Author’s note: this article was originally published on Christian Post: Voices in April 2018 after an early screening of the film. The final version, which I’ve not seen, will be released sometime in Fall 2018
About a year ago, Joshua Harris and his director, Jessica Van Der Wyngaard, announced that they were collaborating on a project together. One that would show Joshua Harris reflecting on his best-selling book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye.
I was skeptical, as many were, about what this meant. Would he be acknowledging all of the hurt he’d caused with his words? Or would he be rewriting history and maintaining his innocence while arguing that others had abused his work?
I’ve yet to see a Christian leader with any sort of renown admitting sincerely that they had done wrong to others, and apologize for it. So, while I had hoped that he would be the first, I braced myself to be angry and disappointed once again with the church.
But I was not all prepared for what I experienced when I attended the thesis screening for I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye.
I grew up during the True Love Waits movement, a time when purity culture really began to gain momentum. I remember when the book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye became a bestseller. I personally knew many people who had bought the book, and I witnessed church leaders use it as a religious text akin to Scripture itself. No one would have ever dared to admit that their devotion to this book had reached that level, but the message that my generation in the evangelical church heard was clear: God had a very specific system in mind for finding a spouse. And God spoke through Josh Harris (and others) in order to make us aware of this holy standard.
I saw the legalism in my friends and acquaintances. I heard them tell me that dating was “divorce in training.” I heard them tell me that saving my first kiss for my wedding day was perhaps the holiest choice I could make to preserve my purity. I heard that allowing myself to develop feelings for a man who was not my husband was sinful because it would mean that I couldn’t give my whole heart to my husband one day.
I was so angry with these messages that I resolved to never read this book.
For the next twenty years I held onto that resolve. Until I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye was announced; I got tickets to the first screening of the film at Regent College, where Joshua Harris had been attending since 2015. This gave me a reason to stop listening to the hearsay and learn for myself what his book had taught the rest of my generation.
I knew I’d disagree with the book, but I didn’t expect to be so angry with the doctrine. On multiple occasions, I had to put the book down and take a break because I was seething.
I saw the direct parallels between what he taught and how the people I knew in my life had been deeply hurt. I saw how I had been hurt by this book, even though I’d refused to read it: the concepts had become deeply ingrained within my church culture. It affected my dating life and how it made me view myself as a woman. It also affected how I viewed my role within my personal relationships and the church itself.
There are the misunderstandings of sexual ethics and consent. Like the story of 19-year-old Julie who worked as a receptionist in a doctor’s office and was being sexually harassed by her boss. Harris posited that, had Julie given in to her feelings towards her boss, she would have been guilty of ruining his marriage and family.
There are complete falsehoods about the nature of relationships and attachment. The book’s intro describes a dream of a couple on their wedding day, and all of the past girlfriends who stood next to the groom at the altar. The message: the groom had given away bits of his heart to every other woman he had dated before his wife. The end result meant that he had only a small piece left to give to his bride.
On multiple occasions, Harris warned his readers about having relationships that are too close between opposite gendered friends. He repeatedly cautioned his audience that any kind of alone time—including phone calls—should be minimal.
Many of his claims had massive repercussions for those who read the book and grew up in the culture where these things were considered gospel truth. Many people are still attempting to heal from the damage.
Having read his book, I went to the screening with great skepticism and my guard was up.
I was ready to be angry, expecting to hear a Christian leader dismiss the hurt that his words from twenty years ago had caused.
And then the film started.
It opened with the scene of that dream. The one with the bride and the groom on their wedding day. I rolled my eyes.
Then, Harris began to narrate and described himself as someone who had written a book that had radically changed the conversation on dating and relationships. The cynic in me began to get nervous that this could be the beginning of a dangerous narrative that set him up as a great leader who meant well and whose only crime was loving the church too much.
He acknowledged that people had been deeply hurt as a result of his book. Harris had reached a point where he’d have to stop and reevaluate his thoughts on his book. He recognized that he needed to sit and actively listen to what others were telling him of their experiences with the book and the culture that he’d helped push to the center stage of evangelical thought.
Shannon Harris, Joshua Harris’s wife, was filmed in sharing her thoughts. She initially called it a good and well-intentioned book. But then she corrected herself: it was a well-intentioned book in that he wrote it with the desire to help the church. However, it was not a good book.
I started to relax.
The film jumped back in time to the early 90’s when the purity movement began to really take shape, just before Harris published his book. During this era, the idea of pledging abstinence until marriage became the thing every good young Christian did. Some wore rings to symbolize their oath; others signed pledge cards.
Entire youth group conferences were arranged and centered around the goal of teaching impressionable teens and preteens that sex is a wonderful, amazing, and beautiful thing—but off-limits until marriage.
This is the culture from which I Kissed Dating Goodbye sprang.
