Book Review: The Woman They Wanted
The Woman They Wanted: Shattering the Illusion of the Good Christian Wife by Shannon Harris (Broadleaf Books, 2023).
Consider this review a sequel of sorts to my review of Elisabeth Elliot from a couple of months ago. In a very real sense, Shannon Harris was an heiress of Elisabeth Elliot’s legacy. Shannon’s husband, Joshua Harris, was deeply influenced by Elliot’s Passion and Purity when he wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbye, his seminal book on Christian courtship. (Joshua even ended up writing the foreword to a new edition of Passion and Purity in 2002.)
Naturally, then, the Harris marriage was supposed to be the crown jewel of Christian courtship culture.
Now here we are in 2023, and I’m reading Shannon’s book about how and why she and her husband left the church and each other. And honestly, I’m not even surprised. The way courtship culture has steadily crumbled over the past several years—heralded by a wave of divorces and abuse scandals among the people that started it all—it’s a wonder that anything is left standing.
Shannon Harris was a very young woman when she got sucked into it all. Though she had been raised in a nonreligious household, she accepted an invitation to Covenant Life Church in Maryland from a friend, and something about it kept drawing her back. There she met Joshua Harris, a popular young writer being groomed for church leadership.
Though Shannon tells us she wasn’t the spotless virgin bride that the author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye might have been looking for, the pastor at the church, C. J. Mahaney, and his wife, Carolyn, were nonetheless happy to approve the courtship—and to take charge of it.
“I was accepted provided that I threw away any visible signs of the past me,” Harris recalls. “I was accepted as long as I did what I was told.”
My friend Sharon, who read this book at the same time I did, observes that the institution Shannon Harris joined sounds more like a cult than a church. As Harris describes it, the church had very little to do with faith; everything was about rules and control.
Harris barely even mentions an actual religious conversion. She spends much more time on the repercussions of her parents’ divorce when she was an “otherwise extremely fortunate” child. By joining the church, she was trying to save her own future family from the same fate:
I wanted to believe what the church was telling me because I never wanted to have to bring my future children into the living room and tell them their family was ending. I thought a church marriage would be safer. I thought the families at church looked happy. Their kids were smiling. The parents were smiling. I wanted a happy, smiling family too. I thought following these rules would give me back the things I’d lost as a child. I thought it would not, could not fail.
But the deeper she got in her relationship with Josh, into their wedding plans, into the church community, the less say she had in any of it. The church leadership dictated everything from who she could have as bridesmaids, to what kind of career she could have after marriage (spoiler: not much of one).
There’s more than a hint of Stepford in the way that pastors’ wives dutifully and deliberately handed on a legacy of stifled dreams and stunted growth. Carolyn Mahaney told Harris that she would have to give up her dream of a career in music; later, Harris was instructed to tell another young pastor’s wife that she was to give up her dream of becoming a veterinarian. Everything in the family had to revolve around the husband and his ministry. Ironically, this didn’t always make the husbands happy either, as Shannon tells us that Josh suffered in his own way from the increasing pressure and the demands of the spotlight.
What Shannon doesn’t say much about is the revelations of spiritual and sexual abuse that eventually tore apart Covenant Life Church and its “family of churches,” Sovereign Grace Ministries. She stays focused on her own experience—perhaps to avoid violating the privacy of friends and family members; perhaps also because at the time, she was unable to see much beyond her own goldfish-bowl existence. Through her short, impressionistic chapters, we see vivid flashes of that existence, the crippling depression it brought on, and the painful process of breaking free—including that very conversation with her children that she had never wanted to have.
As someone who walked away from Christianity altogether, Harris now has a very different take on it than I do. Disagreements aside, though, I think her book is tremendously valuable. I learned long ago, through some difficult experiences of my own, that legalism is a poison that corrodes faith, emotional health, and relationships, and invariably enables abuse. Tragically, it’s a poison that has pervaded Christianity in recent decades—just as the huge popularity of Joshua Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye demonstrated. Wherever well-meaning people, from the Elliots to the Harrises and beyond, think they’ve found a way to be holier than God, that’s a sure sign that the poison is present and working.
If Shannon Harris’s book can start helping convince church people that it’s time for a purge, it will have done all that either she or I could ask for.
(Cover image copyright Broadleaf Books)
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New feature this week! I tend to read more books than I have time or space to review here in the newsletter, but sometimes I’d like to share them with you anyway. To that end, I’m going to start posting links to some of my Goodreads reviews, which are usually shorter but should still give you the gist. Here are a few from the past month or so:
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