One of the most startling developments in ultra-right-wing Christianity lately came and went without a whole lot of fanfare. Today I want to share what that development is and why it’s important.
Joshua Harris is one of the scions of the homeschooling and courtship fringes of the Christian Patriarchy movement. He wrote one of the single most destructive books ever published on the topic of evangelical Christian relationships. And he’s got an announcement.
Mr. Harris is the son of Gregg Harris, who helped kick-start the entire homeschooling thrust of the ultra-right-wing branches of Christianity as part of the burgeoning Biblical (or Christian) patriarchy movement. This movement swirled together all the most horrifyingly ignorant teachings of Creationism and groupthink with all the most horrifying “purity” teachings of right-wing Christian rape culture and then set it loose on a population that had been trained since birth to think (mistakenly) that their church leaders’ teachings were a true reflection of reality about the world and relationships.
When Greg Harris’ firstborn son Joshua was only in his early 20s, without a formal education in ministry or relationship counseling, without even solid experience in adult romantic relationships of any kind, he wrote a book that forever changed the entire focus of Christian Patriarchy: I Kissed Dating Goodbye, in which he encouraged other young people to abstain from all forms of romantic entanglement–even dating–in favor of waiting until marriage to do all of those things.
The book described even the most innocent dating relationships as “a form of promiscuity,” as if everyone only has a certain amount of love to give, and he–and of course his god–condemned all such relationships. In the zero-sum world of fundagelical “purity” obsessiveness, a person (especially a woman!) became tarnished and diminished with every single romantic attachment formed with anyone who didn’t end up being that person’s spouse. Josh Harris suggested, in his youthful zeal and grandiosity, that dating was ickie and sinful and led to off-limits sexytimes thoughts. He decided that he–and his god–should instead demand that proper Christians basically pursue Victorian-esque pre-marriage relationships overseen by their approving parents and chaperones.
Crushes and loving feelings–and oh, especially lust–were considered particularly dangerous and wicked. Christians had to carefully guard their hearts lest they accidentally give away pieces of it to people who were not their spouses–which was not only an indiscretion in their culture, but also a form of infidelity, remember!
If you like seeing awful apologetics and lifestyle books shredded to bits the way I do, then blogger Samantha Field has got your number right here. She makes sure to detail the author’s incredible misogyny and chauvinism–and calls out the author for repeatedly trying to assert that what he’s demanding of his tribe is not actually misogynistic or chauvinistic. Maybe it’s his age, maybe it’s his staggering inexperience, maybe it’s his lockstep indoctrination into pure and unfiltered toxic Christianity, but whatever is causing his attitude, there’s a lot of it to call out. His book asserts without even a blush of shame that women must always allow men to take the lead, that relationships must look like he thinks they should look or else they are sinful and wrong and doomed, and that at no point whatsoever should women be allowed to make their own decisions about their own bodies or lives.
The book caught on right about when the parents involved in that end of Christianity were trying to one-up each other particularly fervently, and became a huge hit. The message resonated loud and clear with its target audience.
A Singularly Devastating Idea.
I am very fortunate to have gotten out of Christianity long before this courtship horseshit got popular. I know it, and I am very thankful for that luck. It’s hard to imagine the hell it would have wreaked in my life. Very soon after I began connecting with other ex-Christians, I began hearing about the damage this one book had done to so many lives. It seemed like every college-aged ex-Christian I ran across had read the book or had it thrust onto them.
It’s certainly cut a wide swathe of damage.
Libby Anne eloquently describes the emotional damage this book wreaked on her as she grew into adulthood in a rigidly fundagelical homeschooling family. She became terrified of even developing crushes; she berated herself for being unable to control her very thoughts; she developed serious body and self-confidence issues because of the shame she felt every waking moment about her developing body and sexuality.
She’s far from the only person reporting this kind of damage, nor the only one who could conclude, as she does:
Reading Joshua Harris’s books seriously warped my view of sexuality and relationships. I am not engaging in hyperbole when I say that my life would have been very different had Joshua Harris not put pen to paper. Sure, I still would have been taught to save sex for marriage. I still would have been conditioned to feel guilty when having sexual thoughts. But I doubt that I would have ended up seeing purity as a contest without Harris’s raising of the bar, and I don’t know that emotional virginity was even a thing in evangelical circles before Harris championed it.
With one book, Joshua Harris managed to destroy millions of Christians’ lives and inject an altogether new concept into right-wing Christianity: the idea of what Libby Anne has termed “emotional virginity.”
But the mistake would be to think that he did it all by himself.
Aiding and Abetting.
Let’s remember, please, that this book’s author was barely into his 20s when he wrote that book and didn’t actually have any experience with relationships at all. He was the product of a religious homeschooling environment that didn’t let him anywhere near girls.
So how did a near-child with no relationship experience manage to do this kind of damage to this many people?
The answer is: He had a lot of help.
He grew up in the very cauldron of Christian patriarchy under the watchful eye of one of its very architects. Right-wing Christianity was already heading into dangerously fanatical waters as its leaders and most fervent members tried to outdo each other in injecting their faith everything imaginable and to one-up each other in how “pure” they could be.
