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Joshua Harris’ widely-read book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” received backlash from many who say his advice ruined their lives. Twenty years later, Harris responded. | Facebook

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…”

  • Jen­nifer Melfi

    Some thoughts:

    1) The 1980’s were a sexual rev­o­lution? Better check that against Hillsdale Doc­trine. I believe it is 2nd Reagan 6:12. “I do not condone sexual rev­o­lu­tions, only velvet ones, even though those may lead to sexual rev­o­lu­tions else­where.”
    2) while much talked about in evan­gelical circles, the prac­tices in this book never really became the norm, any­where. Come at me on this.
    3) Good for Mr. Harris for real­izing that his work was harmful and fol­lowing up on it. I know that Hillsdale College will soon be in the same place with their ridiculous reli­gious move. I wonder if the leader at that point will have the con­sti­tution to apol­ogize for the mis­takes
    4) The faulty premise of the book is that you can stop horny teenagers from hooking up. The book then puts unreal pressure on everyone close to the sit­u­ation to try to prevent it from hap­pening. You will fail and problems will ensue. Its ok that young adults exper­iment and get frisky, it’s hap­pening right now at Hillsdale I assume. How we try to make this healthy and safe is how we protect the next gen­er­ation.
    5) the last three sen­tences are com­plete bonkers. What in the world are you talking about. A news­paper should not resort to reli­gious and poetic imagery like this to make a point. No one really believes that stuff, and it comes off really poorly to any sort of audience.

    • Jerry Tabac

      Mr. Harris at least has the maturity to admit when he’s been wrong. A lesson for all of us, or at least those capable of rec­og­nizing the log in their eye. 🙂

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