Q&A: Jessica Van Der Wyngaard (“I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye”)

(Photos Courtesy of DOCSology and I Survived IKDG)

Q&A: Jessica Van Der Wyngaard (“I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye”)

By Sarah Komisky

If you’re a young adult that was in the church in the ‘90s and early ‘00’s, you remember the following book title like it was yesterday: “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” Ring a bell? I thought so. If you didn’t hear about it in your youth group, maybe someone gave it to you as a gift, or you yourself stumbled upon it out of curiosity. Either way, the “it” book on purity made a huge impact beyond the bestseller list. Some 20 years removed from the peak of the purity movement when Joshua Harris was just twenty-one, he is now ready and willing to revisit his book with a renewed perspective. However, this time he collaborated with someone unexpected – one of his former readers.

Enter Jessica Van Der Wyngaard, a former reader and student who was a classmate of Harris while he was on a sabbatical from his pastoral teaching role to peruse theological studies at Regent College in Canada. Soon she approached Harris with an idea for a new documentary for her master’s thesis that would be a reflection on relationships, dating, and sex in our culture today. Joining the crew was Iwan Russell-Jones, Regent faculty member and longtime producer and director for the BBC. The final product would be the film “I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye.”

Recently, Marked Ministry caught up with Van Der Wyngaard to chat about the new film on purity culture, working with Harris, and more. Here’s what she had to say.

Jessica, having read “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” and been a part of a church culture that embraced the anti-dating craze of the evangelical church as a teen, then having the opportunity to work with Joshua Harris as an adult, some might say your partnership with the author might not work based on your differences (i.e. past experience, your relationship status, gender, etc.) Clearly this isn’t true. Talk about what the collaboration has been like and why you wanted to work with Joshua.

Jessica: I wanted to work with Josh because his story seemed like a great place to start to engage with these issues in the way that could have the greatest impact and have a positive impact on the church to bring people along the journey of re-evaluation. And, telling one person’s story and making the film personal and story driven seemed the best approach. Rather than make it very topical and maybe losing people along the way. I was very grateful that Joshua Harris was happy to be a part of that.

After several months of consideration, Joshua said yes to sharing his reflections on the impact of his book. What did you learn through the process of his disclosure?

Jessica: I developed a lot of respect for Joshua Harris as someone who was ready to go back and reevaluate, ask questions and be critical of his signature work, his legacy in a sense, through “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” He faced his critics and let me put several cameras in his face while he did so. I learned so much about the humility of a Christian leader and someone whose heart really is to continue to try to serve the church and serve individuals. Him and I both did research for the film and read in parallel a lot of books, so we were both learning at the same time, bouncing ideas off one another. So, in many ways, his final thoughts, though they are very much his own, are a collaborative journey.

Let’s talk about the evangelical community in the ‘90s and early ‘00’s that was heavily influenced by the purity culture that reinforced rules and how-to’s instead of grace. You yourself had experienced pain and ran into many who experienced the same. For many who grew up and survived “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” how do you hope this film brings hope and healing, while also better equipping the church on the subject of purity?

Jessica: Really what I am hoping to bring is snapshots into all these people’s lives and I’m hoping they’ll see on screen the perspective that reminds them of their cousin, their friend, someone they went to youth group with, someone from their workplace. And then it would really inspire them to go seek that person out and seek to understand where they are coming from and that we would be engaging with these issues with more compassion and greater empathy. Because for those of us who did get married when we were twenty-one, twenty-two, and there are many within the church who’ve had that experience, now they are parents and moving on with their lives. But there’s a big disconnect between those of us who are single, and we’re in our late 20s, late 30s , late 40s, wherever we fall on the spectrum. This film really opens up that perspective. That’s my hope. The healthy perspective is embracing the gray and the messiness.

Currently, you want to address the complexities surrounding sexuality, singleness, relationships, and faith. How do you hope it impacts culture today?

