Media critics wonder about Josh Harris, the no-dating avatar, who's recanting his stance

I had only been living inside the Beltway for about a year when “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” a book by Josh Harris, a 23-year-old pastoral intern at Covenant Life, a local megachurch in the Maryland suburbs.

I had just turned 40, so knew enough about the dating world to know that much of what he was advising –- such as not kissing your mate until the day you get married –- was pure bosh and unworkable in any healthy Christian or secular relationship. But –- darn –- if that book didn’t become a bestseller pretty quickly, sparking all sorts of angst among Christian 20-somethings who wanted to meet their intended the right way.

Harris’ book sold more than a million copies and he followed up with a few other books; none as successful as the first, which hit the zeitgeist just right. He was a quick learner and he hopscotched over several men older than he to become senior pastor in 2004. The guy definitely knew how to work the system, plus he was a protégé of one of the founding pastors, C. J. Mahaney.

Years later, he resigned from the megachurch and moved to Vancouver, B.C. to attend Regent College. Covenant Life underwent wrenching changes, as described in this Washingtonian investigation.

His family liked Canada so much, they’ve applied to become permanent residents. Harris, who seems to have left the professional religious world for good in that he’s started a marketing and strategy business, is also doing a mea culpa about his once-best-selling book.

The story has been been trickling out for some time now and I’m surprised more religion reporters haven’t jumped on it. He got mentioned yesterday in a Religion News Service column by Cathleen Falsani about the purity movement.

Among (its detractors) is Joshua Harris, author of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye: A New Attitude Toward Romance and Relationships,” the 1997 book that became the de facto bible of the purity movement. Last month, Harris apologized for the harm the book had caused and asked his publisher to cease printing it.

Now 43, Harris wrote the book when he was 21 and it was published a year before he got married. The book has sold more than 1.2 million copies to date.

Harris’ disavowal of his own best-seller is chronicled in the documentary film “I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” released in late November. In it, the author has face-to-face conversations, many of them difficult, with his critics…

Whether intentional or not, in some evangelical and fundamentalist circles, Harris’ book was treated like holy writ. He wasn’t the only one writing about or espousing such extreme teachings about chastity, abstinence and “purity,” but because of the book’s success, he became the ersatz poster child for a movement.

I’m surprised more people haven’t tackled the Harris angle as a news story, as he was one of the most successful purveyors of this movement. I found a few mentions of his turnabout in Mother Jones, Slate and NPR. The latter two pieces came out in 2016, two years before Harris’s new documentary.

At the same time, I find it beyond annoying that Harris is hyping his change of heart as much as possible, putting out a press release about discontinuing publication of the book (after 20 years in print, so it couldn’t been bringing in a ton of royalties at this point). But he’s also pulling two of his other books from circulation; again, neither of them are all that recent, so we’re probably not talking a huge drop in income here.

Still, repentance is more a matter of not making money on your previous mistakes and sins, so the PR campaign is annoying. But it is also a good story. So is the story of how a conservative evangelical moves to liberal, much more secularized western Canada and likes it there enough to make a home there. (Of course, Vancouver is a gorgeous place in which to live and it’s not far from his native Oregon.)

As a once-avatar of the purity movement, Harris is at least offering some reflection on the whole thing, a switch from some of the real hit pieces out there.

When covering this, writers must draw a distinction between 2,000 years of Christian teaching that limits sexual expression to heterosexual marriage and a movement that set additional boundaries on how couples should move from courtship into marriage. They’re not the same.

I think it speaks to Harris’s newfound marketing know how that he published his second thoughts via video instead of through another book. Not all 40-somethings who were affected by his book are wedded to YouTube.

“What if you gave millions of people the wrong advice?” he asks. Hopefully more reporters can help him answer that question.

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