I Kissed Dating Goodbye
Reviewed date: 2019 Aug 19
1997 to 2019
In 1997, twenty-one-year-old Joshua Harris published I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Now in 2019 he's disavowed the book, apologized for it, retired from his job as a mega-church pastor, divorced his wife, and renounced Christianity. (Not all at once and not in that order.) He even made a documentary to air the grievances of people who were harmed by the book. I didn't read his book in 1997, so I figured I'd read it now and see if it's really that bad.
Historic Christian Doctrine on Marriage and Sexuality
Before I go further, let me state that I hold to historic Christian teachings on marriage and sexuality. Marriage is created by God and designed to be a life-long covenant between a man and a woman. Sex is a part of a marriage relationship, and is illicit in other circumstances. So when I object to what twenty-one-year-old Joshua Harris taught I am still affirming an orthodox Christian understanding of marriage and sex. I still believe that chastity is a part of living in obedience to God. Rejecting I Kissed Dating Goodbye does not mean rejecting Christian morals.
Boy Meets Girl
Although I skipped I Kissed Dating Goodbye (where Harris explains the problems with dating), I did read his follow-up book Boy Meets Girl (published 2000 but I read it somewhere between 2003 and 2006) where he goes into detail about Christian courtship as an godly alternative to dating. That book is garbage. I knew it at the time, so I ignored all the advice.
But leaving aside Boy Meets Girl, is the advice in I Kissed Dating Goodbye really that bad?
Is it really is that bad?
Problematic Opening Illustration
The book opens with an illustration of a wedding:
[As] the minister began to lead Anna and David through their vows, the unthinkable happened. A girl stood up in the middle of the congregation, walked quietly to the altar, and took David's other hand. Another girl approached and stood next to the first, followed by another. Soon, a chain of six girls stood by him as he repeated his vows to Anna.
“Anna felt her lip beginning to quiver as tears welled up in her eyes. "Is this some kind of joke?" she whispered to David.
"I'm...I'm sorry, Anna," he said, staring at the floor.
“Who are these girls, David? What is going on?" she gasped.
“They're girls from my past," he answered sadly. "Anna, they don't mean anything to me now...but I've given part of my heart to each of them.”
“I thought your heart was mine," she said.
"It is, it is," he pleaded. "Everything that's left is yours.”
That view of love is ludicrous. Childish. The human heart is not a finite resource that diminishes or grows smaller with each relationship. The idea that one could be incomplete because one has had previous relationships is simply not in accordance with how God created people. It's true that we can have emotional baggage, unresolved feelings, or doubts or shame or trauma from our past experiences. But these can be from any experience, and we can be healed--through therapy, God, the passage of time, etc. There isn't anything special about a dating relationship that breaks us in some kind of irretrievable way and makes us unable to have a healthy, happy, fulfilling marriage.
What Joshua Harris is doing in this illustration is spreading a false message of shame. It's wrong and it's harmful.
The Problems with Dating
Young Joshua Harris has some good observations when he explains the problems with dating. The "dating" he describes is awful. If you're doing it this way, you should kiss it goodbye. As Harris describes it, dating falls into several traps:
- Serial short-term relationships to gratify selfish needs such as companionship, sex, or pride.
- Falling in love too early. E.g., teenagers thinking each crush is their soul-mate. (This is Joshua Harris's problem.)
- Dating without purpose merely for the sake of the relationship.
By contrast, a proper dating relationship should be purposeful and intentional: it should lead to choosing a spouse.
A middle-school view of romance
Joshua Harris literally recommends that if you're interested in someone, you don't tell her. Keep it a secret. That is the DUMBEST THING I HAVE EVER HEARD. Apparently you are supposed to magically get to know this other person and form a deep, meaningful friendship and decide if she's marriage material without ever breathing a word of your intentions.
If you're pursuing a deeper friendship, the other person will already have an idea that you're interested, and you can't avoid this. But expressing these feelings in words often "awakens love" before it's ready.
So according to Joshua Harris, if you act deceitfully and conceal your feelings the other person will "already" know you're interested. If you honestly express your intentions, you'll ruin everything.
Look, there's something to be said for not moving too fast in a relationship. There is a proper timing. Perhaps if you're the romantic type whose thoughts turn to the wedding after the first date, you shouldn't mention that. Wait until the relationship is at the proper stage before bringing up wedding plans. But guys, Joshua Harris is saying that the proper speed of a relationship is to NEVER BEGIN THE RELATIONSHIP. That's not healthy.
Re-inventing Dating, but Badly
So what's the solution here? To re-evaluate destructive dating behaviors and avoid them? No, it's to--well, let me have young Harris describe it in his own words.
We want to insert a transitional stage between deepening friendship and engagement--a period of "principled romance." This is not simply for the sake of having romantic fun. Principled romance is purposeful in its pursuit of marriage, protected in its avoidance of sexual temptation, and accountable to parents or other Christians.
