Me with my lovely wife, Kathy:

Sunday, September 18, 2016

My Brush with the Josh Harris Kerfuffle

Every once in a while, several things converge on me at the same time.  At this point I'm not talking about too much to do, though for a "retired" guy that does seem to happen fairly often.  What I am talking about is when information from different sources comes my way that seems to point to one particular concern that I have.  That's happening right now concerning Joshua Harris.

Before I go any farther, let me give a couple of disclaimers:

  • I've never been a follower of, promoter of, or critic of Joshua Harris.  To me, he has been like a lot of writers and speakers in the Evangelical world.  He has said some things that have been of some help to some people.  He has also said some things with which I didn't and don't agree.  That's OK, I'm sure I've said things he disagrees with.
  • I don't have time to do one of those thorough investigation pieces that cause people to go "Ohh, Aaww," and then re-post the article contributing to its viral-osity.  I'm writing this with limited time, for a limited audience, with a limited purpose in mind.
Back in the 90s Joshua Harris wrote a book that had a profound, somewhat lasting, and, some would say negative, impact on the Evangelical World, especially the homeschooling segment of that world.  I Kissed Dating Good-Bye landed in the my world when we were battling hard against the erosion of standards of sexual-purity and marital-faithfulness that was going on not only all around us but within our own ranks.  As a father of two sons and the pastor of a church where I had influence on, and responsibility for a number of teens and parents of teens I was interested.  I read the book.  As far as I know, I haven't read it since.  I'll share my thoughts about IKDG in a bit. In the last twenty years I have seen various references to Harris's work, some for and some against.  I'm not going to go back and re-read IKDG.  My comments are about generalities and what I remember.  If I have Harris mixed up with other proponents of the courtship movement, I apologize.
Since reading IKDG, I really didn't pay much attention to Harris until a few months ago.  I'm teaching a course on Marriage and Family in a Christian College.  When I asked those who had taught the class before me, I found that they had used another book by Harris as one of the course texts, Sex Isn't the Problem, Lust Is.  I'm not one of those people who can sit down and read a book in fifteen minutes so I looked through the book and couldn't see any reason not to follow the lead of those more experienced than I and use the book.  After reading the book, especially considering the backgrounds of the students we work with, I'm glad I made that decision.  It is a readable book that makes some good points.  More later. About the third week into the class I became aware of, what appears to me to be, a fairly big controversy concerning Harris and IKDG.  Maybe I'm paranoid, but I'm afraid that someone may come across the controversy, and then connect the dots--dots aren't always connected correctly--and conclude that the class I'm teaching is based on a faulty foundation.  Thus this post.  (If you have another reason to continue reading, I'll just consider that collateral benefit.)    

Joshua Harris was only 21 when He wrote IKDG, yet his book had great impact.  It propelled him to instant fame and moved the courtship movement into the mainstream Evangelical conversation.  His book struck a responsive chord in the hearts of many parents and teens.  The trajectory toward the "hook-up" non-relationships of the present had already begun.  Often teen girls (though some guys were hurt as well) were the victims of the dating culture.  A number of these young women didn't want to be dropped on their heart again, others were convinced vicariously, and while there were guys who were convinced for more noble reasons, most guys who became a part of the courtship movement had to join--all of the women in their pool of eligibles had kissed dating good-bye and become entry-level courtship devotees.  I always kind of figure that a lot of those young women wished Josh would come to court them, and not a few guys were upset that he had upset a system that was often rigged in their favor.  There were other advocates of the courtship movement, but Joshua Harris's name became almost synonymous with it.  If you aren't familiar with the courtship movement you can see its basic concepts here.
You can decide in a moment whether I had ulterior motives, but my reaction then (which continues to be my thinking) is summarized below:

I think Harris (and some other courtship advocates) addressed some areas that needed attention.  His winsome presentation of sexual purity and the dedication he expressed were refreshing.  The fact that he was one of the young adults who wanted to get married, and yet endorsed this "novel" approach was convincing, for some even convicting.  He wasn't an old guy telling young folk how to live their lives.  He was a young adult challenging other young adults, "Let's do this better."  His pointing to the problem of dating as just another form of recreation was and is something that needs to be put forth.  As I have often pointed out, "To play football you need a football.  To date (in the usual sense of the word) you need another person.  If we are using another human being like we use a piece of sports equipment, we have a problem."  His emphasis on parental involvement in mate selection is one that needed to be heard, and still does.  While I never signed up for the movement he promoted, I was glad he started, or amplified, the conversation.

