The author of a now discontinued book that taught young Christians that dating could threaten their future relationships has created —and swiftly removed — a 5-week course on how to deal with religious trauma and find your own true beliefs.
Joshua Harris — the author in the center of the controversy — is an ex-pastor and leader of the evangelical purity culture movement of the 1990s and early 2000s. In 2019, he renounced his Christian faith and ceased publication of all his books.
Since Harris stopped publication of his books in 2019, he’s appeared on various podcasts and blogs to talk about what he’s learned from those affected by his work.
When he launched his “Reframe Your Story” course last week, the people he was hoping would sign up for the course immediately pushed back, causing him to remove the course from his website and cancel course sessions.
The five-week course on religious trauma recovery and leaving Christianity was priced at $275. He offered a free option “to anyone harmed by purity culture and my past books” and included a promo code (GIFT) for the discount.
The course was marketed as aiming to help people understand what caused them to doubt their faith and how to make peace with their changing beliefs.
After sharp backlash online, Harris removed the course signup page from its dedicated website. It is unclear if he plans to offer the course in the future.
Who The “Reframe Your Story” Target Market Wasn’t
Harris presumably saw members of the online exvangelical community and those who’ve experienced deconstruction of their faiths as potential participants of his course.
These words — “deconstruction” and “exvangelical” — have become buzzwords in recent years to describe people who have left the church or are questioning evangelical Christianity. These terms contain a lot of nuance, said Blake Chastain, creator of the Exvangelical Podcast.
In an interview, Chastain explained “deconstruction” as what happens when people raised in evangelical environments grow up and have experiences that contradict what they were taught about the world. He explained that many evangelical communities discourage doubt and questioning and often provide alternate facts about topics like sexuality and American history.
“When you enter into the real world and participate in it, and it doesn’t match with what you’ve been taught, that leads to this cognitive dissonance,” he said. ”The way the term ‘deconstruction’ is used online is to identify that process of challenging and questioning the narratives that were given to you, and deciding whether or not you will affirm them or perpetuate them,” Chastain said.
Deconstruction has also been a hot topic, with Christian media company “The Gospel Coalition” writing a book about the phenomenon and high-profile Christian musicians like John Cooper, lead singer of the band Skillet, discussing the phenomenon and giving followers guidance on how to “deconstruct” their faith without losing their belief in God.
Instead of embracing Harris’ “Reframe Your Story” course, online commenters accused him of trying to profit from a problem he partially created.
Other content creators say Harris linked to their work in what he called a downloadable “Deconstruction Starter Pack” without contacting them first; access to the document Harris provided was advertised as free, but required users to sign up for marketing emails.
These content creators were upset about the move, saying they never would have allowed him to link to their work, especially since he could profit from obtaining email addresses.
Brady Hardin, co-host of “The Life After Podcast,” a show about leaving spiritual abuse and evangelicalism, was one of these creators who was upset Harris linked to their work without consent.
Hardin posted a statement about it and contacted Harris. Harris included Hardin’s statement in an email he sent to people who had signed up for the course.
“My complaint is that when Harris used the podcast we decidedly provide for free (I understand the post-ministry struggle, too, plus I’m a single parent who lost relationships with my Christian family after coming out as queer) as a means to market his content without ever asking for consent or giving knowledge, it didn’t just misrepresent Josh as having a relationship with our show to a few hundred potential new listeners, but it also implicitly exemplified problematic behaviors “The Life After Podcast” aims to address for people deconstructing Christian Fundamentalism and harm of its culture,” Hardin wrote.
“Josh showed a willingness to learn today in a way I madly respect. I’d be a fool to not see it. And his bravery to open up about leadership abuse really encourages me. Thank you, Josh, for making amends, not just an apology. When the time and project are appropriate, I can’t wait to see what you produce next,” Hardin said in the second statement.
The course signup page was replaced on August 14 with a statement from Harris . He declined to be interviewed for this story, saying “I’m taking a little break from doing interviews. Thanks for understanding” in response to a request for comment by Reckon South.
The Backlash Continues
The course was live on the site for less than a week before Harris took it down in the wake of social media backlash.
Some former evangelicals believe it inappropriate for Harris to create such a course.
“I believe he has the resources, connections, experience, marketing know-how, and skills it would take to cleverly break this message of stopping abuse-enabling through to church culture despite leaving the faith,” Hardin said. “His role isn’t going to be the hero for people who left Fundamentalism. His appropriate role isn’t to serve as a mentor either. I believe Josh’s role is to find a back-the-scenes way to produce and amplify others to reduce systematic abuse.”
Emily Joy Allison, who wrote “#ChurchToo: How Purity Culture Upholds Abuse,” said Harris hasn’t shown he’s the right person to help people traumatized by fundamentalist religion, noting his history of speaking as an authority without building a foundation based in experience.
“He wrote a book about how to have a good marriage when he was single and 21. He was a pastor without ever having gone to seminary, and now he’s trying to do deconstruction work when he just got out (of Christianity). His entire life has been a story about doing shit that he is not qualified for and harming people in the process,” Allison said.
Harris was pastor at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, for 11 years before he left in 2015 to attend seminary. Four years later he publicly renounced his faith.
Harris himself described the situation as a “backwards life.”
“I was 30 years old, with no formal theological training and no formal training in organizational leadership, and I was the senior pastor of a 3,000 member church,” Harris said in a now-removed blog post on the Covenant Life Church website.
He released a documentary in 2017 about the harm caused by his “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” series, and later denounced the teachings in the books and before ceasing publication of all of his books in 2019.
Repentance, Forgiveness, and Accountability
In the past two years, some in the exvangelical community have been interested in what Harris has to say.
Harris wrote the foreword to “On Her Knees,” a memoir by Brenda Marie Davies about her experience with purity culture. On her YouTube channel, called “God is Grey,” Davies talks about how Christians can be more inclusive and reject harmful teachings that alienate people of color and LGBTQ people.
Harris has also discussed his books and his role in the harm purity culture has caused for some followers on various podcasts, including “The Bible for Normal People” hosted by theologian Pete Enns and “The Confessional” hosted by Nadia Bolz-Weber.
In July 2019. Harris posted on his Instagram:
“I have lived in repentance for the past several years—repenting of my self-righteousness, my fear-based approach to life, the teaching of my books, my views of women in the church, and my approach to parenting to name a few. But I specifically want to add to this list now: 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.”
Despite her disapproval of Harris’ new work, Allison said she does recognize the ex-evangelical community must have open conversation about accountability for pastors or evangelical teachers who want to engage with people negatively affected by their teachings.
“These are big questions and I don’t know exactly what the answer to that is because we’ve never had a situation like this. I will say that I do think it has to be possible for people to cross over and make amends because otherwise we are all just sitting around intellectually masturbating,” she said.
“I actually do think it’s important for us as an ex-evangelical community, to think through those questions of like, what would it actually look like? Because we need to be able to tell people what we need.”
Allison described the backlash against Harris as the exvangelical community holding him accountable.
“Almost every time he opens his mouth, he says something harmful. So I hope that he does take a break from interviews for a while in order to really put himself in a position of accountability,” Allison said.