303 Joshua Harris
Storyteller and Author of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”
“If you can call people to a higher standard and tap into that fear.. that ‘I’m not trying hard enough. I’m not really loving God enough. I’m not sacrificing enough.’ There is always going to be another person coming along with a book or a conference to sell that is going to tap into that and say, you’re right, you’re not doing enough. Let me show you how you can do more.”
Joshua Harris is a storyteller and owner of the marketing company Clear and Loud. He is a former pastor and author of the now unpublished, but widely circulated book, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” He told his story in the DOCS ology film I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye.
Nadia Bolz-Weber (NBW):
NBW: In 2019 I published a book titled Shameless: a Sexual Reformation, in which I explore the connection between sexual shame and the teachings of the church. In it I tell my own stories as well as those of others like a woman who even in middle age, still cannot make herself wear a v neck because she was taught it was immodest, and a gay man who never reported their sexual abuse because they were told that being gay was a sin, and some married folks who still cannot manage to be fully present during sex because the shame of it all has just never gone away.
The sexual shame that comes from religious teaching has a particular acuteness to it …which is why I am convinced that messages delivered to us in God’s name embed inside of us, far below the surface and stay with us longer than anything the media or society alone can dole out.
For decades, what is known as the Evangelical purity movement in America has told those wild, beautiful, ever-changing, hormone-soaked beings we call “teenagers” that, in order to be good, in order to be pleasing to God they must disconnect from their bodies. They must repress any sexual thoughts, desires or feelings until they can punch the golden ticket of heterosexual marriage. Which I guess might have made a lot more sense when there was no access to reliable birth control and marriage took place about 45 minutes after puberty but I digress.
A lot of us who were raised with these teachings have tried to dig ourselves out from heavy layers of shame about our bodies and desires and are left later in life, trying to reconnect the frayed wires of our sexual responses systems.
In the opening chapter of Shameless I mention that in 1997, 21 year old Joshua Harris wrote the wildly influential book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye in which he made the case that not going all the way before marriage was not going far enough, Harris took the teachings of the purity movement and moved the goal posts even farther away claiming that in order to be truly pure and earn God’s approval, young people should not ever kiss each other or touch each other or even go on dates with each other.
I Kissed Dating Goodbye sold over 1.2 million copies.
I’m Nadia Bolz-Weber and you have stepped into the confessional. It’s like a car wash for our shame and secrets.
My guest today is Joshua Harris.
NBW: Joshua, I cannot say how excited I am to have a conversation with you.
Joshua Harris: I’m so excited to talk to you.
NBW: So give me a little background. Like, tell me what what what your life was like growing up a little bit
JH: Yeah, I grew up in a very religious environment. My parents were both very zealous about their faith. My mom was a second generation Japanese American. My dad was a hippie who was completely changed by Jesus and got saved. And they wanted to be serious about their faith. And one expression of that is that they decided to homeschool me. My dad ended up becoming a very well known, influential leader in the homeschool movement, which back in the nineteen eighties was super radical.
JH: And I was sort of like the kid in all the sermon illustrations and teaching illustrations of Here’s my son, Josh, and here’s how great homeschooling is and look how well it’s working. And so he would travel all over the United States, teaching workshops ultimately to hundreds of thousands of families. So the business the ministry was all intermingled with who we were and our identity as a family
NBW: So you guys were like I mean, today we’d say influencers?
JH: Yeah, my parents absolutely were
NBW: Your parents are writing books about your Christian home schooling family as this example of, you know, how people should be living and then what happened? Like, how does your story unfold from that point?
JH: Well, for me, there is sort of a middle point in my life where I really rebelled against that in the homeschool version of rebellion, very tame.
Not even not even PG 13, maybe PG 11, where I was on a gymnastics team, I started hanging out with all these people that weren’t Christians and weren’t home schooled. I discovered that girls were into me. I was making out with these girls behind the school. I stole pornographic magazines and was doing all these things that were very inappropriate for a Christian home school boy to be doing.
