Evangelicals love their fads. In this, I suspect that they are no different than the rest of us. But evangelicals also love to hate their fads, especially when they prove hollow. I grew up evangelical, and one of the fads I experienced as a teenager was the 1997 evangelical bestseller I Kissed Dating Goodbye.
Its author was a 21-year-old kid named Joshua Harris. He had never been married, never had a serious relationship, and (to my knowledge) had no formal university-level training in either psychology or theology. Harris went on to write a number of other popular books on relationships and sexuality before Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM), the church movement that he helped lead, blew apart (see here for a helpful overview; for more general background, see here and here). Harris’s book and others like it, often described collectively as the “purity movement,” defined much of what it meant to be a teenage evangelical in late-20th-century North America.
Recent years have seen a growing backlash against Harris’s youthful literary indiscretions, partly spurred by his surprising willingness to offer something of an apology for his book and its influence. (A helpful and thoughtful analysis can be found in Ruth Graham’s Slate article “Hello Goodbye.” In his essay “Against Evangelical Victim Culture (Stop Blaming Josh Harris for Your Problems),” G. Shane Harris offers an equally well-written if largely unsympathetic approach to complaints against Harris’s work.) In what follows, I would like to briefly add my voice to the cacophony that currently surrounds I Kissed Dating Goodbye.
I know firsthand the subculture that surrounded Harris’s book. Between the ages of 16 and 21, I attended an SGM church. But whereas supporters and critics are concerned to engage Harris’s book, I am more concerned with how to think about evangelicalism as a whole. What follows is wholly personal and taken primarily from my experience.
I am now 35. In the last 14 years, I have often thought about why people are evangelical. My conclusion may be sociologically unorthodox, but I think that evangelicalism’s popularity springs from an especially intense form of parental idealism. This isn’t the strangest of proposals. Overprotective parenting is hardly restricted to evangelicals, and at least one major religion can look to such parenting as part of its origins: the Buddha’s childhood was spent in a palace built for the express purpose of shielding him from suffering (the plan failed).
With nearly two-thirds of evangelicals younger than 50, the family dynamic is key for understanding the appeal of Harris’s book and others like it. As young evangelicals begin to mature, their parents are approaching midlife, a season often ripe with regret and resentment. With its many promises, inseparable from its penchant for quick-fix revivalist messages, evangelicalism offers clear and simple answers for how to navigate the difficult terrain of life. But life is precisely this: difficult. There is a perverse irony in mocking evangelicals who fail in their quest for simple but sure guidance. We should not be surprised if evangelical parents stumble and even fail as they try to manage their own lives while guiding their children toward adulthood. Non-evangelical parents stumble and fail, too. Of all the forms of human love, parental love is both the most ennobling and the most fallible.
As a young person, I often heard adult evangelicals say that they wished to spare their children pain and tragedy. When it came to romance, these parents were often quite frank: they had loved and lost, and they didn’t want their children to experience the same. This kind of parenting is, in many ways, the complementary converse of the historical understanding that many evangelicals set forth. Harris’s advocacy of courtship was a form of cultural nostalgia. He looked back to (what he assumed were) 19th-century standards of modesty, respect, and community. It was a way of life that no Baby Boomer ever lived (nor could they). First loves and broken hearts are not just the stuff of popular music and nostalgic films; among post-1960s evangelicals, they are a pastoral and parental currency both durable and worn. What is this long-term parental regret but the converse of evangelical nostalgia?
As I experienced it, the great promise surrounding I Kissed Dating Goodbye was that children would be able to succeed where parents (at least in retrospect) felt that they had failed. Viewing the evangelical purity movement through a hermeneutic of suspicion is wrong. It should be viewed through a hermeneutic of regret. Purity culture is less about the control of young bodies and more about the lamentations of aging ones.
There is, without question, something beautiful about the vision offered by evangelical purity culture: love unencumbered by memory, the body unencumbered by experience, trust unencumbered by disappointment — and all of this given freely to a single person who fully receives and fully returns the same. Christianity (like other movements, whether religious or political) has had a long history of such angelic aspirations. But there is a difference between morality as aspiration and morality as standard.
Perhaps because evangelicals make the New Testament’s legal language central to their understanding of salvation, they often apply the same legal strictures to areas of human experience where other approaches would be far more beneficial. Purity can only be an aspiration; it is not something that we can give wholly to another because it is not something that ever exists fully in any of us. The slippage between ideals and idols is more than just phonetic. Transforming purity aspirations into purity standards can’t resolve the problem of impurity; it only creates new problems that an ideology of purity cannot comprehend. When purity becomes an ideology, we no longer have purity culture but a purity cult.
More important, if evangelical purity culture misapprehends the nature of purity, it does the same with love. It is commonly claimed (and not unfairly, I believe) that the purity movement tells those who have premarital sex that they are condemned to spend a lifetime believing that they are “damaged goods.” This is a cult-like approach to shame and approval that could not be more destructive. Nor could it be more perverse.
In truth, love is never so encumbered by the past — whether that of the lover or that of the beloved — that it can be accurately labeled as “broken” or “damaged.” Human love is flawed (and learning to accept this might prove the struggle of a lifetime), but whether as agape (charity or “neighbor” love) or as eros (erotic love), love always sees more than brokenness. In doing so, it renders that same brokenness irrelevant. Amid all the inspired elegance of 1 Corinthians 13, the apostle Paul never claimed that human love is perfect. Nor did he claim that human love is pure. Rather, love hopes and endures and does not fail.
For what good is purity if we have not agape?