I haven’t read this book since I was in college, so reading it again almost a decade later is an … interesting experience. I was honestly expecting to be more annoyed than I currently am, so finding myself genuinely understanding where Joshua is coming from and even empathizing with him a great deal is surprising. I still strongly disagree with him (and probably will be horribly annoyed at him later), but I’ve been in the ideological place he was at 23 (and 28, when he updated IKDG), so I get it.
As I read the opening chapters, I realized that Joshua is working with two basic, under-girding assumptions and one unexamined problem. First, he essentially believes in the same general ideas that led people to found the monastic orders and that abnegation is always morally good.
The monastic orders drew their justification for existence primarily from I Corinthians 7. Early in the chapter, Paul bemoans the fact that people have to get married “because it is better to marry than to burn,” but nevertheless he wishes “all men could be like as I am.” In a word, he’s traditionally been taken to mean “single,” but queer theology posits he meant asexual. Later he argues that married people’s attention is “divided” but a single person can be “devoted” to God. The early church got really caught up in this idea, some people even possibly taking it to self-castrating extremes. Lots of people in those days gave up families and marriages (possible and existing), and the impulse toward monasticism remains today in attempts to redeem singleness from the marry-or-else attitude in Christian culture — arguing for it as “a time when you can commit completely to serving God.”
This impulse comes out a few times in IKDG:
We were violating each other’s purity, and our spiritual lives were stagnant as a result (17).
Instead, by avoiding romantic, one-on-one relationships before God tells me I’m ready, I can better serve girls as a friend, and I can remain free to keep my focus on the Lord. (20)
I’m not going to waste your time rehashing why gnostic dualism = bad, but it should become apparent that it’s one of the driving forces behind monasticism and this book. When you’re convinced that “wanting things that feel good” is inherently a problem, then you’re inevitably going to have issues with dating simply because it’s fun. According to Joshua’s ability to weigh risks and reward in this ascetic system, the fun of dating and fooling around is extremely outweighed by the “danger” of heartbreak and possibly becoming “spiritually stagnant.”
Which leads us to his second assumption: that abnegation is always morally good.
If you haven’t read the Divergent series yet, I’m going to be horrible and spoil some of it for you #SorryNotSorry. In the series, the main character Tris is raised in a “Faction” called “Abnegation.” In short, this faction sees selfishness as responsible for all the world’s ills, so they totally reject it … and Joshua does the same thing:
But I’m still aware of the consequences of my selfishness (14).
My own self-centered approach to romance started young (15).
I was still very immature and selfish. (16)
…we can no longer live for ourselves–we now live for God and for the good of others (19).
And not with the selfish kind of love I practiced so often in the past (20).
I believe the time has come for Christians, male and female, to own up to the mess we’ve left behind in our selfish pursuit of short-term romance (23).
This first chapter gives us the contextual insight to show us what he means by selfish— a term he uses on nearly every page. Most of us define selfish as “placing personal desire over the good of others”; in a way, he is working with this idea, but he’s taking it one step further: the opposite of selfishness isn’t merely consideration for others, but abnegation:
Every relationship for a Christian is an opportunity to love another person like God has loved us. To lay down our desires and do what’s in his or her best interest. To care for him or her even when there’s nothing in it for us. To want that person’s purity and holiness because it pleases God and protects him or her. (19)
On its face, I don’t really disagree. I do believe in loving others as God loves us, to put others first, to care for others without needing something in return … but only to a point. At some point, the need for self-protection and boundaries becomes necessary. Like that old adage “put on your own oxygen mask first,” we can only be helpful and good to others when we are helpful and good to ourselves. However, that gets a bit lost in this chapter.
Now for the unexamined problem I mentioned earlier:
When I stopped seeing girls as potential girlfriends and started treating them as sisters in Christ, I discovered the richness of true friendship. (21)
Replace “potential girlfriends” with “objects” and “sisters in Christ” with “people,” and you’ll have a better understanding of what Joshua means, I think. A few times so far he has actually admitted that he saw women as objects (15), and part of his motivation for rejecting dating seems to be a rejection of misogyny. He’s still sexist as hell, but the descriptions he gives of his dating life as a teenager made me think wow you were a real sonuhfagun. He was cavalier, narcissistic, and horribly entitled. It’s good that he rejected that … but he’s swung too far in the opposite direction because he went from a misogynistic point of view to a benevolently sexist one.
That’s totally unsurprisingly considering the circles he travels in– benevolent sexism is one of the hallmarks of complementarianism and conservative evangelicalism. However, the problem is that while he stopped trying to use the women he viewed as objects … he never really stops viewing them as objects. They’re just on a pedestal now and off-limits, instead of something he feels entitled to.
The biggest thing that bothered me about this first chapter is that he never actually encourages you to think about what the other person wants. He swears up and down that he is, that “thinking about others” is what’s compelling him to give up dating, but he presumes to know better than women about what’s good for them and what they want. If she wants to kiss you, or sleep with you … well, the implication is that she’s a hussy, but mostly that possibility just doesn’t enter into the equation.
I’m all for deciding for yourself whether or not dating or sex is something you want. If you feel that not dating or having sex casually will be the best thing for your own mental or emotional health, then I support you 100%. However, what you do not get to do is decide that for other people, especially women. In IKDG, though, Joshua is pretty emphatic about “protecting” other people, and takes the stance that rejecting dating is the “mature” and “godly” position … and that people who haven’t similarly rejected dating or physical intimacy are immature and ungodly, so you have to remove the stumbling block from your weaker sibling’s path.
That’s incredibly patronizing. Considering this was all coming from an unmarried 23-year-old, I feel especially patronized. It’s all covered over with a grimy layer of sexism, too, so there’s that as well. One chapter in, and we’re already off to a somewhat bumpy start. And I didn’t even touch that horrible six-former-girlfriends-at-the-altar-nightmare.