NBW: But developmentally appropriate for a teenage boy.
JH: Well absolutely. But in terms of how I’ve interpreted that time for so long, I viewed that as this incredibly negative time. You know I was doing all this stuff on the sly secretly. And then I got into a relationship with a girl who I dated in my youth group for two years in high school. Very serious high school relationship and at the tail end of that, I went on a church retreat and had a very powerful encounter with God where, you know, I just was like, I want to be serious about God, I want to serve God, and this dating relationship kind of embodied the holdout of submission to the Lord. And so I broke up and I felt so much guilt around, you know, dry humping her, touching her boobs, saying that I loved her and that we would be together forever and then breaking up. I basically kind of came back. It was like this prodigal son moment where all of the ideas about dating and betrothal and courtship that my parents had been pushing on me, that I had been completely rejecting.
I basically listened for the first time to everything that had been communicated to me from my parents and the home school community. And essentially I just like took all of it, embraced all of it, and became a mouthpiece for that message about sex, about dating, about relationships. And I translated it to a younger audience. And at the time I had started a magazine for homeschool teens that was going out to about five thousand kids across the country.
NBW: How old are you when you’re doing this?
JH: I was 17 when I started the magazine and I did that for four years. And I also started speaking at my dad’s conference about how great homeschooling was. Here’s why homeschooling is so great and our generation needs to rise up and do things differently. And I remember giving that speech for the first time at my dad’s workshop and got a massive standing ovation.
NBW: There you go.
JH: But I look back now and I realize all these parents, they were standing up and they were applauding for the dream that they had for their kids.
NBW: That’s exactly right.
JH: That’s who I want my kid to be.
NBW: It’s like you were a member of the Chinese gymnastics team. You know what I mean? You hear stories about these girls’ lives and they only focus on this one thing. These girls don’t get to have real lives, they don’t get to have a childhood or any freedom. Then finally the state parades them out and they perform exquisitely and then everyone stands up and applauds.
Like when you said you had this period where you were making out with girls and touching their boobs and, you know, looking at dirty magazines just and. And then for you to say and then I wanted to have my life oriented to God, and so I gave all of that up when, in fact, like, God is the one who developed these human bodies to start connecting sexually with other people at the exact time that you were connecting sexually with other people like it. It’s a totally natural thing. And it sort of actually gave me this feeling of like I just wanted to go, oh, baby, I’m so sorry.
JH: So just to even hear you describe the naturalness and the goodness, it’s just striking me like I never got that message.
JH: You know. But that was one of the primary messages that I was getting and kind of the primary thing that I measured, like being right with God. Are you being right with God? Then you’re not jacking off.
NBW: That’s right.
JH: Are you right with God, you’re not looking at porn, are you? Are you right with God? Then you’re not doing the inappropriate things with your girlfriend. And I essentially got to this point where I was like, you know what, guys? We need to be radical. And I basically did what my parents had done with education. Like they basically said we’re supposed to raise up our kids to love and serve the Lord. Then we need to take them out of schools. And I basically stood up and said, guys, if we’re not going if we’re not supposed to have sex and we’re really going to honor God, we should stop dating. And that was sort of the logical expression of the ideas that were swirling around me.
NBW: So you basically upped the ante and were totally convinced you were doing God’s will. When people are so sure that their will is the exact same thing as God’s will, like to say, “the creator of the universe agrees with me,” I’m always like, I’m scared, you know.
JH: It’s true.
NBW: Because there’s just, when you do that there’s no allowance for humility, truly. And there’s no allowance for grace at all. I mean Those are the things that feel that pretty much go by the wayside. And there’s no concern for collateral damage.
JH: Mm hmm.
Well, no, I just think that the point that you’re making is so powerful. It’s so hard in a group setting, a religious setting where devotion is kind of at the heart of you know, piety. It’s so hard to be the person that says, “Hey, guys, we need to chill out a little bit here.”
JH: On whatever the topic is. In other words, like the person that’s saying we need to go further and farther and be more zealous, dominates the conversation so easily in that kind of environment. And that is a big thing for me, because I just think that that is part of what my writing ended up being in different ways.
