The evangelical world has been in a bit of an uproar the past couple weeks ever since Joshua Harris, author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, announced he is walking away from the Christian faith. Conversations were already sparked in previous years when he publicly denounced his best-selling book, one in which he gave high praise for what has been popularly dubbed as “purity culture.”
In a statement on his blog, Harris laments some of the ideas promoted in the book, such as never kissing or dating until marriage, and the ways these ideas instilled a “fear of making mistakes” as well as “gave some the impression that a certain methodology of relationships would deliver a happy-ever-after ending.”
Harris’s statement echoes typical criticisms of a movement that, while perhaps well-intentioned, often leaned toward an external, rule-keeping approach to a Christian sexual ethic, one that can reduce sexuality to a Divine bargaining chip (I follow the rules, God gives me a good marriage), overlook matters of the heart, and produce shame and self-loathing instead of freedom and joy.
As I read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter this week, it was impossible not to see parallels to Harris’s faith journey, even though the two stories unfold centuries apart. The bridge between the two? The issue of shame and the way both Harris and Hawthorne warn us of the inherent pitfalls of excessive rule-keeping and the connection between maintaining perfect external appearances and self-loathing.
We see this issue played out dramatically in the climactic meeting of Hester and Dimmesdale, two sinners reeling from their affair still seven years later. Not only has Hester been publicly shamed, forced to wear an enduring reminder of her adultery, but she’s also been sentenced to a solitary life and excluded from society for those seven years. But Dimmesdale, though he never experienced public shame, has endured his punishment, suffering under a guilty conscience and feeling heartsick “at the contrast between what [he] seems and what [he] has become.” As a beloved pastor, his congregation still has him on a pedestal; in his heart, Dimmesdale knows he is much more deserving of the scaffold.
A subtle shift has occurred from the pain of Dimmesdale’s committing an affair to an agony of another sort – the quiet imprisonment produced by the unrelenting shame he feels in having to hide from those who know him best. Hester’s suggestion that Dimmesdale has repented is no consolation for him as long as he is still living a lie. He cheated in having an affair, but it does not compare to the “torment of a seven-year cheat” that is his pretending. It isn’t any wonder Dimmesdale expresses to Hester that it is a relief to “look into an eye that recognizes me for what I am.”
It is in this expression of Dimmesdale’s that we see the desire of our hearts: to be seen and known, mistakes and all, and loved anyway. Oh, how we long to experience the deep exhale and freedom that comes with getting the impossible standard off our backs! To no longer experience our mistakes as a barrier to love!
But sadly, it is due to this very longing we are so often led to the edge of another pitfall. Too often, rather than re-evaluate our relationship to the “rules” or think through how we might practically live out a Biblical standard in today’s modern world, too many of us are tempted to believe that the problem lies in having a standard at all. While Harris and Hawthorne both rightly point out the harm of legalistic Christianity (Jesus had some strong words for those who would pile unnecessarily heavy burdens on people’s shoulders), there is an opposite extreme Hawthorne explores – our tendency to want to abandon (or perhaps reform) a community that seeks to place any standards on our shoulders.
This is what Joshua Harris has decided to do in his abandonment of Christianity.
And it is what Hester Prynne offers up to Dimmesdale as an antidote for his own self-loathing. Through Hester, Hawthorne explores the Romantic notion that the best way to eliminate our shame is simply to eliminate the concept of sin. She appeals to Dimmesdale, asserting that “these iron men and their opinions” have kept him “in bondage too long already.” The best thing for Dimmesdale to do, according to Hester, is to leave and start somewhere new – somewhere he can live without “fear and shame.” Eliminating sin begins to look a whole lot like running.
Before we are too hard on Joshua Harris – or ourselves for that matter – let’s remember that Hawthorne invites us to sympathize with Dimmesdale. We feel the weight of his shame, we identify with the pain of self-loathing, with that nagging sense that we fall short. And far, far too many of us identify with the pain of belonging to a community that would produce people who’d rather die of self-loathing than face their harsh judgment. Thus, we find ourselves nodding along to the invitation to run. We hope Dimmesdale accepts it.
Perhaps then we might find it in our hearts to sympathize with Harris, too. I dare say we almost certainly would if we were honest.
And yet, this is not where Hawthorne leaves us. Through Dimmesdale, we are also invited to consider an uncomfortable truth – it is not ultimately men’s judgment we are under in the first place, but God’s. And if that is the case, then the fallen leaves of a Romantic forest – or the fig leaves of a garden – are no match for the piercing eye of a holy God.
What then is the way out of our shame? In the final chapters, Hawthorne sneaks-up on us with a surprising answer – one that I hope Joshua Harris will find the freedom to consider one day.