity movement, a movement in the 1990s and early 2000s that emphasized sexual purity in response to the excesses of the Sexual Revolution and the 1980s. Southern baptists founded True Love Waits, a group that promotes abstinence till marriage, which it emphasized through strict rules about male-female interactions, and other denominations soon took up the cause. More than a million young people signed a True Love Waits pledge to remain sexually pure both physically and emotionally. Interacting with people of the opposite sex in a Christian manner became a key topic for teenagers.
The term “courtship” was used to define a more Christian version of dating, a process Harris himself helped popularize with “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” published in 1997.
The book recounts how as a teenager, Harris reevaluated his casual dating habits and decided to wait until he was ready for marriage to date or “court.” The book became wildly popular: I frequently saw it in the hands of peers throughout middle school and into high school.
The sequel, “Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship,” explains the courtship model for readers who are ready to pursue a relationship. This means only pursuing a relationship if you would also consider marriage with that person, asking parents and other mentors to oversee the relationship, and other conditions meant to keep the relationship intentional and God-honoring. Harris’ model soon became the norm in many Christian circles.
Decades later, Harris and his readers alike are critiquing the culture in which they grew up, and reevaluating its principles — principles that became, in some cases, a very legalistic set of rules. People found that even though they followed the prescribed guidelines for courtship, they were not saved from pain: marriages fell apart, relationships failed, and feelings of sexual desire caused shame.
Prompted by the criticism of many on social media, several of whom blame Harris for difficult past experiences, and his own changed views, Harris discontinued the publication of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” But he hasn’t stopped there.
In the film, Harris speaks with people from all over the world who thought his teaching had harmed them, as well as Christian writers and speakers who discussed the way Christian culture has dealt with sexuality and dating.
At its core, the film is an apology from Harris for having given unwise advice to countless young Christians. Harris states that he wants to take responsibility in part for having advanced ideas that were taken to such extremes, even if the flaws in the culture are not his fault.
The documentary also serves as a platform for conversation between Harris and many different voices: He interviewed multiple speakers and writers and engaged with their diverse opinions, often just listening to what they had to say, even if their opinions differed with his.
One man offered insight into what went wrong with the purity movement: “I love rules,” he said. We take general principles and make them into rules when we can, and then legalism takes hold.
Author Dale Kuehne stated that the Evangelical culture over-glorified the institution of marriage, making it the ultimate goal: If you don’t get married, you miss the best experience in life.
Harris said he learned from Kuehne that Christians were more influenced by the sexual revolution than they knew: “We had bought into the idea that sex was essential for fulfillment and happiness.”
The “chastity movement” message is as sex-oriented as the culture it pushed back against, said Christine J. Gardner, author and professor at Wheaton College.
Dannah Gresh, a Christian writer for women, criticized the use of the word “purity,” which has become synonymous with virginity to many Christians. Harris himself stated that the trouble with this definition is that purity becomes contingent exclusively on sexual abstinence, making those who may not be sexually pure permanently damaged.
Harris also interviewed Lisa Bonos, an editor of the Washington Post’s page on relationships, to include insight into the secular dating culture as well. She assured him that even a low-expectation online dating culture can be emotionally taxing, and it’s hard to heal from a disappointed relationship. A possible takeaway: swinging to the opposite extreme won’t solve everything.
Reflecting on the conversations he had engaged in, Harris said: “my book harmed people, my book helped people.” Some people wanted him to deny everything in his book — even Biblical elements he still holds to be true — but Harris only says that there’s no clear answer to dating.
The extreme teaching on romance that swept through churches as a symptom of purity culture was not Harris’ fault. Though his desire to take ownership for his words is good, the problem is deeper. Parents and pastors who treated his words as authority are also responsible for promoting a 21-year-old’s teaching on dating and marriage.
The film, while well-meaning, might also have maintained elements of what made him regret his book in the first place. The publicity of his apology matched the publicity of his teaching, and that seems appropriate.
But Harris might come to regret the narrative arc of the film, in which his introspective musings on his own journey seem to subvert the humility he shows in other parts of the film.
Near the end, Harris says that mistake when writing the book was “looking for an easy, simple answer.”
“I think that its premise is flawed,” he said, encouraging people to think for themselves and engage with ideas that differ from their own.
The end of the film may be its strongest moment, and harkens back to Harris’s conversation with Dale Kuehne: Marriage is not the most important thing, and is just a part of the journey.
A feast is laid on a long table before a church altar, and the camera fades on a community of people eating together, while in a voiceover Harris reminds of scripture’s promise of unity with Christ at his table:
“There are no ghosts at the feast, no lingering regrets. Only a community of fully alive, fully human, fully redeemed men and women…”