Joshua Harris on Saying You’re Wrong in Public

When he was told that his work had unintended consequences, the author of "I Kissed Dating Goodbye" didn't double-down. He did something harder.
In this Episode
  • As Executive Director of Center for Christian Civics, Rick helps ministry leaders and faith communities develop missional approaches to their local public squares. He has worked on campaigns for local, state and federal office, is a former writer and editor for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and oversaw communications for the Grace DC church network. He and his wife live in Washington, DC.

Shownotes

“Four Words that Deprive You of Power for the Sake of the Gospel”
I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye

Transcript

Rick Barry: A lot of you probably know that, long before we launched this ministry, my co-founder and I started a blog together called The Body Politic that published short personal-experience articles by politically active Christians, so our blog has actually been around for a lot longer than our organization. And one of my favorite articles that we ran before we turned the blog into a ministry was submitted by a reader who asked to remain anonymous at the time. It was called, “Four Words that Deprive You of Power for the Sake of the Gospel,” and I’ll link to it in the shownotes on the website. It was about how important it is for Christians to get good at admitting, “I might be wrong.”

I was thinking about that article a lot while I worked on this week’s episode, because this week, we talk with someone who took a big risk and said those words. In public. About an issue he had been very vocal about for a very long time. That’s a hard thing to do, and it happens pretty rarely right now, and so when it does happen, when someone takes the risk and makes the change, I think it’s important to hear about it.

Our guest is Joshua Harris. He’s a former pastor and current graduate student and communications consultant, but most of us know him first and foremost as an author. He’s written a number of books, including Why Church Matters: Discovering Your Place in the Family of God and Dug Down Deep: Unearthing What I Believe and Why It Matters. But his most famous book, of course, is I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which was first published in 1997, when he was barely out of his teens.

The book is pretty well-known in evangelical and fundamentalist circles, but for any of you who might be unfamiliar with it, you should know that it’s been controversial. It popularized the idea of courtship and positioned it as a more spiritually sound alternative to dating. The people who liked the book *really* liked it, and in a lot of churches and families, its ideas have been treated as spiritual mandates, practices that are non-negotiable. And for a lot of people who became teenagers and young adults in those environments, thaaat ended up provoking confusion and stress and inflicting wounds that have taken a long time to heal.

Before he wrote the book, Joshua was raised in a tight-knit network of Christian communities, and he began his career as a motivational speaker for their kids and youth while he was still in his teens. He wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbye at the dawn of his 20s,

and his public profile exploded. Esteem for the book from particular circles is what ended up opening the door for him to begin pastoring at a really young age, before even going to seminary.

But the book wasn’t just the start of his career—it was also deeply personal for him. It was actually, in part, the story of how he and his wife got married. He didn’t just see it as good ideas he was suggesting, but also as the first-hand account of what he knew worked because it had worked for him.

Which makes the last few years so interesting.

He wrote the book because he saw the hurt and confusion and spiritual counter-productivity that people were dealing with by being part of the dating scene, and he wanted to offer something healthier and better. But through his time as a pastor and then the advent of social media, he started hearing more and more from people who tried out his ideas, or who grew up in homes where practicing his ideas was required—and who were still left dealing with just as much hurt and confusion and even estrangement from God as the people who inspired him to write the book in the first place.

Starting to open himself up not just to the people who agreed with his book but also the people who disagreed with it, or the people who had been hurt by it—the people he wouldn’t normally hear from as often, or be around as much—led him to a point where, earlier this year, he’s actually announced that he’s asked his publisher take the book out of circulation entirely.

We talked for a while about his personal history and the legacy of the book, but we’re going to skip past that for now. After the interview, we’ll come together for some key takeaways and I’ll tell you how you can hear the whole conversation before we join together in prayer, but for now, we’re going to jump in as he and I start talking about how he got to a point where he was willing to make a public declaration that he might have been wrong.

Interview

Rick: Talk to me a little, I assume there was probably as you were going through this process either external or internal pressure to not double back, to not discontinue it even as you were seeing the problems. What did the stakes feel like or seem to be to you on a personal level, professional level, familial level? Did you feel like there were stakes, or like you were risking something?

