Joshua Harris

What is 'purity culture'? Why is this term in the news right now?

What is 'purity culture'? Why is this term in the news right now?

THE QUESTION:

What is “purity culture,” and why is it in the news?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

This was a particular U.S. Protestant campaign born in the 1990s that sought to urge teens and young adults to follow the age-old Christian (also Jewish, Muslim, etc.) teaching against sexual relations before marriage.

Outsiders and opponents called this the “purity culture” movement, and it’s currently in the news and the subject of intense online debate.

That “purity” label is confusing because critics of the phenomenon are not just secularists or those who scoff at old-fashioned morality. Conservatives who likewise advocate the sexual “purity’ taught in Christian tradition raise some of the most pointed objections to this movement’s specific theology, techniques and claims.

The cause originated in 1993 with sex education materials under the “True Love Waits’ banner issued by the publishing arm of America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Within just one year of existence a Washington, D.C. rally drew 25,000 youths and displayed 210,000 sexual abstinence pledge cards on the National Mall.

The movement appealed to many moms and dads who were wounded by the sexual libertinism that began in the 1960s and wanted more wholesome relationships for their own children, fretting over increases in sexually transmitted disease, unwed pregnancy and divorce. The pledges of abstinence until marriage were reinforced by wearing rings popularized from 1995 onward by The Silver Ring Thing organization, reconfigured last year as Unaltered Ministries. Instead of high school proms, some churches held “purity balls” where dads escorted daughters.

The movement is back in the news due to its primary celebrity guru, Joshua Harris, who at a tender age 21 wrote “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” This 1998 book eventually sold nearly a million copies and fused the effort with a highly influential how-to methodology.

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

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.

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

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.

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Define 'mainstream,' give three examples: Joshua Harris kisses nondenominational evangelicalism good-bye?

Define 'mainstream,' give three examples: Joshua Harris kisses nondenominational evangelicalism good-bye?

If you have never heard of the book "I Kissed Dating Goodbye," by Joshua Harris, then you probably didn't know any homeschooling parents during the past generation or so. Whether you agreed with this 2003 bestseller or not, it would be hard to imagine a more counter-cultural book being jammed into the backpacks of legions of American teen-agers.

This was especially true if you had friends who attended one of those nondenominational, often "seeker friendly," generic or community churches that had vaguely biblical names on the signs out in their vast suburban front lawns.

The essence of nondenominational evangelicalism is its tendency to be defined by inspirational celebrities and the media products that they produce. If that is the cast, then Joshua Harris -- the man behind the book with the classy hat on the front -- had his share of years in that niche-marketing spotlight.

Thus, I genuinely appreciated the recent Washington Post piece that dug into the decision by Harris to step away from his nondenominational life and reboot his approach to ministry. However, before we look at this story, we do need to take a look at a rather strange word in that headline:

Pastor Joshua Harris, an evangelical outlier, heads to mainstream seminary

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