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It was the late 1990s when the bestselling book I Kissed Dating Goodbye arrived in our church with teenage missionary zeal, imported by some youth who had attended a summer teen camp together. The book purportedly espoused a Biblically principled model of courtship but it strained relations within our group between those who dated and those who (newly) did not. As the youth pastor, I was left to unravel the social and spiritual fallout.
Twenty years later, the author, Joshua Harris, who was 21 when he wrote the book, would come to apologize for the fallout from the book. The documentary, I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which was released Nov 20, 2018 at ExplorationFilms.com, follows Harris on a listening tour as he engages readers, authors, and other observers regarding the impact of his early book. Yet there’s a bigger issue at stake, outside Kissing Dating Goodbye, or Surviving Kissing Dating Goodbye. It’s this: The Evangelical subculture is not immune to another such episode, because there is little rigorous theological evaluation or accountability for popular products, and personalities.
Harris’ book, published in 1997, with its marketable title landed on fertile ground previously tilled by Christian sexual abstinence and purity campaigns, which Harris suggests influenced his writing.
Teen pregnancy rates peaked in the US in 1991 and the issue continued to be the subject of public health promotion. One wonders the degree to which the 1990s Christian abstinence and purity campaigns were a reaction to the messaging embedded in public health promotion. Christian abstinence campaigns may have had some influence in Canada by way of geographical proximity, but they did not have nearly the presence they did south of the border.
Archival footage in the film of large, national abstinence and purity rallies are awkward to watch. Not because of the intent, but because the deep, rich and beautiful orthodox Christian understanding of sex and marriage is lost amidst sloganeering rallies that were poor Christian cousins to MTV and the dominant culture. One observer in the film identifies the irony that Christian abstinence campaigns used sex to sell chastity. Christian young people were promised that remaining sexually pure would guarantee mind-blowing marital sex later.
Harris’ underlying observation in the film is that his book was popular because it offered an alternative to dating culture by following prescribed rules. He says the book offered an overprescription while failing to examine deeper questions around issues of faith, marriage and sexuality.
At one point in the film, Harris sits in front of a computer and Skypes one-on-one with dozens and dozens of readers. Not all the feedback is negative, but many readers share their hurt and disillusionment. You have to hand it to Harris for taking it on the chin. However, I kissed Dating Goodbye is only one chapter in a larger narrative. The evangelical subculture has a track record of generating and promoting marketable content as Biblical wisdom with little sober second thought.
Harris warns that popular Christian approaches to partnership, sex, and marriage are often constructed on unacknowledged cultural assumptions about sexuality. He explores this error in his free e-book, Books that Changed my Mind, where he quotes Jonathan Grant’s excellent offering, Divine Sex. Grant writes, “our inability to perceive the influence of cultural misinformation is undermining the power of the Christian gospel to guide and form people so they can walk its pathway to sexual maturity.”
Discussions of sexuality in Christian circles often assume that sexual fulfillment is essential to personal fulfillment. Christian authors then promise ultimate fulfillment by following the prescribed rules. The film describes it as ‘relational prosperity teaching,’ where obedience becomes a bargain with God to provide the desires of the heart. Grant writes, “because it gets the Christian vision of life the wrong way around, this approach inevitably leads to crushing disappointment and anger within people’s romantic lives - and with God himself.”
I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye, the documentary, will attract viewers who came of age under the influence of the book, but it raises contemporary questions. Harris was in his early twenties when he followed his own courtship model into marriage. Today in Canada, the portion of young adults ages 20 to 24 who are married is under four percent. The average age of first marriage is estimated to be over 30. While marriage has been declining among young adults for decades, the portion of those cohabiting is increasing. Yet, since Harris wrote his book in 1997, the fastest growing portion of young adults in the prime marrying ages (20-34) are those who are neither married nor cohabiting, accounting for nearly 60 percent of young adults in Canada. Overprescription and guarantees simply won’t wash.
Harris acknowledges in his e-book that delayed entry into marriage and the elongated path into adulthood provide unique challenges for Christians living by a Christian sexual ethic. I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye raises important questions, but the documentary leaves many questions unanswered.
One of the most important insights in I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye is so understated many viewers will miss it simply because it lacks the emotional punch of other parts of the film. Harris sits on a couch in Regent College speaking with author Connally Gilliam, who notes that singleness and marriage are vocations. Harris acknowledges how few people look at it that way. This kind of language is missing from an Evangelical view of sex, singleness and marriage.
Orthodox author David Goa states that family is a spiritual community whose vocation is grounded in the call to holiness. This vocation includes nurturing members toward union with Christ for the sake of the life of the world. The vocation of marriage is focused toward this mission. Singleness too is a vocation, not a state of waiting. Not lesser than. Singleness is missional.
The local church maybe the best positioned institution in creating the thick, hospitable community necessary for the vocations of singleness and marriage to thrive. The church will need to be an intentional community exposing culturally ingrained assumptions about sexuality while fully exploring the understanding of sex and marriage that has guided the church for two millennia.
Author and psychiatrist Glynn Harrison notes that the sexual revolution exposed Christian shame culture around sexuality. He says, “We made big promises in terms of what the Christian Gospel offers - freedom and flourishing - but in this huge area of our lives we often delivered silence, ignorance and fear. The sexual revolution has done us a huge favor in driving us back to our own Scriptures, to ask what we really believe about sex, marriage and relationships.”
I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye tells a story of regret, but it suggests there is an opportunity to tell a better story rooted in the richness of Scripture.
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