It’s Legalistic to Punish Joshua Harris for the Sins of ‘The Purity Culture’

Joshua Harris taught some bad stuff. But it’s also legalistic to condemn him for the sins of other teachers.
| Jul 29, 2019 | 10 comments |

That Joshua Harris article took off. I thought it said all I wanted to say.

Still, in light of another plot twist in the case of The People vs. Joshua Harris, it’s worth revisiting this point from that piece. Speaking in general of young Christians who believe they’re suffered from the Church, I suggested that they tend to:

empathize with and effectively to use professing victim classes as an “avatar,” or surrogate victim, to express their own unresolved conflict with evangelical institutions, families, or churches. Similarly, they must cast “the evangelical church” as a surrogate oppressor, playing the role of the churches, institutions, or even family members who have caused the young Christian perceived harm in the past.

Joshua Harris, with his expressed “regret” to “the LGBTQ+ community,” seemed to be another example of this surrogate victim-casting.

At the same time, many people are doing a similar thing to Harris. They’re casting him as the surrogate “oppressor,” and blaming him for the sins of people whose bad teachings or spiritual abuse they have suffered.

Columnist David French: Joshua Harris = that bad youth pastor I knew in that church that one time

In point 8 of Friday’s article, I issued some mild challenges to those who accused Harris’s works of solely assassinating their love lives.1

But just today, none other than National Review’s (and Time‘s) David French stomped these critics’ sour grapes into a cheap whine.

In Whither Evangelical Purity Culture? Thoughts on the Legacy of a Lost Pastor, French summarizes I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Then he takes a drastic swerve into some real personal pain:

[The book] was part of the foundation of Evangelical “purity culture,” and it revolutionized parenting and dating for countless Christian parents and families.

I remember it well. I was a youth pastor for a few memorable months at the height of the courtship craze. The year was 1998, I was a youth volunteer at a small church in Georgetown, Ky., when our youth pastor left. . . . The youth ministry had gone all-in on purity culture. The previous youth pastor had even declared “no date ’98,” placing a moratorium on every kid in the youth group: not even a single date for the entire year. . . .

Did you catch the swerve? French only briefly mentions Harris’s book and its setting. Then, French immediately veers to a describe a bad personal situation in a church where he ministered. Yes, he accurately describes the bad results that many Christians have seen, when bad teachers make “purity” into an idol, ignore or assume the gospel, and keep blithely ignorant while the kids flail about in failure.

However, French does not even mention if this bad youth pastor he knew had even read I Kissed Dating Goodbye, or whether the pastor’s bizarre beliefs were influenced by the book. There’s no nuance, no attempt to show the consequence.

French simply presumes: Joshua Harris = “the courtship craze” = “purity culture.”

If we really believe in grace, let’s show some to Joshua Harris

Other Joshua Harris critics assume and do not prove this equivocation. They do not actually engage with what Harris wrote in his first book. (Which had good parts and poor teachings side-by-side.)

They also do not separate Harris’s actual ideas, from the notions of some dysfunctional parent or youth pastor who banned dating.

Perhaps strangest of all, French (and other, less-formal Harris-hatewatchers) act as though Harris simply vanished off the scene, between 1997 (IKDG‘s publication year) and the year 2019.

Here, French seems unaware of Harris’s followup book, the much more rational Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship (2000).

He doesn’t heed the fact that Harris spent years as a trainee pastor, and then pastor, for many years (in an interesting denominational arrangement). And to top off the strangeness, did French utterly miss the fact that Harris, pre–apostasy declaration, was already out and about recanting his own message? No, not just last year, but as far back in 2005 when Harris preached a sermon called “Courtship, Schmourtship” and took other steps to resist the legalism?

See here. I won’t defend Harris’s previous bad teachings. In fact, I might write about book messages that were directly unbiblical and harmful. And I certainly won’t defend the motive or plainly absurd “regret” tone of Harris’s apostasy statement.

However, even if Harris never took these steps, does it make any sense to hold him liable for that one bad youth pastor?

Or that manipulative, spiritual abusive parent?

Or that jerk of a patriarchalist father, who refused to give that good homeschooled boy a courtin’ chance with his daughter?

If we claim to be such fans of grace, why would we speak with such legalistic condemnation again one man? As if to make that one man bear the sins of an entire “purity culture”?

Let’s not blame the book author for the sins of his fans. And, literally, for God’s sake, don’t lump everything bad about a “purity culture” into one presumed ball of gross, and then throw that on top of the head of one poor wandering soul. You wouldn’t want to be associated with the sins of your people. In fact, this kind of association-with-evil is exactly what happens when bad youth pastors declare that all dating is bad.

Addendum: ‘We just want That One Person to be held accountable’

My friend Frank Sun made this highly astute comment.2

I feel bad for Harris in many ways. In the grand scheme of things, his own role in the whole “purity culture” was pretty small. At first, all he did was write a book with some bad teachings in it. Sure, it had a bit of a provocative title, but still, at one point, I Kissed Dating Goodbye was only a single book, among many on shelves, trying to offer love advice to Christians, as prone to ultimately being ignored as any other.

The “culture” only came about because of countless other people who latched onto that book, using it and twisting its message in order to gradually form what could be called a culture. From there Harris was basically sucked into the culture as its figurehead, when he was, as I see it, wholly unprepared and unwilling to be such. In fact, it felt like to me that, for all that the culture practically idolized him, his own voice in the culture felt very small; it almost felt like people knew him more just for “starting” the movement than for the specific teachings in his books.

