Culture Friday: The sad story of Joshua Harris

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Friday, the 2nd of August, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. It is Culture Friday. John Stonestreet is here now. He’s president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. John, good morning.


EICHER: What I want to talk about today is the story of a celebrity Christian author and speaker who has renounced his faith. If you listen regularly to this program, you’re probably among the population of those who know who I’m talking about. Joshua Harris, of course.

You’d know him, or know of him, not because of this program. But because in Christian circles, certainly in the homeschool movement, he’s pretty well known.

If you don’t know him, I’ll tell you this: perhaps his biggest culture-shaping impact has been the sale of an estimated 1.2 million copies of a book that argued against dating and for courtship. The title, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” 1997. 

Joshua Harris renounced the teaching of the book a couple of years ago. But the news now is that he’s divorcing his wife and renouncing his faith. He said straightforwardly, “I am not a Christian.”

John, let’s begin briefly to say, this is very sad. A personal tragedy. For his wife and kids, for his parents, his siblings, a family tragedy. He had been a pastor, so a congregational tragedy. There’s a lot of hurt here, and I think let’s just acknowledge that much up front. Joshua Harris is not an issue, but he’s raised issues. 

But let’s start with Joshua Harris the person.

STONESTREET: Yeah, we need to. And we also need to remember that he’s also been apart of two movements in his life that have kind of seen big, big failures. Moral failures and moral improprieties. I mean, first, his dad’s name, at least, would have been in the early homeschool movement a really big name. And that’s one of the reasons that Josh’s name became such a big player at age 19. But alongside those names were some other ones like Bill Gothard and Doug Phillips. And these were two big leaders. Now, they’re not always put into the same category. Don’t get me wrong. But there was a homeschool kind of upper echelon elite and at least those two individuals that I’ve named had pretty big moral failures. 

Then also there was as a young pastor, he landed in Sovereign Grace Ministries. And Sovereign Grace Ministries has dealt with its own big scandal. 

And so there’s also that at play. And I appreciate you bringing that human element to it, because it is part of the story. And, unfortunately, what many tried to do was basically make this completely and utterly about purity culture and nothing else. But there’s far more to the story than that.

EICHER: Right, and as to the issues raised, maybe we should be thankful that he’s not trying to bend Christianity to fit his new worldview. 

A lot of people have said that. 

But concerning so-called purity culture—and I think when you hear that term, it comes as a pejorative—Harris certainly was an icon of that movement. 

And thus, his deconversion is making news. 

NPR’s run with it. CNN, NBC. USAToday, Slate. It’s gotten a lot of play, and the man-bites-dog angle is, abstinence author splitting from wife.

That’s pretty devastating culturally. Should it be?

STONESTREET: Well, I mean, look, if we want to say, well, what has the worst track record in terms of ruining lives, the purity culture—which, by the way, is an undefined pejorative that basically absorbs anything that anybody doesn’t like. And it’s an easy thing to throw under the bus just with that title. But even if we put the worst of everything in the purity culture and say what has ruined more lives—that, or the sexual revolution? You know, this notion of sexual freedom, this untethering from sex and marriage and this untethering from sex and morality. Yeah, I mean, it’s not even close. And that’s what’s so interesting is that there’s nothing else that’s caused more observable misery and hardship in our culture than kind of the breakdown of sexual morality and this myth of sexual freedom. And yet it’s the exact opposite that’s being blamed for the world’s ills in all of these articles, under this nebulous, undefined thing called purity culture. 

And, you know, I’ve seen things that are part of the way that the church has tried to talk and teach about purity that I think has been misguided and wrong and damaging and I’ve talked about this for a long time. I speak about it at homeschool events even. And have for a long time. Everything from kind of the using fear when it comes to teaching sexual restraint or using false promises and everything in between. 

And yet at the same time, if the worst thing that happened to you in high school was this book and what this book actually says, then you’ve had a pretty cushy life. Now, if we want to bring in things that went wrong like sexual abuse or things like that, that’s a whole different category. 

