Why I’m Kissing the Christian Subculture Goodbye (Sort-of)

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When I was a college freshman in the late 1990s, one of the most influential relationship books for Christian young adults hit the shelves. In I Kissed Dating Goodbye, author Joshua Harris encouraged readers to forgo traditional dating for courtship. It was a movement broadly embraced by the evangelical church as a manifesto of the purity culture.

When a male friend started pursuing me romantically shortly I after I read it, I laid out the tenants of Harris’ book. They were ones I’d embraced without question. Trying to be a “good Christian,” I explained that if we were going to begin dating in a godly way, we’d need to pray about it extensively, there’d be no kissing, and we had to embark on the relationship with the intention of marriage. He agreed and we started a two-year relationship that was characterized by control, fear, and other unhealthy behaviors. At the time, I didn’t recognize our problems because courting seemed to be a sincere indication of our willingness to be self-sacrificial and Christ-like.

We eventually parted ways but the negative impact of that relationship lingered.  I had felt confident that following the rules laid out in the well-accepted book was God-honoring. But when they failed to produce the sort of relationship I desired, I was disillusioned and spiritually confused. With time and godly counseling, I realized that I’d  placed my desire for holy, healthy connection to the opposite gender on the shoulders of a Christian fad. Though the author and enthusiastic reader fan base were surely well-intentioned, this seemed to be a classic case of when the right foundation took the wrong form—as it so often can in the Christian sub-culture.

Harris was recently interviewed on National Public Radio (NPR) regarding the criticism he’s received about the book and the fact he’s actively soliciting feedback from readers. He admits at the time he penned I Kissed Dating Goodbye as a 21-year-old, he was being speculative.

Now he’s ready to hear from his readers about the impact.

Harris: I think I’m finally at a place where I’m really trying to listen to those voices. And I think it’s taken time for the consequences of the way that people applied the book and the way the book affected people to play out. And so I’m hearing these different voices saying, here’s how your book was used against me, here’s how it was forced on me, or here’s how I tried to – no one forced it on me, but I tried to apply it and it had this negative consequence in different ways.

Harris’ website offers a place for readers to share stories about how his book positively and negatively affected their lives. After a short perusal, I realized I was in good company but fairly unscathed compared to the hurts many people documented: shame regarding their sexuality, trouble relating to the opposite sex, and an unhealthy view of God.

Because readership of I Kissed Dating Goodbye was so widespread (it sold over a million copies by 2005), people fell prey to Harris’ interpretation as an authority on male-female relationships. This is an example of how trends in the Christian subculture can not only introduce confusion about what God requires but also how they can become detrimental. Christian groupthink doesn’t equal holy living, salvation, or even what God necessarily desires.

History painfully reminds us—think the Salem Witch trials, The Crusades, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and abusive patriarchy to name a few of instances of people dangerously and blindly following the prevalent thought processes of their eras. We must ask ourselves: If the the loudest voices of the Christian subculture support something, do we automatically assume it must be right?

When we take the most well-intentioned, well-studied, or well-platformed person’s ideas and make them into a movement, there is often hurt left in the wake, and minimally, a false understanding of God. Because we struggle with what it looks like to be a disciple of Christ, the temptation is to legalistically cling to human messages. Instead we must learn to critically separate the wheat from the chaff. Because we are afraid that we won’t please God, we conjure up rules and regulations that give us a false sense of security. Both that we can ultimately please God through our actions and that we somehow know him well enough to suppose our actions are what he desires.

As an avid reader, over the years I’ve habitually dove into whatever hot new Christian book was circulating: Why Wait, The Purpose Driven Life, The Prayer of Jabaz, Desiring God, The Sacred Romance, and dozens more, wanting to soak up all the ideas Christian authors present. Books have shaped my understanding of God and what is means to be his disciple (mostly positively). But I’m learning to consume books and other sources of Christian influence cautiously. Just like when I read a research paper for work, it’s important to understand the background of the author and question how their biases might influence the message. We must be actively aware of our own tendencies to take anything someone with a platform says as Gospel.

As Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Philippians 2:12-13, NIV) Our sanctification comes from obedience to Christ, not following Christian cultural trends.

 I don’t blame Christian businesses, artists, authors, and bloggers for pedaling their items and ideas on the masses of Christians looking for answers. Kissing the Christian subculture goodbye doesn’t mean eschewing all “Christian” media and culture. It just means the influencer-of-the-hour’s ideas can’t fully define our God, aren’t the measuring stick for holiness, and shouldn’t penetrate our faith in unhealthy ways.

Following high standards propels believers to live in the family likeness as children of God in a society that’s morally and spiritually perverted. Our lives should look different than the surrounding mainstream culture. But the Christian sub-culture offers it’s own temptations. How do we know what’s beneficial and what’s potentially detrimental when it comes to Christian sub-culture?

One of the most dangerous and most subtle messages of Christian sub-culture: living as a Christian looks like X, Y, and Z and you will only make God happy if you do X, Y, and Z, about things that God hasn’t even addressed. You don’t need to listen to the Christian music radio station, vote for Trump, go to church every single week, or court rather than date to live as a believer.

Jesus seemed to care very little for outward stances. But he cared a whole lot about the heart. We do need to take care of the orphans and widows, how we spend our money does show where our hearts are, and the will of the Father should be growing ever more dearer than our own. All of these things are heart issues, ones that can’t be easily changed without the work of the Spirit. The Christian sub-culture lie is the unwritten list of external do’s and don’ts.

The lens of either can skew the true nature of God and what he wants for us as his disciples. I pray that my kids can understand how big God is, how there are differing interpretations on some non-essentials, and how sanctification doesn’t come from the level of our adherence to the Christian subculture. 

That’s why, to borrow a line from Harris, I’m kissing blind conformance to the Christian subculture good-bye.

Comments

  1. Amen!
    And actually, I do blame Christian businesses for peddling their wares as Biblical truth, instead of “my opinion.”
    I love this, and I’ll be sharing it widely. 😀

  2. Brilliant, Heidi. I love it. And I am shocked to learn he was only 21 when he wrote that book. Now that I’m in my 30s that is upsetting to me that it was supported on college campuses and by youth groups when the man was hardly an adult. But overall, yes! I love your message.

    • He was young, and it’s not that young people can’t be wise. I wonder why we all just jumped on the bandwagon with such abandon. I hope to filter opinion from truth as I consume going forward.

  3. Cathy Wheeler says:

    I agree that we can’t expect every book, blog, article in a Christian publication, or internet minister to give us the truth as God spoke it, but we need a rock-solid foundation from which we build on our faith and actions. When we know and accept those truths, then we hopefully will be better able to separate the wheat from the chaff of other Christian media begging for our acceptance. That rock-solid foundation comes from God’s church on earth, don’t you agree?

    • That’s possibly one of the big difference between Catholics and Evangelicals? Catholics put a lot of faith in the Church, Evangelicals the Bible? I could be wrong, we’ll have to discuss further? Love you, ma.

  4. It was a popular book because someone who was OUR age and spoke OUR language was telling us what our parents REALLY wanted us to hear. He was the son of a pioneer home school father. so AND he was single and sharing from his heart and so all of us girls wanted to read it for that reason. LOL. I think it was meant to help us move towards relationships that were more friendship based instead of skipping ahead and making every male-female encounter a sexual one. The purity message was encouraging. But so much that was attached to it has helped to create a very weird kind of Christian non-dating culture, and the hyper- relationship and hyper commitment (before marriage even) focus I think has done more to hinder genuine friendships unfortunately.

    • Good thoughts, Grace! I don’t think he meant harm, and there was even some good, but like you said, the church has baggage around male-female relationships…and the book wasn’t helpful in that aspect.