If you were an American Evangelical Christian in the late 1990’s, you are almost guaranteed to be familiar with Joshua Harris’ culture-shaping book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Disenchanted with the idea of conventional dating, Harris penned his seminal work at age 21, inviting readers to reimagine the process of selecting a mate, proposing instead that courtship should be the ideal. He redefined Christian romance with the concept of emotional purity, whereby one does not “give his/her heart away” in dating relationships but rather saves all romantic thoughts and feelings for one’s future spouse. Harris purposed to solve many relationship problems by pursuing a partner with the intent of marriage, involving family in the selection process, encouraging group dates for preparatory social interaction, and revering certain relationship milestones – such as kissing – so much as to withhold those acts until after marriage. In so doing, marriages resulting from courtship were supposed to be more pure, holy, and satisfying than those that had spent their emotional energy dating.
If you’re having a strong emotional reaction right now — positive or negative — rest assured you are in good company. From the time of its release in 1997, I Kissed Dating Goodbye was met with overwhelming response from the Evangelical Christian community. At first, feedback was very positive. The book quickly became a bestseller and graced the shelves of Christian stores, church libraries, and teenage nightstands all across America. Youth pastors preached whole sermon series based on the book, while countless teens and young single adults pledged to “kiss dating goodbye” and follow the standard provided for finding “the One” God planned for them to marry.
This worked great for a lot of people… until it didn’t. As it turns out, while Harris’ suggestions brought peace and health to many young Christian relationships, they bound others in chains of shame, fear, and legalism. It’s probably hard to say if more people were helped or harmed in the wake of the I Kissed Dating Goodbye tsunami, but ultimately the most important opinion on the matter is from the one who is currently most vocal about it:
For the last two years, author Josh Harris has been publicly reevaluating his preeminent book and its effects both in Christian culture and individual lives. Last week, he released a formal statement disavowing the ideals he once espoused and committing to end all future publication of I Kissed Dating Goodbye and any related supplemental materials, including two additional books he authored sharing similar content. (You can read the full statement here.)
In short, Josh Harris, author of one of the most influential Christian books of a generation, was wrong.
I have to give mad props to Josh for not only taking this personal journey but also making it public. Next month, Harris and his team at Exploration Films will be releasing a documentary following Josh as he engages with readers who were hurt by his book and explores what that means for him personally and for the foundations of his faith. Expect a lot of tears and tension as Harris faces the reality of long-lasting damage his words caused and trying to make amends more than 20 years later.
Truth be told, the fear of misleading and hurting readers is nothing short of crippling to me as a writer, and apart from the same sleepy neural synapses that cause me to forget my own words like I forget to put the wet laundry in the dryer, that fear is the only thing that prevents me from writing consistently. What if I’m wrong? I ask myself while I stare at a blank screen; What if someone asks a question I can’t answer? What if their counterpoints really make sense? What if someone gets hurt?
What if I’m humiliated?
Ah, is that it? Why are we so afraid of being wrong? Josh Harris actually gave a beautiful TEDx talk on this very subject back in November 2017, even as he was attempting to answer these questions for himself. In his talk, Harris reminds us that personal growth means putting to death certain parts of our past selves: “Evolution always involves death,” he says, and “survival of the fittest” means the the weak ones are destroyed. Admitting we were wrong confesses weakness, but it can lead us to strength as we embrace the process.
And what is that process? It always starts with listening. Listening to God. Listening to the opposing side. Listening to those we have hurt. Rather than denying their truth in defensiveness, we must acknowledge and honor those we have wronged by believing their stories, valuing their contribution, and elevating their voices. This is how we learn. This is how we evolve. This makes us better.
“The great news about learning to admit that you got something wrong is that you don’t have to be so afraid of being wrong. Which means you can move toward people that see the world differently than you and not be so terrified that they might change your mind.” –Josh Harris
When we are imbued with the paradoxical measure of courage and humility to admit we are wrong, it allows us the advantage of understanding and empathy. This connects us to the diverse, multifaceted, brilliant world around us rather than remaining isolated in echo chambers of intellectual safety. And when I behold the beauty of admitting that I have been wrong,
I might just kiss my old self goodbye.
Note from the Editorial Team: Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.