NBW: Yeah, because there’s a reward for increasing the upper end of the sentiment in a way that there’s not a reward for tempering it, why do you think Twitter’s so successful? You know, I mean, if you can push it even more, you get people riled up and then there’s a reward to it.
JH: And I think there’s also always a monetary issue involved, because if you can call people to a higher standard and tap into that fear, that insecurity that they’re not doing enough, which is so prevalent in religious settings and Christian settings, you know, that fear that I’m not trying hard enough. I’m not really loving God enough. I’m not sacrificing enough.
JH: There is always going to be another person coming along with a book to sell or a conference to sell that is going to tap into that and say, “You’re right. You’re not doing enough. Let me show you how you can do more.”
NBW: That’s exactly right. Go ahead and just tell the story about what happened as a result of that.
JH: Well, I in my magazine wrote an article about dating and courtship, and they.
NBW: Okay, just just real quick, people don’t use the word courtship. So you might just sort of define in your subculture what that word means? Because unless you’re reading Jane Austen novels, probably it’s not a term that’s that people use.
JH: So in the homeschool subculture at the time the idea behind courtship was a return to parental involvement in relationships. Courtship was an intentional relationship where a man was pursuing a woman not just for fun, not just to date, you know, casually, but to pursue marriage. And that led to me giving a talk that I titled, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”. And the long story made short is thatI got a book contract with a major Christian publisher and wrote a book called I Kissed Dating Goodbye.
NBW: So describe what the main sort of message was in the book.
JH: The main message of I Kissed Dating Goodbye was….. if we want to be prepared for marriage and make the most of our single years, then dating is a distraction and can even be damaging because we end up practicing an insincere love where we use people and we put ourselves in the backseats of cars where we’re tempted to have sex and we end up focusing so much of our energy on being a boyfriend or being a girlfriend that we’re not actually preparing to be a healthy adult and we’re not ready for marriage. And so it was making a very strong argument, really misusing scripture, taking scripture out of context, using stories and examples that were so overhyped and appealing to emotions, but basically making a strong argument that dating is a negative thing. And if we want to be really on fire for Jesus and serious about serving him, we will kiss dating goodbye until we’re actually ready to pursue marriage.
NBW: And how did that book do?
JH: Well, you know it. It exploded.
JH: I remember getting letters from the Publisher that it was going back to print again and those would start coming like weeks apart. Tens and tens of thousands of copies of the book being published.
I remember going to a big Christian conference called Passion and someone recognizing me because of the book, um.
NBW: How’d that feel?
JH: Oh, I mean, it just all felt like this is just a sign that this is God’s message and that I’m doing God’s work and, I walk into a Christian bookstore and it’s the number one number one book
NBW: And at this you’re, you know, a 20 year old kid who is now, um, sort of doing that on a national scale, there has to be a huge reward in it, what part of your self conception was affected by the success of this book?
JH: Well, it became, um, a massive part of my sense of identity. It was this thing that made my parents proud. Our family definitely measured success by being embraced by a large audience, so that kind of influence was sort of like. I was carrying on the family tradition, you know, I was going on Dr. Dobson’s radio show, my dad had never gotten on that show, but I was going on there.
NBW: Yeah, yeah.
JH: And. when I went back and read the book after years, when I was reevaluating the book, I realized what a strong emphasis there was on experiencing God’s best. And it was this idea of this promise that, you know what you can do, that it’s not necessarily a sin to date. But if you want God’s best for sex, if you want God’s best for marriage, then you will go that extra mile and you’ll make that that extra sacrifice. And I think that is the thing that so harmed and disillusioned so many people years later.
NBW: Specifically that?
JH: Absolutely, because they believed that there was going to be a payout.
