Joshua Harris, Purity Culture, and the Danger of One, Defining Narrative

joshua-harris-purity-culture-and-the-danger-of-one-defining-narrative

A couple of weeks ago, a friend from high school youth group sent me Ruth Graham’s excellent article in Slate Magazine. “I’m sure I’m not the only person who is going to send this to you,” she wrote. “But I thought you would be interested.”

The article, of course, is about Joshua Harris – the bestselling author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, that troubling, formational text for so many of us who grew up in the 90’s evangelical culture. According to the article, Harris has been recently “re-evaluating the book’s impact,” and soliciting stories from readers – both the good and the heartbreakingly bad – on his website.

“Part of the reason this has been so hard for me is that I have so much of my identity tied up in these books. It’s what I’m known for,” Harris tells Graham. “It’s like, well, crap, is the biggest thing I’ve done in my life this really huge mistake?”

I’ve been thinking about that article, that quote from Harris, for weeks now.

I’ve been turning it over in my mind as my family has transitioned, from summer to fall, to schooldays and bus rides. To the newness of being alone in the house with time and space to work.

I haven’t thought about I Kissed Dating Goodbye in a long time. Though it deeply affected me as a teen, writing about that experience in my first memoir seemed to lessen the power of it for me in ways that were both healing and quieting.

But now, as I’m newly without small children and thinking about what my next writing work might be, I’m haunted by that book. Not the content itself anymore…but the fact that someone who was clearly trying to be true to their faith perspective and obedient to their calling – someone who truly and deeply loved God – could write a book that detonated like a landmine and caused so much harm to an entire generation.

As a writer who finds herself dealing with matters of faith, this is absolutely terrifying to me.

Joshua Harris was only 21 when he wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which released in 1997. The oldest of seven children, he’d been homeschooled his entire life.

From what I can tell, Harris would have been launching into young adulthood right around the time Purity Culture took off. DC Talk’s album Free at Last, which contained the song “I Don’t Want It [Sex For Now]” released in 1992, when Harris was 18. (Seriously.)

The True Love Waits movement started a few months later with its abstinence-until-marriage pledge cards and its purity rings, and the first year 102,000 teens signed the pledge across denominations. Even Evangelical powerhouse Josh McDowell, got in on the conversation, releasing a popular book called Why Wait?: What You Need to Know About the Teen Sexuality Crisis, which was meant to alert parents to the dangers of teen sex. I’m guessing it didn’t take much. After all, the 90s weren’t all that far removed from the terrifying outbreak of AIDS in the early 80s. We were all still so afraid.

In short, the evangelical culture was a powder keg of fear about sex and enthusiasm for sexual purity.

And then some handsome 20-something came up with a way to rebrand dating to better aid in the pursuit of abstinence and wrote a book.

Just one book.

Just a little spark of an idea.

And the whole damn thing exploded.

*

I had an on-and-off high school boyfriend whose faith journey deeply impacted to my own. He loved I Kissed Dating Goodbye. He used it, more than once, to break up with me, and so in that way, it left deep, red mark on my soul that has never entirely gone away.

But while I was completely devoted to abstinence itself, Harris’ whole “courtship” thing always rang a little off-key to me. After that boyfriend moved on, I went on to date – and kiss – a few different fellows without regret or crippling emotional anxiety.

Higher up on the list of kind-of-destructive-high-school reading for me was, ironically, the pastel-colored Christian teen romance series, Christy Miller. While these books didn’t parrot Harris’ language – no one was courting anyone on Newport Beach – the basic message was the same.

Here was a group of characters who called themselves God Lovers, who saved themselves – some of them even saving their first kiss – until marriage, who never seemed to doubt God’s presence or love or providence. And why would they? Every miracle they hoped for came to be…though never quite in the way they expected, and always in God’s perfect time. They, all of them, ended up married – young. They, all of them, managed to stay completely sexually pure until then.

It was these maddeningly perfect stories of faith that I read over and over in junior high and high school and even (secretly) in college. It was these books and this Christian Romance Novel kind of faith that fueled my cynicism and pain and anger in really profound and furious ways in my 20s.

And I’ve been thinking about these books and about Joshua Harris and his research project. I’ve been wondering about author intent and also about author responsibility.

Who’s fault is it when a book – particularly a Christian book – causes pain and damage and fallout? Who do we blame here?

The overly passionate 21-year-old homeschooled kid?

The kind-hearted woman, God-Lover mom, drinking her English Breakfast tea and writing books in the early morning that she hopes will be impactful for teen girls?

Maybe.

To be sure, it is a weighty responsibility to set pen to paper, to try to communicate such a difficult, beautiful, complex, imperfect thing as one’s faith journey – especially as it intersects with other deeply important parts of wholeness, like sexuality.