(I wonder how many even knew that he had re-written IKDG with more moderate teachings.)

In the end, there are so many forces at work behind purity culture, just as there are with any other cultural movements.

Unfortunately, people want to be able to blame a specific name and face for their problems. They don’t like having to spread that blame over a nebulous “culture” of people that they can’t hold accountable.

—Frank Sun

Unfortunately, people want to be able to blame a specific name and face for their problems. They don’t like having to spread that blame over a nebulous “culture” of people that they can’t hold accountable. So the unwilling figurehead gets dragged out into the streets and beaten as he’s paraded down for all to see, while the many others who contributed in small ways watch quietly in their homes.

Unfortunately, this is the way of the world: pin the blame on a specific name and face and hope that makes all your problems go away. Whether it’s an author, actor, or president, we just want That One Person to be held accountable for our problems. And when That One Person does leave but the problems continue, we just find the next person to blame.

My friend Adam Graham also remarks:

When I was 15 and a half, someone gave my parents an audio cassette series on courtship the year before I Kissed Dating Goodbye was published. Harris didn’t start the fire.

Some Early Responses to Joshua Harris’s Confession of Apostasy

Farewell, Joshua Harris. Come back soon.
| Jul 26, 2019 | 29 comments |

Last week, former pastor and I Kissed Dating Goodbye author Joshua Harris announced that he and his wife, Shannon, were separating.

Today comes the latest plot twist. My skeptical friends saw this coming a mile away. I originally wanted to doubt it. They were right.

From @HarrisJosh on Instagram:

The information that was left out of our announcement is that I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus. The popular phrase for this is “deconstruction,” the biblical phrase is “falling away.” By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian.

Click to read all of Joshua Harris’s announcement.

I’m someone who grew up familiar with Joshua Harris. Because of the Harris family of homeschool advocates, I knew of his name even before his books I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Boy Meets Girl. That last book introduced the now-former Mrs. Harris. And yes, I read both books, and yet my wife and I quickly discovered they provided only a little help in our exact dating/courtship challenges.

Since then, I followed Harris’s career as a pastor with Sovereign Grace Ministries, which has been (to put it mildly) under the weather since accusations of sexual abuse and cover-ups.

So I’m somewhat qualified to offer some early, though partial and very brief, thoughts about Harris’s new confession of apostasy.

1. Yes, apostasy is an appropriate word for what Joshua Harris has said.

This is simply the technical term for “falling away” from faith in Jesus Christ. Harris himself uses the phrase “falling away.” He’s been a pastor; he is fully of the evangelical culture, and he does not use the phrase lightly.

2. Joshua Harris’s story is not over; Christians don’t believe in “once un-saved, always un-saved.”

The world is full of people who claim to be former Christians. The world is also full of people who are former former Christians.

For those who were truly in Christ, “he who began a good work . . . will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).

For those who never were in Christ, well, the apostle John soberly warns of an apostate group, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19).

3. This means that, for now, we may need to say “Farewell, Joshua Harris.”

I’m not among those who guffawed when John Piper famously said of another famed apostate, “Farewell, Rob Bell.”

Farewell is a firm yet endearing and even well-wishing term. It doesn’t automatically mean, “Good riddance, heretic.” It does mean, “Fare well.” It’s an expression of parting, yes. But it’s also an expression of optimism. “Though you go out from us, at least for the time being, may you fare well.”

4. I prefer that if we say this, we also add, “Come back soon.”

I don’t know Joshua Harris. But I hate to lose a family member. Especially one whom, despite his flaws, God used in my life.

Farewell, Joshua Harris. Come back soon. Your family in Christ misses you.

That’s what he needs to hear.

5. Let’s remember that Joshua Harris experienced much ministry trauma in between his dating books and his recent recanting.

One way or another, Joshua Harris counts as a wounded shepherd. Those who identified him mainly as “that no-dating guy,” then caught wind of him again when he started recanting his “anti-dating” content, missed a lot of his story.

In short: Joshua Harris joined Sovereign Grace Ministries. He trained under a different sort of pastor called C. J. Mahaney at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Eventually, Mahaney stepped back to run the church’s quasi-denomination, Sovereign Grace Ministries, leaving Harris as the church’s full-time pastor. (Even then, Mahaney was still overseeing the family-of-churches group from the church itself. That’s an interesting arrangement.)

In the last fifteen years, Harris had already spoken against legalistic courtship. He’d also mentioned his own struggles with the issue of child abuse and sexual abuse. Those themes must have been even more painful after similar scandals rocked Sovereign Grace Ministries.

The church and Sovereign Grace parted ways. Some time later, Harris announced he and his family were stepping back from the place.

Joshua Harris became a pastor who, by all accounts, tried to do the right thing. More recently, he was trying to recant his own message (or the perception of his message) in his relationship books. He even urged the publisher to stop printing the books. And they said they would.

6. Christians need to talk about how we care for wounded shepherds.

Christians have a hard enough time dealing with pastors or leaders who fall into publicly revealed abusive behavior or other scandals. At present, for these, we seem to have polar-opposite reactions: (A) try to keep them in ministry, or get them back into ministry, ASAP; (B) just make them disappear, like failed Mafia hit men sank to the bottom of Lake Michigan in cement overcoats.

