If you, like me, were a kid who was a teenager in church in the 90s, then you know the name Joshua Harris. He wrote THE book on dating, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. I confess that I’ve never read the book, but then again, I didn’t need to. We all knew what was in it. Dating was bad. Courtship was good. Romance was dead. Christians should retrieve romance and courtship in their relationships, and all this should be done with a commitment to purity. At the time, it all made perfect sense. In many ways, it still does.
However, there were unforeseen problems. When Harris wrote the book he was only 21 years old—hardly experienced enough to opine about all dating and all relationships. The book also contributed to a broader movement that is sometimes called “purity culture”—a movement which prioritizes sexual purity in the ethics of the young, with the unfortunate effect of both minimizing other aspects of formation (character, charity, mercy, peacemaking, etc.), while idolizing sex and marriage. In some people, it appears—and especially in certain young women of the time—sexual purity came to be seen as a bargaining chip for a good marriage. Save sex for marriage, the logic goes, and God will bless you with both a great marriage AND great sex. Christian teaching undoubtedly holds that sexual purity matters, but to turn it into a kind of bargaining chip for God’s work in your future relationships is to try to leverage God. In this respect, it’s a kind of prosperity gospel: if I do this action in faith, God will bless me.
Like I said, I knew the basics of Harris’s thinking without having read the book, and if the prosperity exchange of purity for future pleasure was taught, I didn’t hear it.
The book, like the 90s, faded into memory, until once again Joshua Harris’s name came across my newsfeed. This time it was 2015, and Harris had announced he was leaving his church to get some formal theological education—something he’d never had, despite serving as a pastor for more than a decade. The reason it was of interest to me was because he would be attending Regent College, the seminary I had attended. I remember thinking, at the time, that this was a great thing. I’m always happy when Pastors get educated.
In the intervening years, Harris’s name popped up again—this time as he began to distance himself from the claims of his famous book. He helped to produce a documentary, called “I survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” and eventually formally recanted the teaching of the book and asked the publisher to stop selling it. I read through the information at the time, and felt then that these seemed very much like the moves of someone coming into maturity. Harris was growing up, theologically speaking, and we should all rejoice about this.
These changes weren’t without concern, however. A growing reaction against what had been “purity culture” was growing in the church. Women (it seems to me especially) from the 90s who had grown up on Harris’s logic were frustrated with how it had idolized sex and marriage, and how the realities of those institutions didn’t match up. Perhaps no greater image of the rejection of purity culture can be found that that of Nadia Bolz-Weber, gathering purity rings from her female members and (without any apparent awareness of Aaronic irony) causing them to be melted into he shape of a giant vulva. Those who had sacrificed themselves to purity would redeem the image of the vagina.
Harris emerged again last week, of course, with two subsequent bombshell announcements. The first (through Instagram) that he and his wife would be separating (apparently amicably? a kind of Gwyneth Paltrowian ‘conscious uncoupling’?), the second (also through Instagram) that he had left the Christian faith. Harris’s journey of ‘deconstruction’ (his own word) appears complete.
The news was met with grief (from Christians) as well as joy (from atheists and other former Christians). Naturally, the circumstances invite speculation, as well as unfortunate puns. What happened to Harris? Why did he kiss Christianity (and his wife) goodbye? I don’t intend to answer either of those questions, especially since the answers lie in Harris’s heart, to be discerned between him and God alone. But there are two things I want to point out as frames for thinking about his trajectory—both publicly known. The first is the nature of the church he came from, the second is the nature of Christian Higher Education.
First, Harris’s church home. Harris had been trained, and nurtured, under the direct tutelage of C.J. Mahaney, once powerful and respected megachurch pastor. Harris was, to my understanding, Mahaney’s chosen successor. Over the past several years, Mahaney’s Sovereign Grace Ministries has come under serious fire. There was a series of accusations from former members and leadership about Mahaney’s abuse of power and controlling nature, then a series of members (11, I believe) who accused the church of covering up child sexual abuse. The church has denied these allegations, but the fallout has still been immense—Sovereign Grace has lost a number of its member churches, a number of its members, and Mahaney has lost much of his influence (Al Mohler publicly severed ties with him). It was about this time that Harris left his ministry church to pursue education, declaring in a sermon that now he sees there were “flaws in the system.”
