No book on dating has generated more heated response than Joshua Harris's I Kissed Dating Goodbye (Multnomah, 1997). In addition to enormous sales (nearing a million), four years later, many young Christians are passionately for it or against it. Though Harris has subsequently gotten married and written Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship (Multnomah, 2000), it is his first book that still provokes the most discussion among singles. CT managing editor Mark Galli sat down with Harris to ask him about the book's genesis and the ongoing controversy surrounding it.
What prompted you to write I Kissed Dating Goodbye?
I was editing New Attitude, a national magazine for homeschooled teens, and relationships was a big issue. At the same time, I had been going out with a girl in my youth group, and I was acting like a typical high-school Christian kid. I knew sex before marriage was wrong, but I was involved in this dating relationship where we were pushing the line, and we were being dragged down spiritually. Many homeschoolers talked about the concept of courtship, but I basically wrote it off. I remember my youth pastor saying how he hadn't kissed his wife until he got engaged, and I just laughed at that: "Oh my goodness. Get real!"
At that time, God began to do a work in my life. I ended that dating relationship and began to ask some serious questions about my lifestyle. I had wasted two years of my life—in terms of time, emotional investment, and energy. That relationship had been my focus. I realized I had promised my former girlfriend a lot of things—and I hurt her because I was the one who broke off the relationship. And so I started to look at these ideas about courtship.
I wrote an article, "Dating Problems, Courtship Solutions," that generated a lot of letters. I was seeing a number of books with titles like How to Date as a Christian, How Not to Go Too Far, and Why Wait? The more I thought about the issues, the more I realized there is something wrong with the way we do things. At the same time, I was having some questions about the courtship model advocated by homeschoolers. It was legalistic; it wasn't biblical; and it wasn't very practical in our culture.
As I read the book, I didn't think it was ultimately about dating.
What most people don't know is that when I wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbye, I was the liberal dating guy in the homeschool community, because I was saying, It's not about courtship rules or structures; it's your attitude. I chose to not use the word courtship in that book because I saw people getting caught up in figuring out the rules of courtship. I wanted people to examine their hearts and see what they were living for.
So what is it ultimately about?
Dating is the hook; it's an issue that every single person is thinking about. But if you go up to a single person and say, "You need to stop being selfish; you need to see your life as being lived for God," they're not going to read the book.
Why do you think the book has been so popular?
The reason we went with the title is because we wanted it to be different from all the other books that assumed that dating is necessary. I wanted to grab people's attention. But ultimately it's a book about trusting God, living for him, viewing your whole life in light of what the Bible has to say versus what culture has to say. Dating is one expression of that trust.
I think people are looking for a different outcome in their relationships. The reality of the gospel should have some effect on our relationships. But you look at a Christian couple in a dating relationship, and you'd be hard-pressed in a lot of cases to see the difference between that couple and a non-Christian couple.
What do you think are the biggest misunderstandings about the book?
A lot of people think I'm saying don't date and then just walk up to somebody and say, "Hey, the Lord told me we were supposed to get together." I'm not saying dating is sinful, and I'm not saying a guy and a girl should never spend time alone together. I'm saying let's wait until we can be purposeful, so there's a reason behind our relationship, and we're not just stirring up passion for the sake of a good time.
So what are some of the problems with dating?
Other people must assume I'm even against marriage. When they discover I have a wife now, they say, "Oh, you're married!"—as if I had broken some promise.
Take my own mistakes: I separated the pursuit of romance from the pursuit of commitment. I think that's the root problem. We've bought into the idea that romance is in itself something we all need when we're young. We need to be able to pick the right spouse, so we need to experience multiple relationships, so it's fine to pursue romance and that kind of passionate, intimate relationship even if you have no desire or intention of becoming more committed.
Some people say, "What's the big deal? You go giddy and then you fall out of love, and that whole process is a lot of fun."
Yes, but where does that mentality stop? Sure, you can learn from making mistakes. But the emphasis in Scripture is on being obedient to God in the first place. Proverbs tells us to listen to what wisdom has to say, listen to the pain that you can avoid if you do the right thing.
You relate a story in your first book about a woman's deep disappointment when she discovers her husband had numerous dating relationships before their marriage. She says, "I thought your heart was mine." This is presented as one reason to avoid dating. But isn't this woman being selfish to expect that her husband, even before they had met, would have reserved his heart for her alone?
We've got to become aware of our habits: the way we view the opposite sex, the way our hearts can get involved and then disengage. All these things we learn in high school we will carry with us into marriage. One woman wrote me and said, "I used to be really flirtatious with guys. And I thought that would just turn off after I got married, but it doesn't."