Surely for these people, our various denominations and groups can come up with some forms of firm discipline but also restorative compassion.

How much more so should we do this for leaders who step back from pro ministry, in something like “disgrace,” but weren’t accused of scandal at all.

I’m not involved in this situation personally. But viewing this long-distance, it appears to me that Joshua Harris, and his family, simply fell through the cracks. Their whole lives were tied up in one church and one denomination. Once that was gone, or compromised due to scandal and/or moral failing, what was left? Did the Harris family have other family or churches to take them in? Did they have Christian friends and counselors who could help them as equals, and naturally avoid giving them undue honor due to their lingering “professional evangelical” platform?

This we don’t know. And it would be wrong to suggest that because something bad happened (divorce, apostasy, etc.) then this means that some foolproof method would have helped to heal this wounded shepherd and his family.

But the fact that Joshua Harris hasn’t spoken about anyone like this is sadly telling.

7. We must always be careful whom we as Christians set up as spiritual leaders.

I first heard about Joshua Harris’s divorce news while I was attending the Christian fantasy writers’ conference Realm Makers.

An hour or so later, at lunch, a Christian publishing professional remarked on the news. He carefully questioned whether it was wise to allot to a twenty-year-old author so much influence and responsibility for spiritual guidance.

Now, Harris is responsible for his own decisions. He’s responsible for his own teachings and, to some extent, their consequences.

At the same time, it’s worthwhile to ask this: Have our Christian leadership structures, our denominations, and our formalized celebrity-making industries (publishing, music, and so on) contributed to Harris’s very public struggles?

In the name of resisting the sexual revolution and endorsing purity, should our “gatekeepers” have pushed Harris’s work so hard?

What similar problems exist in evangelical publishing—say, with letting the words of small children inform our beliefs about the afterlife?

8. Joshua Harris’s books alone did not hurt people; false teaching and/or dysfunctions are also at fault for that.

Without exception, every person who blames I Kissed Dating Goodbye or Harris’s related works cannot actually blame these things as solo assassins of their faith or romantic lives. In every case, the complainant must honestly blame the books as (at worst) accomplices.

The real perpetrator appears to be family dysfunction, or church dysfunction, or just plain personal dysfunction.

Someone who says, “Harris’s books ruined my relationships” may also need to consider her own possible immaturity as a cause.

Someone who says, “Harris and the ‘purity culture’ drove me away from church” may need to listen to his own memories about that shallow youth-group leader, or consider whether “youth group” is really the best method of biblical discipleship among God’s people anyway.

Or, someone who claims, “My parents made me follow Harris’s books!” may–carefully and with godly respect for parents!– need to admit that parents can sin, too. It’s sinful to accept the beliefs of any Christian leader without comparing them with Scripture.

Notice I said may in all three cases. People are too complex to blame either themselves or a popular author who influenced them in the past.

9. Joshua Harris’s expression of “regret” to “the LGBTQ+ community” is sinful and inexcusable.

Later in his post, Harris offers this:

To the LGBTQ+ community, I want to say that I am sorry for the views that I taught in my books and as a pastor regarding sexuality. I regret standing against marriage equality, for not affirming you and your place in the church, and for any ways that my writing and speaking contributed to a culture of exclusion and bigotry. I hope you can forgive me.⁣⁣

This is wrong.

As my friend and Speculative Faith colleague Mark Carver responds:

We also shouldn’t be enraged that a Christian celebrity has fallen away from the faith. Perhaps God is setting him up for an even more dramatic return to the church.

We should, however, be enraged at the public proclamation of heresy. There is *no* place for homosexuality in the church, there is *no* marriage except between a man and a woman, the Bible is absolutely inerrant and God-breathed and every word is truth. Lies about tolerance and avoiding perceived bigotry at the expense of the truth should be condemned to its face.

I can’t put it any better than this.

10. Joshua Harris (and other “falling away” evangelicals) are over-empathizing with sexual revolutionaries, casting them as “surrogate victims” to express their own conflicts with the church.

This last statement may seem more complicated, and perhaps even mean.

But it represents my attempt to understand the emotional appeals of apostatizing or compromising Christians, and answer them in kind.

I am trying to understand the very emotional causes that lead to their rejection of Christianity (or particular flavors of it), and their unqualified embrace of professing victims who reject the Bible’s insistence on purity as a response to the authority and grace of Jesus Christ.

The following is edited from a work in progress.

I’ve interacted with several Christians with “progressive” leanings, and I keep seeing this tendency. For a while I’ve wondered why these folks seem to be (1) so willing to think the best of sexual revolutionaries (and other victim groups, including the gospel’s religious competitors), (2) equally willing to demonstrate bad-faith responses, anger, and frustration with the contemporary Church or other evangelicals.

In one sentence, here’s what I think is going on:

These folks are using contemporary victim classes mainly as a “surrogate victim”—as an avatar, or language, mainly to express their own personal conflicts with their parents, churches, or ministry partners.

I don’t know how to describe it other than with the terms “surrogate victims” and “surrogate oppressors.”