Joshua: Yeah, definitely. It took a long time. With people here just on a superficial level hear about this is they hear, maybe they hear something like Josh Harris is reconsidering his book, and then Josh Harris is making a documentary. It just kind of sounds like this big organized project, but it was actually a very mess disorganized confusing process in many ways for me that I was scared to start. I started in fits and starts. I-

Rick: Why were you, sorry to interrupt, why were you scared? What were you afraid of?

Joshua: Well, I think I was scared when you open the door to being wrong about something that you’re very tied to, you don’t know what’s going to be left at the end of that process.

Rick: You don’t know what’s going to be left of-

Joshua: No, you don’t know how wrong am I. I think that’s why a lot of leaders never want to admit they’re wrong, because the people who are on your team, in your tribe get pissed off if you admit you’re wrong and then the people that are opposed to you are never going to be satisfied with whatever it is you’re admitting you’re wrong so they’re just going to use that moment as an opportunity to say you’re not owning up to all that you’re wrong about. It just feels like a no win scenarios I think. And so I couldn’t even articulate all that at the time, but it just was like what is this going to be like? What are people going to think of me? Who am I going to anger?

What I ended up doing is I had this interaction on Twitter. This is how it all got kicked into place. I was thinking about how do I go back and reevaluate this? What would that look like? Do I just go back and change the book? Do a new version? Make a comment, like “You know what there’s some things about the book that are unhelpful, but for the most part it’s great.” I just didn’t know what to do.

This person, this woman wrote me on Twitter and she said, “Your book was used against me like a weapon.” She did it in a gracious way, and I just was willing to listen to that. I just responded to her, just on a person to person level, I wasn’t viewing this as this big public moment, but I just said, “I’m so sorry.” That ended up getting picked up by these different news outlets and magazines, and they started doing articles on Josh Harris is apologizing.

What that ended up doing was forcing me to answer the question of, “What are you apologizing for? Are you really apologizing?” And people on all sides were annoyed by it. Some people were like, “Why are you apologizing? Your book is great!” And then other people who were paying attention were like, “Well, he said he was sorry to her, but he’s not really saying what he’s sorry about. He’s not really being clear. Is this a real apology?” There’s all these people that were unhelped by that, and I realized you know what, I don’t want to just have this knee jerk reaction of apologizing if I had not thought carefully about this. I am sad that anyone would feel like the book was used against them like a weapon, but is that the fault of the book? What’s actually taking place here?

So the steps I took, on my website I invited people to share their stories. We got, I think close to 600 letters, and they came from all over the map, I mean many really sad really hurt by the book, others saying the book was positive, there was a mix of responses, and then I got a professor at my school to lead me through a guided study where I picked a list of books that I felt would give me a big picture overview to help me think about this topic theologically, sociologically to look back and say what had shaped me leading up to writing the book, what has the fallout been? What are other people saying about these issues?

So I read those books with his guidance, wrote papers on them, and that really helped me to think, and then I also went back and re-read my book after many years of not having read it, and that was an out-of-body experience and I just began to see that there were some real flaws that I was seeing, but I was still unsure about what to do about that and how serious that was.

The documentary came up in the midst of that. A fellow student at my school wanted to do this thesis project talking about the state of Christian dating and singles and so on, and she invited me to be a part of this, and we ended up deciding to make it about my journey because it gave us the opportunity to follow me going and actually interacting with people in person and with a lot of the authors that I had read, the books that I had read as well as meeting face to face with people, I went back and I met the woman who had written me that tweet, about the book being used against her like a weapon.

I think for me it was important because I didn’t want to go up on a mountain and come down with my new decision of here’s what’s good about my book. I felt like it needed to be a public process so that people could see what was taking place, and hear that I was asking questions. I felt like it needed to involve other people so that they could be giving me input, and I also wanted to highlight other thinkers that were doing good work on this subject. The documentary became, it really was a real part of my journey and I didn’t know where I was going to end.

I wrote the documentary and was doing all these interviews, but even as it was unfolding I wasn’t sure where I was going to land. I didn’t know that the book was going to be discontinued at that point. I wasn’t sure that was the right answer, and it wasn’t until the very end that I reached the conclusion in light of the level of hurt this book has caused and even though other people would say it helped them, I use the analogy of a car being recalled. Thousands of people love the car, but hundreds of people are dying in accidents. You can’t just listen to your happy customers, you got to do something about the problem. So that was what happened.