Certainly, as authors, we should approach the page with a sense of humility, with fear and trembling, with the understanding that the things we write there have the potential to move quietly into the hearts of others and shift the landscape there.

And yet, also, we can never be entirely sure that we’re doing it right. Not any of it. Parenting, pastoring, dialoguing, writing. Friendship. Work. Love. Life.

Authors, pastors, anyone speaking into matters of faith are fallible, broken. They are growing – hopefully in a whole-hearted direction – but sometimes not. We have new life experiences. We learn and listen and change. We don’t think the same things that we thought five years ago, let alone when we were twenty-one.

“The book is not you,” my spiritual director made me repeat, like a liturgy, when my second memoir came out, and I was nearly hyperventilating with the vulnerability of it. “The book is not you. The book is not you. The book is not you.”

And it’s not. It’s something I wrote. I would write it differently now, a year later. Differently still in 20 years.

I imagine that Josh Harris would too.

*

I spent most of my morning reading the stories that people posted on Joshua Harris’ blog. Some of the responders are entirely pissed off. Others are defensive: “Your book is fine! It’s great! I loved it!” Most, though, come off somewhere in the middle, recognizing the damage…but also recognizing that it was greater than just this one particular book.

“I don’t begrudge the book you wrote,” an anonymous reader from the UK wrote. “I just wish I’d read another one.”

This comment struck me, because I felt the same way. I wish I’d read other things. I wish there had been other things to read.

In the Christian bookstore, when I was 14, every bit of fiction for teens was aimed toward this one version of the story. Sexual purity = spiritual purity. There was no deviation. Everything in the store seemed to be a pulsing arrow toward this point, even the wedding magazines and music.

And I think this is what made those books damaging. Not that they existed, but that they were the only thing that did.

Joshua Harris’ method, as kooky as it is, was just one method for approaching dating. But because it was really the only narrative happening in Christian circles and Christian books, it became the method. The defining narrative.

Robin Jones Gunn’s books were just one pastel-colored version of faith, but there was nothing else, so it became the faith story I believed.

But of course, neither of these is the only version, the only method, the only story.

The life of faith is so much bigger and more complicated. Stories of grace are dirty and messy and varied. This is, I think, why the Bible contains such a range of characters and narratives, all of it merging into this big, wide, complex, inclusive story that begins God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.

Some wise and lovely people have suggested that pulling Harris’ books from the shelves is the best course of action, and perhaps they’re right. But to me, that seems like a step back in the fight against censorship. I don’t believe that we should ban the “dangerous” ideas in Harris’ books any more than we should ban the “dangerous” curse words in mine.

But what then?

*

Last year, around this time actually, I ended up having an awkward live radio conversation with Robin Jones Gunn, the author of the Christy Miller series, after an angsty article I wrote about those books went moderately viral. During the conversation, Jones mentioned that she was among the first generation of Christian writers doing books for teens, and that if it doesn’t resonate, we should write our own.

At the time, it sounded dismissive. (It still bums me out a little that she doesn’t seem to “see” this generation of Christian young adults with all their baggage and questions and cynicism…at least not enough to do a series of books where Christy Miller turns into a tired 30-something with a lot of doubt and a thing for cabernet.)

But, also, I think there’s something to it.

Listen: the internet has blown the publishing industry wide open.

The Christian bookstores are a dying beast. They are disappearing, turning into Walgreens and Paneras. The Moral Gatekeepers no longer have the only say over what gets published and what gets read. And there is so much possibility in this, so much beauty, so much hope.

I walked through the YA Lit section of my library the other day. There is so much there. Of course, there are the token vampire books and the voyeuristic, sexy ones. Christy Miller is still there, though now in three hardcover volumes instead of 12 thin paperbacks.

But there are also books that deal with divorce and mental illness and loneliness and suicide and pain and fear and love and sex in healthy, nuanced ways.

There is room for new stories. There is so much room.

There is room for a new generation of writers to write complex and hopeful books about dating and sex and love and faith and adolescence. There is room for new novels, new work around the theme of pursuing a faith life not only as a teenager…but also as an adult.

And while I recognize the importance of sharing our stories in forums like Harris’ blog and in online spaces like Life After IKDG, I hope that we don’t stop there.

I hope we don’t stop at the places where we were wounded. I hope we don’t stop at the anger, at the reflexive response, at the rage.

I hope we move farther.

I hope we write new books. New stories. New songs and plays and movies and shows.

I hope that we write it all.

I hope that this generation who once maybe kissed dating goodbye will expand, expand, expand the bookshelves until they are filled with stories of the grace and doubt and beauty and the hard goodness of this varied life of faith.