But what I see goes like this. Speaking of young evangelicals who end up rejecting their faith, and/or buying into anti-Christian substitutes for biblical truth:

  1. They have grown up in evangelical churches and their cultures.
  2. These folks may have unresolved conflict with ancestral family (parents, grandparents).
  3. They likely saw (or think they saw) conflict or hypocrisy in church(es) as a youth.
  4. For Christian evangelical leaders, they’ve likely had more recent conflicts with ministry partners or supporters. (This could go a long way to explain the volatile behavior of some Christian leaders on social media.)
  5. They have a lot of hurt and wounds for which they have not sought healing. (For a pro evangelical, his ministry leadership role depends on his strength in the faith and ability to lead others. If it got out that this person is a “broken shepherd,” who has experienced oppression by other Christian leaders that has accumulated into real wounds, his lifelong career is over.)
  6. Quietly they begin to feel a greater (and likely legitimate) hurt of victimhood. This is where the victim-surrogacy begins.
  7. They have not practiced biblical peacemaking with spiritual family members he knows in person (per the words of Christ in Matthew 18). He/she has not been able to “leave [the offense] to God” who avenges unrepented wrongs, per the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 12. (If our young Christian has heard this taught, it has been mixed up with unbiblical notions such as “just forgive,” which ignore the need for repentance and God’s promise to avenge all un-repented evils in God’s own time.)
  8. Without this person’s “wrath” being laid at the foot of the Cross, our struggling young believer must find another surrogate. The quiet “drama” of victim-versus-oppressor must be played out in some way, leading to the semblance of healing from the trauma.
  9. Enter the surrogate victim. Our young Christian hears of many other groups who also claim to be victims of the Church. This can include members of the LGBT community, or political leaders.
  10. No matter the victim group, the important factor here is that the young Christian is not at first reasoned into advocacy for the victim group. Rather, young Christians identify with these victim groups because of personal empathy based on their own stories of conflict.
  11. This means that the Christian’s other motives (such as not wanting to be thought a bigot, or wanting to make progress in elite institutions) are all secondary. So are any beliefs the young Christian adopts in place of biblical Christianity.
  12. All these motives are a means to an ultimate end: to empathize with and effectively to use professing victim classes as an “avatar,” or surrogate victim, to express their own unresolved conflict with evangelical institutions, families, or churches. Similarly, they must cast “the evangelical church” as a surrogate oppressor, playing the role of the churches, institutions, or even family members who have caused the young Christian perceived harm in the past.

The only difference is that Harris is not like some other evangelicals, who empathize with anti-Christian victims (or “victims”) and yet profess faith in Jesus.

Instead, at least for now and as far as we can tell, Joshua Harris has rejected the faith. Apparently in his view, it’s all one and the same. He clearly feels like you can’t purge your head and heart of false beliefs, or manipulative religious systems, without also purging Jesus Christ.

It’s not true. It’s a damned lie.

But for a wounded shepherd, it’s not enough for him to hear it’s a damned lie. Especially at a distance from some long-range Christian.

May Joshua Harris find Christ’s comforting and correcting presence in this season, even of apostasy, and may it only be a season. Then, may the Holy Spirit, who is all-powerful and yet absurdly patient, bring back Joshua Harris (and his family, together with him or separately) to a renewed embrace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Until such time, let’s firmly yet graciously wish Joshua Harris “farewell.”

Live from Realm Makers 2019

It’s day 3 of Realm Makers, with all its exhaustion/energy, friendship/networking, and work/recreation.
| Jul 20, 2019 | 1 comment |

On day 3 of the Realm Makers conference in St. Louis, I’m connecting with friends and networking and pitching projects. I’m losing sleep and gaining energy. I’m working and enjoying recreation all at once.

Yes, it’s all paradoxical and it’s all good.

Look for my longer update this Tuesday at Speculative Faith.

Meanwhile, your best sources for updates are Realm Makers on Facebook and on Instagram. Stop by my Instagram feed and/or my Facebook feed for more photos and updates. We’re also sharing plenty at the Lorehaven page on Facebook.


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Ready for @RealmMakers 2019 with @lorehavenmag!

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With @steverzasawriter and @majacobs_author for Brent Weeks’s keynote address at @realmmakers 2019! #RealmMakers2019

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At @realmmakers with Terry Brooks. #RealmMakers2019

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With award-winner Kerry Nietz at @RealmMakers. He always backs up his rage with facts and documented sources. #TheCredibleHulk

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On the Road for Realm Makers 2019!

I’m hosting the Lorehaven booth, exploring creativity, and discussing the challenges of “PG-13” writing at RealmMakers, July 18–20 in St. Louis.
| Jul 18, 2019 | 2 comments |

Today I’m in St. Louis for the seventh annual Realm Makers conference.

I’m representing Lorehaven magazine at the Realm Makers Bookstore. We’re open Thursday through Saturday at the Sheraton Westport Chalet Hotel.

You’ll find all our magazines on display, including the new summer 2019 issue. We’ll share print copies and more information about the Lorehaven mission. Oh—and we’ll be giving away at least one, possibly two copies of the newly released Light from Distant Stars from novelist Shawn Smucker.

In the bookstore, you’ll also find the best in fantastical fiction from many Christian authors.

Lorehaven, summer 2019This includes, of course, many titles positively reviewed by Lorehaven magazine.

On Thursday and Friday, I’ll attend several classes about writing and marketing fantastical fiction.

Then on Saturday, I’ll join several panelists for a discussion about how (or whether!) Christians can create stories about “PG-13” content. That panel starts at 3 p.m., and I’m looking forward to exploring what has become a favorite topic for me.