Jessica: The first step is acknowledging (as Josh does) – which is acknowledging that there was some damage caused, and it wasn’t caused to all universally. Josh says at the end [of the film], ‘my book hurt people and my book helped people.’ So I’m hoping that some who’ve felt really ripped off could find some solace in Josh’s apology. On another level, I hope everyone could see themselves in the film and be challenged think differently. And to see that their experience, as true as it is and as right as it is, is one experience, is one perspective. And we all have different experiences with these books, these teachings in the purity culture, and so we need to listen to other people’s thoughts. The film is various shades of gray, looking at the light and shade in all of this. We don’t all have to do it the same way.

We also wanted to be pointing people to these authors and these emerging leaders who have researched and tapped into their own experiences, as well as putting together a resource to help people, and that our audience might seek out their work to inform their perspective. Also, to get better at loving themselves through the journey of relationships, marriage, and sexuality, and to better love one another and help us, as the church, move forward together.

Our culture has elevated relationship, sex, and romance above all else. Why was it important for you in this film to touch on love in all aspects to gain a healthier perspective?

Jessica: It was important to me to bookend the film with the imagery of the church. The vision for our lives as Christians, our happily ever after is Jesus, and we are only made pure by Jesus. I really wanted to create a new image [at the end of the film] that spoke to that idea and I wanted it to be relatively vague. Our culture really elevates this idea that romance and a love story is someone’s happily ever after. The bigger vision that we are given by God and by our Christian faith is bigger than me finding a spouse and having kids. God gives us a bigger vision. The Bible gives us a bigger vision. And if everyone needed to get married, then Jesus would have been married, Paul would have been married, and we don’t see that in the Bible. The happily ever after is the community of Jesus. It doesn’t matter where we’ve come from. We are the bride of Christ, us as a collective unit and us being reunited with Jesus. That is our happily ever after. I wanted to put a challenge to the church to say, ‘hey, let’s tap back into this bigger vision for our lives that embraces the fact that we will have some people within the church who will never get married.’ Some people who might not find someone suitable, or through other life circumstances they will be single or will be single again. They all belong as the body and bride of Christ

One of the things I love about this film is that it openly dialogues with people with very different opinions. Why do you believe this is so needed in our culture today?

Jessica: I think this is needed in our culture more than ever before. I think with how we consume media today, it’s very on-demand. We’re tailoring our consummation exactly to our interests, and that could be really great in many ways, but it means we stop listening to people who think differently than us. Which does two things. One, it limits our perspective. It means we learn less; we’re challenged less. And it also means it becomes harder and harder to engage with thoughtful and respectful loving dialogue with people who see things differently than us.

It was important to us in this film to show perspectives (like any great documentary does), that can be contradictory, that are challenging, that also just from a filmmaker’s perspective, create a sense of  jeopardy and tension because not everything is going the way of the protagonist. And the audience is kept interested and compelled by the story. It would be remiss of us to lump everyone in one category and say we should all do it one way or assume everyone who’s married is happily married and everything’s just peachy because they’ve crossed that finish line we’ve created. All these different perspectives are really necessary. It’s necessary for us to sit and listen to people. And that’s what Josh has said in the film.

It takes a person of integrity and courage to admit they were wrong and be open to new ideas. Joshua does this in this film. Talk about what that meant to you.

Jessica: I had a front row seat to this whole journey with Josh which was an incredible privilege. And knowing his family, I have a very interesting perspective. To take that step, saying he is wrong, while people are telling him ‘you don’t have to do that,’ you got to respect someone who does that. In his apology, he is acknowledging that people have experienced different things other than exactly what was prescribed and there wasn’t room for acknowledging that in his book or wasn’t as much as there should have been. So that’s what it means to me.

As a filmmaker, what has it meant to share this documentary and be a part of changing the conversation regarding purity?

