Joshua Harris: the truth about the ‘Purity Culture’
Back in 1997 he wrote an era-defining book, telling Evangelical kids that dating is evil. A generation blamed him for ruining their lives.
The saga of Joshua Harris and I Kissed Dating Goodbye haunts Evangelical culture. In 2018, he ‘unpublished’ his book and apologized for it. The next year, he got a divorce from his wife—and Christianity.
Now he’s doing a blitz of interviews, and dropping details—like that his book was largely contrived.
Harris’ book had a glaring problem.
It wasn’t a secret, exactly, but in I Kissed Dating Goodbye he didn’t highlight that he’d been homeschooled all his life, or that he—with his dad—was a homeschool activist.
The book leaves the impression he was a regular high school kid, moving from girl to girl—alarmed at feeling hardened to the rising carnality. Jesus didn’t like it!
In a new interview on Nadia Bolz-Weber’s podcast, he tells a story that’s different from the book’s narrative. Though homeschooled, he’d been on a gymnastics team, and the sin started to flow. “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 homeschooled boy to be doing.”
She interjects: “But developmentally appropriate for a teenage boy…”
That seems to startle him. He adds: “In terms of how I’ve interpreted that time for so long, I viewed it as this incredibly negative time.”
His book had no talk of stolen porn magazines — or gymnastics.
It wasn’t his real story. The book was Evangelical messaging that was framed within the culture of the homeschooling activist community—which, as Harris notes, “back in the 1980s was super radical.”
To them, the talk of inflamed sexual feelings and carnality would’ve pointed to the dangers of public schooling.
Public schooling was considered the problem — from sex to drugs to rock music. The Evangelical dream was to form isolated communities which wouldn’t have to interact with the “secular world.”
Ideally, their kids wouldn’t be exposed to the ‘impurities’ of everyone else.
The “purity culture,” I realize, was about premarital sex only on the very exterior. The interior was a drive to keep children within the subculture of Evangelicalism, with the “outside world” being framed as ‘impure’.
It’s a drastic re-reading of his book.
It had been so easy to read I Kissed Dating Goodbye as selling “purity,” but the real product it was pitching was—homeschooling?
The book began as a speech at a homeschooling workshop. “I got a massive standing ovation,” he says. “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.”
He was handed a book contract, and at age 21 was writing a book. His Christian publisher, Multnomah Press, was a hub of homeschooling advocacy.
He used some elements from his life. He did have a two-year relationship with a girl in his church’s youth group. It broke off, he’d written, as he got wary of the “physical side of our relationship” getting out of control.
The actual context, he says now, was that he’d gone on a church retreat and decided he wanted to get ‘serious about God’.
That meant starting work, alongside his father, as a homeschooling advocate.
He launched a magazine of his own, and travelled the nation giving speeches. Josh was the demo of the product they were selling — a young man who’d been perfectly trained in Evangelical values through the controlled climate of homeschooling.
Except for that bit of time doing gymnastics. But the homeschooling crowd would’ve known he needed to conceal such details to pass the book off as a critique of public schools.
He modeled his book, he’s written, on Elisabeth Elliot’s Passion and Purity, the legendary Evangelical writer’s 1984 broadside against premarital sex. In one of her last gestures as a public figure, Elliot sent him a blurb—commending his “forthrightness, courage, God-given conviction and ability to articulate a message that is desperately needed.”
And Joshua Harris was offered to the Evangelical public as a curiously exotic (half-Japanese) teen heartthrob prophet.
They bought it big-time.
He brushes aside suggestions that he was victimized by adults.
On the Phil Drysdale Show podcast, he says: “I was 21 years old. I was an adult. And I wanted to be a spokesman. I wanted fame. I wanted the notoriety. It was all for Jesus, of course.”
He laughs, and then turns rueful. “I wanted a context that gave me this kind of certainty so I could look down on other people. I was scared of living in a world where, yeah, maybe there’s not one perfect answer. I found my way to a very controlling, legalistic kind of faith. And I made myself at home there.”
He was picked up by a megachurch titan who promised to train him as a pastor. And so he disappeared into an insular Maryland religious community, which sought to be cut off from the ‘world’.
The separatist mentality at work is a key point in a 2016 exposé in the Washingtonian:
“When it came to the most mundane matters of life, almost any need could seemingly be met in-house: There were members who were lawyers and small-business owners and financial advisers. If you needed your car repaired, there was a mechanic in the next row.”
Harris continued to pump out the books, narrating his ‘pure’ life and latest religious thoughts, and remained an Evangelical star.
It collapsed in 2013 amid a sex scandal at his church. Turns out the clerics wanted their own law enforcement system as well—and to sweep cases of sexual abuse of children under the rug.
Though not among those most directly involved, Harris was part of the team of pastors who decided to keep the matter from police. His fame made him a lightning rod in ensuing publicity, and he found himself ejected from the community he had thought was his home.
He still is not expanding on a disclosure he made during that time—that he’d been a sexually abused child.
How many secrets did homeschooling keep?
He tried to get trained as a real pastor, and recover his standing as a cleric.
At seminary in Ontario, he became aware that his book was widely perceived as a highly negative influence. He’d turned from famous—to infamous. Unpacking it all now, he calls his big regret “that I didn’t see the flaws and the massive problems in the book sooner.”
He speaks of his delay in facing up to it. “I think the wrong motivations there were wanting to please my fan base. The wrong motivations were wanting to cut off the book royalties that allowed me to enjoy a certain lifestyle. It’s almost like I didn’t want to open that door—because who knows what’s on the other side of it?”
When he marched in a Pride parade—it seemed a done deal.
“I really just wanted to be left alone by Christianity,” he says in an interview with the Sophia Society. He adds: “Affirming LGBTQIA+ people is a great way to get Evangelicals to leave you alone.”
He clarifies it’s not a full retreat from belief.
He says: “That was not this final statement of ‘I’m not going to ever be a Christian, appreciate Christian viewpoints, whatever.’ I view myself—”
He pauses. “I like the phrase ‘unfolding’. I’m still unfolding.”
Closing the door to Evangelicals, he tried to open it to — everyone else? “Whether you’re an atheist or a Christian, we can all be in process,” he says.
In an interview with pro-sex advocate Brenda Marie Davies, he notes his ongoing work with a different crowd of people. “I feel like there’s this rising group of women and men, all across the spectrum, that are these powerful voices for transformation.”
Is he among them? 🔶