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.

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