Jessica: It’s been very humbling for me as well to think that myself, as a thirty-three-year-old single Christian female, has been able to make a film that is helping “purity culture” and “purity teaching” is something I’m very grateful for. If indeed is that the case, that I am indeed a part of changing the conversation, it’s not a privilege I take lightly. I guess I haven’t really thought about it in those terms. Wow. It’s something I’m really passionate about.

I think as a filmmaker, it’s my job to tell other people’s stories and bring attention to conversations, and dialogue. And as a filmmaker, you sit very much in the background of this. You’re the one pushing other people to the floor and giving them a platform. With that responsibility, I’m trying to nuance the diversity of experience and trying to showcase a wide range of perspectives … I’m really, really proud of that. I’m so thankful to the Lord that this opportunity existed. That God brought together three people [herself, Joshua Harris, and BBC film maker], with very different experiences, and made this film possible. And I’m very grateful to God.

For you personally, in what ways has this film been cathartic in making and how did Joshua’s re-evaluations bring healing to a survivor of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye?”

Jessica: The making of the film in its entirety was a way to reassess, to bring my burdens and my brokenness, and find a way to move on. By my healing process in making the film, being something that becomes a resource for other people. It’s been very cathartic in that process and the editing of the film.

As an adult, what is one thing you would like to tell your teenage self, who grew up in the purity movement, that you didn’t know back then?

Jessica: Josh asked this question to a few people via Skype. I would tell her not to be afraid and to not feel guilt or shame. That it’s OK to want to have a boyfriend when you’re sixteen. I would also want to say to read more books. To read other books to help you find a healthy perspective rather than just one perspective, and a very narrow perspective. I also wished my parents would have said to me (if they were the people who gave me the books) to balance that perspective. I suggest parents do that and say, ‘we can discuss anything, you can ask me any question you want to ask me. I will tell you the truth and no matter what, I will always love you. I will always be here for you and there is nothing you can make me do that makes me love you any more or any less.’ I think there is an opportunity for parents to reassure their kids of that. Every parent feels that, but I think their teenage kids need to hear them say it, and hear them say it often. Where darkness is, where shame is, where lies are, that’s in the shadows. And we want to bring that into the light, and people need to lead by example in that.

One of the important lessons in the film is about the danger of elevating other things and people in the place of Jesus. Why is this message central for you?

Jessica: Jesus is and always has to be our focus. Re-reading the Gospels over again, we see people who became too religious and weren’t being led by the heart of the law. In so many stories, people were wrestling through their brokenness. Our purity is only found in Jesus and not in and of ourselves and the things we do.

It’s all well and good for purity teaching and purity books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye to say yes, we’re all the same, we’re all broken, we’re all sinners, but the overwhelming thesis and argument of the book is to still say purity equals obeying all the rules. So, I think then the central message of grace does get clouded. I think as a church we need to get better at understanding that rules are there to help us, but what Jesus is really after is our heart. He’s after a relationship with us. And a relationship is hard, and it’s gets messy. Rules actually makes things really clear-cut, don’t they? But if we live in a world of rules, we get to be our own god. But if live in constant submission to Jesus, it really is about Him. If it’s about our relationship with Him, we stay tethered to the Lord; we stay close. Yep, we like rules, but we need to want more than we want the rules. And that can be messy, but that is living on our knees – living in submission.

Stay tuned for more films and documentaries from Jessica that wrestle with a theological perspective, an emerging perspective, and a female perspective by visiting Isikdgoodbye.com and her production company, DOCSology.

How to View “I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye”

1) http://isurvivedikdg.com (free streaming access worldwide)

2) Amazon Prime members in the US/UK can stream the film free* at: https://amzn.to/2W1HTLg or http://bit.ly/isurvivedikdg

* It is also available for rent or purchase via Amazon in some 64 additional international locales.

3) Exploration Films has partnered with the following online retailers who offer the film for rent or purchase too: Reelhouse, Faithlife TV, Christian Cinema, and the film will be coming soon to Pure Flix.