When They Let Go of Your Hand

when-they-let-go-of-your-hand

There is an episode of Grey’s Anatomy in which resident surgeon Miranda Bailey drops her son, Tuck, off on his first day of kindergarten. When she comes back to the hospital, she’s out of sorts all day long.

Richard, the hospital chief (is he still the chief in Season 9? I can’t remember) finally asks her what’s going on. And she says tells him. “Tuck let go of my hand.”

“I was, you know, ready for the tears and the goodbye, and how hard it was gonna be,” she continues. “and he just let go of my hand!”

It was a little bit like that with Liam.

This boy, he was born brave – fearless, even when he could do with a healthy dose of fear. He is the child of mine who has been in the ER more then five times, every time for stitches or for flinging himself down some stairs. He has been ready for Kindergarten for weeks. Months maybe.

When the bus pulled up to the bus stop, Liam could barely be bothered to give us a hug goodbye. He ran up those stairs like it was no big thing, and we just stood there, waving, waving, waving, until the yellow bus turned the corner and drove out of sight.

Sending Your Kids to School for the First Time

The house is so quiet.

I have been a stay-at-home-mom for seven-and-a-half years now. So many years of car seats and diapers, of singing songs in a circle in early-childhood classes, of cramming writing into early mornings and naptimes, the drone of Dinosaur Train or Curious George my background music. So many years of holding their hands.

It is remarkable how unremarkable it is when your entire life shifts.

You walk back into the house. You sit down at the kitchen table in front of the computer to work. Everything’s the same. Everything’s different.

One minute it feels like loss, and the next it feels like freedom, and everything is swirling together in the quiet kitchen as I sit here, listening to the low hum of the refrigerator, the sound of clothes in the dryer.

“You know what happens when someone lets go of your hand?” Richard says in the show, after Miranda is done with her tirade about how no one needs her anymore.

“You get it back.

The young child years are over for me now, having disappeared imperceptibly into the elementary school years. I almost can’t believe it, and I’m not used to the feeling, yet, of having my hand back. There is so much I can do now, so much I can choose. Now that they don’t need me quite so much, I can hold other things. And this is a beautiful, hard, necessary thing.

The seasons change, the school bus comes. We let go of each other.

It is an act of love, this releasing. He will get to grab on something new, this boy with his Ironman backpack and his mismatched clothes.

And so will I.

What I’m Into: August 2016

What I'm Into - August 2016 - Addie Zierman

August went by like a blink – here, then gone. We didn’t start school until today, so we had the entire month to play and swim and do all the last summer things that we meant to do. And still, we didn’t get it all done.

It was a month of traveling – South Dakota, San Antonio, Duluth, Chicago – and of connecting with family and friends. We went to parades, attended the Britton, South Dakota Harvest Days street dance, hatched more butterflies, and made lots of s’mores. It was a great – if fast – end to a lovely summer.

What I’m Reading:
Books I Read in September - 1

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, J.K. Rowling: I read this because of course I had to read this. But it was an odd and sort of unsatisfying experience to read a Harry Potter book as a play. Some of the nuance, characterization, and mounting tension that I’m certain comes through in the actual experience of the play is lost in the script. Plus, after reading all seven of the original Harry Potter books aloud to my husband, we found we couldn’t do the play. It was too awkward. Still, if you love Harry, you kind of have to read it.

What Falls from the Sky, Esther Emery: I had the opportunity to read an early copy of this book and it is exquisitely beautiful. The last third in particular was so full of wisdom and beauty that I had to keep putting it down to think about what I’d just read. Detailing Esther’s year without the Internet, this book is really about learning to pay attention to your own heart. Loved it.

Last Ride to Graceland, Kim Wright: I had to renew this library book twice before I finally got around to reading it, and I’m so glad I did. Road trip books are kind of my jam (see my second memoir), and this one is fun and quirky with fantastic, insightful writing and great characters.

Books I read in September - 2

How to Blog for Profit without Selling Your Soul, Ruth Soukup: This month, I will have been blogging for five years, and I’ve never done any kind of monetizing in this space. As my kids go off to school this year – all day – I’ve been thinking about how I can continue to stay home and do the things I love – blog, write, freelance – and still pull in some income. Ruth’s ebook was an easy read with lots of great information and an authenticity that I appreciated. I’d recommend this one for anyone who’s trying to figure out how to make a living in this weird Internet space. (I believe it’s free on Kindle if you have Prime.)

Tell Me Three Things, Julie Buxbaum: I found this YA book fairly predictable. However, I love the way Buxbaum tackled the exploration of her own feelings of the early loss of her mother without writing “a dead mom book,” as she calls it in the Author’s Note. This book reminded me of how many emotions can live inside us at once – especially when we’re young.

