Christian pastor and author Joshua Harris has just released a documentary exploring the effect that his book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, has had on an entire generation. It’s titled I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye, and the tagline asks, “What if your views on sex and relationships as a 21-year-old influenced millions?” Throughout the film, Harris interviews experts on sexuality and relationships and talks to many of those who were affected by his work. You can currently watch it for free here.
While Harris’s intentions when he wrote the book were good, he now believes it has caused enough harm to discontinue publication of it. You can read his statement on that decision here.
I Kissed Dating Goodbye was part of the purity and courtship movements of the 1990s. These movements called Christian young people to beware of dating and to save themselves sexually for marriage. While he wasn’t the only one promoting these ideas, Harris caught people’s attention in a special way, as evidenced by the fact that IKDG sold over a million copies. The evangelical community ate it up, and even those of us who didn’t fully embrace its message have still been affected by it.
What’s Wrong With I Kissed Dating Goodbye?
Harris now believes that some of the flawed ideas his book either implies or says outright are:
- You have to be married to be a whole person. Singleness is not a good and desirable vocation that leads to flourishing.
- Protecting your heart (i.e., living in fear) should drive your approach to relationships.
- Certain principles that are not in the Bible (like don’t kiss until you’re married) apply to everyone.
- If you do all the “right things” before you get married, you’ll have an awesome marriage and great sex.
What Prompted the Documentary?
Shortly after writing I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Harris married and started his family, leaving the audience his book was addressing. He became the pastor of a church, but stepped down a few years ago to attend seminary. Shifting from being a leader to being a student gave him a new ability to converse with people whose lives his book had changed. He began re-evaluating whether he still believed in it.
What Shaped I Kissed Dating Goodbye?
In the documentary, Harris describes his younger self as “young, zealous, certain and restlessly ambitious.” His mindset at the time was that people could improve anything if they were just serious enough. He attended A True Love Waits rally in D.C., and this experience was a major factor in motivating him to write his book. True Love Waits was itself an influential part of the purity movement at the time.
To understand where IKDG and the purity movement came from and why so many embraced their ideas, Harris explores what was happening in the culture at large. Professor Dale Kuehne, author of Sex and the iWorld, believes that after the sexual revolution, society generally adopted the idea that sex would lead to ultimate fulfillment. This involved removing sexual boundaries.
The purity movement was a reaction against the sexual revolution and the lack of sexual parameters in the decades that followed. However, those cultural values still influenced the evangelical community in subtle ways. Even though the purity movement encouraged people to wait to have sex until marriage (which is good), it did so while still promoting the idea that sex and marriage lead to ultimate happiness (which they don’t).
The purity and courtship movements placed an unhealthy emphasis on virginity and encouraged people to focus on sex and romantic relationships more than on following Christ. According to the documentary, the purity movement and Josh Harris’s book offered a version of the prosperity gospel. They promised relational prosperity if people followed certain behaviors.
Simplifications and Interpretations
Harris now believes his book oversimplified the conversation about dating and romance, which is partly why IKDG was so popular and sold so well. This oversimplification led the book and the purity movement to neglect other crucial conversations on sexuality, such as what it looks like for single Christians, who are sexual beings, to live flourishing lives. The purity movement also failed to address sexual abuse and the LGBT experience, something Dannah Gresh, founder of Pure Freedom Ministries, mentions in her interview. The movement, Harris says, ultimately “overshadowed the Bible’s central message of grace.”
But is Josh Harris responsible for how other people chose to interpret his book and live their lives? Not completely, but he believes he is partially to blame. Why? Well, many people in the Christian community embraced his book, and it’s very challenging for individuals to go against their communities. Children are told to honor their parents. Believers are told to respect their pastors. While scripture never asks us to blindly follow authority, when multiple leaders promote an idea (especially when this idea has some truth to it), it’s difficult not to get swept along in the tide of popular opinion.
Where Does That Leave Us Now?
Throughout the course of his interviews, Harris arrives at several conclusions regarding what Christians can do differently in order to navigate relationships and sexuality in way that honors Christ. One is to have a biblical understanding of what purity actually is. Instead of equating it with virginity, we should understand purity as receiving God’s grace and following Him.