Questioning Faith After Purity Culture: In Conversation with Joshua Harris | Sojourners

Questioning Faith After Purity Culture: In Conversation with Joshua Harris

Still from the documentary I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

Earlier this week, author and former pastor Joshua Harris — whose bestselling book I Kissed Dating Goodbye became go-to courtship advice for a generation of teens raised within 1990s-early 2000s evangelical purity culture — announced via Instagram that he and his wife were separating. In the post, he says, “In recent years, some significant changes have taken place in both of us. It is with sincere love for one another and understanding of our unique story as a couple that we are moving forward with this decision. We hope to create a generous and supportive future for each other and for our three amazing children in the years ahead."

Last year, Harris and filmmaker Jessica van der Wyngaard released the documentary I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which chronicles Harris’ confrontation with dozens of critics of his book — along with many of the tenets of purity culture. The project came about during Harris’ studies at Regent College, where he attended after stepping down in 2015 from the lead pastor role at Covenant Life Church, part of the Sovereign Grace Ministries network, after allegations of improper handling of abuse within the SGM network over decades came to light.

In February, I spoke with Harris for a story on the recent public rejection of purity culture and the journey to find what comes next. Harris wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbye at the age of 21 and married at 24. Now 44, after leaving the pastorate, Harris discussed what led him to call for an end to his book printings and his own journey from the unquestioning faith of his youth.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sandi Villarreal, Sojourners: What was the initial turning point that led to some of the questions you had about the tenets of the book?

Joshua Harris: I think some of the earliest moments for me happened about six to seven years ago when I was still a pastor and I began to see ways in which the culture of our church was unhealthy. … It was a time in which I think our pastoral team was just starting to recognize a lot of legalism and really unhealthy patterns. And we invited into our home different groups of members of the church and asked them to share some of their stories, and that was the first time that I started having that thought, [that] my book ties into this sense of pressure that there's one way to do relationships.

… And then we left our denomination and right at that time, our church and the movement was hit with a lawsuit related to sex abuse and it was just total chaos. I was in crisis mode for about five years — which, I think it was all tied together, even the issues of how sex abuse was reported with regards to pastors feeling like they had all the answers and that they could handle things when really we didn't know what we were doing.

So I knew that I needed to look at my book, and I was honestly, I think, just scared — like I didn't know how to go about that. I didn't know where to start.

Villarreal: In light of the recent [Southern Baptist Church} report, many are pointing to the church's teaching on purity culture — and complementarianism in general — as having impacted reporting or potentially leading to concealment in some cases. I'm just curious what your thoughts are on that and, if you are going through this process, if you're seeing that connection as well.

Harris: Yeah I do think — well, there [are] some serious issues that need to be fixed in churches. And I think that the problems that are in Sovereign Grace and in the SBC and the Catholic Church, they're present in other places, and I think this is probably just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the church reckoning with it. I think that the problems are diverse and complex and they spread throughout our whole culture.

… I think in our setting, though, the thing that I would say is that we had a very restricted view of the role of women. That's one of the biggest things I regret in my time of being a pastor is the way we taught about women in the church, women in leadership, in the home, and so on. And I think there are massive indications when you don't have a female perspective in in policymaking and decisions related to something like that. Like, I think that we would have made better decisions if there had been women in on those moments.

But it's not quite as simple as saying that … I think there were also theological problems related to our view of the role of pastors and our view of the role of the faith and ways that were, in our case, unique to our movement: the low view of psychiatry or therapists and those types of things, and the idea that pastors should be able to help you with any kind of life issue that you're facing.

When it comes to something like sex abuse, we just did not have the training. We needed to be calling in other people, we needed to be, obviously, making sure that — and we did report many cases of sexual abuse, but in some cases obviously we made huge mistakes.

So there's sort of a web of problems. But I do think that a very patriarchal, male-centered, low view of women has connections to sexual abuse in different cases.

Villarreal: You say in the documentary that there are a lot of people who want you to throw out everything that was kind of the basis for your book. But I'm curious when you say “everything,” do you mean your belief in Christianity as a whole or about premarital sex in general? I'm curious what you include in that.

Harris: I think that there's a push by some people to say being sex positive means — the kind of the historical sexual ethic related to sex outside of marriage, related to homosexuality, is basically laid aside, and embracing a healthy view of sex means just accepting all that as fine within the Christian tradition. … I do think though that, for me, in that change of interpretation of such a fundamental level when it comes to sexuality, it's just hard for me to ... In a way it's almost easier for me to contemplate throwing out all of Christianity than it is to keeping Christianity and adapting it in these different ways.

I don't know if that makes sense, but I think I've just been so indoctrinated in a certain way of interpreting scripture and viewing sexuality that it's just hard for me to see the scriptures and its kind of overall, you know, commands and principles and so on and see how that can be consistent.

