The group chat blew up yesterday morning: Josh Harris is getting divorced.
The chat is made up of three of my oldest friends--we all grew up deep in Christian purity culture. We got married around the same ages--earlier than most--and two of us are divorced now. We’ve stayed close because we have all had to work on unlearning deep-seated shame about our bodies and sexuality because of purity culture teachings. Our experience of these teachings all started with Harris’s 1997 bestselling book I Kissed Dating Goodbye.
I Kissed Dating Goodbye (often referred to in shorthand as IKDG by those who grew up with it) is a brief relationship self-help book, but it threw an entire generation of young Christians into trauma and turmoil with its strict rules: dating was practice for divorce, sex is only for marriage, don’t date unless you’re ready to get married quickly, don’t date until you know that person is the one, your sex drive is going to destroy your life so deny and tamp down those desires. Josh, writing this book at 21, was naive and optimistic. Believing the right things and following the rules seemed like a real solution to heartbreak, to the difficulties of life and love. His book promised a generation of young Christians that if they followed the teachings laid out in IKDG, they would keep their hearts intact, avoid heartbreak, avoid divorce. He even wrote a second book, Boy Meets Girl, about how well it worked out when he met, courted, and then married his wife, Shannon. The formula was tested and tried. You could do it too.
And now: Josh Harris is separating from his wife. He and Shannon posted twin announcements on their Instagram accounts yesterday morning. She’s removed the name Harris from hers, going by Shannon Bonne now.
I’m excited for them. I am hopeful for what this change might bring. Let me first clarify: I know firsthand that divorce after being deep in conservative Christianity is excruciating. I know that they will probably lose support of friends and family, and it will be agony to rebuild after the dust settles. I know that many people like me and my friends, who were thoroughly traumatized by the teachings of Harris and others, who have had to do long hours in therapy to feel comfortable with desire and sexuality of any kind after purity culture, will feel gleeful, like this is karmic justice.
It’s been hard watching Josh dig himself out of what he refers to as “legalistic” Christianity, what I call fundamentalism. I grew up in the same homeschool movement his dad is credited with founding. My parents read IKDG when it came out (I was eight) and told me that I was never going to date, I would have to court, like Josh advocated. When I was 12, my family moved to Virginia to join the group of churches that Josh pastored in, a church group that has later been under scrutiny for protecting pedophiles. And then I got married to a man who grew up in Josh’s church. We followed the rules; we courted, saved sex for the wedding night. But it didn’t save me or hundreds of other young true believers like me from the fallout of purity culture. Sex was hard, desire felt tainted. Going from carefully cultivating the repression of my sexuality to being free to fuck my husband and the expectation to blow his mind in the bedroom wasn’t only difficult, but it felt impossible. One or both of us would get stuck up in our heads, unable to enjoy ourselves. The baggage of purity culture was too heavy.
And then after we divorced, after I went through therapy and began learning how pleasure worked and what I wanted from relationships and how to start over again from scratch, Josh apologized. Sort of. It was May of 2016 and some friends of mine were tweeting about how IKDG ruined various things for them: “I never went to prom. #BecauseFundamentalism” said author Elizabeth Esther. My ex-husband’s childhood friend Jessica replied to her: “My school wasn’t allowed to have prom because @harrisjosh lol,” and then Josh jumped in to reply: “Sorry about that, Jess.” It didn’t feel like a real apology. It seemed impulsive, a quick reaction.
But he seemed to want to try to understand, and did a TedxTalk about it in November 2017. And then he issued a statement in the fall of the following year, along with a documentary where he went around talking to people hurt by the book, trying to understand where he went wrong. But the documentary ends on an odd note: Harris essentially apologizes for people misunderstanding his intent and taking the book too literally, and thus getting hurt. In the documentary, it is clear that he still believes that sex should be saved for marriage, that dating should be deliberate and for the purpose of finding a life partner only, and that homosexuality is a sin. It was hardly an apology, and my fellow survivors of purity culture loudly told him so. Elizabeth Esther participated in the documentary, but regretted it later when she saw the finished product. “Nothing has changed for Josh Harris,” she said. I felt angry, but unsurprised. My father’s apologies to me had felt the same: sorry for the hurt, sorry for the frustration, but unwavering on the ideology.
So what does that all mean if he’s getting divorced?
When I was newly divorced, still trying to cling to my faith, I was 24 and enthusiastically looking for a new job and a fresh start. I began applying for jobs at Christian universities, schools, and nonprofits (many of which I was aware of because Josh and other pastors had recommended them from the pulpit), but as I progressed through the application process, I kept running into a requirement that many of these organizations had: they wanted me to sign a statement of faith to apply, and these statements of faith were often so narrow that they included condemnatory statements about divorce, and affirmed the perpetuity of marriage.
“Perpetuity” of marriage is a theological concept that some conservative Christians hold to, essentially meaning that if you get divorced, it’s unfortunate (and probably a sin), but you can’t ever have sex with or get married to someone else or you’ll be committing adultery against your first spouse. Because of this theological belief, not only is divorce a serious sin, but going out and dating again after marriage is also a morally suspect endeavor. Because of this belief, when I got divorced, my father asked me: “what is your theology of divorce?” when I told him my husband was leaving me. He wanted to know if I understood how far I had fallen from my faith, from the values he taught me.
This teaching isn’t mainstream, but it was common enough that I knew of people who felt guilty for getting remarried because of it, and pastors who talked about it obliquely in wedding sermons. Forever in your wedding vows holds a lot of weight when the quiet assumption behind it is so very loaded.
If Josh Harris is sorry for the hurt he caused but hasn’t changed his beliefs, does he believe in the perpetuity of marriage as well? I haven’t heard him address the concept directly, but it was talked about in the statement of faith materials that I saw in 2013 when I was looking to apply to the International Justice Mission for a job after my divorce -- a questionable Christian nonprofit where one of Josh’s younger brothers worked at the time. (I was still deeply conservative and didn’t know better at that point. I didn’t end up applying for the job.) Perpetuity of marriage was so much part of the environment of our group of churches and our community’s culture that it would make its way into these statements of faith. So even if Josh doesn’t believe in it specifically, he’s thought about it a lot.
And this is why I’m hopeful for him and for Shannon: perpetuity of marriage might make sense for an older person, someone who isn’t interested in dating. But Josh and Shannon got married very young, like I did, and have years ahead of them. Celibacy is, as he wrote about extensively, not easy or sustainable for most people. If perpetuity of marriage is ceded in his mind for the sake of happiness, perhaps the whole rest of the house of cards will come tumbling down. Perhaps Josh Harris and Shannon Bonne will embrace their newfound liberation and flourish. Perhaps Josh will finally understand why so many of us have been dissatisfied with his apologies, and reckon with the reality that the interpretation of the Bible that he brought to bear on his ethics of dating at age 21 was based on an ancient society far different from our world today, that the literalism of fundamentalist theology destroys the lives it claims to save.
I hold out hope that real change is possible, that empathy can be learned. Congratulations to Josh and Shannon for having the self-respect to listen to their needs and separating when they needed to. I wish them broad horizons and years of discovering new joys without shame.