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Jul 21, 2019

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

One of the most influential voices on sex and relationships for a generation of evangelical Christians announced this week that he and his wife are separating after 19 years of marriage. Joshua Harris's book "I Kissed Dating Goodbye" was published in 1997, when he was in his early 20s. It became a manual for young evangelicals looking for love. In recent years, Harris has apologized for some of the ideas he promoted and publicly wrestled with them in a documentary. In an interview with me last year, Harris talked about going through that process with his wife Shannon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JOSHUA HARRIS: I think it's made us realize how there's heartache and there's pain no matter what pathway you choose in life. There's no path that you can choose that can protect you from that.

MCCAMMON: This week on Instagram, Harris and his wife announced, quote, "we're writing to share the news that we are separating and will continue our life together as friends. We hope to create a generous and supportive future for each other and for our three amazing children in the years ahead." Here to tell us more about the significance of this announcement is Ruth Graham. She's a staff writer at Slate who often covers religion, and she joins us now. Hi, Ruth.

RUTH GRAHAM: Hi, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: So as you write in your piece, an author announcing his separation from his wife normally wouldn't be news. But Joshua Harris was such a pivotal voice in what's known as the evangelical purity movement and was influential really on how a whole generation of conservative Christian young people thought about relationships and marriage. So I want to talk more about that. What exactly did Joshua Harris advocate when he started writing about relationships in the late 1990s?

GRAHAM: Right. So the book, in some ways, is about sex. It's an abstinence manifesto. The idea was that having sex even with a serious boyfriend or girlfriend before you were married could lead to lasting regret, you know, trauma. And, you know, Harris even argued it's better not to even kiss before you got married, just that the idea that God wants you to be pure on your wedding day. And it was really oriented around that wedding day. But the argument was really about marriage.

The idea was that modern dating is spiritually corrosive in a way because you're sort of practicing breaking up. You're rehearsing for divorce. And then the bigger implication was kind of that there was a formula to a good marriage, and if you followed this set of rules and, you know, restrained yourself enough and behaved in exactly the right way, that you would have a foundation for a lasting marriage and a happy marriage.

MCCAMMON: And that book, of course, was a Christian bestseller. It was followed up a few years later with "Boy Meets Girl," where he talks about meeting his wife Shannon and courting her and marrying her. What was the impact of those books on evangelical culture?

GRAHAM: It's really hard to overestimate, in a way. It hit just at the same moment that the true love waits moment was gaining steam. That was a big abstinence movement that encouraged teenagers to sign pledges that they would avoid having sex till they got married. A lot of people wore purity rings. This is a major movement in the '90s and early 2000s. And Harris's book kind of gave the maybe intellectual foundation for that in a way. It was a huge influence on really a whole generation of evangelical young people who came to see this idea of premarital abstinence as a core part of faith, not just, you know, a good habit or a good idea, but really something very important to their faith. And as they grew up, that started to change for a lot of people.

MCCAMMON: Yeah. Ruth, as you and I have both written about, Harris openly struggled with some of his ideas in recent years and chronicled that process in a documentary called "I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye," which came out last year, where he talked to people who say they've been harmed by his ideas, made to feel shame about sex or rushed into relationships that didn't work. What does it mean that Joshua Harris, who wrote those books, is now publicly saying his own marriage isn't working?

GRAHAM: The significance of this is that here's this person who held himself up - not just in "I Kissed Dating Goodbye," but in, you know, at least one book to come, as proof of concept, that if you waited, if you did everything in the right way, that you would have, you know, the perfect marriage essentially. And for that to be proven not true, for his marriage, of all marriages, to end in divorce, I think is a sort of coda to the purity movement.

MCCAMMON: And finally, Ruth, Joshua Harris's writings and ideas had such an impact on evangelical youth groups, young evangelicals for many years. Do you think that this news will have much of an impact in how churches and how his audience, you know, talks about these issues of sex and dating and relationships?

GRAHAM: I think churches have been grappling this - with this for some time now. And it's not so much that mainstream evangelicalism has changed its sexual ethics, you know, or changed the big idea. But I think that this is just another cause to realize that making premarital sex and abstinence such a major theme of, you know, youth culture and youth group culture specifically just does not necessarily lead to healthy marriages. It just takes a much more robust and complex sexual ethic and way of talking about sex. And I think this is a reminder of a conversation that's been going on for, you know, at least a decade or so.

MCCAMMON: Ruth Graham is a writer for Slate. Thanks for talking with us.

GRAHAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.