I’m a product of the nineties. I grew up with Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Taco Bell dog, Rush Limbaugh in his glory days, and most relevant to you readers, I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Josh Harris. Like many young Christians, my approach to dating and romance was heavily shaped by the 1997 bestseller, probably more so than I first realized.
Once I did start to realize, it was easy to get annoyed. “What was he thinking?” I’d grumble. Years later, as a budding writer myself, I repent of my easy arrogance. This “words” business is tough to wrangle. One poor word choice, one errant paragraph, and my idea darts off in a direction opposite what I intended, never to be seen again. (Although I’ll certainly see its criticisms. Better stock up on burn cream.) That an author’s ideas sometimes get away – even a Christian author, held to a stricter standard – is something that should be met with grace, especially in “disputable matters” (Romans 14:1). I prefer to think of Harris now as a pioneer. You try new routes, and some don’t work out. You just back up and try new ones. Eventually, you’re able to forge solid trails across new frontier.
But yes…sometimes the cliffs are painful. And the false trails might bring trouble to those trying to follow you.
The generation raised on the 90’s singles culture is now looking around for something more. I myself have some beefs with that culture. Even with my limited relationship experience (limited partially because of IKDG), I’ve been able to look back over my trail and pinpoint both its good and its not-so-much. There are regrets I have in following the book. And since it (and its long line of successors) targets a topic so foundational to our youth, it’s both necessary and proper to honestly examine the trails the book has forged.
However – we ought not to do it in anger. With Harris’ recent announcement that he’s reexamining the book, there has come out of the woodwork a flood of frustrated millennials who are discovering their struggles with the Christian singles culture. There is pain and confusion in their words. It’s understandable. But it’s also making it hard to judge the book well. Many criticisms out there are simply sloppy and show that it’s been a while since some of us read the book closely. If I were Harris, the thought that my legacy is a book everyone hates would be a source of deep pain. I’m not here to pile on.
So I want to sound three notes of grace on what we’ve taken for granted about the book, and where we might actually owe it a great debt.
1. It talked about selflessness
Tim Keller said that a talk about the Bible’s viewpoint on dating would be the shortest talk ever given, because there’s no such thing. He’s not quite right. There is a Biblical take on dating: “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Christian love applies to everything. There’s no subject on which it can’t be brought to bear. What exactly that looks like…is up for debate. But much of Harris’ writing deserves to be viewed through the lens of bringing selflessness into dating. Not a bad start.
When I re-read IKDG in my late twenties, the word “selfish” kept jumping out at me. It hadn’t done that before. There’s a longing within many of us for companionship and romance and sharing hearts, and it’s a strong longing. Some of us have been pulled overboard into doing inconsiderate and unwise things. Indeed, Harris’ only failure here is hitting just the tip of the iceberg. We are chasing something much greater than romance. There are deeper pangs here than anyone realizes – the need for intimacy, for validation, for beauty, for strength, for endless and unfailing love – for God. It’s really the search for God that’s driving all this.
And though God has graciously given us the gift of each other, substituting each other for God as the end goal has proven fruitless, disappointing, even destructive. People do ugly things when idols are exposed (or ignored). Which is why we must draw from God as our greatest source of life, using him to fill us instead. Looking out for ourselves with so much of our hearts on the line? Scary prospect.
Any book that nails this should be respected, even if some of its answers are too formulaic. Sure, IKDG is often cited as an example of throwing the baby out of the bathwater, swearing off dating because it can be done wrong. It’s a valid criticism. Yet the book also firmly established 1 Corinthians 13 for an entire generation as the bedrock of healthy dating, exposing lies like “love is a feeling”, “love is out of our control”, and”love is about me”. Most of all, it offered God as our greatest possible satisfaction. You probably operate out of those truths as a matter of instinct, do you not, singles? It might well be because of Josh Harris.
2. Some people need it.
I’m going to say something uncomfortable here: God does not have the same plan for all of us.
Some are called to avoid alcohol; others have no such compunction. Some of us are asked to serve overseas and spread the Gospel; others are called to evangelize at the local Burger King (and that IS a calling and an honor – off-hours, of course). Jesus does not heal the same way twice. Did you know that? With one guy he prays, with another he uses clay, and to another he simply speaks, to sample just a few of his methods. God works personally with each of us.
I’m not saying any of us are exempt from avoiding sin. If the Bible clearly tells us to avoid something, there are no exceptions. But when it comes to disputable matters, I have definitely observed that God works personally. That’s an awkward truth, because it makes it harder for us to speak into each other’s lives. How can you, when you can’t easily look up what God wants for that person?
But he does work personally, and he has a reason: sanctification looks different for different people. Some of us have alcoholism in our DNA or childhood memories; others are stronger, more responsible. Some of us are reassured by words, others by gifts, others by time, as the Love Languages culture has it. God will do whatever really gets through to us; the results are as varied as people themselves.
And for some, I have absolutely no doubt that IKDG is exactly what they needed. Not everyone, perhaps (and the book could have done better at identifying its audience – “this book is for high schoolers, everyone”). But for some, it was transformative. Probably folks who tend towards control, independence, and lust more than others. Some learn well through dating experience; some just come through it all mushed. Some needed to really focus on service during their young years, or simply repent of an idol. Some people just don’t like dating. And before Harris, other options weren’t even known. That the book didn’t work for you, doesn’t mean it worked for nobody, right?
