Author Joshua Harris influenced how a generation of young Christians approached relationships. He and filmmaker Jessica Van Der Wyngaard talk to Convivium's Hannah Marazzi about their new documentary on whether Harris was too hasty in bidding dating adieu.
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Convivium:Originally published in 2003, I Kissed Dating Goodbye became something of a generational “bible” for young evangelicals. Take us through your decision to publish it.
Joshua Harris: I was publishing a small magazine for home schooled teenagers and speaking to teens and parents at conferences. Dating was one of the topics that I had started to write about in my magazine and speak on at these conferences. I remember there being such a response to an article that I did on dating versus courtship. I started sharing from my own experience, my own struggle and regrets related to dating. I gave a speech that I cheekily titled, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” The reaction was overwhelming. At the time, I wanted to write a book and realized people wanted to hear more about this topic. I lined up with my own sense of conviction before God. I was 17 when I started the magazine, 18 when I wrote the article, and 19 when I did the speech. The book was written in '96 when I was 21.
C: What was the initial response?
JH: There was a ground swell of interest in this topic among the home school community. Subscribers to my magazine knew that I was writing the book. They bought the book and began to share it with people. It was a slow build over the first nine months. I did some large radio shows. People started spreading it via word-of-mouth. It just snowballed. The publisher kept coming back and saying, “We're going to reprint it again.” It became apparent something very different was happening, and different national media outlets began to pay attention.
I read The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell, years later. I felt it explained for me what happened with I Kissed Dating Goodbye. He speaks to how there are ideas percolating in a subculture that steadily grow until they reach a tipping point into the broader culture. All these Christian parents who grew up in the '60s and the sexual revolution wanted something very different for their kids. My book came at this moment of high impact where people were ready to consider a more radical approach to relationships. It spread and became a best seller.
C:Was there a particular theme or aspect of the book that you were consistently asked to speak about?
JH: Most of the speaking I did after publishing the book was focused on more than dating. I was focusing on questions like, “What is genuine, sincere love? What does it mean to be pure before God?” How does one make the most of their singleness?” Those were the three messages that I was speaking on at our conferences. It’s what resonated with a lot of people. I heard from people who had been struggling with this sense of pressure to be in a relationship, to have a boyfriend, to have a girlfriend. If they didn't, people thought something was wrong with them.
C:You went from being an author to becoming a pastor of a mega church. Did you find it hard to disassociate yourself from the persona people feel they know from the pages of I Kissed Dating Goodbye?
JH: When the book came out, I was already working in youth ministry at a church. I was just “Josh.” Very quickly after I wrote the book, I met Shannon. We got into a relationship; we got married. I did a follow up book called Boy Meets Girl telling my story and trying to answer this question:“If you're not dating like everybody else, what does it look like to pursue someone when you are ready to pursue commitment?”
I don't want to just be the dating guy. I don't want to just talk about relationships. I was pastoring in my church and doing conferences for singles, talking about areas of theology and the church and the gospel, and other subjects I was more excited about. Of course, I was always known as the guy who wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbye, but it wasn't something I was really focused on.
C: Several years ago, you and your family moved to Canada’s West Coast to become part of Regent College What led to the move?
JH: I'd been lead pastor of a church for 10 years. I really got burned out in ministry and went through some tough church division and crises. There were a lot of broken relationships, disappointments and weariness. I was aware of my own failure in different ways. I was more aware of the imperfections of the church community that I'd led. I felt the church needed someone fresh to come in and lead. We met with counselors and they said, "You need to take a break or you're going to blow up your life."
I tried to figure out what it would look like for me to hit the reset button and figure out what God wanted me to do next. I had good friends who had attended Regent College and really understood my journey. They convinced me Regent would be a great place for me.
We wanted to get a fresh perspective. Regent did that in that it's not a denominational school. You have people from many different parts of the body of Christ. It was appealing to be able to go to a different country for a different perspective on many aspects of society, and even a political viewpoint. It's been challenging, and provoking, and rejuvenating to see the world differently.
C:Jessica, this is where you encountered Joshua. How did you form a generative friendship?
Jessica Van Der Wyngaard: We were shooting on location for a film our professor, Iwan Russell-Jones, was making called Making Peace With Creation on beautiful Galiano Island here in BC. The crew was having dinner at someone’s house and I was sitting next to Josh. I knew who he was; I'd read his book several times as a teenager. I may have wanted to engage with him maybe online or send him a comment, but as soon as he was sitting right there next to me, I remember thinking, “I’m not sure I want to say those things to him in person.” Then he turned to me and said, "So, tell me what it's like to date at Regent. What's it like for a single Christian in Vancouver?"
We started chatting over dinner. Josh said, "You know, maybe my book has something to do with how people are engaging with these issues today and the struggles that some people have." I was like, "Yes, quite possibly. I remember your book from when I was a teenager." I sneakily planted a seed that I wanted to investigate this stuff in a documentary for my thesis. That was well over a year ago now. It took a lot of convincing and back and forth over the months to get us where we are now.
C:You have said I Kissed Dating Goodbye played a formative role in your life, Jessica. How did it have an impact on you?