NBW: Um, so now is the point where I say I spent a year and a half of my life interviewing people for my book Shameless, where I asked them three questions. And I said, what message did you receive from the church about sex, sexuality, gender? Um, how did that message affect you and how have you navigated your adult life? And so many of the people I interviewed mentioned your book and not just your book, but purity culture in general. And how many people I interviewed did it. They were good. They they they fought the fight because of the promise, like they thought if we just don’t have sex until we’re married, then the sex is going to be so much better. And they went through so, so many feelings of shame and so much repression and so much guilt about their impulses. And they’re like, “Nadia, it ends up you cannot flip a switch on your wedding night and go from thinking of sex as being dirty and dangerous and something to be avoided and feared to being something that’s natural and God given and and a flourishing thing in your life. It doesn’t work like that.”
JH: Yes, I’ve talked to so many of those same people and heard that same story so many times.
NBW: Yeah. So what is your deepest sort of feeling of regret or remorse around this?
JH: My regret when I think back on all of that is that I didn’t see the flaws and the massive problems in the book sooner and that I didn’t listen to people who were trying to share those stories, you know I –
NBW: Do you have an example?
JH: I look back there were some blogs that started to be written when people were sharing stories. And I just didn’t go towards hurting people soon enough with compassion. And I think I think the wrong motivations there were wanting to please my fan base, the wrong motivations were not wanting to cut off the book royalties that were, that allowed me to enjoy a certain lifestyle and all those kinds of things. Like it’s almost like I didn’t want to open that door because it’s because who knows, who knows what’s on the other side of it,
NBW: So, um. So tell me what happened in your own life, that sort of where things got so unraveled that you thought, oh my gosh, I perpetuated ideas that not only were hurtful to people and now I see it, but also maybe even hurtful to me and I have to extricate myself from the whole system that created it. I know it had something to do with you leaving a large church you led, right?
JH: Mhmm. It took me going through massive personal pain. It took me failing in my own church in different ways. It took my church melting down for me to kind of hit the pavement and go, maybe I don’t have all the answers here. All of that had to happen before I was willing to start listening to people. And even then, I was terrified.
Well, it actually took anonymous websites where people started sharing their stories and the things that had happened to them for some of these stories to start to bubble up, because that was the only safe place that they could actually do that.
And that was the beginning for me of realizing, oh, my gosh, like we say we’re about grace. But there’s like the exact opposite of grace happening in the actual cultural experience of the church.
JH: And I started seeing how negative that was. And I and that was the first moment where I thought, is my book a part of that?
Essentially I came to a place where I was like, I have to get out of this context. I don’t know how to lead this church out of the problems of thinking, because I’ve been raised in these problems of thinking, I don’t know any other way of leadership and I need to to heal myself. And so we ended up moving across the continent to Canada. And I went to a seminary, a graduate school of theology.
NBW: So you flee to Canada to finally get a theological education. Then what happened, how does your story unfold from there.
JH: Going to grad school gave me the space to start exploring the questions of the impact of my book. I was no longer a pastor that had to advocate for and represent an institution. I could just be myself. I started listening to the stories of fellow students. I started realizing that these people that were really against my book were not haters. They were real people And those ideas were damaging. But it was actually on Twitter of all places where this kind of got pushed into the public sphere. I interacted with someone who wrote a statement saying your book was used against me like a weapon.
NBW: How did that feel when you read that?
JH: It was so grieving to me and I immediately responded with I’m so sorry. Um. But I didn’t I didn’t have the understanding or the language to completely unpack that, to be able to say, here’s what I need to own about that, here’s what’s really the problem with my book, I just was responding to this person very genuinely and saying I feel terrible that my book was actually weaponized and damaged you. And that interchange on Twitter ended up getting picked up by different bloggers and articles. So all these people were saying Josh Harris is apologizing, Josh Harris is apologizing, and rightly so. A lot of people were like, well, that’s not enough for him to just say sorry, you know, in this tweet to this person. And then there were other people who were saying, you know, Josh, how can you walk back what you wrote in these books? They’re so they’re so good. And I just was like, wait a second.
NBW: You’re like the fulcrum of a whole culture war.