One might call that stage "dating". Harris calls it courtship, and demands that it doesn't start until you've basically already made up your mind to get married. He also adds a whole other string of requirements to courtship: the young man must get permission from the woman's father to pursue a relationship, they must be chaperoned, they shouldn't spend much time alone together, they must establish rules and boundaries for the relationship. And all this has to be negotiated and established before the relationship can begin. The pressure and anxiety is enormous, but Joshua Harris seems not to realize this.
Courtship = Dating Cranked Up To Eleven
The idea of going on a low-stakes date to get to know someone is out of bounds. You have to jump straight from friendship directly into a high-stakes, preparing-for-marriage courtship relationship. This is not an improvement over dating. If anything, it takes one of the problems with dating (that is, premature commitment) and rachets up the intensity. Now, instead of just falling in love too early, you've got the added pressure of everyone around you--friends, parents, pastors--expecting that this relationship is headed toward marriage from its very beginning. Yikes.
Look, I'm all for being purposeful and intentional in dating relationships. But courtship as Harris describes it is unhealthy and dangerous. It creates the very thing he claims to be avoiding: a premature commitment and unrealistic, premature expectation that the relationship will result in marriage.
Misunderstanding of Sex
Remember how I said I hold to an orthodox view of marriage and sexuality? So does twenty-one-year-old Joshua Harris. (Joshua Harris from 2019 rejects all that.) But in this book, he gets so much wrong. Like so many, many others in the Christian evangelical purity movement, Harris focuses on virginal purity rather than on chastity. Here's how he explains why sex should be saved for marriage:
Remember, by delaying sexual involvement, you're storing up passion and making sexual love within your marriage that much more meaningful. Don't allow impatience now to rob you of an undefiled, passionate sexual relationship in marriage.
So no sex now or your future marital sex is ruined. Ruined, I tell you. Ruined! But if you do abstain now, then you'll get rewarded with passionate marriage sex later. Harris says nothing about chastity or intimacy or obedience to God. He doesn't talk about communication and openness in marriage. He doesn't talk about children. (They come from sex, you know.) Nope, this is just a straight-up delayed gratification mindset: deny yourself now, and you'll get something great later. If you have sex before you get married, your sex later will be defiled forever.
If someone were to take this attitude to heart and not have sex until they're married, they may be crushingly disappointed if sex isn't a magical, transcendent experience. (It turns out there's so very much more to a marriage.) And if someone were to take this attitude to heart but have sex prior to marrage, that person would be crushed, demoralized, and shamed at the thought of having ruined their future sex life. The hopelessness would be immense--who would want to marry a defiled person who would bring a broken, unsatisfied, unfulfilling sex life as their contribution to the marriage? I mean, you might as well give up and resign yourself to a life of singleness.
Fortunately, that's not reality. Young Mr. Harris (and so many others) focus too much on the concept of virginity, which is dumb and not an important concept. A better focus is chastity. Unlike the mythical virginity (I mean, why do we even have a special word for someone who has not had sex?), chastity isn't a one-and-done thing. An unmarried person who is no longer a virgin can recommit to chastity. It's important to confess your sins and repent, and walk in obedience to God. But in a marriage, the important thing is not whether the bride or groom were virgins on the wedding day, but rather whether they are chaste--that is, whether they have a proper understanding of sexuality and its role in the marriage relationship designed by God.
By Joshua Harris, For Joshua Harris
Twenty-one-year-old Joshua Harris has a problem: every time a pretty girl walks into the room his brain stops working. He's a romantic and when he sees a girl, his emotions take over and he starts hearing wedding bells.
A cute girl walks in the room, and all my common sense evaporates. How many times have I made a complete fool of myself by falling head over heels for someone simply because of her charm and beauty? Too many times.
Josh Harris wrote this book for himself, because he is a hopeless romantic who is unable to control his emotions. This is not a healthy man. This is a man with a problem, a compulsion, an addiction—and he’s projecting it outward onto everybody else.
In the early stages of attraction, I have a difficult time remaining clearheaded.
Yep. This is a guy with a problem. He is twenty-one. He's acting with the emotional maturity of a thirteen-year-old.
This book is written by Joshua Harris for Joshua Harris.
Is the book harmful?
I mean...I guess it could be. I think the book is merely juvenile, not harmful, and that any real harm came from a culture in which adults who should have known better forced a legalistic and unforgiving version of this book's worldview upon their children.
I cannot imagine that if I'd read this book in 1997 that I would have been harmed. I may not have understood the book's flaws as clearly in 1997 as I do in 2019, but I would still have rejected the book's teachings even then. I say that with confidence because although I had not read the book, Joshua Harris's influence was so great that his ideas were everywhere, and I recall disagreeing with them at the time.
I guess what I'm saying is that the book is so bad that even I, as a sixteen-year-old kid, knew the ideas were bunk. For someone who didn't realize that, or who grew up in a spiritually abusive environment that did not allow them to believe that, it could certainly be harmful.
Don't Blame Joshua Harris
I don't blame Joshua Harris for this book. He was a twenty-one-year-old guy with a major problem with relationships. He was doing the best he could. He wrote a book with all the wisdom of a young man who knows nothing, and a great number of older, wiser men published it and promoted it. It's their fault.
I am astounded that a Christian publisher approved this book, much less promoted it.