But that predates Josh Harris’s book. And if we want to talk about how youth pastors taught it wrong, well, what’s wrong with this picture is that so many churches had a 23-year-old single youth pastor and put him with a bunch of 16-year-old girls. I mean, what could go wrong with that plan? I mean, there’s a lot of things here to talk about and just throwing this nebulous label purity culture over everything you didn’t like is really not very helpful.

EICHER: We shouldn’t speculate sort of what’s next for Joshua Harris, because I think it’s reasonable to believe we’ve not heard the last of him. Even though he has said he doesn’t have a book in the pipeline and that he’s not doing interviews. He’s also said he’s not disappearing, whatever that means.

Because when you post Instagram pictures of your serene moments and they’re obviously not selfies—this is branding. It’s image-building, so something’s up. We just don’t know what.

But before we go, let’s also touch on the fact that in Harris’s statements, he’s making his past proclamation of biblical morality tantamount to having harmed the LGBT community. And it’s something for which he feels the need to apologize. 

This is a common notion: that encouraging chastity among the unmarried and faithfulness among the married is ipso-facto harmful to the unorthodox. Why do you think that is such a common idea today?

STONESTREET: Well, it’s a good question and it’s not just that chastity is harmful. It’s that any sort of tradition— I mean, for example, you could still say that, OK, Josh oversold in I Kissed Dating Goodbye and a lot of people oversold this whole idea of chastity and virginity and sexual purity and still not think that LGBT relationships are OK, alright? I mean, that’s kind of a completely disconnected thing. And a lot of people that have gone down this path through doubting—and not only doubting, but doubting it publicly. It’s kind of taken in many ways this same route. I mean, I remember a writer who did a similar journey years ago and her main point was I was taught a particular view of young earth creationism and I’ve since come to the conclusion that that was wrong, so therefore I’m for gay marriage. And you’re like, wow, well, that escalated quickly. Right? So it’s when you start to get into this kind of spiral of doubt and everything becomes up for grabs. 

I don’t want to presume to know any kind of future plans of marketing and branding and celebrity that Josh Harris has. I don’t know him. I’ve known some of his family members, but I don’t know him. So I’ve got no room to really say here’s his personality. I haven’t been asked that. But I do want to say, I am more than a little weary of whenever someone has this kind of sort of high-profile evolution, then the place they feel led to have it is on Instagram. I mean, why? What’s the point there? If this is your journey and please let me take it, well, yeah. Why have a professional portrait of you done and then announce it? What’s going on there? 

And we also know—and if you don’t know by now, you should—which is the quickest way to get an article published in Time, USA Today, NPR, or whatever is to say I was once a conservative religious person—especially an evangelical—and now I disagree with my former self and support gay rights. That is the quickest way to get interviewed on every media outlet there is. And to suddenly become a theological expert, too, by the way. It is just a strange thing to kind of do this publicly. 

The other interesting piece of this is, of course, Joshua Harris just put out a documentary that has actually walked through his changing his mind specifically on dating and courtship. And that was done with a former, fellow student of his at Regent. And she came out with a really interesting statement that she had no idea that any of this was taking place. She was taken by surprise both by the announcement that Josh’s marriage was coming to an end and that he was questioning Christianity overall. And she was trying to make sure that, listen, just because we’re questioning this doesn’t mean we’re questioning this. And she wanted to distance herself. It seemed like there wasn’t a whole lot of communication done there where a significant part of that journey was told to her for this documentary purpose. So that’s an interesting dynamic here. And I don’t want to impinge motives, but I do think it says a lot about our culture when kind of the first impulse we have is to announce this stuff on social media.

EICHER: John Stonestreet is president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. It’s Culture Friday. John, thanks!

STONESTREET: Thanks, Nick.

(Photo/Warhorn Media) Joshua Harris

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