In Defense of "I Kissed Dating Goodbye"2
“I was expecting to find a long list of rules for “Courtship God’s way.” After a few chapters I started impatiently skimming ahead. The rules had to be in here somewhere! To my surprise I discovered I Kissed Dating Goodbye isn’t really about dating at all. Instead, it’s a book about following Christ and what that means for all our relationships with others.” -Sam Torode, in the Forward of an updated edition of I Kissed Dating Goodbye
Unpopular opinion alert: I think I Kissed Dating Goodbye is probably the best book available on the topic of teenage romantic relationships. This hasn’t always been an unpopular opinion. The book did very well and was widely lauded in conservative evangelical circles. Its success is cited as contributing to a thing called ‘purity culture.’ This refers to the elevating of both physical and emotional purity not only through biblical teaching, but also outward signs such as purity rings and pledges (and other strange things Josh Harris never mentions and should never be spoken of again).
As with a lot of successful books, I Kissed Dating Goodbye has always had plenty of critics, but in more recent years the critiques graduated from arguments defending dating to ‘this ruined my life’ type of complaints. Blogs, Washington Post articles, Slate interviews…the book’s fall from grace is getting as much press as its rise. That is typical of our current age (and a topic all on its own.) Josh Harris has recently begun to publicly re-evaluate the book, and to listen to folks who say it damaged them.
My memory of the book (I first read it when I was 16) was that it was a compelling argument that teens or college age kids casually dating was often (though certainly not always) a selfish act which led to all sorts of problems and, conversely, treating our brothers and sisters in Christ with the love and respect they deserved meant being willing to withhold on romance till it could be supported with commitment. But maybe I missed all the creepy and harmful parts, so I decided if Josh Harris could re-evaluate the book, then so could I.
So I read it again, this past week. It’s way better than I remembered.
The best thing about the book is how it consistently juxtaposes purity not with impurity, but with selfishness. According to the book, selfishness and the idolization of feelings are the root of the problems with youthful dating, not romance or sex. Selfishness leads a young man or woman to use another person for how that person can make them feel in the moment. Sexual sin is sometimes among the damaging results of selfishly objectifying others. Harris re-iterates over and over that what is needed is not adherence to rules, but an attitude change from selfishness to love. Speaking about himself, he says “[t]he change in my attitude was the result of realizing the implications of belonging to Him. The Son of God died for me! He came to free me from the hopelessness of living for myself. That had to change everything – including my love life. Having a girlfriend was no longer my greatest need.”
In chapter 1, there is a whole section on the love of God that gives us both the example and power to live unselfishly. In today’s climate, where kids at younger and younger ages are being influenced to participate in sexting and porn, I Kissed Dating Goodbye’s impassioned plea to refuse to objectify others (or yourself) and instead demonstrate God’s love by putting other’s interests ahead of your own is as timely as ever. The wise juxtaposition of purity with selfishness, rather than impurity, is a way to see why sexual sin is damaging. Pre-marital sexual sin isn’t damaging because an act causes you to go from pure to impure; it’s damaging because it perpetuates damaging lies that affect people’s lives. Lies related to the supposed all-importance of sexual desirability, the idolization of feelings, Gnosticism (i.e. that what we do with our bodies doesn’t affect our souls), objectification etc.
According to Harris, this issue of intimacy and commitment is very important to his whole perspective. The one formulaic principle he espouses in the whole book is that "the joy of intimacy is the reward of commitment." He bases this principle on biblical teaching by pointing out that God established a covenant before he allowed a people to begin to know him. Love and faithfulness are often connected in scripture (Proverbs 3:3 is a good example). He then says “Pursuing intimacy without commitment awakens desires – emotional and physical – that neither person can justly meet.”
Everything I have said so far is just skimming the surface of the first two chapters. There is a ton of biblically wise advice packed into I Kissed Dating Goodbye.
Of course, a book can contain some truth and wisdom and also be harmful at other points. So what about the parts where Josh Harris told everyone dating is always a bad idea, always sinful, and that only heathens behaved in such a way?
“After all, when we engage in guy-girl relationships, we’re not always choosing between absolute wrong and absolute right. Often the choice is between what is good and what is best. For example, even though I decided to quit the dating scene, I don’t believe dating in and of itself is sinful. Because there is no biblical command not to date, this is an area that we each need to evaluate in light of our own maturity, our motive, and the other person involved. The decision requires wisdom.”
That’s odd. Ok fine, but lots of young people felt they couldn’t so much as grab a cup of coffee at Starbucks together without it being controversial. Harris made that sort of thing weird which put so much pressure on opposite sex friendships, right?
