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Why we need a Joshua Harris rule

How about a moratorium on Christian self-help books from authors under age 40?

Marie Kondo speaks to reporters in New York on July 11, 2018. Associated Press/Photo by Seth Wenig

Why we need a Joshua Harris rule
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Parents (and especially moms) everywhere sighed in relief when they learned that even the “queen of clean” could not quite pull off her own advice. In January, self-help star Marie Kondo joined a long list of lifestyle experts who have renounced pronouncements made at an earlier age on how to live life well.

Kondo was launched to international fame by a 2010 book on decluttering and organizing that she wrote at the age of 26, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, in which she instructed readers to throw out any of their belongings that did not “spark joy.” The book earned Kondo a Netflix series in 2019, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, and scandalized academics and book-hoarders with her advice to subject even our beloved libraries to her trademark “KonMari” cleaning method, purging every title that fails to spark sufficient joy. After all, she writes in her book, “in the end, you are going to read very few of your books again.”

With more than eight million copies sold, surely Kondo herself has produced a sizeable share of the books that no longer spark joy and must be excised from the shelf. Especially now that, at the age of 38 and with three children, Kondo is rethinking what it means to live well. In a recent webinar, she confessed that she has “kind of given up on that” lifestyle of keeping a perpetually tidy home. “Now I realize what is important to me is enjoying spending time with my children at home.”

This is not the first time a self-help author later came to a more mature understanding of the world after publishing a bestseller, and, without some sort of serious intervention, it will not be the last. Unmarried, and at the ripe age of 22, Joshua Harris published I Kissed Dating Goodbye in 1997. In the book, Harris recommended that serious Christians steer clear of dating: it “may seem an innocent game, but as I see it, we are sinning against each other.” As he puts it now, “its basic premise was that the best way to avoid pre-marital sex was to stop dating altogether.”

Solon, the legendary Athenian lawgiver, once counseled that we should “count no man blessed until he is dead.”

A year after publishing the book, Harris got married and would later have three children. It is no surprise that his views would develop. Like Kondo, Harris refers to being a parent of three as a reason for rethinking his earlier views. “As a dad to three teenagers, I think dating can be a healthy part of a person developing relationally.” “My book, in an effort to set a high standard, emphasized practices (like not dating or not kissing before marriage) and concepts (like “giving your heart away”) that are not in the Bible. In trying to warn people of the potential pitfalls of dating, instead it often instilled fear—fear of making mistakes or having their heart broken.”

As detrimental as the book was for many of Harris’ readers who, as Albert Mohler notes, took its “argument even further,” it appears that it also took a toll on Harris’ own soul. “I have so much of my identity tied up in these books. It’s what I’m known for. It’s like, well, crap, is the biggest thing I’ve done in my life this really huge mistake?”

Sadly, 22 years after publishing I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Harris not only renounced the book but also renounced his views on human sexuality and his Christian faith, and divorced his wife. The problem here is not so much the message but the messenger. As Mohler observed, “a very loose dating culture had indeed brought a great deal of sin and grief to so many young people.” But if a dating culture run amuck truly was a “training ground for divorce,” as Harris argued in his book, then we need relationship self-help books whose authors’ own lives have proven divorce-proof. After all, we read self-help books not solely for the message but because we find the lives of the authors “blessed;” in such lives we find vignettes of the good life.

Solon, the legendary Athenian lawgiver, once counseled that we should “count no man blessed until he is dead,” waiting until the end of a life to evaluate whether it was one worth emulation. We are not so patient as the Greeks, however, and to ask readers to wait until an author is dead (while sound advice) may be too tall an order. Therefore, in our own impatient age, we might adapt Solon’s advice: “Read no self-help book until the author is at least forty with kids.” For, as another wise man once said, “gray hair is a crown of splendor; it is attained in the way of righteousness.”

John Schweiker Shelton

John Shelton is the policy director for Advancing American Freedom. He received degrees from Duke Divinity School and the University of Virginia, and he lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Katelyn, and their children.

Katelyn Walls Shelton

Katelyn Walls Shelton is a Bioethics Fellow at the Paul Ramsey Institute. She is a women’s health policy consultant who previously worked to promote the well-being of women and the unborn at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She graduated from Yale Divinity School and Union University and lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, John, and their three children.


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