He spoke to a variety of authors who have devoted their adult lives to studying the purity and courtship movement and how relationships work. He chose authors who have been in the culture or observed it closely, and are in a unique position to objectively critique the issues.
Harris summed up his current thoughts on the purity movement by acknowledging that the idolization of virginity is an unhealthy focus. He put himself in the shoes of a person who is caught up in this theology by saying, “do I have this badge and this identity of being a virgin? And if I don’t… I feel like I’ve lost something and I’m no longer as valuable.”
He continued: “I think that’s led a lot of us astray.”
At about the seventeen minute mark, Harris said, “When I was 21, I was so confident that I had all the answers. But now I need to be courageous by admitting that I don’t.”
When he started making the film, he invited the public into his deconstruction process. He reached out to any who felt hurt as a result of his book and asked to speak directly with them. Several of those conversations, which were filmed for the documentary, were deeply gutting.
One featured a woman who said that she finished the book and then thought to herself: “Okay… I am never going to be able to have a relationship.”
Another woman talked about a family in her homeschool community where a girl was raped by her own brother. The shame of impurity motivated her parents to cover it up.
A gay man was interviewed: he grew up confused by his sexuality because there was no place in the church for people like him. When he did finally hear someone discuss his sexual identity, it was to condemn it as sinful.
Harris attempted to show the consequence of the purity movement’s doctrines toward the gay community in discussion with author Debra Hirsch (Redeeming Sex: Naked Conversations About Sexuality and Spirituality).
Hirsch talked about how the evangelical church is filled with animosity towards the gay community. This animosity can often be so extreme that it becomes a physical and visceral experience for the Christian.
Hirsch shared with Harris the story of a pastor she knew. This pastor shook hands with a man who had come to speak with him; some time after they had shaken hands, the man revealed to the pastor that he was gay. The pastor then excused himself because once he realized that he had shaken hands with a gay man, his body reacted: he felt physically ill and had an urge to wash his hands.
It seems that this pastor was able to work through how his theology had created a situation where just the touch of a gay man could make him react so strongly, and was able to nurture a healthy and loving relationship with this man. But the moral of story was clear: there is something fundamentally unhealthy within a culture that breeds real fear, disgust, and alienation people due to assumed sexual sin.
Harris listened to all of this. He did not argue. He did not interrupt. He did not try to spin a narrative that protected his ego. He listened. He asked questions and he empathized with those he hurt.
Speaking to the camera at the end of the film, he tells the audience that while he thinks there is good to be found in the book, he no longer supports much of what he wrote.
“My thinking has changed since I wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” Harris said. “I think that its premise is flawed. I don’t agree with a lot of my own book.”
Today, he believes that dating is an important and healthy part of a person’s development.
He recognized that one reason that people, like myself, who got hurt by the culture (even if they didn’t believe the teachings) were hurt because they were locked in a culture that embraced the purity movement. He acknowledged that it’s not easy to go against the flow or break away when the expectation and pressure is to conform.
Harris addressed his motivation behind the book, and said that he wrote the book looking for a simple formula. Additionally, he recognized that a reason it resonated so well with people was because they also wanted a formula—one that would protect their hearts from pain and guarantee success in finding the love of their lives.
He no longer seems interested in providing a formula for people.
The end message of I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye did not result in Harris dictating a new set of beliefs to be followed, but rather encouragement that people should figure out their own thoughts and beliefs.
Harris encouraged people to acknowledge and move out of their tribalism: listen to those we disagree with, seek out new experiences, decide for ourselves what we think and believe rather than allowing others to decide for us.
Harris shared that he regrets what he’s done and his role in leading the purity and courtship culture. He now believes that he could have been one of the religious leaders in Scripture that Christ condemned: a Pharisee.
He gave a voice to those he had hurt. And he validated their feelings.
The film ended with Harris staring into the camera and addressing those who had been hurt. “I am so sorry,” he said – his face was filled with grief.
I did not anticipate nor was I prepared for the tears that this film triggered for me. I needed to see this film.
After the film, there was a brief time for Q&A with the audience.
Someone asked his thoughts on how women were uniquely affected by purity and courtship culture. Harris responded that he noticed a gender disparity in the sort of feedback he was getting: where men were speaking more theoretically on the topic, women tended to share more from personal experiences. His conclusion was not that men were unaffected, but that women tended to feel the sting more acutely because the culture would label them as sinners more often than not in situations where men would be let off the hook.
Speaking on women in this culture, he said: “A woman’s voice and power is really taken away in these kinds of courtship models. And I don’t want that for my daughters.”
Hearing him validate the unique struggle that women tend to face in the church was healing for me.
This was a far cry from the 21-year-old boy who would write about the inherent potential for a woman to sin and cause sin in men. Just because we’re women with bodies that men find attractive.
A final release date for the film has not yet been decided. But they are hoping to release it this summer. They plan to make it freely available.
I highly recommend that anyone who has been affected by this book and/or purity and courtship culture see this film.