I’m going to start by saying I don’t know where to start. Thanks to technology, I met Joshua Harris (author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye) a little while back, and we talked on the phone about…well. A lot. He said it was cool to blog about it. (By the time this goes live, he will have seen it and approved it, which was my idea, because he is a person and this is the internet, and we all know the internet, don’t we? Yep. We do.)
I don’t want to start by cataloguing my own experiences with evangelical Christianity or even purity culture. I’ve written enough about some of my more painful life experiences for now. A quick Google will lead you to plenty dissections of theological, epistemological, sociological, psychological, epidemiological (I’m serious, look at STI rates in southern states where there is no comprehensive sex ed), virtually-any-other-ological ramifications about abstinence only curricula, purity balls purity rings sexual purity emotional purity purity purity purity everything.
Type that word enough and it starts to look so strange.
Pure means what? Clean, untainted. Pure to whom? Yourself? Your family? Your spouse?
Now we get into subjectivity and dangerous territory. I’m interested in something much more human.
I’m not a Christian anymore. I used to be. I am queer. Agender. Poly(amorous, not -gamous). Those words often create a fundamental unwelcomeness in Christian circles.
I’m not interested in theological debate. As I said, I’m interested in something much more human.
Sometimes our words get away from us. I think if someone found my LiveJournal (or any journal) from when I was 21 and published it, I would be (rightly) mortified. I mean, I’ve reread some of that stuff myself, and I don’t think I should have shared it with anyone. (Ah, youth.)
Here’s a thing: human beings like rules. We really do. We like boxes, and we like labeling them. We really like being able to classify one another, ideas, thoughts, behaviours. We like that a lot. It’s kind of a species-wide affliction sometimes. We also like things to stay in those neatly labeled boxes once we have them all stacked up. It’s easier that way.
But people really don’t fit in boxes. For one thing, we are not neatly rectangular. We come in all shapes and sizes, and I mean that both literally and figuratively.
Humans, in addition to our endless need to categorise and classify, are really really adept at surprising.
I mean that as a verb, to surprise. You have a kid, you cut a cake when you are six months pregnant that is pink inside, and five or ten or thirty years later your kid looks you right in the face and says, “[Parent], uh…I’m a boy.” You have a kid, you spend their early life saying, “Oh, look at him flirt with all the girls!” and one day he comes home with his boyfriend, happier than you’ve ever seen him, glowing. Proud.
You have a kid. They call you into their room, clearly Very Serious Business. You think something dire has happened. They show you a ball they made of their own boogers.
You have a kid. One day you find her staring blankly at a wall. She won’t tell you what’s wrong. Years later she tells you a horror story. You believe her. You remember that blank stare. You should have known sooner.
You fall in love. You marry someone. You cry as you say your vows, and they are vows of joy. You both mean what you’re saying, until you don’t. Your spouse leaves. You leave. The remaining person is surprised, even if they saw it coming.
You have an idea. Beyond that, a certainty. You know something. Everyone else should know it too. You have a friend. Your friend takes that idea, eyeballs the bedrock beneath it, and sends the idea flying into the air for you to catch, or to shatter on the ground, or to bonk you on the head.
You have a birthday, and you think no one cares. You get a knock at the door when the sun’s already set, and it’s the two guys from downstairs with a cake just for you. They look at each other in near-panic and then start to sing and make you blow out the candles and then they eat cake with you.
You have a secret. It burns inside of you for decades. You’re afraid to tell anyone because they might judge you or hate you or hurt you for it. You take a chance. You tell a friend. They take you in their arms and cry with you and tell you they love you no matter what, that you are their person regardless of the way your insides are charred from carrying that burning secret. They help you bring it out in the open where it can dance like a flame instead of burning like a coal.
Or you never tell anyone. You keep it burning inside you for the length of your forever. It eats away at your tissues and marrows. Or maybe you manage to tamp it down to a bare smoulder. But maybe it burns you up until you die. No one expects that.
Or you tell your family, your family who you believe loves you. And maybe they kick you out. Maybe they lash you with words first. Or with fists. Maybe they beat you with silence instead. Either way.
I wrote those in second person for a reason.
Humans are really good at surprising.
For better or for worse, we’re really good at it.
Last week, a chance scroll through Twitter sent me to this Slate article. I read it with wide eyes, a thousand thoughts going through my head. In my years in the evangelical church, I knew Joshua Harris’s name. I’d read his books — devoured them, actually — I tried to live it. Oh, I wanted that to be a beautiful, one size fits all truth. The same went for When God Writes Your Love Story. I wanted God to write me a love story. My life was already too complicated for those scripts to fit, though. It already didn’t fit; I was nothing like the people in them or writing them. As the years went by, I was shown by the church that I didn’t fit. The church knew, and that was that, and they weren’t interested in hearing about the bits that didn’t fit, including the people who didn’t fit, so when I read that Slate article, what hit me like a sack of bricks to the face was that Joshua was setting out to listen.
Humans are really good at surprising.
People in the church really liked 1 Corinthians 13 when I was part of the community (I imagine that hasn’t changed). Love is patient, love is kind. Love never fails.
There is a difference between the preaching of love and the practice of it. Too often the execution fails on the dismount. It leaves out really important things.
A big part of love is listening.
I was a bit flummoxed, after reading that article. I tweeted about it and tagged Joshua in the tweet and said (very sincerely) that I would love to chat with him about these things. To my absolute shock, he contacted me and said likewise.
On 1 September, we talked for an hour and a half. I’m not going to try to rehash everything we said, because the conversation felt bigger than both of us, like one of those giant rainbow bubbles people make with ropes. Maybe as fragile? I don’t know. I do know that had either of us come to that conversation with anything less than a desire to speak with humility, to listen with compassion, and to learn from one another, it probably would have played out very differently.