JV: In my late 20s, I was feeling very frustrated with this book. We've encountered through this journey, Josh for more years than I have, lots of people who were deeply hurt by the book. That's very unfortunate. That wasn't my experience. I was grateful for it as a teenager. It enabled me to treat the guys I encountered as if they were friends, and keep the focus on my school and professional career in my early 20s.
As I got older, I thought, “I think I want to maybe look at getting married now. Is there anyone around?” I think the impact of this book was such that I think a lot of people just didn't know how to date in a Christian world. They didn't even know how to approach it.
I came to a point where I thought, “I'm going to just forget everything I was taught and just figure some things out for myself.” This led to an interesting few years of my life. I'll be talking more about that in the film as well. There were some mistakes, but also just a lot of learning. That has brought me to this place I am now.
C:. Joshua, what prompted you to commit to Jessica’s vision? Why now?
JH: With Jessica's help, I'm reevaluating I Kissed Dating Goodbye. I regret not engaging in this process earlier. In the 17 years since it was first published, people wrote letters, books, and statements on the Internet that were critical of my book. It’s so easy to ignore criticism and latch on to the voices of people that agree and think the same way that you do. There was also some fear on my part. As the leader of a large organization, when you start questioning something, there are more people involved and invested in that process.
Coming to Regent, and stepping away from being a pastor, let me listen to critics and people who have a different perspective. I think there could be ways in which my own writing has contributed to an environment, a culture in churches or in homes that is not actually healthy. It could help one person, but then there could a different person in a different setting where it could be really unhelpful and damaging.
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At one point, I even pulled out of this documentary process. I was thinking, “I need to somehow begin to answer whether I still agree with my book.” I didn't know how to do that. During this time, I was interacting with students like Jessica at Regent who were giving me perspective on the book. They weren’t just some angry person online. They were real human beings saying, "Hey, you know, this is what I experienced."
Around that time, I interacted on Twitter with a woman named Elizabeth who has since become a friend. She wrote, "Your book was used like a weapon against me." I wrote back and said, "I'm so sorry." That ended up getting picked up as a story. “Josh Harris is apologizing.”
That interaction became conversations with people across the country who reached out and said, "Hey, can I just talk to you about my story?" I’ve received hundreds and hundreds of submissions from people with their stories on my website. It’s overwhelming. I didn’t have a master plan for how all this was supposed to unfold.
C:While the first part of the I Kissed Dating Goodbye journey unfolded in the United States, the second chapter is unfolding within Canada. How has the Canadian theological landscape played a role in the way that this project is unfolding?
JV: Regent College, and the theology that I've been learning, has been incredibly formative for me in terms of really wanting to strip back a lot of what I'd been taught growing up in churches. Regent has given me an opportunity to delve into church history, learn difficult languages and getting a better sense of the Bible. It’s been really being helpful to examine my preconceived ideas and deconstruct my wonderful religious upbringing in the Christian CFC church in Australia.
JH: I feel there's a very significant difference in the atmosphere in British Columbia. Again, I can’t speak to other parts of Canada, but I connect with the vision of Canada being a mosaic, and have seen this in some ways in its theological church community. I came from a background in America where we have these very defined theological communities. We have this very defined sense of “these people are safe because they're in alignment with us. These other people are not in alignment.” I think what I've experienced here has given me a greater desire to learn from people who disagree with me, who see things differently.
C: The conversation about purity, relationship, and God’s plan for our marital futures remains more contested than ever within the North American church. What do you hope this documentary adds to that conversation?
JV: I want our viewers to come face-to-face with someone who has a totally different perspective to them and emerge challenged by the encounter. This is an opening up of dialogue. I guess I really hope the film accomplishes this sense of allowing people to hear and seek to understand a variety of perspectives they may not have encountered. We want to let a vision to emerge of how we as Christians can engage these issues with greater grace with each other.
JH: I'm hoping that this will contribute a more thoughtful analysis of how ideas within religious communities can really create fervor, and even a sense of a movement, to become something we trust in separate from even God himself. I'm hoping there'll be a greater realization that we're always going to make mistakes as a church. We have to be willing to acknowledge that and evaluate that. It's not so much about arriving at this place of having all the answers or having things figured out that will keep us from the pain of heartbreak or mistakes or errors. This is a posture that we want to try to pursue. The film is really so much bigger than me and my book. That's just the entry point that helps us have the conversation.
We want to do something artistically excellent with the possibility of having more lasting value, reaching more people, and influencing the conversation more powerfully. We're putting ourselves on the line and asking for people's help, which is humbling. Yet we think this could be the most powerful, and hopefully helpful, way to tell this story. I think that's why we're on this path.
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Convivium has been following the journey of writer and documentary-maker Joshua Harris as he unpacks the effects of his generation-changing book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Hannah Marazzi caught up with him as he moves on to the next chapter in his life and work.
Sarah Bessey, lay theologian, writer, and blogger is a Canadian whose voice has emerged to lead a generation. Convivium’s Hannah Marazzi interviewed Bessey by correspondence about the changing nature of theology in the public sphere, the importance of literature to a life of faith, and the imagery of the author’s beloved Canadian landscape that finds its way into all of her writing.