Yet I saw in Harris's work (and the movement he represented) things that I found problematic:
  • He seemed to take dating at its worst and compare it to an idealized courtship.  Many of us are guilty of using that paradigm in making our arguments.
  • At least some of it appeared to me to come down to a matter of semantics.  Some of what he called courtship sounded a lot like dating.  At least that was the way it came out when others tried to apply what he wrote.
  • He had made an error that is incredibly common with those of us who try to apply and help others apply the truth of scripture.  He saw some things in scripture that needed to be applied in our culture--in particular in the Evangelical culture of the day.  He arrived at what was a way of obeying these precepts.  Then he communicated his message in a way that made it seem like his was the only way of conforming to the Biblical standard.  Harris basically admit this here.
  • Others who were part of the movement for which Harris became the poster-boy, and some of his followers took his ideas as Gospel truth and carried them to extremes that he may not have intended.
  • There is one more.  When I dated and courted (if there was a courtship movement in the late 60s and early 70s, I didn't know anything about it, so I use the word "court" in a more general way) my wife, I did so over the objection of her father.  He did finally give his blessing to our marriage, but if IKDG had been around 30 years before and had Kathy and I followed its guidance we never would have made it to the ring buying time.  I had struggled with the principles Harris presented in his book--you can listen to my story here (warning: this won't win me a prize for video production, but it has pictures), or read it here (no pictures)--and had obviously come to a different conclusion than Harris.  I thought when I was going through it, when I considered it two decades later, and I still think that I was honoring the scriptures in my decision making.
Just the other day I became aware that Josh Harris is publicly repudiating at least parts of IKDG.  It is clear that he is sorry for the pain that the application (misapplication) of his book has caused. I walked into a conversation that was already going on, but here it is in basic outline.
  • As is often the case in today's world, news of this first showed up on Twitter.  Harris said "I'm sorry."
  • Along the way there have been quite a few complaints posted--maybe my first bullet wasn't where it first showed up--about how IKDG, and the "purity culture" in general had harmed people.  
  • This article takes these "whiners" to task, but in doing so provides enough information to bring you up to speed, maybe more speed than you want.
  • That was followed-up a day or two later with a piece--either written by one of those speed readers I talked about, or a guy with a great memory--that basically told the anti-whiner to quit complaining; the whiners of the first part really do have a case.
I'm sure you can find a whole bunch more on this, but, as I said, I'm short on time, so I kissed looking up articles about IKDG good-bye.  (Sorry, I just couldn't resist.)

Which brings me to Harris's book that we are using in my class.  I'm told you can get it for free, but you can do your own searching.  The book was written a few years after IKDG and it's follow-up Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship.  At the time of writing Harris was working with Pastor C. J. Mahaney.  A short time later Harris would take over leadership of the sizable and influential church where Mahaney was pastor.  
I read the Sex is not . . . before I was aware of the controversy.

A ministry of Moody Church had this to say about the book: "It’s hard to find a Christian book on sexual purity that strikes a biblical balance. Some books are too vague. . . . Others are too specific . . . [or] . . .loaded with specific lists of “dos” and “don’ts” and unintentionally promote legalism. . . . If you’re a college-age young adult desiring Christ-centered purity in your life, I strongly recommend you give this short but powerful book a read!"

Tim Callies blogged about Sin is not. . . "Harris holds out lust as a problem, but provides the gospel as a solution. And that isn’t even a fair fight. An excellent little book that is easy to read, easy to digest, and suitable for all audiences, I recommend Sex is not the Problem (Lust Is) without hesitation."

In my websearch I found frequent complaints about damage (I'm giving the critics the benefit of the doubt here) caused by Harris's first two books, but not Sin is not . . . .  That in itself proves little, but when I read the book, I noticed that the author appeared different than the one I remembered in IKDG.  Clearly, as some other reviewers point out, Harris exhibits a remarkable level of transparency.  He begins the book with what amounts to a confession and then goes on to state, quoting C. J. Mahaney, "Legalism is seeking to achieve forgiveness from God and acceptance by God through my obedience to God" (49).  The name of the chapter is "You can't save yourself."  The tone of the entire book is not a dependence on some sure-fire formula, but a reliance on God's grace, and a grasping of the resources He provides.
I can't read minds, but it looks like Harris was already moving toward the maturity that I think his Twitter apology indicates.

So, how to wrap this up?
  • My intent in posting this is to let the students in my class, and others who may read the stuff posted in regard to my class, know that, yes, I am aware of the controversy, and, no, I don't think it makes the book we are using useless. On the contrary.  I think it is a useful little book.
  • In fact I don't think I Kissed Dating Good-bye is useless.  If one reads it as one should, as the writing of a young adult attempting to address real problems by offering what he sees as solutions consistent with Scripture, then the book has value.  If one takes it, as many did, as a Thus saith the Lord formula, it can lead to problems.
  • I think this is a good fight.  It shouldn't be avoided.  Being clobbered with a strong argument,even with a well-aimed emotional tirade often has a mind-clearing effect.  
  • My intent was not to defend Joshua Harris, though I hope he comes out of this a better man.  He has gifts that the body of Christ needs in this day.  I have great sympathy for any who were sincerely trying to follow the Lord in their relationships, and were led astray by the courtship-movement.  Often when when pendulums swing they do so like a wrecking ball.  Folk get hurt.  Those of us who claim to speak for God need to do so with care and humility.  Rather than take any pleasure in the "come-up-ance" that has come to a guy who gained to much influence to soon, we should all realize that we are but clay pots.  Let's be humble as dispense the message.  On the other side, we all need to resist the urge to follow the latest trend, especially a trend that reinforces our own, previously held, conclusions.  
  • As is often the case with my blog posts, this has helped me to think through the matter.  If it has been any help to you, to God be the glory.  If you have further thoughts I welcome them.