I think that I probably need to engage with some of those people — like I have people send me their e-books showing why premarital sex is fine, and I just don't have the energy right now. Like, I do not want to read your book. I do not want to. I do not want to engage in a massive, you know, theological expedition to think about all these things. So it just sounds really exhausting to me, honestly.

But I think what you saw in that moment in the film is it is a real struggle for me. I'm really struggling with — I think that rethinking some of these things and having had my faith look so specific for so long that now as I'm questioning those specifics, it feels like I'm questioning my entire faith.

Villarreal: What are some different ways that we can have a faith-informed and a biblically based sexual ethic that doesn't bring forth that shame and, for some people, has resulted in trauma? … I think that, intentionally perhaps, in the film, you don't come to another formula, but what have you settled on out of that?

Harris: What I think was hard for me as I was re-evaluating my book is I was starting to get all this criticism for purity culture, and I was kind of like, well, what's the alternative? Like I really didn't know, and the only thing that I can come to is — and again, not that I'm necessarily here, but if a person is saying, OK, we're Christians, we want the Bible to inform us, and so on — the only thing that I can come to is to say these standards are still good and they're for human flourishing, but we're not going to fixate on them and make such a big deal of them. We're going to be more accepting of the fact that shit's going to happen, people are going to screw each other. Like, let's just move on. Let's move forward and love each other.

I think what's difficult is that nobody wants to be, at least in more traditional conservative circles, nobody wants to be the one that's coming out and saying let's all chill out and not make such a big deal about this stuff.

... For me, it's like at what point, if there's any point at which you believe that there is a God who has any sort of you know guidance or instruction on anything, let alone sex but just on the topic of sex, is there any line that's drawn? And then is there a problem if you cross that line?

Villarreal: Depending on what your theology is even within the Christian spectrum, there's been a different interpretation of what those instructions are.

Harris: It can start to feel like you're like doing some move from the Kamasutra with the Bible. And I don't mean to be dismissive, it's just like from an intellectual standpoint, it actually feels more intellectually honest for me to say I don't know that I agree with the Bible in general than it is to get it to say these things. And maybe that's just because I spent so much time in a very conservative environment judging all these more progressive people that I'm now tempted to go past that [and] be like, forget it all.

But it can get to feeling, like, what are you holding onto in Christianity? Why do you need it still? ... I guess if we can with one generation make that radical a shift with the Bible, who's to say that another generation can't completely shift the Bible to, you know, to justify something that we would all think is horrendous? It starts to just be silly putty.

Villarreal: There's a lot of shifting that you would have to do to get your mind in that framework …

Harris: Well one thing I would just say is that I think that the problem with my book and the problem with a lot of the churches that I was a part of is that you can have kind of historical Christian sexual ethics and think things about the goodness of marriage, the goodness of fidelity when it comes to sexuality, all those types of things. But if you if you surround that with a culture that places high demand on the execution of that and creates structures of accountability, reward for those that do it well, a sense of shame for those that don't do it well, it's not it's not just a sexual ethic — it's also the sort of environment around it. And those sort of high-demands religious environments ... that has a massive impact on your experience of that sexual ethic — the way that that's enforced, the pressure that's put on you. So I think that is a big problem with my book, the big problem with the church environment it came from: how the ideas are applied and how the shame culture that can be built around it is a big part of its unhealthiness.

Villarreal: Since the documentary came out, what's the main message you're hearing back from folks?

Harris: There are two different camps. I mean the most encouraging, and I think that this is probably pretty consistent, is people saying thank you for having this conversation. Thank you for admitting that you were wrong about things. It's enabled me to see ways that this book and purity culture negatively shaped my thinking — I didn't even realize it. People said it's been healing for me. Just the fact that you're admitting some of these things is allowing me to move forward in ways that I needed to.

… There's another group of people that would be upset that it didn't go further, that we get into issues of the LGBTQ community and my view of that and all those kinds of things. They would just feel like you're still not — you haven’t gone far enough, and you're not really sorry.

Villarreal: So what's next for you?

Harris: Yeah I made the decision not to go back into pastoring. I just have my own business.

And actually, I'd love to continue some of these conversations. I'm looking for ways to continue to have dialogue with people and give other people a platform to tell their story. So I'm talking about just starting a podcast that just gives me a way to have these kinds of conversations, not just about my book but about different religious environments and how we think about things and what people have learned in that process. ... With my book, I keep wanting there to be this moment where it's like it's over and it's done and I don't ever have to think about this again. I guess I'm realizing that part of truly being sorry for the ways my book harmed people is that I just need to be able to sit with that. I need to be able to sit with people still hurting and keep listening to them, and try to facilitate dialogue and conversation that will be helpful for people to move forward and move beyond those things.

I think that one of the mistakes of people like me who have come out a very conservative, legalistic environment is [they can] just adopt a new legalism in a completely different way, and be very dismissive and critical of people who are still in that way of thinking. And I just I really have this desire to honor different stories. … There are going to be people that want to continue to embrace different aspects of purity culture, and they should have the freedom to have that option.