P.S.: Update on that book about Gospel-hearted parenting and popular culture

Finally, just yesterday, my coauthors and I locked down the title for our pending nonfiction book from New Growth Press.

Want to slip me a twopence? If so, I’ll write this title on a slip of paper and secretly pass it your way.

Next up: cover design. From here the fun begins.

The Perils of Exploring Space from a Groaning Planet

Sin has turned the heavens into a killing field of humans versus nature, technological breakdown, insanity, and invading demons.
| Jul 17, 2019 | No comments |

We’re all rightly exploring the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon mission, during which man first set foot on lunar soil.

Because I’m busy wrapping up packing for the Realm Makers 2019 conference, I thought I had little time for exploring this topic.

Fortunately, past-me has this covered, from this 2015 article at Christ and Pop Culture.

Here I started with a retrospective on the Ron Howard film Apollo 13. This movie explores not just the ill-fated moon mission, but the nation’s already-waning boredom with the space program altogether. Then I considered movie–Jim Lovell’s (Tom Hanks) line:

“I look up at the moon and wonder, when will we be going back, and who will that be?”

From “Apollo 13: When Will We Be Going Back?” (July 3, 2015):

If we’re refusing to go back, why is that?

Reason 1: We are fallen. Lovell was part of the crew who read, on Christmas Eve during the Apollo 8 mission, Genesis 1’s account of God’s creation. But we are broken reflections of what God created. We are fallen. That means we want to exalt ourselves above God. Instead of wanting to bear and reflect the fire of His glory, we crave to steal the fire from His heaven.

That also means we reject or abuse God’s order to fill the earth with His glory by creating culture (Gen. 1:26-28). Do we suspect that if Adam and Eve had never rebelled against God, they and their children would have stayed in the Garden forever, naked and bored? Perish the thought. Instead for years and decades and centuries they would have made culture: clothes, travel, agriculture, architecture, stories, songs, games, science, technology. They would have built engines and ships. Later, they would have spread God’s glory to the stars.

Reason 2: Now violent creation is punishing our cultures. If humans had not sinned, the heaven of space would not be our enemy. This heaven could have been as the medievalists imagined it: a spiritual realm of æther in which musical spheres floated between earth and God’s dwelling place. Now space is a cold vacuum. Its music has been turned to groaning.

In real-world space, one bad O-ring, one damaged coil, and purging flames blast us back into dust.

And in our stories, outer space is not populated by singing heavenlies. It becomes a killing field of humans versus nature, technological breakdown, insanity, and invading demons.

Reason 3: With some exceptions, such as this week’s near-conjunction of Jupiter and Venus that has captivated many, our rebellion lowers our eyes from heaven and its wonders to the dust we walk on and from which we came. We don’t desire to discover more of infinity. We’re in lust with ourselves. Thus our science becomes devoted to making more shrunken baubles that help us expand our own glory. And thus our stories, having stripped our sense of awe or dismissed it as “just fiction,” leave us uncovered.

No longer do real fantasy beings exist. There are no benevolent spirits among the stars. They were all fairy tales. So we dress up in cheap rubber spirit-creature suits. We would not just exalt ourselves among the stars, but become the exalted stars of our own fairy tales.

Yet while our real-life efforts to shine flickers of that old glory beyond Earth are limited, our stories stubbornly reflect this ancient vision in films such as Apollo 13, Interstellar, or even Tomorrowland. That’s why we need these kinds of stories, and need to find, prize, and even make more of these stories with God — exalting beauty, excellence, realism, and power.

Christians, let us not show high regard for these magical going-to-the-moon tales but reduce them to abstract symbols, saying those are all very well and good but our true citizenship is in Heaven. But read God’s promise that Heaven and Earth are both due for a fiery remodeling, after which His city, like a beautiful bride descends from heaven to Earth.

Imagine a world in which everything truly reflects God’s glory! At last in this Afterworld, His redeemed pilots and engineers will have new hearts, new bodies built of better stuff than dust, and will use both to worship Him in their cultures. I am sure that only then can we answer Lovell’s question, “When will we be going back [to the moon?]” like this: “Now that Christ has returned, we go there every day, and beyond.” The old wonder of spreading His glory among the stars—the longing barely hinted in Lovell’s awe, Howard’s directorial vision, and [James] Horner’s soundtrack—will be fulfilled for eternity. All the poems and symbols will become reality. Adam and Eve’s children will literally explore the cosmos for the glory of the Creator, no longer fighting to survive but dancing and singing among the stars.

About that ‘How Should Christians Have Sex?’ Article and the Exvangelical Problem

Some “exvangelical” leaders need to find real healing from conflicts with family and church, rather than trying to find solutions through punditry.
| Jun 18, 2019 | 4 comments |

At first, I thought I liked that New York Times article from Katelyn Beaty. And not just because of its oh-so-sensually clickable headline, “How Should Christians Have Sex?”1

A few of my friends shared this article. Most who did seemed to have positive response to it.

So did I, at first, mainly because I saw it as another expression of my annoyance with the “romance prosperity gospel.” For example, I have previously written about this:

At best the Romance Prosperity Gospel is hazardous. But I may go so far as to call it wicked. What else can describe the claim that “God makes this promise to you” when He has not made that promise? Yes, the RPG may be better than sexual impurity. But it compares poorly with God’s real promises, emphasizes anecdotes over God’s Word, and harms single Christians.2

Then I thought about the article. And, if I had time, I’d write more about why I ultimately choose not to be a fan of it.3

But Gregory Shane Morris (of Breakpoint) got there first. And I think I (mostly) agree with his gut reaction.

