What I’ve been trying to keep in front of me as I’ve been reading is that Joshua was 23, and on top of being really young he grew up in the same homeschooling culture I did– and at this point in his life was being inducted into the cult-like atmosphere of C.J. Mahaney’s Sovereign Grace Ministries. If you’re wondering why SGM is ringing a bell, it’s because they’re the folks that spent a lot of time and energy covering up the fact that children were being raped and molested in their churches in order to protect the abusers.
That’s where Joshua was at this point in his life. He was being instructed by Mahaney, a man whose leadership is utterly void of any form of Christian love or compassion. So, I have a lot of empathy for what he was going through … but he was still disastrously wrong in writing IKDG.
The first thing I want to highlight is in the differences Joshua and I have toward the Bible– and it’s more than just our differences on inspiration. He opens chapter four by referencing Ephesians 4, where Paul encourages us to “throw off your old evil nature and your former way of life, which is rotten through and through … instead there must be a spiritual renewal” (49).
When people like Joshua read these passages, it’s in the context of individualism and the sorts of “evil” that conservative evangelicals point to … like rebellion in children or watching R-rated films. However, I don’t think a word like phtheirō— which means utterly corrupted, destroyed, ruined— is an appropriate term to describe two teenagers fooling around in a parked car (53). However, phteirō is properly rendered in something that destroys as many human lives as misogyny or white supremacy have. I do believe in “throwing off your old evil nature.” But, because conservative evangelicals like Joshua are trapped in seeing sin as individual and not communal, they’re inevitably going to arrive at interpretations of Ephesians 4 that apply it to ordinary human behavior.
But, let’s move into the steps Joshua lays out for how Christians can “renew” their dating life:
1. Every relationship is an opportunity to model Christ’s love.
Yes, of course. Joshua even harkens back to Jesus’ proclamation they shall know you by how you love one another— a standard Christians don’t have the reputation of living up to. But, that’s not what I want to talk about:
Unfortunately, much of her interaction with guys is fake–it focuses on attracting attention to herself … (50)
And now contrast that with:
He still operates from the old dating mindset that he’s incomplete without a girlfriend. (51)
We could also contrast this statement about a young woman with how he described his own motivations for dating “selfishly” in the first chapter– according to him, he was seeking emotional gratification and avoiding loneliness. But the young woman he describes isn’t dating around for a sympathetic reason, no, she’s doing it to get attention. Because of course that’s all women really want, right? We’re not motivated by anything less vapid or shallow like “loneliness” or “cultural pressure.”
I’m positive this was unintentional. Joshua doesn’t strike me as an active misogynist; he’s not deliberately trying to make women look horrible. It just happened because, unfortunately, he was brought up to believe sexist things about women, like that we’re attention-seeking fake liars. He’s hardly alone.
2. My unmarried years are a gift from God.
He’s recycling the familiar message that you can get more done when you’re single:
As a single you have the freedom right now to explore, study, and tackle the world. No other time in your life will offer these chances. (51)
Granted, I’ve only been married for three years and I don’t have kids (which is still more experience than him) but so far the opposite of this has been true. Having Handsome as a partner has enabled me to do so much more than I was capable of producing by myself. I have his support and encouragement backing me up, I have him to bounce ideas and arguments around with, I have him to be inspired by. I also think it’s possible to experience these sorts of thing with people you don’t ultimately marry, too. Any good relationship should leave you feeling stronger and braver, I think.
It’s important to note that buried under the assumption that married people don’t have “freedom” is the belief that married people always have children. This is most definitely not true, but the expectation is still there.
3. I don’t need to pursue a romantic relationship before I’m ready for marriage.
Two things to highlight:
Both [Jenny and her boyfriend] have specific things to accomplish for God before they can take that step [toward marriage]. (51)
These things they’re supposed to “accomplish for God” are almost always described in classist, sexist terms. Complete a college education, have a 9-to-5 job, own a home, be able to support a middle-class suburban lifestyle … take your pick, the whole “white picket fence with 2.5 kids” is what you’re supposed to be able to “accomplish” in Joshua’s world. Maybe not to Joshua, personally, he doesn’t really say, but every preacher in our common backgrounds cited “able to attain a middle class life” as the only thing you really needed to be able to do before you get married.
Highlight Number Two:
If you’re not ready to consider marriage or you’re not truly interested in marrying a specific person, it’s selfish and potentially very harmful to encourage that person to need you, or ask him or her to gratify you emotionally or physically. (52)
See, Joshua, this sort of thing is why a bunch of the people who read IKDG walked away with the notion that they could only date people they already knew they wanted to marry, which ended up making “hey would you like to grab coffee sometimes” basically an offer of marriage.
4. I cannot “own” someone outside of marriage.
Ai yi yi. You cannot “own” someone inside of marriage, either. Marriage is not slavery. Marriage should be an equal partnership of people. It can challenge us, it can ask us to sacrifice sometimes, but it should never make us slaves to our spouses.
It honestly makes me ill that Joshua was taught to believe that getting married entitled him to own a woman. He says how bad it is for us to seriously date someone without marrying them because we “would have made unwarranted claims,” but he doesn’t challenge the idea that supposedly marriage is a “warranted claim” to another human being. That’s disturbing.
But we also get this:
Even though they hadn’t had sex, they constantly struggle with going too far. (53)
“Too far,” of course, is “penetrative intercourse.” This definition prioritizes men and the male orgasm; it also completely erases non-heteronormative sex. Even cisgender heterosexual couples are capable of having a completely satisfactory sexual experience, orgasms and all, mutual pleasure and all, without anyone’s penis going into anyone’s vagina.
5. I will avoid situations that could compromise the purity of my body or mind.
This chapter is where we get our first incidence of rape culture peeking through:
She thinks it’s very romantic, and it gives her a feeling of control over her boyfriend, who, to be quite honest, will go as far in their physical relationship as Jessica will allow. (53)
Firstly, men are not sex-craved beasts. If men exist in the default state of “going as far as their girlfriends allow,” that makes male rape impossible. Except, men aren’t permanently consenting to any and all sex acts available to them. This statement is also steeped in rape culture because it contains the dangerous idea that women are the “sexual gatekeepers.” We’re not– and treating us like we are makes rape our fault. We “allowed” it to happen … through kissing him, or being alone with him, or “leading him on” in a thousand indefinable ways that are constantly shifting.
But now I have a question for purity culture advocates: why is “purity” always about what you do (or want to do) with your genitals? Why couldn’t it be a call for us to abstain from greed? Greed can cause far more devastation– on people, on our planet, on our society– than having sex ever could, so why are we so obsessed with fornication rather than avarice?
Making the Trade
This is his conclusion to the chapter, and it asks us to think about giving God our best, instead of being “plagued by the question ‘Has God given me His best?'” It’s a Christian rendition of ask not what your country can do for you. This is the core of his argument:
You and I will never experience God’s best … until we give God our all. (55)
In my opinion, this makes God incredibly petty. Traditionally, they created us as inferior creatures. We’re not as wise or as powerful as themself, so why is an all-powerful and utterly sovereign deity dependent on us to “give our all” before they’ll allow us to experience their “best”? That just seems capricious and juvenile.
Joshua does seem like a genuinely sweet and sincere person, but I have a feeling that the implicit sexism, the subtle jabs at women, and the appearances of rape culture are going to be a continual problem.