(As a fascinating, if tragic aside, when Rachael Denhollander, the Olympic gymnast, began to speak up about the abuse she had experienced, her church wanted her silenced, and she and her husband were eventually asked to leave their fellowship. That church was one of the churches which worked to restore Mahaney to leadership.)
It seems to me that the Sovereign Grace story is a key component to the trajectory of Harris’s faith journey. He was raised (homeschooled as well) in a very conservative, apparently controlling environment. Tutored under a controlling, apparently power-hungry leader. Educated on the job in a self-protecting institution which hurt its members. Neither Mahaney nor Harris were seminary educated, and it appears (from Harris’s own account) that Christian Higher Education was something actively dismissed by them.
The point is this: we might look at Harris’s story and conclude that he’s left our Christianity, but it seems far more likely to me that he’s left Mahaney’s Christianity. He’s left a Christianity of control, of fear, of rules, of power, of hurt, and of a lack of grace. If this is accurate, then Harris’s honesty (about his faith) is something that should genuinely be applauded. In his public statements he displays a remarkable self-awareness and honesty. Of course, that honesty is marred by two things—one of them being his divorce, which is fundamentally dishonest, the other being the snazzy marketing means of the announcements. Instagram is a weird place to cheerfully declare the destruction of all you publicly held important.
This leaves us with the question of Christian Higher Education. Mahaney and Harris are not alone in their belief that seminary—and with it education—is dangerous to faith. In this, they tap into a longstanding trend in American thinking: that intelligence is dangerous. John Erskine, famous American educator, wrote the following over 100 years ago:
Here is the casual assumption that a choice must be made between goodness and intelligence; that stupidity is first cousin to moral conduct, and cleverness the first step into mischief; that reason and God are not on good terms with each other; that the mind and the heart are rival buckets in the well of truth, inexorably balanced—full mind, starved heart—stout heart, weak head.
A certain kind of Christian piety continues to hold today that an increase in intelligence is cause for suspicion, that blind obedience is to be preferred to carefully thought-out action. To those pious reasoners, Harris’s loss of faith is easily accounted for: he went to school. If he hadn’t gotten that seminary education, he would have stayed in the faith.
Curiously parallel to this is recent data from the Pew Research Center. In one study last year, they showed that there had been a significant uptick in those who identify themselves as religious “nones”—that is, people who claim no religion at all. “Nones,” Pew astonishingly found, account for as many Americans as Evangelicals. In a more recent study, from just a few weeks ago, Pew showed that Jews, Atheists, and Agnostics outperformed all Christians on tests of basic religious knowledge. One way to tell the story is to claim that education is linked to lack of, or loss of, faith.
While some read these data with alarm, I find it encouraging and challenging news. First, it is encouraging that if more people identify as religious ‘nones,’ then we are equipped with a better understanding of the evangelistic task. If these are the same people who previously identified as “Christian,” but now identify as not, then there is an increase in honesty of reporting. Too long has a kind of cultural Christianity swayed American self-perception. Honest answers frame an honest mission. Second, the gap between education and faith presents itself as a challenge. It appears that Christian education is sorely lacking in American faith. It suggests that, in the command to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, we’ve opted instead for the wisdom of doves (and therefore the harm of serpents!).
But with education does come danger. And here we might return to Harris. I remember my own time at Regent, and the laments of my peers about the nature of their own deconstructions—learning that the Church was bigger than expected, learning that the text must be carefully interpreted, learning that the history of the church was more fraught than anticipated (and, in some cases, that it began before 1906). Through it all, the faculty wouldn’t tell you what to believe—that wasn’t the methodology—but would present, and leave the work in your hands. For many students, this new knowledge, combined with the freedom to think for yourself, was simply too much. In this respect, I don’t think the problem was completely Regent’s—I think the problem is the educational state of American Christianity. (And, for what it’s worth, I think Regent could have done a better job of shepherding people through this process.) Once again, I don’t think it’s right to speculate on the shifts in Harris’s heart, but it would not surprise me if he discovered, while educating himself about the Christian faith, that the faith he’d publicly believed in wasn’t quite the Christianity he was learning about. And if that’s the case—in fact, either way—it presents us with a mandate to pray.