Thursday, August 1, 2019

Kissing Joshua Harris Goodbye

From the September 2014 E-Block -- in light of Harris' recent profession to have deconverted, this looked like a good time to bring it out.

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At reader request, we're having a look at Joshua Harris' I Kissed Dating Goodbye, a rather aged book at this stage, but one that remains a subject of some controversy. Reviews of this work on Amazon indicate strong love-hate relationships with Harris' advice, with some claiming his work saved their lives, and others claiming it ruined them.

I should begin with a few disclosures.

Firstly, as of this year, my wife and I will celebrate 24 years of fruitful marriage together. In my younger years, I dated only two girls; my future wife was one of them, and we dated for roughly five years. So Harris' advice would have obviously not been of any use to me personally.

Secondly, in the Biblical world, and in many cultures even today, people are married as early as ages 12-14, and marriages were arranged by families, often with the bride and groom not meeting until the wedding day. While this may shock us, it should be kept in mind that 1) there was no perception of what we regard as young adulthood (an in-between period of half-childhood, half-adulthood); 2) romantic love as we know it was virtually unknown; 3) if nothing else, this was a frank recognition that sexual urges were so powerful that they had to be channeled into legitimate avenues as soon as possible. I will not here debate the virtues of this system, nor suggest we revert to it: It is far too late for us to do so anyhow. I will suggest that we might do well to learn from that system, and understand why it was followed.

Thirdly, Harris makes it plain that his advice is not for everyone. He does not think everyone should stop dating and shift to his courtship model, but it is clear that he does strongly advise people to do so. His text is rife with qualifications that he does not consider his system a panacea. For my part, I rest in saying that the real problem isn't the system, but the people: Abuses will happen no matter what the rules are, as I think even Harris will admit. He thinks abuses are less likely under courtship parameters. I very much doubt that would be the case due mainly to the fact that our social world is too individualistic for that to be true. Harris has the right problem, but the wrong solution: The source of the problem lies much deeper than our rituals of mating.

With all of that in mind, let's now look at the contents of the book (hereinafter referred to as IKDG).

Harris' main motives, at least, are honorable: He believes that dating can be a distraction from God, one in which people focus too much on each other and not enough on God. He also believes that dating can encourage self-gratification over pleasing others, and over the long-term good of others; that it compromises our ability to see members of the opposite sex as brothers/sisters in Christ; that it leads us to compromise our service to other Christians as we focus overmuch on one person; that commitment should precede intimacy, and so on.

Harris' solution takes the form of a sort of days-of-yesteryear courtship: We should cultivate friendships with members of the opposite sex, initially and exclusively, until we perceive that we find a person who is a match, coupled with only seeing them socially in group settings, especially settings in which both parties serve some godly end (like at a church function). Then the male of the pair should seek permission for courtship, which will involve social gatherings with the female of the pair's family and friends. In the end, physical contact of all kinds, including hand-holding and kissing, is reserved until the wedding day.

Is this workable? Yes and no. The problem, as noted, is not the system, but as Harris acknowledges, it is instead that we are in a society that "celebrates self-centeredness and immorality." [36] The Biblical world knew little or nothing of the former aspect of that equation, which was considered deviant behavior and would be punished. In that light, the success of Harris' courtship model will be entirely dependent on the ability of each person to control those self-same tendencies, as would also be the case under a dating model. (And obviously, one of Harris' themes, that people need to make sure that they are "ready" for marriage, would have earned him nothing in the Biblical world but a blinding stare: You were never asked if you were ready, you just did what your family told you!)

Quite obviously, each person's tendencies towards self-centeredness varies. One person may succeed in both models (dating, courtship). Another may succeed in only one but not the other. Some may well fail under both! And Harris seems like he would admit this, as he (again) frequently qualifies his advice as not for everyone. This would also go far in explaining the love-hate reviews on Amazon. Among the "hates" is a reviewer who said they followed Harris' model and ended up in an abusive relationship. Obviously, no method will be foolproof: You can be just as distracted from your work for God during a courtship as you can be under a dating model.

In the end, I'd advise readers to see Harris' efforts as merely food for thought, not solid and comprehensive advice. It has some good pointers, such as not skipping friendship as part of a relationship (my wife and I were best friends as we dated, and still are as a married couple). In Biblical terms, Harris has nothing unique to offer; what few texts he finds to support his contentions, save in the most general sense, do not support any particular relational model. Perhaps his most outlandish exegesis is borrowed from Gregg Harris (an expert in homeschooling!) who claims that the story of Isaac meeting Rebekah while she was watering camels illustrates that Rebekah was better able to meet her husband because she was doing the domestic duties she was supposed to be doing. [157] That's a rather strained lesson to draw from the text, especially when most spouses of the day were put together beforehand by their families.

Finally, as some have pointed out, Harris was merely a youth pastor when he wrote this book; he is not an expert on relationships, much less a psychologist. His work falls into that unfortunate category of writings by non-experts who get a pass simply because they are pastors and/or have "life experience." Harris has a tendency to universalize his own weaknesses and assume his problems are everyone else's. The success of his book with some reflects the fact that inevitably, some of his problems will be other people's problems, too.