Rick: When you went home at the end of the day, what was your prayer life like during this process? What were you wrestling with or talking to God about or with your family about in prayer as you were seeing these things taking in these things, making these hard decisions and potentially embarrassing decisions?

Joshua: Yeah. Well, I think that it was a very humbling time just in terms of recognizing that you can make assumptions about what you think God is doing, and then look back and realize, “Well, he never really said that, I just made that assumption.” Probably one of the most significant things for me during that time, I had this one sermon on Elijah in the cave and his breakdown after confronting the false prophets, and how he goes into the wilderness and is just like, “I wish my life was over.” He doesn’t hear God in the fire and the earthquake and the wind and so on, it’s just the still, small voice. And that passage, I preached that so many times, and people would ask me to come speak, and I would always preach that, because it was the passage that was speaking to me.

And I think that what I drew from it was that Elijah had these great desires to serve and these great plans, but his plans were not God and God is able to work through all kinds of different means and methods that we might not choose, or we might not understand, and we can do something thinking that’s what God wanted, and that’s the outcome that he was promising, but he never actually promises certain outcomes, and sometimes we do things that may have been more just our own energy and ambition or whatever, and that doesn’t mean that he’s not still good, and it doesn’t mean that he can’t still turn things for the good of others, but it’s a hard thing to face up to, I think in the moment. That really resonated with me and the way God keeps going after Elijah and patiently speaking to him and explaining to him, and actually not explaining to him, but just saying I know what I’m doing.

Rick: Stepping back a little bit more to talk about relationships during this time. I’m assuming that for as successful as the books were, and especially within the primary community you were raised in, how much they seemed to resonate there, were there all along people in your life who weren’t necessarily sold on your ideas?

Joshua: Yeah. Not necessarily closely in my life. I was aware of people who were critical of the books. I never held them in this way that was wanting to force them on other people or so on, so I think that was part of my sense of I never looked down on people or tried to push this on anyone, that kind of thing, but I think that did happen in many different settings.

Rick: As you’ve gone through this process, how have people either in your personal life, or professional life who weren’t sold on your ideas reacted to you changing your mind? Was there anything they did that made getting to this point harder or easier for you?

Joshua: No, I think they’re kind of like why did it take you so long? It’s about time. Wow, it’s too late. You just made a bunch of money off this book, that kind of thing.

Rick: Which I didn’t even think about that aspect.

Joshua: I can’t say that those aren’t fair observations, but I think that kind of reaction can tempt you to want to become defensive, definitely.

Rick: How do you balance that? What shored you up against the defensiveness? What made you willing to deal with the slings and arrows of outrageous eye rolls?

Joshua: Well, I think that when you step into a public setting and you put ideas out there, you have to own up to public criticism. I think I was somewhat used to that, but I kind of kept going because it wasn’t for those people that I was doing it. I always believe that there was this group of people out there who understood the value of Christians being willing to reevaluate, being willing to admit that they’re wrong, and even if they didn’t agree with the final conclusion that I came to, viewed it as a healthy thing. I was hearing from those people along the way who were saying, “This is healing for me to know that you’re asking these questions, to know that you’re inviting this, this is facilitating conversations with my parents, this is helping me to process my own life.”

Ultimately, it’s a tricky thing because I wanted to do this because I wanted to try to make amends as much as I can and help people who were harmed by my book, but at the end of the day you can’t even do something like this completely for other people, because they might not appreciate it at all. You have to do it, because you just think it’s the right thing to do. I felt that it was what I was supposed to do.

Rick: I think there’s maybe an impulse, especially within defined communities, and institutions to get your house in order privately before you go out and engage other communities or engage the public in any kind of outward facing way, but that’s not often been the pattern for the church. Going even back to the first church counsel in the book of Acts, with Paul and Peter were having public disagreements about whether Gentiles were being welcomed into the faith. Should be expected to conform to Jewish cultural customs as well. How has this experience either reaffirmed or changed your understanding of what it means to go through hard conversations in public as a Christian?