The Things We Wish Were True, Marybeth Mayhew Whalen: I had the chance to read an early copy of Marybeth Whalen’s new book. She’s written Christian fiction for years (I have a few of her earlier books on my Kindle but haven’t read them yet – mostly because of my extremely complicated relationship with Christian fiction), but in this new book, she’s branched out into the slightly more complicated world of ABA fiction. I loved the way she tackled the internal lives of the members of a suburban community in this one. (You can read it free on Kindle if you have Prime!)

Truly, Madly, Guilty, Liane Moriarty: I got this one on Audible, and it kept me awake and alert during the late-night drive to Chicago and, a few days later, the late-night drive home. Moriarty is a master of integrating suspense and character and making an impossible-to-put-down book, and this one was no exception.

What I’ve Been Watching:

We finished The Night Of, which I thought was fantastic. The ending felt satisfying to me without being too tidy. Way to go, HBO.

We also finished Stranger Things. I’m not much for horror – or sci fi – but this Netflix original was so well done, the characters so fantastic, the 80s so well-drawn, that I loved it.

What I’ve Been Listening To:

I got Sandra McCracken’s album Psalms in August. I love this album. The song “We Will Feast in the House of Zion” makes me weepy every time…in the best way.

Other Things I’ve Been Loving:

These organizers from MochiThings. (They somehow infiltrated my Pinterest feed, and after thinking about it for a couple of months, I finally bought myself the wallet. My Mama Friend, Kenna, bought me the computer case as a birthday gift. I love them both.

Organizers from MochiThings

San Antonio! I had the chance to tag along on my husband’s business trip down there this month, where I spent most of my days on the Riverwalk, with the exception of a trek through the city to check out independent bookstore The Twig Book Shop. It was a million degrees and thus a little like walking through hell. But then I was at a bookstore, so it was all okay.

addie on riverwalk

The library. Speaking of books, the library has been a staple weekly activity this summer. I love how easy it is for me to reserve the books I want online, and then pick them up when I go with the kids to pick their books. Also this month they hosted both a reptile zoo and a read to a bunny day. It doesn’t get cuter than this friends.

Reading to a Bunny at Rum River Library

Bullet Journaling. I’ve been intrigued by the concept of bullet journaling for a while now, but I’ve finally found some consistent layouts that work for me, a long with a system to keep track of projects and tasks. I’ll tell you more about it one of these days, but for now, I’m just enjoying the fact that I found a way to make workable analog lists in a digital, there’s-an-app-for-that world!

bullet journaling

Garage sale-ing. One of my favorite summer activities is going to garage sales with my boys. I give them a little money, which they spend on new-to-them toys, and then they spend the entire afternoon playing with their new treasures. I love the quaintness of garage sales, the unexpectedness of the things you find, the way you can outfit your kids in the next size up for just a few quarters. Plus, my little sister is having her first baby – a girl! – in November, which opens a whole new world of Things to Buy at Garage Sales. So many cute baby girl things!!!

We scored these sunglasses at a garage sale for ten cents apiece. #winning!

We scored these sunglasses at a garage sale for ten cents apiece. #winning!

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I’m linking up with my friend Leigh Kramer – who came for a visit this month! We took her to the Center for Minnesota Book Arts, the Stone Arch Bridge, and to the Wilde Roast Café for fries and gelato. A good afternoon.

Addie Zierman and Leigh Kramer - August 2016

What about you? What have you been into this month?

How to Deal with Being Single in the Family-Centric Church [Dear Addie Column #9]

How to Deal with Being Single in the Family-Centric Church

I hesitated to write my newest Dear Addie post on this topic because I am not a single person. Whatever else I have to deal with when it comes to my church angst, I don’t have to do it as a somewhat marginalized demographic. I am in the midst of my young-family years, and I am the person most churches seem to have in mind when they arrange events and classes and programs.

Still, when I received this note from Exploring — who has decided that maybe she doesn’t actually want to have a husband and kids after all — I couldn’t stop thinking about it. She writes:

I realized the person who is childless for personal reasons does not exist in the narrative. There are families, those unlucky people who cannot find a spouse or are unable to have children for medical reasons / tragic life circumstances, and people who choose singleness for God (mostly missionaries and clergy). And there are those selfish non-Christians who do not want children because it would curtail their leisure time. (Not my opinion, but a quote.) It seems there is no room for people in the church who simply do not want a family. How do I deal with this both emotionally and scripturally?

I wrote some thoughts at Off the Page, though they’re such a far cry from what the church — what each of us — really needs to hear when it comes to welcoming singles. Still, I hope they help in some small way. Head over there with me now?