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Hindsight and hope

Q&A with Joshua Harris: Lessons learned two decades after the courtship revolution

Hindsight and hope

Joshua Harris (Whitney L. Buckner)

February brings Valentine’s Day, and the Christian writer whose advice 21 years ago left lots of valentines unsent has revised his thinking.

Joshua Harris—author, former senior pastor of Covenant Life Church, and the firstborn of Christian homeschooling pioneers Gregg and Sono Harris—is still most famous for something he did at age 21: He wrote a best-selling book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Twenty-one years later, Harris is revisiting the subject by working on a documentary project called I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which will follow Harris as he and his readers reflect on the impact of his book.

I asked Harris why he’s making the film, how he feels and thinks about his book now, and whether he’d recommend his own book to his teenage children. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation.

You were 21 when you wrote IKDG. I used to think the idea of courtship was ridiculous. I was a teenager and wanted to make out with girls. Then when I broke up a two-year relationship in high school, I felt convicted, I felt regret, I felt I had mistreated this girl.

My parents and other homeschooling parents were already talking about the problems of modern dating, and I listened to them for the first time. After meeting Joel Belz, I became inspired to publish my own magazine for young Christians, where I wrote an article on dating and courtship. The response was huge, so I wrote a book that caught on like wildfire.

Why? One, legitimate problems in modern dating. Christians trying to uphold Biblical sexual ethics felt frustrated with the lack of specific guidelines. Two, parents from the sexual revolution wanted something different for their kids. Three, the book came out during the late 1990s, when people were still concerned about AIDS. Plus, my book had a catchy title.

Looking back, how do you view the 21-year-old Josh Harris who wrote IKDG? He was a very young man asking questions and wanting to honor God. I wanted to call my generation to higher standards. I was frustrated because everyone (including me) in my youth group was pushing physical boundaries in relationships. I thought: We need to pursue purity and honor God in every part of our life.

 

‘People latch on to movements for simple answers and promises. Even now as I revisit this issue, I don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking this is the real answer. We need to go to God humbly as a community and recognize there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.’

Looking back now, I came up with simple solutions when life is very complex. I thought I saw all these things so clearly, that if people just lived a certain way, it would lead to certain results, but that’s not what the Bible teaches. Truth is, you can walk with Jesus and have your heart broken. You can save yourself for marriage and have a terrible marriage.

What do you think the young Josh Harris missed? He was simplistic in assuming that everyone shares the same background and personality. For example, I didn’t have trouble interacting with the opposite sex, but a lot of people need to date to learn how to interact with the opposite sex in healthy ways, to learn more about yourself and what you’re looking for in a partner. The book didn’t factor that in.

You’re working on a documentary about this. Why? I’ve gone through different stages of my relationship with that book. I was proud and excited that it reached people and received positive feedback. It became a big part of my identity—it was the most successful thing I’d ever done. Then I got tired of being the guy who wrote IKDG. I moved on, started a family, pastored a church for 17 years.

Two years ago, I decided to step down from pastoring and attend Regent College in Vancouver, which created a space for me to listen and not feel like I have to have all the answers. There, fellow students told me how my book had negatively affected them. A woman wrote on Twitter, “Your book was used as a weapon against me.” I apologized, and later on my website asked for personal stories about IKDG’s impact. I got over 500 letters.

Reading through those letters was emotionally exhausting. I asked a professor to turn this into a guided study. I read all the letters, reread IKDG, and read various books on modern dating. (One of them was True Love Dates—I like that book.) The idea was to process what has happened since IKDG, how evangelicalism has approached dating and relationships, and my book’s role in it. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the purity movement?

Whitney L. Buckner/I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye

Jessica Van Der Wyngaard films Harris (center) and Dale Kuehne for I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye. (Whitney L. Buckner/I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye)

What did you learn? I felt the complexity of dating relationships, especially in the modern world. I learned that intentionality can be taken too far, to where people can put the relationship under a microscope: Is this the person I’m going to marry? With such tremendous pressure, it’s devastating when the relationship doesn’t work out. It makes it hard for single people to get to know other people in a more relaxed environment, away from public scrutiny.

IKDG was popular because it was radical and called young Christians to a higher standard. It’s hard to argue against a higher standard. We think if it’s radical, it’s gotta be good. We don’t do well with complexity. People latch on to movements for simple answers and promises. Even now as I revisit this issue, I don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking this is the real answer. We need to go to God humbly as a community and recognize there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

You’ve been talking to a lot of old readers. I didn’t comprehend the impact of the book until now. It’s taken this long to see long-term consequences of the book, both good and bad. It’s been an emotional roller coaster. When people say my book has harmed them, I feel a lot of sadness. I swing back and forth between being crushed and being defensive.

How do you think this documentary will help? Part of my responsibility is to listen and honor each story. I know it can’t fix things and it’s too late in many ways, but I think it’s the right thing to do, and I hope it’ll spark conversations in our churches: Obviously we are going to keep making mistakes, so how do we Christians acknowledge that and process that in a healthy way? I hope it will bring some measure of closure for me. But I’ll always grieve that people were hurt by my book.

Would you recommend IKDG to your teenage kids? My wife and I probably wouldn’t advise our kids to court exactly the way we did. It worked for us, but we recognize now that it’s not a cookie-cutter model. With my own kids, I want them to have healthy dating relationships that allow them to know others and know themselves. I would still tell them that at some point be intentional about dating. I still like in IKDG the principle of putting Christ first in your relationships, of loving others selflessly, that you’re complete as a human being, whether or not you’re in a relationship. Singleness is a good thing, not a curse that needs to be fixed.

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a features reporter for WORLD Magazine. She graduated from the University of Southern California with degrees in print journalism and East Asian language and culture. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat, Shalom. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.

Comments

  • Parfetfamily
    Posted: Mon, 02/12/2018 05:34 pm

    IKDG inspired me as a parent of adolecent girls: It addressed lots of feelings I had as a younger Christian man (I met my wife in 1979) having grown up in a secular world with few moral sexual guidelines (I was taught to persue women for sex primarily). How does one conduct relationships in a God honoring way? I came to the conclusion that I needed to treat women as friends and avoid any form of sensual contact. I made a commitment between myself and God that I would not kiss a girl until we were both conviced we were in love. My then girlfriend became very upset one night as we hugged goodbye that I had never tiried to kiss her. She became relieved and pleased when I confessed my commitment to not kiss until the time was right.

    So, as I read Josh's book and he addressed so many of the emotional stuggles I had gone through at that time in my life, I was sold on his book as a guide line to relationships, but not as a dating 101 handbook. I used his book to develop my own ideas how to help my daughters develop healthy relationships, and we as a family worked out those details and guidelines together. It was not perfect, and we in a manner of speaking "tweaked" things along the way. All in all, we have been thankful for IKDG.