JH: Yeah, yeah, but what that kicked into place was me realizing I need to really think about what is it I’m sorry for? And what has it actually done to people? It was the vehicle that allowed me to fly across the country, sit down with people, listen to them. I didn’t know where that was going to end. That whole process culminated in me apologizing for the book unpublishing the book.
NBW: You unpublished it?
NBW: Oh, my God.
There are going to be people listening who who had that book weaponized against them too, you know. And so how do you sort of speak to that in terms of what you own and and what you understand the harm to be that might be healing for them to hear?
JH: I would just want to say that I know that this is coming too late. Um, I know that an apology now from me doesn’t fix anything. And I understand a book like that, when it’s handed to you by a pastor or your parents or just you read it yourself and it’s quoting the Bible, it takes on so much authority in your life. And I’m really deeply sorry that those ideas and my misguided ideas about sex, about dating in any way just gave you a wrong idea of your sexuality, of God, and that’s something that I really regret and I hope that, um. That you would just experience healing and know that there’s life on the other side of a lot of these wrong ideas, and that’s the journey that I’m on right now personally.
NBW: How have you experienced healing?
JH: I think for me, it’s. It’s been a process of just letting go of a lot of shame, um. I just allowing myself to enjoy and appreciate sex, without, all of the baggage that I piled on myself.
JH: I think I have actually experienced a healing through conversation and stories with other people, and I I feel like I’ve been able to be a student of people who are further along in this than me, and you know, so letting go of just that, the self-righteousness and judgmentalism that I carry towards other people. But I’ve also carried towards myself for so long.
NBW: Yeah. That was my follow up. I pastored my church for, I think 11 years, house for all sinners and saints. in Denver and, uh it’s interesting because as soon as I left, I just was filled with remorse about mistakes I made, there wasn’t even a reason I left other than I didn’t want to saddle it with founder’s syndrome, you know, it’s just the right time to hand it over, but even just the normal sort of mistakes, missteps, people who were hurt along the way. Um, me not being nearly as responsible with my charisma as I could have been, you know, they’re reissuing my first, um, memoir next year. And they asked me to write a new piece for it. And I wrote about this profound experience I had on this solo, retreat, uh, kind of extreme thing where I was fasting and doing a solo retreat on this mountain by myself for a couple of days and just having my mind just filled with all those regrets and stuff. And I just got these words came to me of like, what if you’ve already been forgiven of all that? Um. And I just started crying. And so. Um, maybe there is a sort of cleansing to our lives that’s more available than we like to believe because we want to hold on. Sometimes I think that feeling bad about something, it feels close enough to doing good that I’ll just use it as a bad substitute.
NBW: So I guess my question, you know, maybe it’s just because that’s the place I’m at right now and thinking about so much for my life and my story and my past, like where are you at with this idea of forgiving yourself?
JH: Mm. I think that It’s hard for me at times because I know like, that the consequences and the fallout of my ideas are so current and so real for people. And so I think I can feel at times like it’s not totally fair for me to be able to move on. When there are people that are still. You know, fill in the blank with this story of how purity culture can damage. And yet I know that I can’t I can’t fix the past. So I like what you’re describing of your journey is actually so inspiring to me. I think I need to walk through some of that myself and, and actually revisit some of those moments and and not just revisit them with critique, which is obvious to me now, but to revisit them through the eyes of compassion that I’d want to show to other people. And I think I have shown other people at times, but maybe I haven’t. I haven’t given myself.
NBW: Oh, doesn’t it feel impossible?
NBW: I’m so grateful. I can’t even tell you how, um, I mean, you know, even for myself, it’s like I think it’s easier for me to be like, oh yeah, fuck that guy. Joshua Harris. You know, he wrote that stupid book and it hurt all these people. And I don’t want to hear it. No apology is enough and just all that stuff. So I think it’s it’s actually been kind of healing thing for me to have a compassionate conversation with you as like a person with a whole story, And the other thing I want to just express some gratitude for is just, Joshua, do you know how rare it is that people change their minds about something like who’s able to incorporate into their self understanding that they were taken in by something that was not true and they perpetuated something that wasn’t true and it caused harm and then to later name it as such.
