Look Up, Child

The next Josh Harris should grow up in an evangelical culture that values consistent faithfulness rather than momentary coolness.

In a post today about Joshua Harris’s new documentary I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Tim Challies makes a very helpful observation about the mid-1990s evangelical pandemonium that made Harris and his most famous book into a “weird” moment for conservative American Protestants:

I think I was just a little too old and just a little too far outside the evangelical mainstream to be significantly impacted by I Kissed Dating Goodbye…But I do remember thinking this: Who on earth lets a twenty-one-year-old write the book on dating and courtship? Who allows someone that young to be an authority on something so important? Though I always had problems with the book, I never had a beef with Josh. I had a beef with the masses of Christians who would blindly accept it and with the Christian celebrity machine that elevated someone so young to a position of such authority. No, authority does not come through experience. But even Harris admits that he was a young man who believed far too much in his own abilities, just like every other twenty-one-year-old out there. In the film he says that when he was that age he was sure he had all the answers. But now, in his early forties, he knows that he didn’t then and still doesn’t today.

This is, I think, a reality about Harris’s book that is seriously under-discussed. Using I Kissed Dating Goodbye and its influence as a shorthand for the harmful legacy of purity culture is a more click-worthy approach, and there is some truth in it (promising more satisfying intimacy as a reward for chastity is, erm, not in the Bible), but where is the broader discussion about why a 23 year old would even have the opportunity to create such a formative moment for so many evangelicals? This isn’t to imply that 23 year olds have nothing good to say and should never be given publishing contracts, conference engagements, or public platforms. It is to imply that for an unmarried 23 year old man to write a manifesto on dating and sex is, in a very real way, an indictment on those churches and parachurch organizations that encouraged (and financed) such a radical reversal of generational discipleship.

Mainstream culture craves the leadership of children. It’s why the arc of digital history now bends toward 13 year old viral celebrities whose parents haven’t a clue. It’s why kids frequently get co-opted in culture war, by both the Sexual Revolutionary Left and the Values Voter Right. There is a lot of money and a lot of influence to be had by atomizing family life into non-overlapping categories of experience; kids have their “kid stuff,” teens have their “teen stuff,” adults have everything the kids and teens don’t want. This intensely commercialized structure creates an enormous opportunity—find a child or teen who talks or acts like an adult, and you have an amazingly lucrative spectacle on your hands, since teens who use grown up words and ideas to describe their own experiences are doubly valuable as influencers of both other teens and adults who want to understand teens.

This is par for the course in late capitalism. Unfortunately, it’s also common in evangelicalism. When the eventual publisher of Harris’s book was considering his pitch, I’m almost positive the argument that won the day was that a book against dating, by a twentysomething in the prime of his dating years, was going to make a huge splash because it was so counter-intuitive for both peers and parents. Did anyone in the chain of decision making consider the theological wisdom of letting such a young author (who was neither married nor a parent, the two most formative experiences possible in these questions) draw such deep lines in the sand? They may have, but I do wonder whether there was so much attention given to the wave-making potential of a child preacher that such concern rang hollow.

What Harris is saying today, via an apology tour, a documentary, and a pretty thick social media campaign, is that he spoke too soon. He’s not the same person he was twenty years ago, and he doesn’t believe the things he believed then. Should this really be an unsettling thing to hear? Is it even possible to go from 23 to 43 without radically refining our worldview, especially on those things that are so deeply intertwined with lived experience (dating, marriage, sex, parenting)?

Of course it’s not possible. God has not designed life that way. Instead, he has designed life and faith to require what Alan Jacobs calls “temporal bandwidth,” a humble awareness of the inadequacies of our own wisdom and the conscious consultation of older generations for perspective and guidance. This is the path of wisdom, a wisdom embedded into our own anatomy, since our bodies are designed to reproduce only after several years of growth. Generational depth is our Creator’s wise intention, and to the degree that we flout this design through commercialization of discipleship and demographic greed, we sacrifice the well being of ourselves and our neighbors.

Of course, by now you are probably hoping I’ll throw some numbers out there and argue for some sort of “age of prophetic-ness.” But I can’t do that. Hard and fast rules are sometimes what we need, and other times what we need is to be brought back to the complexity of life and the need for wise posture rather than rigid position.

So here’s a possibly wise posture: Evangelical churches, ministries, publishers, websites, conferences, et al, should not value what the outside world values. They should not dice up life into demographic points. They should, rather, follow the pattern in the New Testament and let seasoned saints teach younger ones, more experienced believers lead the way, and value consistency over coolness. The flavor of evangelical discipleship should be aged rather than hip. Of course there will be valuable young voices, teens and twentysomethings who should not be looked down on account of their youth, but allowed to be an example for the church. But this ought not be the fuel that drives our engines. The next Josh Harris should be told to look up, before looking out.

Author: Samuel D. James

Believer, husband, father, acquisitions editor, writer.

