I Kissed Dating Good-bye became a Christian cult classic when it was published in 1997 when Harris was 23 years old. In the book, Harris lays out his theory of biblical courtship–a method of finding a spouse without dating, being alone with the opposite sex, or physical contact–and promised this would lead to a satisfying Christian marriage. Many people credit Harris with furthering the purity culture movement, a subject about which I have written articles and am writing a book.
In his Instagram post on 7/29/19, Harris shares that he has “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.”
It is a little shocking and very sad for those of us who followed his work and were influenced by his ideas, only to become critical and denounce him later on. But I am not surprised. I believe the reason for the decay of Harris’s faith can be traced back to psychological theories of identity development.
According to Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, we all go through eight stages of personality and social development throughout our life. Each stage has a main task or “crisis” that we must get through, or else the crisis remains unresolved and our development is stunted.
In adolescence, our main task is to form our identity by searching for a sense of self, exploring personal values and beliefs, and determining life goals. If we don’t successfully achieve this sense of identity, we experience role confusion and an identity crisis, in which we are unsure of who we are and our place in society.
Identity Status Theory
Psychologist James Marcia took Erikson’s theory a step further by focusing on identity development in adolescence. He believed success in this stage was determined by how much we explore and commit to different areas of our identity, such as vocation, religious beliefs, relationships, and gender roles. In our search for identity, we experience crisis, or a time when we reevaluate our beliefs and choices, and commitment to our values and roles.
Anyone who has been a teenager can relate to this theory of identity development. We remember trying out different clothing styles and trends to determine what “fit” us and our personality. We remember bouncing around to different groups of friends to find “our people”. We remember changing our minds about what we liked and disliked or what we wanted to be in the future. Most of us eventually commit to our identity and decide, “This is who I am, this is what I believe, and this is how I will live out those beliefs.”
The Problem with Legalism
The problem with a legalistic faith–one based on rules of right and wrong, do’s and dont’s–is that there is no room to explore one’s beliefs. The emphasis of legalism is on one’s actions and behavior, not one’s personal relationship with God. This seems to go against the Bible’s teaching that man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at our heart (1 Samuel 16:7).
When there is no room to challenge one’s beliefs or faith, there is no “crisis”, as defined by Marcia’s theory. Yet legalism requires an unwavering commitment to one’s beliefs. If there is no crisis, yet a commitment is made, we are left in a state of “identity foreclosure”, in which a commitment is predetermined by religion, our family, our church or community. This state of identity foreclosure is weak and unlikely to stand up to the challenges that life brings to our faith. In this way, one’s religious beliefs are like a house built on sand rather than solid rock (Matthew 7:24-27). It takes both a crisis and a commitment to achieve a solid identity, and Harris’s legalistic religious system did not allow for that.
Out of legalistic religion came courtship, purity culture, modesty culture, and a whole host of other practices that were deemed the “right” way to live out your faith. Christians like me who grew up in the 1990s when these movements seemed most pervasive are just recently beginning to realize the damaging repercussions of these legalistic religious systems.
Harris published his book at age 23. He entered full-time ministry soon afterwards, and continued pastoring and publishing books until the last few years. He has now openly criticized the flaws in his book, and apologized for the harm it may have caused others. But it seems that in Harris’ critical evaluation of his beliefs and teachings, he has “fallen away” from his faith.
I speculate that Harris was never given the space to critically evaluate and test out his beliefs. He was never allowed to explore the significance and implications of his teachings, or consider that what he deemed was best for him might not be best for an entire generation. He “foreclosed” on these beliefs, presumably in adolescence or young adulthood, and is only just now in mid-life, engaging in the identity development process that Erikson and Marcia identify.
Sadly for Harris, his family, his former congregation, and his readers and followers, the stakes of deconstructing one’s beliefs are much higher in middle adulthood than they are in adolescence/young adulthood when this process is supposed to take place. We can assume that Harris’s faith deconstruction plays a role in his divorce from his wife. I can’t imagine how confused his children must feel about both their parents’ marriage and their faith. And there is a generation of Christians who have been affected by Harris’s teachings and may be hurt, angry, and bewildered at his denouncement of Christianity.
Deconstructing doesn’t have to mean the end of one’s faith or religious beliefs. It can be a healthy process in which we explore, critically evaluate, and analyze the beliefs we have always taken for granted. We can try out new beliefs or faith practices that we may not have been exposed to. We can examine the consequences of our beliefs and see if those are aligned with our values.
We must not be afraid to test out our faith and make it our own. It is a healthy and developmentally appropriate task in life, and can often render a faith that is more solid and sure. If Harris had been allowed that opportunity earlier in life, I imagine his faith would have taken a much different path. I hope he finds peace in his journey, and a solid foundation on which to base his beliefs and values. And I hope we will not be afraid to learn from his mistakes, and allow ourselves, our children, and our church members to engage in this process of healthy faith deconstruction.
Note: I haven’t read all of these books, nor do I agree with all of the authors’ positions. However, they are good resources when it comes to deconstructing faith, and I believe in reading diverse points of view even when you may disagree.
- Out of Sorts: Making Peace with Evolving Faith by Sarah Bessey
- Faith Unraveled and Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans
- Evolving Faith conference