- R. Scott Okamoto
Forget Josh Harris for a Minute: We Exvangelicals share in the guilt of our pasts
Prominent evangelical leaders and celebrities seem to be raining down from the heavens, announcing they are no longer Christians. Pastors, worship leaders, rock stars, celebrities, and writers. The fallout has been predictably chaotic with many people on my timelines and in Facebook groups recounting the damage done by these leaders and celebrities, perhaps most notably by Joshua Harris and his insipid book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye.
I have great sympathy for the lives damaged by the purity culture garbage in that book and in evangelical culture as a whole. Relationships, marriages, and identities of countless women have been influenced by the ridiculous nonsense in books like that, leading to guilt, shame, divorce, and domestic abuse. Whatever bad things happen to Harris and any Christian leaders who peddled that destructive, misogynistic bullshit will never bother me. Fuck those people. But, ironically, I find myself unwilling to cast “stones” or aspersions.
All exvangelicals need to take some responsibility for what they chose to believe. A lot of Christians, like myself at the time, read that book (or the first few pages) and immediately recognized it for what it was: complete bullshit. The book may have been prescriptive and instructional, but it really just reflected the values and beliefs of mainstream evangelical Christianity. Harris was one face, or one pen, in a destructive landscape of evangelical culture. There were at least two other books that I’m aware of that went even further with the purity culture garbage. And I, a Christian at the time, thought they were shit. Was I less Christian than the millions of men and women who read and accepted all these fucked up books? Was I more Christian?
Whatever I was, the further back I go to my days as a young adult Christian, I can safely say I was an asshole. I regret so many things I’ve said to people as a Christian leader, mentor, or friend. Goddamn it. And here I need to recognize the fact that women are, indeed, victims of ridiculous misogyny if they are evangelicals. Their ability to determine their own lives and beliefs is hampered by the dominion claimed over them by men. That said, often some of the worst enemies young evangelical women encounter is other evangelical women who reinforce purity culture. Colonized, heteronormative, and patriarchal minds are a hell of a drug.
When I first realized I was no longer a christian, I went through a period of anger at the church and the bible and at pastors for taking my youth and making me such an asshole. The next step was eventually taking ownership of the consequences of my faith. For the past decade, I’ve been making a point of apologizing to old friends I knew when I was a kid, up through college. I recently reunited with my old college roommate, and one of the first things I said to him was, “Hey man. I’m so sorry about all that Christian shit I tried to get you to come to.”
Matt was gracious and said he knew it came from a good place. All my friends have been gracious to me, saying the same thing: It came from a good place.
The thing is, it really didn’t. I mean, I guess I was well-intentioned and sincere in my desire to get them “saved,” but these are the same intentions that drive so much of today’s problems. These “intentions” have driven most of the world’s problems of the past 2000 years.
In college I bristled when I read Marx’s writings about Christians. He said they made the worst citizens because they were so focused on heaven. In my mind, the few verses where Paul expresses his views on citizenship were ample argument against Marx. But Marx would have known about the early Christians in Rome who were so bizarre that they were labeled a danger to the public and thrown to the lions. Those assholes took certain scriptures literally and disowned family members and lived in little cult cliques. Marx would have also known about the crusades, inquisitions, and burgeoning dominionist movements throughout history. In hindsight, his label of “bad citizens” might be his most understated criticism, especially given the uniquely fucked up nature of today's Trump-loving evangelicals.
And Marx was right about me. I used to think I was a good person. I read my bible, went to church at least twice a week. I led worship. I led bible studies. I evangelized. Oh lordy, did I fucking evangelize.
I ran into an old friend from high school marching band, and the first memory she recounted was me reading through the Four Spiritual Laws booklet with the entire woodwind section during a break in Wednesday night band practice. I had meant to just read it with one friend, a fellow clarinetist, but soon my whole section wandered over, followed by most of the flutes and saxes…I must have looked like some kind of revival preacher, sharing the good news in the middle of the football field with a group of 20-30 people sitting in front of me. At the time, it was a source of pride. God used me to spread the good news.
Now, I wish I could go back in time and shoo those kids away. “Don’t listen to this asshole! In 10 years he won’t even believe this shit!” But I doubt any of those kids jumped into evangelical Christian faith because of that night. Most told me they were just curious as to what I was saying. I was likeable enough, I guess.
But I was still an asshole.
Ex-Nazis generally don’t blame books like Mein Kampf for what nazi-ism did to their lives. They largely blame themselves and their families. At the very least they take responsibility for believing in and following a vile, hateful ideology. Ex-christians are often still under the assumption that Christianity is some all-powerful force, so they blame the messengers instead of themselves for any vile, hateful beliefs they once held. This view actually gives power to Christianity that continues to harm the world. We need to demystify Christianity as just another harmful ideology, and our exvangelical community needs to own up to our own part in propagating hate and ignorance. The fact that we have a thriving "exvangelical" movement speaks to the power of the culture.
It’s fine to loathe people like Joshua Harris, and I don’t fault women who wish him a painful death. If he deconstructs completely and follows a similar path that I have forged, he will feel the full force of his actions on his conscience. I can’t begin to imagine how I would live with that. But every ex-christian who read and believed that insipid bullshit needs to take ownership of every decision, every misogynistic thought, every racist word spoken while they were evangelical. Harris wrote false and harmful teachings, yes, but he also reflected a harmful worldview right back at this readers.
One last example of why I think Harris will have to face his legacy of fuckery: In college, a fellow leader in Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship pulled me aside and said she was “struggling” with homosexuality. She was pretty sure she was a lesbian, but she was clearly confused as to how to proceed as a christian. I would have been around 20 at the time, and I went into Christian mentor mode. I told her something along the lines of Jesus loving her and how she would find her way as definitely NOT gay if she were truly a Christian. I cited some verses. I said I would pray for her. I never saw her again after that.
I was acting out of my uprbringing and my training as a leader of IVCF. I was “well-intentioned” thinking I was offering sound Christian advice. And I was the biggest fucking asshole in the world. I own it. It haunts me to this day. Her name was Amy, and I should have hugged her and help her celebrate her revelation that she was/is who she is.
Part of me knew I was in the wrong immediately after that talk with Amy. Something in the look of hurt in her eyes told me I had said something wrong, and thus began my deconstruction as an evangelical Christian. But I wish I never said those words.
It makes sense that I dove headfirst into LGBTQ advocacy while I was an English prof at APU. And the fact that I was found out by administration, demoted twice, and eventually slated for firing for this is a fair price to pay. I faced down the Dean of my school and told him he and the school were on the wrong side of history. And with that, I ended my academic career, in part, for people like Amy.
So, while I share a knowing smile with my fellow exvangelicals at the sizeable exodus from the upper echelons of the evangelical world, I also know am not without sin. Dutifully following evangelical faith and its fucked up interpretations of a bible that defies universal understanding made me a terrible person. Marx was right. Amy was right. I was just fucking wrong. But I’ve tried to be a better person every day since the last time I saw Amy. And I hope people like Joshua Harris will, too.
And if one or a thousand women get to kick him in the nuts, that’s ok, too.