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.
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.”