Joshua: Well, I think that the issue of the institutions and their mechanisms of self protection are a big part of what makes this very difficult because it can be challenging to evaluate things that become criticisms of other leaders or past decisions. I think that we just have to be more aware of those forces, and those pressures. And what I mean by that is being aware that there’s institutional bias, there’s institutional self protection, there are financial repercussions. My books, they sold a lot of copies. That was my livelihood. I won’t pretend that it wasn’t hard to make the decision when I’m thinking about kids and college and those types of things. I think that is true from an institutional standpoint, too. If you begin to apologize for certain things, that gives an air of weakness, that slows the sense of energy and momentum, maybe that slows giving, that slows whatever. There are all these other pressures.

I think it brings us back to that question of what does it profit, a man or the church or a leader to gain the whole world and lose your soul? Are you willing to walk a path of humiliation? Are you willing to follow in the path of Jesus who was literally crucified and-

Rick: Absolutely had his momentum stopped.

Joshua: Yeah, exactly. Serious momentum stop. It’s funny to say that, but perceptions and all these things that give people energy about being a part of something, which leads to success, those things are often really at odds with the shape of the gospel, which is repentance and dying to self and rebirth and resurrection. That process is a humbling, and it doesn’t come across as powerful, strong, and the winning side. I think being more aware of that is an important part of the church doing this better, and I think it’s just so easy … This is what I saw in our church. There had been a history of things being done a certain way, and then problems would start to emerge from that, and leaders would just change the way they were doing it, but they would never acknowledge that they changed, or that there was a policy change, or that they were wrong. It was just, “Oh we’re just doing this.” Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain kind of thing.

It’s just like oh this is what we do now. I think what is lost there is it might keep the momentum, and it might keep the facade of success and so on, but there are all these hurt people who are weakened, damaged and often end up leaving the church that their relationship with God was harmed because of hypocrisy practices and rules of men that were no biblical and if nobody ever goes back and says we got something wrong and we need to acknowledge that, those people, there’s a hindrance to them experiencing healing.

A big thing that I keep coming back to if the whole basis of our relationship with God is repentance and faith, the only way into a relationship with God is admitting that you’re wrong, Evangelical Christians should be the best at admitting their mistakes and failures if we really believe that God is a God of grace and that our relationship with him has never been based in our rightness or worthiness, then we should be known for being people who are remorseful over our sins and our failures, and we should be known for people who admit that we are wrong, and for whatever reason it’s the exact opposite, that we’re the people who are known for just telling everybody else that they’re wrong, and I think that’s why the secular puncture just jumps all over us when we make mistakes, because we act as if we don’t, and I think that’s to our damage.

Rick: Even if we don’t act as if we don’t in the church, even if we are very open and vulnerable, and even proactive about looking for opportunities for repentance toward one another and with one another, I think you’re accurate in that we’re not seen and understood by people outside the church as a people group to behave that way. And that is something we have to if it’s true reckon with and correct. We need to not just reason from the gospel and teach and train and rebuke and encourage one another toward righteousness in the faith, but we have to actually be seen to do that as well. There is a difference between doing something and being transparently and accurately seen to do that, and I think both of those are important. One is important for spiritual formation, the other is important for witness and evangelism.

Joshua: I think that’s well said, and I think your example of Peter and Paul is a good one. I’m sure there were some people, maybe Peter that would have preferred for that moment of correction to be a private family member meeting, church member meeting, and obviously Paul recognized that it was important for others not to keep repeating the mistakes, that it needed to be very public.

Rick: Yeah, and we know we have resurrection we don’t have to necessarily protect ourselves. You brought up the phrase dying to yourself, and I imagine there are times when this felt that way, that vulnerability felt probably piercing. We don’t need to be so obsessive about protecting ourselves because we know that whatever wounds we have are going to be healed and whatever injuries we go through are going to experience resurrection.

Rick: Okay, that was part of my interview with Joshua Harris. I’m really grateful he could join us, and there are a few points he made that I think are especially worth pulling out.

First, an easy one: He talked a little bit in that interview about a documentary that one of his colleagues made about this process that he went through. You can watch that documentary for free online by going to I Survived IKDG dot com. That’s I Survived IKDG, as in I Kissed Dating Goodbye, dot com, and we’ll have the link at the top of the shownotes.

Next, we talk a lot at the Center for Christian Civics about what it means to recognize the noetic effects of the fall—that is, the effects the fall has had on the way we think and reason. We don’t see things perfectly clearly—as if we’re peering out at the world through a grimy window.

