Once upon a time, there was a young man who had had enough of what he saw as the reckless, pain-filled world of dating. He was a Christian, so he believed that romantic relationships with the opposite sex should fall within God’s provenance as much as family relationships or friendships. He just wasn’t seeing it in the dating relationships around him. Joshua Harris, 21-years-old at the time, wanted more.
So, Harris wrote a book. It investigated the concept of courtship as an alternative to dating. (Courtship being a more formal, family-sanctioned, intentional form of pursuing a potential mate.) He published the book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, in 1997, at the height of the True Love Waits movement, effectively crystallizing Christian Evangelical Purity Culture. He courted a girl, got married and then wrote another book, Boy Meets Girl, about how the process of courting had worked out for him: in short, extremely well.
Harris is on a trajectory of growth just like the rest of us, and he deserves the abundant grace of Jesus. Critique of decisions he has made is fair, probably even warranted, but it is different from condemnation of the man himself.
But last week, Josh Harris and his wife Shannon announced via Instagram that they are separating after 19 years of marriage. “In recent years,” they say, “some significant changes have taken place in both of us.”
For the evangelical subculture who bought 1.2 million copies of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, this is a huge deal. Divorce violates the entire premise of Harris’s books. It would be like Elon Musk saying he didn’t mean it about colonizing Mars; Martin Luther King Jr. saying he didn’t have a dream after all. If this story were set to a soundtrack, the record would screech to a halt and leave a moment of silence for everyone to chorus “what?!”
Because of his books, Harris was feted, interviewed and exalted as a fount of wisdom for Christian adolescents addicted to casual dating. His message of saving yourself—emotionally as well as sexually—for one permanent life partner gave scores of Christian young people hope that there was a responsible, respectful, God-honoring way to go about finding a spouse.
But it was not so simple for others. Harris’s paradigm, which emphasized sexual abstinence above all else, implied that a couple’s sex life and marriage would be perfect if they adhered to his portrayal of Biblical guidelines. It equated a person’s purity with their sexual history, and it has been widely critiqued for imposing oppressive, passive mores on young Christian women.
Because of this, public response to the Harris’s marital separation have run the gamut, from devastation to vindication. Twitter, as usual, is awash in opinions. One user tweeted, “Heartbroken for Josh Harris and his wife who are separating.” Another wrote, “I’m happy to hear that Josh Harris, evangelical golden boy and poster child for 90s purity culture, is getting divorced. There could be no more fitting symbol of the failure of radical Christian policing of sex.”
To some, Josh Harris was an emblem of hope and godliness. To others, he embodied the most legalistic, destructive aspects of Christianity.
To be fair, Harris himself has realized that his message hurt many, something he has publicly acknowledged. In a 2017 TEDx talk, Harris said, “I was young, I was religiously zealous, I was certain and I was restlessly ambitious. Youth, zeal, certainty, ambition …they have the tendency to set the world on fire.” He goes on to acknowledge that dating can often be a healthy way of discerning and growing, and he admits, “I gave the impression that there was one formula that you could follow, and if you followed that, you’d be happily married, God would bless you and you’d have a great sex life and marriage.”
He added, “Obviously, the real world doesn’t work that way.”
I’ve read many of the articles, tweets and posts about the Harris’s divorce in the last few days, and there’s a strain of derision toward him that’s concerning. It doesn’t seem to allow him to have made mistakes.
The opening illustration of I Kissed Dating Goodbye is an imaginary couple, standing at the altar. They are about to exchange their vows when the groom realizes that there is a long, trailing line of men behind the bride—her past boyfriends. In Harris’s illustration, they are all here, on the couple’s wedding day, because the bride gave a piece of her heart away to each one.
This illustration has been oft-criticized, because its pivotal message is that your past will haunt you no matter what you do. It doesn’t portray purity, but rather an inability to forgive and move forward with grace, regardless of your past.
So I’ve been thinking about that picture as I’ve read the social media commentary about the Harris’s divorce. Many people have been wounded by Josh Harris’s message. I number myself among those whom Christian purity culture injured, and I still grapple with its consequences in my life. But is it fair to a) make Harris the scapegoat for all of Christianity’s wrongs, or b) fling Harris’s past at him again and again?
Harris is on a trajectory of growth just like the rest of us, and he deserves the abundant grace of Jesus. Critique of the decisions he has made is fair, probably even warranted, but it is different from condemnation of the man himself. All of us need Jesus’ body and blood to claim purity, no matter our history.
Those who are furious and/or devastated that such an icon of purity culture could tumble so completely, go easy on him. The Harrises are human, caught no doubt in pain and confusion. And also go easy on yourselves: the Harris’s divorce does not mean that every other relationship incubated in the same chamber will fail.
And those who perhaps feel vindicated by this seeming demonstration of purity culture’s toxicity and ultimate futility, don’t forget that all Joshua Harris has ever done is articulate and live out his best understanding of God’s truth. Imperfectly, yes, but with admirable honesty.
As Christians, let’s not expect perfection of any individual. Let’s not hold all of Harris’s past up to him as wraith-like past boyfriends on a wedding day. Let’s let him grow, and let’s see if we can do the same.