Since Thursday, the exvangelical corner of the internet has been consumed with discussions about Josh Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, offering a paid deconstruction course. After an avalanche of feedback, he pulled the course. I think it’s commendable that he did so.
Aside from a few tweets here and there, I haven’t said much about it. It’s hard to have anything resembling “neutral” feelings about it. But the conversations have rightfully evolved into questions of privilege, the role of white men in spaces like deconstruction, and what participation in these spaces looks like.
Here’s my TL;DR:
Joshua Harris’s prior work has harmed people. That’s his burden and by all accounts he knows it well. Even while extending common compassion to him, this is the context within which he engages exvangelicals.
Cis white men like me and [edit: cis men like] Joshua Harris are the primary benefactors of the specific white evangelical cultures that formed us, and of society overall. (Edited to note I am mistaken and Josh Harris is biracial.)
Part of creating robust post/ex-evangelical spaces requires resisting the “easy” route of simply replicating power dynamics & institutions we learned in white evangelicalism.
Exvangelicals are traumatized people, and “creating content” for this space can activate trauma. It can cause drama.
There’s many ways to make amends. There’s fewer ways to make money.
Editing to note this, further edited to include brackets in the text where appropriate:
Blake Chastain @brchastainOk. I wrote about the thing. https://t.co/DlFMlGfA2h
Let’s get this out of the way: I don’t know Josh Harris. We have no relationship of any kind, other than the outsized influence of his books and others (Every Young Man’s Battle and the like) has had on my life. I’ve never spoken with him, but was once put in a group DM with him when Clubhouse was still popping. I know him by reputation and by his work, and if he knows of me it is on those same merits of whatever I’ve put out online (he followed me at one point; I’m not sure if he does now).
Joshua Harris’s Prior Work.
It’s not easy being “Twitter’s Main Character” for the day, whether or not you’re trending on Twitter or you’ve activated a very online group like the #exvangelical community. The sort of anxiety and cognitive load you feel when multiple people are attacking you online is really harrowing. To that end I have sympathy for Joshua because anyone who’s undergone such intense focus knows it is not pleasant, regardless of whether the attention is warranted. In this case, it was warranted.
Joshua Harris has been engaging with exvangelical communities, primarily on Instagram, for the past couple of years. I’m not on Instagram often - it makes me anxious the same way Twitter makes others anxious. But he has been a presence there. He’s made connections, and I’m sure what he’s shared there has helped those who are receptive to him.
But the platform he started with was built upon his audience’s trauma. That is a key and complicating factor. So it was confusing and off-putting to see him position himself as a teacher after only a couple years.
Cis White Men Exiting White Evangelicalism
White evangelicalism is built to allow people like me to succeed comparatively easily, at the expense - and the detriment - of others. This does not negate or invalidate traumas white men experience in white evangelicalism. But neither truth negates the other - white evangelicalism perpetuates systems & behaviors of white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, and racism and white men[edit:/cis men] can suffer trauma within it as well. But we can fully acknowledge that white men are not its primary victims.
It’s not as if white men won’t leave evangelicalism and find themselves in exvangelical community. My own role in starting the #exvangelical hashtag that has proliferated much farther than I could have ever foreseen is a testament to that. But white male experience is decidedly not central to these spaces. And white men are at a disadvantage in justice-oriented community because we often know so little about them. We have a lot to learn.
Early on in the life of my Exvangelical podcast, I wrote a blog post called “The Most Christlike Thing for a Cis/Hetero/White Christian Man to Do with His Power is to Abdicate It.” It was an early articulation of how I view my own privilege. I’ve learned loads since then, and my social and theological views have continued to evolve (as they should). But I still think it’s true. Which leads to the next point.
On Not Replicating Evangelical Practices
Even though the rate of change has felt accelerated in the past few years, the passage of time has remained constant.
These are still very new communities. These are still very new cultures.1
I say communities because by the very nature of the tools we must use to connect, they are prone to proliferating on multiple networks, and develop their own customs. “Splinters” occur not because of some deep theological divide, but because of algorithms and a flurry of content. Some get popular, some don’t. Some like Josh Harris already have established followings.
While people have been leaving white evangelicalism for a long time, our ability to connect has been greatly amplified in the last few years thanks to online platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and the rest. It brings together people who were arranged in a certain way, with certain power dynamics, to talk through what the hell happened to us.
A key part of this ongoing conversation is not just to articulate what has happened to us, but also to ensure that we do not build our new communities to conform to the same sorts of norms as the ones we fled.
These are still very new communities. These are still very new cultures.
One key goal should be to challenge assumptions of white male privilege. This doesn’t mean that white men can’t participate. It does mean that our voices and perspectives aren’t privileged in the same way. The moderation team of the Exvangelical Facebook group I help administer is not populated by cis white men; in fact, cis white men are the minority.
The easy out in this instance is for a white man operating in these spaces to opt-out, and regress Glenn Beck-style to the sort of angry-white-guy default that populates the conservative mediasphere. To do so is to learn nothing. It’s easier to be offended & reactive, to say that “exvangelicals are just as fundamentalist as the evangelicalism they left,” than to sit in the discomfort of learning that a space -one you might love! - isn’t wholly dedicated to [white] male ease & comfort. As a white guy, that means a lot of emotional work. It’s not easy. But it’s also necessary if [white] men are ever going to be meaningful participants in any space that’s trying to make this unjust world a bit more just and equitable.
Exvangelical Trauma, Exvangelical Drama
The exvangelical community is extremely online. It’s also extremely traumatized. Those two go hand in hand, and yet often work against one another. One example: it’s hard to administer a space like a facebook group where you have to enforce group rules and cultivate norms, knowing that doing so might mean you have to remove people who violate them - and potentially trigger a trauma associated with them being removed from a church. Another example is what has played out over the past couple days surrounding Josh Harris.
It’s been played up as “drama.” While it is dramatic, and I have been involved in dramatic online scuffles myself, to distill it down to just “internet drama” is a bit dismissive.
People that engage with deconstruction content online are working through intensely personal, deep-rooted issues of identity and belonging. Yes, there are funny Veggie Tales jokes and lots of good memes, because gallows humor helps, but there’s a lot of pain there, too.
It’s worth noting that even making these spaces and content can be difficult or traumatic. There’s burnout. Podcasters, instagrammers, moderators stop making content because it can be too much. People process their shifting perspectives and move on to other things and grow in different ways. It’s all valid. But it gets messy sometimes. But I’d rather be open about it, and own it, than pretend it doesn’t exist.
“Creator Economy” Tools Feel Familiar…
For people raised in church, there’s something oddly familiar about the direct-support tools offered by Substack, Patreon, and the like: it feels like tithing. Paying to gain access to a Discord server feels a bit like tithing. Paying direct support for a creator can feel like sponsoring a missionary.
These tools are necessary because our social safety nets have been hollowed out. These new tools are also basically just “secular” versions of support that have been used by religions for thousands of years.
Once again, we must consider traumatic associations.
Yes, creators should be paid for their work. But why not be thoughtful and acknowledge that a [cis] white man asking for money for a vaguely spiritual product would trigger prior associations? I am thankful for my paid subscribers here, and I aspire to have enough to do this work full-time. But once again, we cannot ignore this context or we are doomed to repeat the same patterns.
I don’t know what Josh Harris should do instead. That’s for him to explore in private and in public. I do know there’s more than one way to make amends, more than one way to lend support. People will judge his prior writings, his prior pastoral involvement at SGM and elsewhere, and his current work on those merits.
There are necessary distinctions to make between cultures, followings, and communities, but that is beyond the scope of this essay.