I am a queer, agender, poly person. He literally wrote one of the cornerstone books of evangelical purity culture. He was a pastor for ten years, coincidentally right down the road from me. I slung beers at a restaurant he used to go to. We are two very different human beings from different backgrounds and experiences that intersected in some interesting ways.
I am not quite sure I can put into words what the conversation meant to me. To say I’ve been hurt by the church is putting it mildly. My first rapist was a Christian who used to shame me for having had past consensual sexual experiences. I’ve seen friends rejected by their families, heard stories of abuse and victim-blaming, and held friends while they cried because that unconditional love their churches preached in fact came with a lot of fine print.
I hung up the phone after an hour and a half feeling profoundly…relieved? I wasn’t sure what to expect going into the conversation. I had planned to out myself (I mean, my sexual orientation and gender identity are literally on my Twitter bio, so it’s not like it’s a secret *looks directly at camera 2*), but I was mentally assuming crash positions. Not because I expected Joshua to be a bigot or a jerk, but because even the presumed gentle “love the sinner, hate the sin” thing is hurtful when you kind of uh, are the sin.
But also, I don’t know. Part of me said that someone willing to open himself up to stories (and beyond that, people hurt by the influence of something he wrote twenty years ago that snowballed along with other works like it into an avalanche of a movement) wasn’t going to be unkind. That takes some guts. I respect the hell out of that. And I respect the hell out of Joshua as a human being for trying. For listening. For being willing to hear what people very different from him (and also people from similar walks of life) have to say.
We had a conversation that spanned my bizarre life, my 40+ moves, homophobia in rural Montana, abstinence-only teachings, abuse, sexual assault in the church and out, his transition from pastor to student, the idea of purity and the slippery slopes therein, shame, gender roles, gender in general, my relatively late coming out, and a whole lot more.
He greeted everything I said with gratitude and warmth and curiosity.
And that, maybe more than anything, I think gave me hope?
This world has been a rough place this year. Beyond the celebrity deaths, 2016 has been a violent bloodbath. I don’t think that’s an overstatement. Syria has been shredded. Daesh has killed hundreds upon hundreds of (far and away mostly Muslim) human beings in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, so many other places. 100 of my queer family were shot in Orlando during Pride Month. Half of them died. Black folks keep getting shot by police for no reason and a disturbingly large number of white folks keep acting like that’s somehow the victims’ fault. A Deaf person was shot by a cop last month. One Black man, a caretaker for an autistic man, was shot because the cop was aiming at the autistic man (who was playing with a toy truck)? These headlines, my loves. These headlines. Cities in America have had shootouts between cops and other citizens. Dallas PD lost a chunk of their force. So. Many. Lives. Ended. America seems to be living with its finger on a trigger, and that is not good. This presidential race might be an actual circus, wherein Trump can retweet White Supremacists but Hillary Clinton literally drinks water and it becomes this bizarre, surreal news story. It’s like a circus, if like…a circus could impact the rights and safety of
a few hundred million people an entire planet. Oh, and an interesting signal from space means there might be aliens next door. Could be a cosmic fart. Could be aliens.
The maybe aliens? That’s the good news lately, it seems.
Hope is a precious commodity of late. I finished my conversation with Joshua and found I suddenly had a burbly little surplus of it.
So few people these days are willing to listen to each other. I mean, you look at the pushback to #BlackLivesMatter and all you see is (mainly white) people unwilling to listen to other people who have been and are being hurt. It’s like someone saying, “I’m bleeding” and someone else going “Isn’t everyone bleeding, though?” or worse, “Nah, you’re full of it. That’s not blood. It’s ketchup. You’re fine. Stop being so sensitive.”
There’s a good conversation to be had about intention and impact, of descriptive versus prescriptive. Talking to Joshua was a lot about dissecting those things, or at least examining them and discussing how even the most sincere of intentions can grow too big for us to hold ourselves and can escape into the wild. I have no doubt I hurt people when I was in the height of my own evangelicalism; I discounted feelings because I Knew Truth. I put the force of my conviction behind convincing others that they needed my guidance. And I’m thankful no one handed me a megaphone to do that with. Or a book deal. (You can give me a book deal for my fiction though, that’s cool! I still might put my foot in my mouth sometimes, though. But I promise to listen if I do.)
Ultimately, I’m still looking over the conversation I got to have with Joshua and wielding it like that giant bubble. Evangelical purity culture crosses paths with a lot of other issues. Teen pregnancy. STI rates. Sexual dysfunction in Christian relationships (and post-Christian ones). Victim blaming. Shame. Keeping kids and adolescents ignorant of their bodies. Bodily autonomy in general. Responsible sex practices. Homophobia. Transphobia. And at the fringes of those painful bits, the parts where those things become extreme in the minds and hearts of hurting humans who hurt other people on purpose.
Because those things ARE connected. What we say has an effect. The culture we steep in means we take on its flavour. After 9/11 hate crimes against Muslims (and also, vital to note, crimes against people perceived to be Muslim) skyrocketed. A woman in a hijab was set on fire in NYC this week. (You can use the Mighty Mighty Google if you want to seek out all these news stories I’m mentioning.)
Our conversation hit on a lot of those topics. It was full of a lot of things, reflection and earnest curiosity. I think if I had to pick a word to sum up my first impression of Joshua the Human (as opposed to say, the nebulous idea of Joshua Harris the Christian Author), earnest would probably be it, or perhaps thoughtful. Both of those are good words.
But I think, there’s a really good starting place here. Not just for any future interactions between me and Joshua, but kind of in general. For human people.
Listening is a really powerful thing. We should do more of it.
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