The idea of sexual purity already existed in this form of Christianity. So did the idea of injecting religion into one’s romantic relationships. Even I knew about that stuff. But Joshua Harris took those ideas a few steps further by demanding emotional purity as well, and he created the idea of “courtship,” which had the added benefit of giving adults and parents way more control over “those kids today” than they’d ever had. There was no way his book couldn’t be a smash hit.
His publisher, Multnomah Books, is an evangelical outfit located in a tiny town in Oregon. After publishing I Kissed Dating Goodbye, they had more success a few years later with The Prayer of Jabez, a prosperity-gospel screed advising evangelicals to recite a magic spell every day for a month to enjoy miraculous results. They knew a good thing when they saw it.
Encouraged by success, Joshua Harris soon wrote more books, among them Boy Meets Girl–which featured a number of anecdotes about various couples who followed his “courtship” advice–including his own success story. He would write an impressive six books in all, almost all of them further developing his “courtship” ideas.
It doesn’t look like anybody tried to tell him that his ideas were dangerous, misogynistic, cruel, and loaded with the potential to shame decent people over perfectly normal and natural human needs and to destroy Christians’ lives. The people who could have pulled the plug on his whole “courtship” idea were so enamored of it–and the control it represented, and the way it perpetuated and one-upped their previous ideas of male-dominated and religiously-informed relationships–that they chased the golden egg right alongside their new goose.
I used to wonder why on earth so many Christians are willing to take advice from people who have no idea what they’re talking about. The answer, though, stares us in the face: totally inexperienced people are the only ones who’d find such advice plausible–and they are also the only ones willing to teach the party lines their leaders want followed. The ignorant lead the ignorant under the direction of those at the top of the pyramid, who likely know all too well that nobody with actual experience or understanding of the topic would ever teach that kind of nonsense.
Cracks in the Wall.
But Joshua Harris’ advice, taken into the real world, turned out not to lead to happy, healthy Christian marriages. It led to people who were crippled by self-doubt, shame, second-guessing, and unrealistic expectations.
Joshua Harris’ second book, Boy Meets Girl, featured a number of anecdotes about various couples the author knows who followed his advice and then got married. But in the years since that book was published, two of those couples have gotten divorced. And divorce continues to rocket through the ranks of the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ who did their damndest to follow all those rules.
Faced with the fallout of his advice, the author is backpedaling as hard as he can. He began giving interviews a couple of years ago about how he’s begun re-thinking his approach to relationships and courting. People are starting to tell him via social media about the various damage they suffered as a result of his book, and he’s been apologizing.
But he’s still re-releasing the books. He hasn’t demanded that publishers take them off the shelves or told Christians not to buy them ever again. His main beef with the fallout is that Christians took it way too seriously. He has said he didn’t mean that all couples had to abstain from kissing and holding hands before marriage. He didn’t mean that courtship was the only way to have a relationship.
I find these attempts to soften his message disingenuous in the extreme. In his culture, he had to know exactly how it would be taken when he declared that the most Jesus-riffic and “godly” way to have a relationship was to do it his way. He directly equated his courtship ideas with being a good Christian, which means that not pursuing courtship is being the opposite–which means sinning, which means going to Hell. It’s hard to imagine that he had no idea in the world that fundagelicals might imagine, after reading his book, that he was handing them a list of rules to follow! It’s even harder to imagine that fundagelicals wouldn’t interpret his pronouncements as having divine approval–which means that other relationship strategies do not have that approval. He conflated his own personal thoughts about relationships with what he thought were his god’s desires for Christians, and that conflation shows in every single chapter. Certainly the reviewers and readers of his book understood fully this conflation.
If he ever did actually made it crystal-clear that he wasn’t speaking on behalf of his imaginary god, certainly nobody in the tribe heard him do it.
Tell Me A Story! Oh, That’s My Favorite.
On his personal website, he’s asking people to send him anecdotes about how his book hurt them. And that’s nice, but I don’t see why he can’t go online and look up the many, many existing blog posts and forum comments from people pouring their hearts out about how courtship culture hurt them. It’s not hard to find this information with only a small amount of effort! But I suspect he’s asking for these anecdotes for a reason.
I get the feeling that no matter how many people tell him they suffered damage from his teachings, he’s still going to keep selling the books and blaming the people who suffered as having done it all wrong. His message is perfect, after all.
That’s Patriarchal Christianity in a nutshell, really. No matter what abuses spring out of it–and there is a constant wellspring of abuse and scandals out of that end of Christianity–its leaders are always going to find a way to explain away that total lack of real-world corroboration.
It’s probably too late for fundagelicals to give up courtship altogether. But maybe they can at least start critically evaluating all these anecdotes that right-wing Christians keep trotting out to demonstrate their points. If Joshua Harris gets deluged by stories about the abuse and shame that have come about as a result of his teachings about courtship, maybe it’ll start sinking in. I don’t know just how he’ll spin that though; it’s very rare to see a right-wing Christian leader admit he’s wrong, and he’s made a lot of money off of courtship. I’d be very surprised to see him totally disavow it.
We’re leaping back into Preston Sprinkle’s book next, because it’s got a couple of testimonials that must be seen to be believed–even by the standards of that group! See you then!