First, for those just arriving to this new web-scene, Morris summarizes:

Beaty opens her piece by implying that promising not to have sex until marriage (you know, the sine qua non of Christian sexual morality) is creepy and unhealthy. She explains that her decision at age 14 to sign a “True Love Waits” pledge imposed “a psychological burden” that she and her peers “are still unloading.” She submits purity balls, purity rings, and “Wait For Me Journals” for the scorn of Times readers, and repeats the familiar complaint that purity culture taught young Christians that if they only behaved themselves, God would bring them the perfect spouse (a claim Ben Shapiro calls “Gumball Machine God,” and which I’ve examined at length, here).

As Morris seems to echo, I feel that Beaty’s article is softer and less inflammatory than many other “exvangelical” articles. Yet her strange love-hate relationship with “purity culture,” does come across as frustrating. How does Beaty expect to get the moral results without church leader’s clear call to self-discipline (with some possibly silly cultural side effects, such as “True Love Waits” merch)? Has Beaty worked to disentangle, biblically, the church’s cultural oddities—like mushy journals, and some false promises about perfect wedding-night sex—from the promises that the Bible actually gives us, starting with “you will get perfect happiness in Christ”? I think Morris is right to let that frustration show in his response.

Anyway, read Morris’s whole piece, although Morris does wrap it up quickly.

He’s also probably more charitable in not challenging what is, I believe, a core problem with many (not all) of these “exvangelical”-style articles. Frankly, these show at best a pretty clear display of the writers’ own unresolved conflicts about church, family, and other challenges (sometimes even trauma). And, at worst, it’s a display of willingness to monetize this unresolved tension or recovery for fame and profit.

Perhaps I know only enough to be dangerous about the topics of biblical peacemaking, conflict resolution, and even counseling. But here are some fairly brief thoughts on this growing trend of “exvangelical” articles and aspiring thought-leaders.

First, if you really do have a “psychological burden” (Beaty’s words), caused by evangelical church-related conflict, then you’ll not find the healing you need by becoming a Big Pundit Cheese.

Here, I do assume in good faith that people who write exvangelical articles really are talking about psychological burdens.

But this impulse among exvangelical voices reminds me a lot of some people who claim to have had certain bad experiences with, say, alcohol abuse or family conflict. However, instead of actually getting help to work through these experiences and come to some resolution, they instead act as if that they can find healing from that experience by helping others who have had similar bad experiences.

Unfortunately, such a person has not actually healed from this experience by growing stronger in Christ and the gospel.

If not, then by seeking fake “therapy” on their own terms, they only risk a continuation of the cycle that works against them.

Even worse, they could be volunteering to act as the blind who lead the blind.

Second, the appropriate place for healing from “evangelical” conflicts is not in this kind of punditry.

People may use these exvangelical articles as a language to describe their stories, as an early stage of coming to grips with aby real trauma.

But this kind of material is more like the early “law” of the Old Testament. Such articles and other materials can only reveal the problems; they are an introductory, 101-level part of the healing process. They cannot actually resolve these problems or help us heal from them—much less make us happier or strong enough to lead others in dealing with similar problems.

Rather, such exvangelical or church-critical materials must lead to the Gospel, that is, Christ’s life/death/resurrection, rightly applied to our own stories of personal sin and subjection to others’ false beliefs and sinful actions. In this gospel application, we can begin healing:

  • We can understanding the bad and good of the “evangelical culture.”
  • We can overlook people’s unintentional sins where we can.
  • We can leave other false teachings or sinful actions to the God who avenges wrongdoing.4

Here’s the catch: this healing doesn’t happen over the internet, or with articles, or by finding people who share our same grievances with particular Christian cultures. Instead, we can only get this healing with help from wise and caring sisters and brothers in the faith. This can only occur in real-world personal and loving environments (perhaps including but not limited to trained biblical counselors). And that means that the biblical counselor may also (gently and after earning our trust, I hope) point out areas where we ourselves must strive, in the grace of Christ, to fulfill the biblical ideals to which we insist that other Evangelicals in Power uphold to the letter.

Third, neither the original article itself, or any of the pushback from critics, should be taking the overt Gospel for granted.

Here’s what I mean.

If you agree with this article and identify as a Christian, ask yourself: Do you have anywhere in the back of your head a thought like, “Oh, well, we don’t need to talk about that ‘God’s law fulfilled in the perfect life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ’ stuff, because we already know that”?

If you even have a hint of this thought, well, you might want to consider empathizing with that graceless youth-group speaker who treated a single person’s lost virginity as if it were a shattered mirror, impossible to piece back together. Do you see what happened there? In order to fix what he felt was a Big Problem (promiscuity), that “purity culture” guy didn’t ground his teaching in the gospel. But then, in order to fix that other Big Problem (purity culture), mightn’t we also fail to ground our teaching in the gospel?

Gospel-ignoring is the very deadly error that led to (so we claim) any excesses with “purity culture” in the first place.

Ignore that, and we are doomed to repeat the same errors.

Fourth, ultimately, if Christian writers/leaders makes it their chief end to fix problems, while ignoring the gospel, they will not even fulfill their own goals.