NBW: I’m finding it to be an extraordinarily rare trait which makes booking this podcast very difficult because people don’t do it, you know, and yet there is more hope to be had when we’re able to tell our stories in that way And there’s more healing and there’s grace. And we get to have more compassion for ourselves and for other people. So it’s like it is gold and yet like gold, it feels rare. So, um, thank you for sharing that story with us, because, I really hope that it allows more people to go, OK, I can. I need to make a pretty big pivot here and really reconsider how some stuff from my past has affected other people.
JH: Thank you.
NBW: Yeah. I’m so grateful. Thank you so much.
A BLESSING FOR JOSH:
When you were practically still a child they stood up and applauded when you said what they wanted to hear about how to earn God’s best. God did give you something that is best for your body and spirit and heart Josh, but the thing is, it’s never been earnable. It has been yours all along. A birthright. A gift. Free of charge. So, I’m sorry you thought you had to shut down your own sexuality in order to earn something that was already yours to enjoy, and that the applause of adults led you to put a price tag on it for others as well. And maybe it’s not too late to hear now what you should have heard when you were a teenager: Josh, the ability to connect deeply with another human being, to touch and be touched, to give and receive pleasure is a gift. Our creator didn’t have to include it as a factory installed standard feature, and yet they did. So I hope you and everyone else hurt by purity culture have passionately consensual, unselfconsciously joyous, deeply transformative sex.
A pastoral blessing for everyone hurt by Josh’s book in particular or purity culture in general.
I want everyone who has been shamed by religion’s messages about your body and your sexuality to know that Genesis tells us that Adam and Eve were naked and unashamed until they listened to a snake. That’s where shame entered the story. Shame has an origin and it isn’t God.
When Adam and Eve were hiding from God in the garden, God was like, “Where are you guys?” and they said “we are hiding because we are ashamed of our nakedness and of afraid of you” God said “Wait. Who told you you were naked?!?” Who told them they were naked? My money’s on the snake.
See, Shame doesn’t come from God’s voice. Shame comes from voices who say they are speaking for God. And that’s different.
So if you are a woman who pledged that you would not have sex – before you even knew who you were or what you really wanted, I want you to know that God didn’t ask you to give God back the sexuality God created you to have. Your sexuality is yours. It never belonged to your father, or your church, or your husband, or your girlfriend. It’s yours and it is to be enjoyed. And I want that knowledge to bless you.
And if you are a man who absorbed the messages of our sexist culture more than you realized and who has shame about the behavior that culture told you was ok I want you to know that it is never too late to be a better man. And if those messages also included ones about a masculine ideal you never met, I want you to know you’ve been lied to and you are glorious just as you are and I want that knowledge to bless you.
And I want queer folks who have been told by the church that their sexuality is offensive to God to know that God is not ashamed of her children. Not only that, but your queerness is a gift we need. Like Phillip needed the Ethiopian Eunuch – only a queer eye could notice something as queer as water in a desert. We need you to show us what we can’t see, and you deserve love and sexual flourishing as muchas anyone does. I want that knowledge to bless you.
I want everyone who has had violence done to their bodies to know that the trauma your body holds can be metabolized into something else, something raised from soil like Jesus himself who showed his hands and his side to his faltering friends and said “peace be with you”. Because God saves us in our bodies, not from our bodies and the I want that knowledge to be a blessing.
So I guess what I am saying is to hell with shame.
Damn the shame about wanting sex or the shame of not really wanting sex at all. Damn the shame about being in a sexless marriage. Damn the shame about pleasure itself. Damn the shame about the harm done to us. And for sure damn all that shame about our bodies. For you carry in your queer, straight, cis, trans, fluid, fat, thin, short, tall, hairy, disabled, beautiful body the very image of your creator who has claimed and named you as their own. That voice is the voice of love. And it is eternal. And no other voice – not society’s, not the church’s, not your family’s – and certainly not the snake – gets to tell you who you are.