By Hannah Renee Paasch
Before I could even look at boys I was sneaking off to the romance novel section of my local Christian bookstore when my folks would stop in for commentaries or prayer journals. Janette Oke knew what was UP. Even as a kid I sensed that her wildly ahistorical plots—the battles, the cloak-and-dagger intrigues that somehow seemed to all magically orbit around one couple’s love story—were escapism at best.
Enter Josh Harris.
Josh Harris became the best Christian romance novelist of our time. Here was a guy telling “true” love stories with real happy endings. Josh’s characters didn’t have the fantastical, vaguely foreign names and occupations that the protagonists in the other stories did—these were real, down-to-earth, normal-kids-from-your-youth-group kinda people.
David and Claire.
Shawn and Joanna.
Josh and Shannon.
Josh himself became the real star of the story, though—the arch-protagonist, the one real, down-to-earth, normal kid from your youth group who had stumbled upon the secret formula and bottled it like so many little bottles of Horace Slughorn’s love potion for all his clueless peers. How to Find Your Own Happy Ending, in 78 Easy Steps!
We bought it, hook line and sinker.
We bought it. Thousands and thousands of copies of it.
Josh sold us the notion that falling in love was “God’s idea”—that his perfect plan, your perfect mate, was out there in the world, and if we could only listen to the Spirit guiding us, we would surely find our way to our heterosexual match-made-in-actual-heaven. It’s a very comforting sort of idea—this notion that God is keeping track of our perfect mate, a person who is definitely out there somewhere in the universe, just waiting for us. That God is just waiting for us to guard our hearts and abstain from enough pleasure before he reveals his PERFECT PLAN for our (love) lives. It lends a sort of comfortable inevitability to the horrifyingly hard work of trying to find a soulmate.
When falling in love becomes God’s idea—the creator of the universe our cosmic matchmaker—what could possibly go wrong?
Then, of course, we actually fall in love. Or lust. Or like. Our bodies are literally built to. Our hormones reach out to each other’s bodies and our hungry young hearts yearn for affection; for companionship; for belonging. We become convinced that, since we are experiencing these feelings, it must be the doing of our cosmic Yenta in the sky. We feverishly search for “signs,” for some sort of divine validation that our heart’s choice is the right one.
When I was 16, I met the one.
The first one, anyway.
We weren’t allowed to date—or court—technically, but it had been six whole years since I had read Boy Meets Girl (I was just on the cusp of the I Kissed Dating Goodbye generation and was given BMG first) and it felt like one person had never waited so long for anything. I worked at a coffee shop, and in between my love’s very few and far between visits, I would search for any kind of random sign that my heart was on the right track—I’d read “destiny” in a lucky number on a customer’s receipt or a stray, unrelated sentence in the books I’d read between shifts.
Shit got weird.
When God is writing your love story, all the world is a Magic 8 ball. I was so frantically searching for proof from heaven that I ignored all the red flags I should have picked up on in my love’s actual treatment of me—the gaslighting, the abuse, the manipulation went wholly unnoticed in the story of my divinely appointed romance. Sprinkle a robust savior complex into this recipe for disaster and you wind up with a decade of heartbreak and disillusionment.
I started “rehabbing” from the harmful theology of romantic predestination a few years back, but it wasn’t until this year, ten years out from my first love and a fresh divorce under my belt, that I began to truly tear down and reassemble the ways in which I seek and find love.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to tell our stories. Un-anonymously.
We are here to help one another heal; to decode a lifetime’s worth of cruel and unusual punishment that purity culture, largely ushered in by Harris’s one-two punch of confusing but strangely evocative guidebooks, inflicted upon us.
We are here to bind one another’s wounds and to remove the yokes from each other’s shoulders.
Oof, there’s a lot of work to do.
Let’s get started.
Hannah Renee Paasch is the co-founder of The Flawless Project and lives in Nashville, TN with her two cats Ruth and Earl. Hannah is also the housing outreach navigator for a local non-profit that helps people experiencing homelessness, and the frontwoman of feminist-blues-rock ‘n roll outfit Ida Grey, whose work can be found here.