When it comes to politics, that means that our ideologies and our political beliefs are insufficient, no matter how much confidence we have in them, or in the people who espouse them. They’re the best guesses of fallen people about how to reach particular goals in a world that has more variables than we can account for. Every law, every political platform, every new policy—these things are being put together by fallen people, who, because of the fall, all have intellectual and moral blind spots, and are going to continue to have them until Christ makes his people perfect.

Christians know that these things are true of every person, so we should be constantly ready to receive new information, to be challenged and refined. Finding out we were wrong about something actually proves the gospel. Being willing to be seen saying, “I was wrong,” is evidence to the people around us that we believe the Bible when it says that we’re looking at the world through a glass dimly—and we won’t see clearly until Jesus returns and gives us perfect sight.

Power politics is about insisting you’re right, that there’s nothing you haven’t accounted for, that the people you’re talking to can forget about their judgment and just rely on yours instead.

Christian humility says something different. It says that I’m a broken creature, desperately waiting for Jesus to return and make me whole, so there’s a chance that I’m wrong and I need your help to figure that out. Come, let us reason together. Let us test everything and cling to what’s good.

Another thing I really loved about that conversation with Joshua Harris was that he had thought about dating and courtship a LOT. I mean a lot. But, as he noted, for a big chunk of the last twenty years, the people who were in a position to really interrogate his thinking, to test him and challenge him and refine him, were all people who were more or less on the same page as him. He was aware that some people “out there” weren’t helped by his books, but they weren’t in a position to be close to him, so he wasn’t in a position to learn from them. That Christian humility we talked about a moment ago doesn’t do us any good unless we’re exercising it with people who are different from us.

Once Joshua started practicing that humility with people who had a different take on dating, or who had different experiences with courtship, or who had relationships to his book that he had never predicted, that was when he was able to start seeing things he hadn’t seen before.

Politics, unfortunately, functions the same way. Some people have heaps of Christian humility. Other people have heaps of close family members or friends or Facebook contacts who don’t share their politics. But for your relationship to your politics to be refined by Christ, you need to have BOTH of those things, at the same time. That’s a fight.

The last thing I want to call out is the fact that this process was probably embarrassing.

For better or worse, his identity was tied to that book and to those ideas. They’re what gave him his career. It’s what other people knew him for. Bring up his name, and you’d get, “Joshua Harris—the courtship guy?” “The I Kissed Dating Goodbye guy?” And even if that didn’t mean anything to him, he had talked about the topic a lot. A LOT. For decades.

I know that I’m embarrassed to say I was wrong in situations with MUCH lower stakes. A few months ago, my mother insisted that she had had a burger at a Chick-Fil-A. I rolled my eyes. I told her there’s no way. And eventually, when she dug her heels in, I did that thing where you say, “Okay,” to end the conversation but you don’t really believe it. And then, later, you kind of think about how absurd the other person is for insisting that?

Well, a few weeks ago, I found out that there are a handful of Chick-Fil-A restaurants that actually do serve burgers, for reasons I won’t get in to now. And just saying I was wrong about THAT, this thing that has no moral weight behind it and that I in no way, shape or form had my reputation or my livelihood staked on, was hard enough. If this was a topic we had yelled about across the Thanksgiving table, or something one of us had posted obnoxious memes about on the other’s Facebook wall or something like that, it would have been even harder, but even that might not still quite be the same as the situation Joshua was in.

Now, Joshua and I talked for about twice as long as you heard. That’s not unusual. A lot of the conversations you hear on this podcast go long.

A few times a year, we take some of the best bits of these conversations that don’t make it into the podcast and we release them as bonus episodes. The bonus episode coming out in a couple months is going to include, among other odds and ends, more with Joshua Harris. If you’d like to get that bonus episode, then please, go to christiancivics.org/support and become a monthly donor. If all you can really offer right now is $5 a month, that’s fine—I work for a small, start-up non-profit, I understand. But the bonus episodes go out to anyone who has made a donation in the past year, so monthly gifts are the best way to help us budget and make sure that you stay on the list.

We can’t do this work without the enthusiastic support of everyone who wants to help the church engage the public square in a healthier way, who wants our neighbors to start seeing Christians as a solution to problems facing our government, rather than view the church as a problem for our country. If that’s you, then visit christiancivics.org/support and make an end-of-year donation to our work, or become a monthly donor today.

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