I included that story because most people don't realize the emotional ties that are formed in those early relationships if they share that kind of intimacy with different people. There is something that's taken away from their future marriage—the degrading of intimacy.
Some in the Christian community think of this only in terms of sex. But we don't take the next step and say, "No, if I'm going to be married to someone one day, is it really being true to pursue all these emotional relationships when I know I'm not going to be with that person, when I'm just doing it for the sake of the moment?"
Some say that your philosophy works for youth, for those who are emotionally immature, but by the time people reach their mid-20s, they should be mature enough to handle dating relationships.
In my latest book, I challenge people to have a godly perspective on sex, but I also talk about grace in accepting a partner who hasn't been pure. Both my wife, Shannon, and I had regrets about how we lived before we met each other, but we've experienced God's redeeming love.
In a certain respect, there's a different application of the book when you're 25. It may be true that people in their 20s and 30s are able to have the friendships with the opposite sex and not get involved emotionally.
But if you're older and pursuing a relationship and have no intention of commitment, and you're making unspoken promises to the person, and you're getting emotionally and even physically involved, it doesn't matter how old you are. I've been surprised by the number of letters I get from 30- and 40-year-olds and up. That astounds me because (1) I didn't expect they would read the book, and (2) I would never pretend I can speak to their lives, because I haven't lived through what they've lived through.
Some people say, "It's all well and good for you to encourage the rest of us to swear off dating when you obviously dated all through high school and into college."
I talked to one woman who was divorced and got remarried. She said that when she read the book, a part of her was saying, "Hey, I'm a big girl now, and I know the ways of the world." Then she realized, "If I really knew the ways of the world—and really knew the consequences—then I'd be running from them!" So I don't think any of us should ever feel we're grown up enough to toy with compromise.
I totally understand that. And that's where it all comes to: this can't be forced onto you by somebody else. It has to be an attitude change, a heart change that is expressed in your own lifestyle. I really wish that I hadn't dated, because it led to things I wish I hadn't done. And if I could go back, and God could give me the chance to either obey him or disobey him, I would choose to obey him. It's always better to take him on his Word in the first place than to learn the hard way by sinning and then trying to turn things around.
People have strong reactions to your book. They either say "Yes!" or "Forget it!" (And the latter is often said by people who haven't even read the book but simply object to the title.) Why is that?
Maybe someone they know read it and is applying it in a self-righteous way, being arrogant about it instead of being humble about their convictions. That would annoy me, too.
I also think it's an area of our lives that many don't want touched by God: "I really don't want to have to give something up, and if there's even the slightest possibility that it's true, I'll do whatever I can, whatever mental gymnastics are needed, to disprove it."
Randy Alcorn has written a book, Money, Possessions, and Eternity. I read the book, and it's changing my life. Yet my flesh fights against me picking it back up to read it again, because I don't want to have to be reminded, Are you living for eternity? How are you doing that with your money? Are you giving sacrificially? Those are all things that I would prefer not to face on a daily basis. And when you're single, dating is an area in which you'd really like to keep doing what you're doing.
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In articles appearing online earlier this week, Lauren F. Winner examined the church's ministry to single people while Margaret Feinberg reported on evangelism efforts targeting singles. Yesterday, Amber L. Anderson took to the Internet for a look at modern online dating for Christians.
Multnomah Publishers features an info site on Joshua Harris and his books including I Kissed Dating Goodbye. There's also streaming audio and video excerpts and promotional materials.
Christianbook.com offers a selection of I Kissed Dating Goodbye in paperback, audiocassette or CD. Also available: study guides. Harris' latest, Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship is also available.
The official Josh Harris site has updated news, FAQ, reviews, and a summaryfor I Kissed Dating Goodbye.
New Attitude Ministries, directed by author Joshua Harris, is affiliated with PDI Ministries, a church-planting and oversight ministry based in Gaithersburg, MD. The PDI Store features resources from Joshua Harris and New Attitude.
A series of commentary at Breakpoint Online look at Harris' beliefs and advice: "Smart Love," "Designed for Failure," "Guarding Purity," and "Principled Romance."
ChristianityToday.com's singles area has articles from many Christianity Today sister publications of interest to unmarried Christians. It also includes Camerin Courtney's "Single Minded" column, which once examined dating books.
Harris and his books have also been profiled in First Things, USA Weekend, Touchstone, and other publications.
Christianity Today's earlier coverage of Christian single life includes
Sex and the Single Christian | What about the unmarried in their postcollege years? (July 7, 2000))
Women Churchgoers 'Face Growing Difficulty in Finding Partner | British magazine says church is out of single men, especially older ones. (June 7, 2000)
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