Published August 12, 2021
Joshua Harris is back in the limelight. He made his name as the young author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, and was thereby a key inspiration for the purity movement in American evangelicalism. Then, after a stint as pastor of an evangelical megachurch in Gaithersburg, he left the ministry, repudiated the book and the teaching that had given him his platform, and abandoned the faith. But this is America, and if you have lemons, you make lemonade. Harris is now back on stage, peddling his latest venture, a five-part course helping you to handle the damage that purity culture and religious legalism, as promoted by the earlier Harris, may have done to your life.
The sales pitch is standard ex-evangelical fare. The word “deconstruction” is predictably thrown into the mix. While he really seems to mean something akin to “dismantle,” the (mis)use of the Derridean d-word gives the whole a specious veneer of intellectualism and a certain superannuated postmodern chic. Harris seems to have retained at least one habit of American evangelicalism—always being just a little too late to the cutting-edge cultural party. But perhaps I am too harsh here: I am told that some people still listen to the Backstreet Boys, so the nineties are probably still in fashion somewhere.
Two things are striking about the project. The first is the therapeutic ideology that characterizes it. Every single one of the course’s alleged strengths is cast in terms of personal self-realization. The course is for those of us who want to “make peace with our story.” That requires that we deal with our identities, our beliefs. All the things that have damaged our lives are things that have been “handed” to us. We need to learn to be compassionate—with ourselves first and then with others. And we need to take the courageous step of living now, which seems to be code for breaking with whatever we dislike about our past and doing whatever we want in the present. This is not courage as, say, a Chinese Christian or a Uyghur Muslim in a concentration camp might understand it, I suspect. And all of this “courage,” Harris claims, will lead us to be the “truest version” of ourselves. After all, we “do deserve . . . to choose the life we want.”
Harris does not use the language of victimhood, but that seems to be how he conceptualizes the relationship between his potential customers and their pasts. Indeed, others feature in the sales pitch only as problems to be overcome, implied threats to personal happiness and fulfillment. The idea is not apparently countenanced that perhaps, just perhaps, the meaning of life is not to be found within ourselves. For Harris, the rules, ideas, beliefs, and patterns of behavior that we learn from others are by their very nature problematic. Except, presumably, the rules, ideas, beliefs, and patterns of behavior Harris is now teaching for $275 a class. I am tempted to say that Rousseau could not have put it better himself—but that would be to underestimate the Genevan’s literary and philosophical sophistication. Perhaps in the case of Harris, we should settle for “Oprah would be in full agreement.”
In short, Harris’s merchandise is no more than the spirit of the age, packaged and sold to benighted customers willing to pay good money for it. Unless, that is, your life happened to be damaged by Harris in the past—in which case he will give it to you for free. A man with a greater sense of self-doubt, not to say appropriate shame, might have decided that someone else would be better qualified to apply the balm of Gilead to the wounds of his earlier victims.
Which leads us to the second striking aspect of the project: The accidental properties of the message have changed, but at root its substance is still the same: Josh Harris. He may have abandoned the religious sales pitch, but he has not reframed his life at its most fundamental level. It remains driven by that which places him at the center and presents him as the solution, not the problem. While it would appear that he is now selling a different message, that conclusion would miss the reality of the situation. From purity culture to therapeutic gibberish, there is remarkable underlying consistency here. Harris may have glued a different label on the bottles of life’s elixir that he is hawking, but he is still selling exactly the same product: Josh Harris.
This is consistent with the subculture of celebrity evangelicalism that nurtured him, that gave him a platform, and that he now claims to have repudiated. Light on intellectual substance and shamelessly appealing to the emotional intuitions and needs of the customer base, the evangelical celebrity world is geared toward marketing the attractive personality as the branded product that will solve the problems of potential customers. It is how Josh Harris, the youthful peddler of purity, made his name and his money. And that is precisely how Josh Harris, the older and wiser former Christian, continues to sell himself to anyone foolish enough to buy his “making peace with your story” shtick.
Ironically, for all his much-trumpeted “deconstruction” of his own Christianity, Harris seems incapable of escaping the dynamics of the culture that made him famous. He remains the megachurch evangelical celebrity of his earlier self. He merely does so now in a secular, rather than religious, therapeutic idiom, and without the cadre of evangelical enablers who made him popular. You can take the boy out of American celebrity evangelicalism, but you cannot take the American celebrity evangelicalism out of the boy. Messianic self-confidence comes as standard. And the preacher is still both the salesman and the product being sold.
Carl Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.