They’ll just be repeating the supposed “purity culture” mistake: trying to fix problems, while ignoring the divine Solution.

They’ll become part of the cycle of legalistic problem-fixing, even while being painfully self-aware about the evils of legalism.

And, they’ll end up (despite all good intentions) enabling their own unhealed “exvangelical” readers. Many such readers may not even be reading the article to learn from it, but may instead see the materials as a simple accessory to adorn the reader’s own personal story.

Fifth and finally (for now), in such instances, I think we need to identify a recurring fallacy.

Perhaps we might call this fallacy argumentum ad exvangelical.

It would describe, simply, the fallacy of claiming, “I feel hurt by Christian group/the Church/’evangelical culture,’ therefore I have moral authority to speak against any of these.”

Yes, I would call this a fallacious argument, even if the person has suffered real hurt.5 But I would not then condemn the fallacy-maker or walk away, satisfied, having hurled the epithet in some internet comments section. Instead, I would hope that I can tell this person: “I’m very sorry you were hurt that way. Have you considered these methods of finding healing from that experience?”

This person doesn’t need to be a Big Pundit Cheese.

They also don’t need nasty critiques like “oh, poor little snowflake” or “get over it.”

Instead, they need expressions of firm correction that are immediately coupled with sincere offers of care. In the context of the real Church. In the context of the real gospel. And, most importantly, in the context of a perfect loving Savior, by whose wounds we are healed.6

  1. Media tip: writers rarely write their own headlines. Even less often would they have a say in their own article’s SEO-baiting URL, which the Times comically reduces to (…)sex-christian.html .
  2. See my article “Rebuking the Romance Prosperity Gospel,” Christ and Pop Culture, July 23, 2013. I do believe that this message was often “caught,” and occasionally it was specifically taught, in evangelical circles from the ’90s even to the present. Lest you think the phenomenon exclusively an old one, see the evangelical movie Princess Cut (2015), which explicitly endorses the “romance prosperity gospel.” Kevin McCreary reviews (and often biblically challenges) the film’s themes in his review.
  3. Admittedly, I am not a reader of the author’s other work, which perhaps adds a more positive spin. I also recognize that the Times, like any newspaper, will have particular editorial needs and requests for a writer to shape her/his material for those needs.
  4. Romans 12:14–21
  5. How much more so if they are simply exaggerating the claim, or even using the claim as a guise for their other grievances against Christianity.
  6. 1 Peter 2:24.

I Just Signed with New Growth Press for a Book Releasing Next Year

In this nonfiction work, Ted Turnau, myself, and Jared Moore will explore gospel-centered parenting and popular culture for God’s glory.
| May 11, 2019 | 10 comments |

This week, I signed a contract for my first book.

This work of nonfiction will release next year, 2020, from New Growth Press.

Our title is technically pending. Yet I can say that the book explores this question:

How can gospel-centered Christians raise their children to engage popular culture, to glorify God, serve in the church, and connect with our neighbors?

I’m joined by two coauthors, Ted Turnau and Jared Moore.

Ted Turnau wrote the book Popologetics and teaches in the Czech Republic.

Jared Moore pastors a church and cohosts the Pop Culture Coram Deo podcast.

Indeed, we look forward to sharing this book with Christian parents and leaders, to help equip families and churches.

Many great articles, books, and podcasts already help Christians explore popular culture. Yet this may be the first book of its kind to help Christian grown-ups engage popular culture with their children, finding a popular cultural work’s common graces and idols. Best of all, we explore how to know and teach how Jesus alone perfectly fulfills the good “promises” that no story could ever fulfill.1

From my new publisher’s website:

New Growth Press (NGP) is a growing Christian publisher, producing a wide variety of gospel-centered resources for individuals, families, and churches. NGP publishes books, minibooks, small group, and Gospel Story for Kids resources that provide churches, families, and individuals with gospel-driven publications for all ages.2

Please pray, and watch for more updates as we move into this publication journey.

E. Stephen Burnett, book signing

  1. I model the book’s approach to cultural engagement, in part, in my May 10 article at Christ and Pop Culture: Avengers: Endgame Helps Us Behold an Epically Joyous Fantasy Apocalypse.
  2. Last month at Teach Them Diligently in Waco, my wife, Lacy, and I found an amazing book called The Ology: Ancient Truths, Ever New. We already wanted this book. Then we saw the publisher’s name: New Growth Press.

Nightmare Come True: Our Car Broke Down and Stranded Us in the Desert

Last week, one of my worst traveling fears came true. But I also got to see a deus ex machina in real life.
| May 8, 2019 | 3 comments |

Before my wife and I began our vacation last weekend to New Mexico, I kept having this feeling.

Hey. You’ll be driving in the desert. What if your car breaks down in the desert?

. . . breaks down in the desert?

. . . down in the desert?

. . . breaks down . . .

Our car broke down in the desert, in the late afternoon of Friday, May 3.

Earlier that day, we had just seen the splendors of Carlsbad Caverns. Taken dozens of photos. Marveled at this natural wonder.

Then as we drove toward El Paso, another certain ground-based resource secretly leaked all the way out of the engine.

Yes, that’s right. Within minutes, our 2007 Kia Optima’s engine had roasted itself. Like a terrible, tragic, broken comedy.

