Who is Josh Harris? This debacle isn't getting much ink from news media and it should

In the past few weeks, Instagram has been flaming with a really good religion story about evangelicalism’s latest fallen star — Joshua Harris.

Harris, as I wrote about last December, has been a hot topic in the evangelical Twitter universe for months, but few religion-beat reporters have run with this story. Being that the guy hit his top fame moment 22 years ago — when many of today’s religion reporters were in elementary school — it’s a story lots of people don’t know much about.

With one exception: There’s a cadre of folks determined to dump on the “purity movement” of the 1990s as much as they can and for them, Harris is a gift that doesn’t stop giving. We’ll let the Guardian bring us up to speed in what was a straight forward news story:

The American author of a bestselling Christian guide to relationships for young people has announced that his marriage is over and he has lost his faith.

Joshua Harris, whose biblical guide to relationships I Kissed Dating Goodbye sold nearly 1m copies around the world after it was published in 1997, has also apologised to LGBT+ people for contributing to a “culture of exclusion and bigotry”.

Can’t walk back your views much further than that.

In his book, Harris, a former pastor at a US megachurch, urged young Christians to reject dating for “courtship” under the guidance of parents and observing sexual abstinence. Young couples should not kiss, hold hands or spend time alone together before marriage, he said. Dating was spiritually unhealthy and a “training ground for divorce”, the book argued.

The book, written by Harris when he was 21, was widely circulated within evangelical Christian youth groups, helping to promote a “purity culture” and vows to preserve virginity until marriage.

There’s a whole cottage industry of critics of evangelicalism out there and when Harris announced on Instagram that his marriage was basically over, it was a rich feeding time for the evangelical left. Here was proof that what they’d been saying all along about Christian sexual mores being hopelessly out of date was true. Hadn’t the chief standard bearer fallen?

This month he announced on Instagram that he and his wife were separating after 21 years of marriage because “significant changes have taken place in both of us”.

Wish the article had repeated some of the comments after that post. Half were supportive; the other half asked why Harris had continued living a lie for so long. At one point, his teenage son, Isaac, jumped in to ask commenters to mind their own business. [Note: I’ve since learned Isaac is his brother, not his son.]

There wasn’t much about Harris’ wife, either. Heavy.com com aggregated some info on Shannon Harris, aka Shannon Bonne.

In between announcements, Ruth Graham of Slate, who has probably been following Harris more than any other journalist, published this update with some notes about Bonne:

Shannon Harris, who goes by the name Shannon Bonne as a singer-songwriter, has not spoken as openly about her own spiritual trajectory. But her Instagram account in recent months has included mentions of having “buried” her true self, and what seem to be veiled references to leaving Sovereign Grace. “I myself have been sitting here for seven years. Quietly Thinking. No, longer,” she wrote in June. “Nearly a decade ruminating over my time in a place called church.” Just a few days ago, she posted that she is working on a musical whose themes include “power in the conservative church.” She has also used the hashtag #exvangelical, a term used by some who have left the evangelical movement.

Josh and Shannon Harris made their separation announcement this week the way public figures do these days: simultaneous and identical Instagram posts. (Josh told me Thursday by email that he and Shannon are not making any further statements for now.)

Actually, there was one more statement. Back to the Guardian:

Another Instagram message posted nine days later said he had “undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus”.

He wrote: “The popular phrase for this is ‘deconstruction’, the biblical phrase is ‘falling away’. By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian. Many people tell me that there is a different way to practise faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now.”

Wow. This post really brought out the mix of congratulations and calls to repentance. If you want a cross-section of ferment among evangelicals, read some of the comments to that post.

The Christian Post, which has also been following this story, posted a story about the reaction from Harris’ former church — Covenant Life, in Gaithersburg, Md. The church used to be part of a movement called Sovereign Grace.

Many who’ve left Sovereign Grace contribute to the SGMSurvivors blog which has some very good commentary on Harris’ earlier career at Covenant Life and how his actions back then may have resulted in his current spiritual crisis. Do read it if you want to understand what used to make Harris tick.

Earlier this year, Al Mohler, the head of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., who years ago embraced certain disgraced Sovereign Grace leaders, apologized publicly for doing so here. Then evangelical broadcaster Janet Mefferd remarked in February that Mohler’s apology was too little, too late.

Most of what’s come out about Harris’ leave taking of his faith has been opinion. First Things had a good column on Monday about Harris’ place in what’s known as the Young, Restless and Reformed movement, renamed by the writer as “diluted Calvinism.” Harris’ de-conversion announcement, it said, was just a little too polished.

While Harris seems to be making a clean break with his past, the style of his apostasy announcement is oddly consistent with the evangelical Christianity he used to represent. He revealed he was leaving the faith with a social media post, which included a mood photograph of himself contemplating a beautiful lake. The earlier announcement of his divorce used the typical postmodern jargon of “journey” and “story.” And both posts were designed to play to the emotions rather than the mind. Life, it would seem, continues as performance art.

So there’s a zillion angles to take on this story and a lot of questions here that no one is exploring.

Why the sudden turnaround on gay marriage? That wasn’t a cause that Harris was ever involved in, so why the apology at this point? I can understand if he’d been an activist on this issue, but he wasn’t. And then to state that he’s no longer a Christian just carries this story way beyond the we’re-probably-getting-divorced theme. I know that his walking back the no-dating thesis caused him to reevaluate his earlier beliefs, but how did that translate into dumping the whole caboose?

Josh Harris and his issues may sound like too much inside baseball to the typical editor but the ramifications are worth many stories. I’m looking at the Washington Post, hometown newspaper for the folks at Covenant Life, which has yet to do a major magazine-length story on what happened at that church and to Harris.

Remember, it was the Washingtonian, not the Post, that ran the mega-story back in 2016 about all the sex abuse accusations against Sovereign Grace Ministries and Covenant Life.

With three full-time religion reporters on board, it’s time the Post did this story. Or if Doug Todd at the Vancouver Sun could score an interview with Harris, who’s in the same city.

There’s lots of stories sitting there unreported in this Harris saga. I’m hoping more reporters go and get them.

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