3. It got distorted.
In the telephone game, one person whispers a sentence to another, it gets passed down the line without repeating, and the end product is hilariously different from the original. Something similar happens to good ideas, except not always so hilariously. They get carried on by others who might not be good stewards, often breaking down, intertwining, and losing nuance and context. Frankly, we don’t even need other people to do this; it’ll happen courtesy of our own fading memory.
This has happened to IKDG in a big way. Perhaps Josh could have been more clear and well-balanced in some ways, but if distortion happens even with the Bible, we should show grace. Just in the first chapter, we read these words from Josh:
“…even though I decided to quit the dating scene, I don’t believe that dating in and of itself is sinful. Because there’s 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.”
Surprised? Josh casts no hard lines here. Yes, he goes on and spends the rest of his book discussing how dating can go sideways, and yes, we’re left with the impression of “it really would be best if you just didn’t date”. But that’s just a common side effect of pushing a radical alternative. When the book is remembered through the fog of our own memory and the telephone game, we forget that Harris never said dating will inevitably be training grounds for divorce; he said it can be. And it can.
Another example of how Harris’ ideas have been twisted and lost is his teaching that sexual sin is ultimately against God. Duh, right? But the distinction is crucial, because many books and youth leaders these days, struggling to get youths to care about God, speak as if the primary victim of our sexual and emotional sin is your future spouse. It’s not. Christ on the cross was.
That said, IKDG pulled no punches about the scars that sexual sin – even short of intercourse – can leave. It contributed, perhaps, to the “damaged goods” culture we struggle with now. But it also preached grace. The chapter called “The Room”, in which Josh dreams of Jesus writing over the actions of his life with his own blood, is a haunting and profound display of the restoration and hope God brings. Harris doesn’t end with “you can’t get it back”, as too many youth rallies do; he ends looking forward.
Perhaps the most grievous example of how Harris’ model has been distorted, though, is the issue of male passivity.
Allow me a brief rabbit trail. When I first read IKDG as a socially challenged teenager, I felt relief for all the wrong reasons. Wow! “God will lead her to me so I don’t have to search” (as dc Talk chimed in)??!! Hot dog! But it wasn’t surrender, and it wasn’t holiness. I was just intimidated. I had no idea how to talk to a girl, no clue of selflessly pursuing a woman’s heart, and little sense of my own worth to fuel it all. And IKDG, or so I felt at the time, let me off the hook. With God at the controls, I had no role to worry about. Now I didn’t have to risk, didn’t have to put my heart out there. It was a took away my incentive to learn these things, to become a better and fuller person, to act.
The church is seeing a wave of such young men. They just haven’t learned, in large part because their fathers weren’t around to teach them (or didn’t know themselves). Their ignorance comes out in their dating life as either hurtfulness or passivity. This isn’t a new revelation; an increasing portion of Christian teaching has identified this trend roiling to the surface in men, Wild at Heart by John Eldredge being probably the best-known example. Ladies, I am not making excuses for my gender. I’m simply telling you why so many men seem to be first graders in this particular school. Throw in the stratospheric standards to which you are rightfully taught to hold guys, and you will start to understand why they seem so tentative.
Josh Harris did not address the growing problem of male fatherlessness, and perhaps leaned too far towards the simplistic vogue of “inaction = holiness”. That combination is running rampant in many areas of Christian teaching right now, and doing damage. It’s religion, and it’s a faulty view of God’s sovereignty. (If you put zero resumes out there expecting God to drop a job in your lap, is your starvation his will or do you just hold some bad assumptions?) Holiness is listening to God – still when he says to be still, moving when he says to move, silent when called for, bold when the time is right.
But here’s the thing – Harris never taught passivity. That charge belongs on his imitators. Some, trying too hard to shield young Christians from pain and sin (which results often in sheltering and religion, respectively), turned “not dating” into impractical dogma. They also painted “beautiful and amazing” but highly unrealistic expectations of Christian love stories. The comedown from all that is a big part of the outcry against IKDG. Yet Harris opposed passivity at many points in his books. He insisted on male leadership, acknowledging that risk and hurt are part of life and sometimes even beneficial. I wouldn’t put passivity or fear of dating on his shoulders. (What would become available to the Kingdom if we lived not in timidity, but in power, love, and a sound mind (2 Timothy 1:7)?)
I’ve saved myself for marriage thus far, minimized romantic baggage, and if any future girlfriend of mine wants to save her first kiss for the altar, that’s what she gets. I and many other Christian singles regret none of this, despite our unmet longings. Are we to assume that we’d all be here without Harris? Would we share healthy ideals like serving alongside a person as a good date, welcoming parents’ input into dating decisions, or learning to use our single years in pursuit of God, without I Kissed Dating Goodbye? I wouldn’t assume so. Not for all of us.
Many of us would be well served to read IKDG again and carefully weigh its ideas. However slippery the details, it’s difficult to criticize a book founded on seizing Christ’s love and selflessness.
I hope, in the coming year, to complete a book of my own. (That’s partly why this blog exists, as a stepping stone.) It will detail what God is teaching me on my own singleness journey, one that was shaped in great measure by IKDG. My vision is to collect under one roof all the good ideas floating around out there about what God is saying to his singles, including some things that Harris in his youth couldn’t yet know or just didn’t address.
I’d also recommend Harris’ second book, Boy Meets Girl. It cleared up a lot of problems from his first book, like the idea that you should marry the first person you date. I’m pretty sure that book has also fallen short of the examination it deserves.