Actually numerous times throughout the book Harris clarifies that he doesn’t think grabbing lunch or a cup of coffee is weird or wrong, and spends a chapter discussing the importance of non-romantic friendship between young men and women: “As Christians we should never neglect or ignore our relationships with the opposite sex. Do you know why? Because God tells us we have a built in level of commitment to each other as “brothers and sisters” in Christ. We’re family. And while there are limits to how close men and women can be in friendships, we can’t shirk our responsibility to care for, encourage, and build up our brothers and sisters.”
What about folks who say he created an unrealistic expectation in regards to relationships…that if you do it right -- his way -- everything will be great and everyone will live happily ever after? Didn’t this cause a lot of folks to become disillusioned and embittered when they ‘followed all the rules’ and things still went wrong?
“Does that mean we are supposed to marry the first person we date? No. We need to carefully and cautiously consider marriage, remaining willing to back out of a relationship if God shows us we need to. There is no wisdom is rushing into marriage simply because we’ve become romantically attached to someone.”
“The Little Relationship Principle won’t make romance risk-free or foolproof.”
“The ultimate goal behind my choice (to temporarily stop dating) isn’t to avoid pain. I am not afraid of another breakup. I know that even in a godly relationship I may face disappointment one day.”
Yeah well, his emphasis on waiting until you were ‘ready to be married’ before pursuing a girl was a huge time waster, and meant I had to meet some pretty ridiculous expectations before getting engaged. Oddly enough, though, there is also a common complaint that his book led people to get married too quickly because courtship was treated as such a big deal that it ended up = engagement, and so a lot of folks ended up marrying the first person they were in a serious relationship with. Apparently the book managed to make it impossible to get married while simultaneously forcing people to get married too early.
I’ve read the book twice now, and if there is a single specific thing about what it means to be ‘ready’ for marriage in terms of a job, level of salary, age requirement, or anything along those lines then I have missed it both times. Harris’s focus, as I’ve said, is the heart motivation of those wanting to pursue romantic relationships. When he’s talking about being ‘ready’ for marriage all he’s referring to is a person being ready to match intimacy with the appropriate level of commitment. Which is a really good idea.
I could keep going, and keep responding to other arguments about why the book was unhelpful but you are getting the point. This leads me to what I find to be most disappointing in all the critiques of the book I have seen, although I know I haven’t seen them all. It seems to me that the vast majority of critiques don’t address the content of the book at all. They are either addressing it under the assumption it contributed to some of the weird aspects of purity culture, or they are talking about ways they applied it or it was applied to them that they disagree with, while seemingly ignoring the fact that those applications don’t seem to found or encouraged in the content of the book itself.
I believe people when they say their parents used the book to enforce some overly strict or even at times bizarre or harmful rules. But parents for centuries have used the Bible as justification to enforce overly strict or even at times bizarre or harmful rules. In his chapter on moving from friendship to courtship, Harris spends all of two paragraphs talking about how to honor parents. To sum up: He thought he would talk to the parents first about courtship as a way to honor them, but he had a buddy who talked to the girl first then the parents, oh and sometimes the parents aren’t that involved, that’s fine, just make sure you are including whoever is closely involved in the girls life because they deserve that level or respect. Not exactly scandalous advice.
So, overbearing dads (or controlling older brothers etc.) took some good advice and abused it to enforce their own unreasonable rules. I’ve personally heard more than one dad, in all seriousness, use the story of Jacob and Rachel in the Bible to justify making a young man wait for his daughter to prove that he really loved her enough to wait like Jacob did. Obviously such a perspective reflects unwisely controlling parenting, but the Holy Spirit doesn’t need to apologize for inspiring the writer of Genesis to include that story because dad’s would be morons.
I think we fall into a trap when we allow the prevalence of a complaint to determine its legitimacy. For all those who think the book was harmful, what about those like me who are included in the 1.2 million people who purchased the I Kissed Dating Goodbye that think the book was very helpful in encouraging us to approach relationships unselfishly? How many of us would it take to render the complaints about its harm illegitimate? 500,000? Would 200,000 young people not objectifying their friends sexually, in part because they caught Josh Harris’s vision for glorifying God in our relationships, make the complaints seem less relevant? Or would a better criteria for critique be whether it can be demonstrated from the content of the book that people were right when they applied it in the plethora of harmful ways it was applied?
My contention is that the content is key. And I think Josh Harris should be proud of the content of I Kissed Dating Goodbye. It was used by God in my life not just in regards to romantic relationships, but how I want to treat people in general. I hope he doesn’t forget why he wrote the book, the context in which he wrote it, and the great help it was to a lot of selfish kids who needed a wakeup call.
If he wants to write a book called How Legalism or Chauvinism Poisons Everything, Even My Great Book, I’d read that too.
More in Redeemer Blog
February 26, 2020You Can't Know What You Don't Know
October 30, 2019When are the Glory Days: Lessons Learned from Heartland Part Two
October 29, 2019When are the Glory Days? Lessons Learned from Heartland, Part One