Josh Harris is a familiar name to anyone who grew up in the church during the 1990s and 2000s. His best-selling book I Kissed Dating Goodbye (1997) had a deep and long-lasting influence on how dating, modesty, and sex were taught and discussed in evangelical communities. In hindsight, it seems unfathomable that a 23-year-old’s relationship insights were so widely and quickly embraced as Gospel truth. Tragically, hindsight has also revealed much of the rotten fruit produced by his teachings and the “purity culture” they helped cultivate. Harris eventually rejected his earlier teachings, quit his church, separated from his wife, and kissed his Christian faith goodbye. As the bell tolls for a reckoning of those teachings, the relationship guru is long gone, dispensing advice in new places to new faces.
Josh Harris has recently reemerged into the public sphere as part of a growing wave of EXvangelicals—prophets who have escaped their religious upbringing and now seek to guide others to do the same. Ironically, the legalistic and restrictive religious experience Harris deconstructs is essentially what he helped cultivate. In an act of capitalistic genius, Harris fostered a demand and now offers himself as the supply to meet it.
Go Away Quietly?
When it comes to the EXvangelical movement, many Christians scoff and wish its proponents would just keep their mouths shut. After all, why would anyone want to hear life advice from someone who recently changed his entire worldview? Fair enough. This opinion was apparently prevalent enough to convince Harris to apologize and pull his paid “deconstruction course” from his newly established coaching website.
At the same time, some degree of double standards is at play. Whenever celebrities convert to Christianity, the Church is usually quick to thrust a microphone in their face, invite them on stage, and amplify their story. If an individual converts to Christianity from another religion, Christians spread the amazing testimony far and wide. But when the reverse happens, we expect people just to “go away quietly.” I suspect that if Josh Harris returns to the Christian faith one day, he will be a regular on the church speaking circuit.
I’m not too troubled by people outside the church criticizing it. I’m more concerned with the church being what it was called to be. Life change and freedom from sin comes from God, not glitzy websites or trendy coaching classes. When measured against any secular creed, the Gospel wins every single time. The shallow, self-serving worldview unbelievers offer is only a threat if the Church is not showcasing Christ as its alternative.
Reframe What Story?
I’m not worried about silencing secular prophets. I think the church can learn from them. People like Josh Harris are enlightening because they are an archetype of the worldview they preach. Particularly telling is Harris’ recent marketing slogan: “Reframe your story.”
The catchphrase may as well have been churned out by a postmodern algorithm. The word “story” captures the postmodern elevation of the aesthetic, and “your” is befitting of today’s self-centric individualism. But perhaps the most illuminating word is “reframe.”
EXvangelicals like Harris are not leading an exodus away from religious faith; they are repackaging it into a self-serving parcel. The movement has more in common with theological liberalism than it does with atheism.
A recent national survey suggested that there has been a decline in people who identify as religious “nones.” For several decades, the so-called New Atheists have always stood at the other end of the binary between faith and secularism. But the cold, anti-spiritual brand of atheism (which is the only true type) may no longer be as enticing to a generation that elevates self-expression and personal narrative above all else.
The dilemma for atheists is that a logically consistent atheism will never be an aesthetically appealing choice. “Life is meaningless” is not a great sale’s pitch. Perhaps that is why people like Josh Harris can’t seem to break away from their religious roots. They reject God with their lips, but they retain many essential elements from the Christian worldview (absolute truth, ultimate meaning, spirituality, purpose, love of neighbor, etc.).
The problem with the “Reframe Your Story” approach is that the story ceases to be coherent or meaningful without God as its focal element. Stories bring order out of chaos and make sense of the world and our place in it. Stories necessitate meaning and purpose. Stories require an author that exists outside the narrative.
Josh Harris and others may flatter themselves as the authors of an exciting and fresh new story, but they are merely another chapter in an expansive tome of those who have sought to repackage Christianity and sell it for a tidy profit. While this current cast of characters may be attempting to guide people away from faith, they are merely affirming how deeply we yearn for religion and the Gospel. No matter how many times the old story is reframed in a pretty secular aesthetic, it continues to look a whole lot like faith.