9 thoughts on “Look Up, Child”

  1. While I have not viewed Josh’s “apology tour” one thing that I hear neither you nor Tim Challies talk about is the generation of parents who bought into “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”. We were the boomers who had trusted Christ during the Awakening of the mid 1970s. When, through eyes enlightened by the Holy Spirit, we began to understand the cultural destruction we had wrought with our sexual revolution, we were determined that we would try to spare our children the harvest of that evil. So many otherwise theologically sound parents of teens fell off the horse the other way into legalism with regard to our own kids. “Goodbye” had many good things to say and we tried, after a while, to help our kids strike a balance with regard to dating/courtship relationships, legalism and license.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. coffeeandink2016,

      I think IKDG lit the tender that was in place on a movement. I think many boomer parents like mine wisely used this to point us in the right direction without going nutz-o. However, many of my peers went crazy with courtship through what may be no fault of this particular book. In my circle of friends how you did “Courtship” became a test of orthodoxy although IKDG did not advocate any particular “way”.

      More here


  2. Coffeeandink2016 … thank you for a great perspective.

    I agree that some people, even Harris himself, took the IKDG idea too far, placing more confidence in that ideology than in the truths of Scripture. And, I agree with the author of this column that we as Christ followers need to be careful with the balance of the idea of the wisdom ascribed to “fathers” vs. “young men and little children” (I John 2) against the encouragement not to “despise youth” (I Timothy 4:12).

    At the same time, we also need to be careful as we look back and evaluate the words and actions of the past that we do not overlook the cultural context of the moment. That is not to say there are not missteps or extreme positions that are taken on virtually every significant issue, but, as Coffeeandink2016 said, there were many (I might even say large majority, at least of those I knew) who were simply embracing a very reasonable alternative to a culture that was championing casual relationships and a hollow view of marriage that are the punch lines of the sitcoms now in syndication that I now watch, laugh at, and often quote.

    The idea I walked away with from IKDG was that in an age that trivialized casual sex and glorified being in a so-called “relationship” as early as elementary school, we as parents could embrace the idea that significant meaningful relationships between young men and women should be intentional and physical intimacy should not be “awakened” until it is ready (SoS 3:5).

    There is a cultural context for someone yelling “fire” in a crowded theater … when there is actually a fire in the theater. Unfortunately, those who were not in the theater, or worse, are living among the charred remains of the burned down theater and presume that is normal, would not be able to fully understand why someone would ever do that. And, while it may not be the best way to elicit a calm and orderly exit from the danger that burns, it just feels different to those who were in the theater and those who evaluate what happened from a distance.

    Samuel … I love your writing. It provokes thought. Keep up the great work. Blessings!


  3. In light of this what do you make of the church planting movement where it’s not uncommon for the entire plant team to be less then 40 years old?


  4. If we paid more attention to the balanced teaching of Scripture vs. the latest book to come around on any Christian topic, we would be so much better off. I have many books, and I appreciate their input, but THE BOOK needs to be the measure of anything else we consider. Books like IKDG, which may have valuable input, are supplementary, not the whole counsel of God. When we treat them as such, we run into problems. I’m a little past 60, and I’ve been a Christian since my mid-teens. I’ve seen so many fads come and go, and the problems left in their wake. I’m always suspicious when any book or program is touted as “the fix” for any issue in the Christian community.


  5. I wonder if the issue is not only the age of someone who writes about the Christian life, but perhaps even more, the extent to which someone has demonstrated skill, wisdom and experience in handling the Word of God as a foundation for them going on to suggest applications.

    I seem to recall that, for instance, Jonathan Edwards wrote and preached with clear truth and power when he was still in his teens.

    I do not know Josh Harris, so I do not know whether he had already demonstrated a good grasp of the scriptures when he wrote IKDG, but it seems to me that such questions would be a good line of inquiry by a publisher considering any young author.

    I also find myself reflecting on the notion that Josh is now in his 40s, and that by going from 23 to 43 he has gained a new perspective. That is undoubtedly true, but to me at age 68, a 43 year old is still a pretty young guy with a fair number of experiences and life stages yet to live.

    In closing, I find the quote from J.I. Packer that Tim Challies used today (Nov. 27) at the end of his “A la carte” section applicable: “Real spiritual growth is always growth downward so to speak, into profounder humility, which in healthy souls will become more and more apparent as they age.”


  6. My reaction to Harris’ new video is something of puzzlement! Harris rightly owns that he was wrong in his early book in many ways ( since i had three daughters in those years, I thought much of the hoopla over the book was a bit foolish and misfocused). But, now he reappears and says he now has answers, but much of the “answer” he talks about is in conversation with more young people ( below 50) and he also seems to speak as if we should listen to him and his new authorities. The deep problems with youth culture and with celebrities who want people to listen to them for no other reason than they are celebrities should be highlighted. But Harris seems to not realize that just because he is still a celebrity 20 years later, still does not make him a someone we should listen to.


Leave a Reply to David Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s