I was in 10th grade when I Kissed Dating Goodbye was published. Seemingly half the girls at my Christian school read it and swore off dating right away. The first thing I remember was thinking, Thanks for nothing, Joshua Harris (though to be honest, those girls weren’t interested in me before the book either).
The second thing I remember was finding out a few months later one of those girls who had read the book had sex with one of my friends on a teacher’s desk. That, to me, is the purity culture of the 1990s in a nutshell: laughably ineffective, but immensely damaging beneath the surface.
Purity culture’s scare tactics (sex now will ruin marital sex later!) and impossible promises (waiting for marriage will make sex toe-curlingly, transcendentally amazing!) contributed to a culture of guilt. You were either failing to live a sexually pure life (I’m ruining my future marriage!) or succeeding in purity, only to find out shutting down your “sinful” sexuality meant you couldn’t flip it back on to enjoy marital sex.
For many #eldermillennials like myself, I Kissed Dating Goodbye became the stand-in for that culture. My mid-90s education featured “Christian worldview” training which told us we lived amid a rotting moral culture. We were told it was our job to memorize solid “biblical” arguments that could dismantle other beliefs, expose them as wretchedly sinful and transform them into a Judeo-Christian worldview.
Weirdly, this rhetoric bred a generation of Christians who were terrible at incarnating the way of Jesus but great at yelling at people. We had simple answers that sounded good, confidence we were doing the Lord’s work and—for people like me with aggressive personalities and youthful arrogance—a willingness to use this training as a culture warrior club, concussing people into faith. I remember having an argument at the small Christian college I attended with a friend of mine who had come out as gay. I explained to him he was sinning, and I did not, for one second, think about what it would be like to announce his sexual identity to a group of guys who used gay pejoratives as insults regularly. I did not consider the years of torment he’d gone through while hiding his sexuality. The culture that created and surrounded things like I Kissed Dating Goodbye trained me in argumentation, not empathy, and I used every tool in my arsenal to debate him.
A few years ago, I tracked that friend’s number down to apologize. I can’t put into words how terrible I feel about my actions now, how I was the complete opposite of Jesus back then, how I wish I could do it all differently, but I figured the least I could do was tell him—years too late—I was sorry. Jesus was so much better than I made him, and I wish I could take it all back. The friend was cordial and polite and he thanked me, but his voice was hollow: Nothing I could say would undo the pain I’d caused.
Yesterday, Joshua Harris released a statement in which he apologized to anyone hurt by I Kissed Dating Goodbye and announced it would stop publication. Responses on Twitter included a lot of angry people disparaging his motives and telling him it wasn’t enough, saying his apology was insincere.
My first instinct was to argue with them and defend Harris’ apology as heartfelt, humble and brave. I wanted them to see Harris that way because I, as a product of the culture Harris represents to so many, wanted those critics to see me that way, too. But then I thought about the friend I’d hurt. The only way I could really be any source of healing in his life would be to show myself a loyal friend who shows up every day, and cares more about his personhood than winning a philosophical battle royale that will “win our country back for Jesus.” Because Jesus never called me to fight a culture war. He just told me to love my enemies, be a servant, care for the poor and protect the marginalized so He could be glorified.
I’ve had the opportunity to interact with Harris a couple times. As near as I can tell he is retreating from the Christian Personality Industrial Complex to raise his family, make a living apart from the limelight and love those around him well. In his apology, Harris says he can’t undo whatever damage he’s done, and that’s helpful for me to remember. My life and attitudes in many ways run (and ran) in parallel with his. It’s a good reminder for the whole generation of reformed Christian culture warriors.
All we can do in the wake of I Kissed Dating Goodbye—even if we’re Joshua Harris himself—is learn from our mistakes, ask for forgiveness and live out the Gospel message as faithfully as we know how. In other words, it’s not so much about committing to purity, or dating, or not dating anymore. It’s about committing to the worldview the Bible was teaching all along.