Of course, the car stereo, air conditioner, and everything else kept going merrily along. While we sat there in shock, left without even a cellular phone signal. Seriously: we had no cell phone signal, no running vehicle, no way to escape the situation. Total nightmare fuel.

Literallyjust as if we had entered the parallel universe of an evangelical men’s devotionalall we could do was pray.

Sometimes those ‘cheesy’ devotional stories do happen

And I am not making this up: within minutes, help arrived.

His name was Joe. He lived in El Paso, worked for a company near Carlsbad. It’s one of those companies where you have to drive for hours, then live on-site Monday through Friday, coming home only on weekends.

“This road is usually empty,” Joe told us. “Only on Friday night does everyone start driving home.”

So if we had broken down in any other area, at any other time of day, we might have fared even worse.

Joe had an amazing story to share: A youth of family conflict, drugs, false accusations, trial and forgiveness. He’d returned to the faith of his youth, gotten saved, joined a church. Gotten married just this past year; he and his now-wife already have three precious boys.

He told us he had just been driving by himself, listening to a radio-show swap meet. Then he had switched over to Christian music.

A moment later, he saw us by the side of the road and knew he had to help.

Not only that, but Joe said he had broken down in this similar area not long ago. As an El Paso native, he knew just what wrecker to call, where to get a rental car, and what repair shop may/may not be open the following day.

It’s not often you get this kind of deus ex machina in real life.

We’re still connected with Joe. In fact, I’ll likely send him this article.

Since then: please pray for our treasonous vehicle

My wife and I spent the next day working around car shop claims and swelling expenses. Rental and towing expenses grew and grew.

We ended up strapping the Kia’s carcass to a U-Haul trailer.

Then we dragged the sorry thing with us, all the way to Roswell, New Mexico, and then, the next day, on to home.

Yes, we had scheduled ourselves to be in Roswell on May 4 (as in, “May the Fourth be with you”). Secretly, I wanted the “geek cred” of doing so. (We still got there in time, though we barely saw the community while driving through to our AirBnB.)

Here’s what I wrote in the AirBnB guest book—alongside the very excellent Bible they’d placed nearby for guest benefit.

I’ve redacted some details.

So, as for what happens next:

  • For now, I’ll temporarily step back writing new content, both here and at Speculative Faith.
  • Please pray we can either find a new-used, excellent car, or (unlikely) somehow fix the traitorous Kia.
  • Please also pray for a Secret Project (redacted above) and Lorehaven magazine. Even more importantly, please pray for my wife’s and my upcoming foster-care venture. Because you seriously need a well-working vehicle to take care of precious children.

Breaking news: Literally, just after I finished that last sentence, my wife returned home from work. She’s been driving our emergency backup car. Which, we just learned, is now leaking coolant into the engine.

So. We may actually need two cars. At the same time.

Those prayers I asked for? Please double them.

Prof. Michael Ward: ‘Tolkien’ Film Ignores Author’s Faith and Motives

Michael Ward: “This handsome, earnest, yet overstuffed and poorly paced film . . . ignores Tolkien’s devout Christian faith.”
| Apr 30, 2019 | No comments |

Professor Michael Ward teaches apologetics at Houston Baptist University and is a Fellow at Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford. He’s also the author of Planet Narnia and many other works about C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.

And, just today, he reviewed the upcoming Tolkien, the biopic-ish film that releases May 10 in the U. S.1

Ward is not a fan:

This handsome, earnest, yet overstuffed and poorly paced film deviates frequently from the historical record. Most seriously, it ignores Tolkien’s devout Christian faith: there is no indication that he served Mass daily as a boy or ever even entered a Catholic church. . . .

But departures from reality are inevitable in dramatisations, and enumerating them can quickly devolve into captiousness. What’s more relevant is whether the artistic licence results in a successful story. . . . [Nevertheless, in this film] incidents come thick and fast, but are strangely uninvolving. Screenwriters David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford present various possible motives for Tolkien’s behaviour, but it’s unclear what animates him. . . .

I never felt I knew what this Tolkien really wanted. To honour his late mother? Escape poverty? Belong to a club? Marry Edith? Invent languages? Write mythic fantasy?

It sounds like the screenwriters did not persuasively replace Tolkien’s driving motives (such as his faith and strong belief in creative “subcreation”) with something else. Even an alternative view could have worked. This could strain credulity, even in-movie, but you could try to show Tolkien’s motivation based in simple attempt to make his own mythology based in the grand tradition of literary myth.

Well, I might see the film, but with home release only. And I’ll certainly be lowering my expectations.

Seven Ways to Find Truth in Fantastic Stories

Finding truth in fantastic stories starts with, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.”
| Apr 26, 2019 | 3 comments |

This weekend I’m sharing Lorehaven magazine with Realm Makers Bookstore in Cincinnati.

I’m also sharing these bookmarks with folks who visit the booth.

Here’s the complete text.

“Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.”

Scotch catechism

Seven ways to find truth in fantastic stories…

1. Explore the story itself.

Who does what, and why? What happens in the plot?

2. Discover this story-world.

What place is this? What styles and images do we find?

3. Find the common grace.

What is beautiful, good, and true?

4. Discerning idols.

What may the story exalt for “worship” apart from God?

5. Behold the gospel!

Idols always fail, so how does Jesus fulfill the story’s broken promises?

6. How can this story help Jesus’s people glorify Him?

7. How can this story help me better enjoy God forever?