Book Reviews Shannon Harris, The Woman They Wanted: Shattering the Illusion of the Good Christian Wife, Broadleaf Books, 2023; and Rosaria Butterfield, Five Lies of Our Anti-Christian Age, Wheaton: Crossway, […]
Shannon Harris, The Woman They Wanted: Shattering the Illusion of the Good Christian Wife, Broadleaf Books, 2023; and Rosaria Butterfield, Five Lies of Our Anti-Christian Age, Wheaton: Crossway, 2023.
Shannon Harris recently published her memoir – The Woman They Wanted: Shattering the Illusion of the Good Christian Wife – and I couldn’t pick it up fast enough. I’ve never met Shannon, but it feels like we have history together.
When my husband and I started dating in 2007, several people in our church at the time suggested we read Joshua Harris’s book on courtship, Boy Meets Girl. We spent many evenings in our student accommodation’s music room, with the door open, reading chapters out loud and discussing how they might apply to our relationship – sorting wheat from chaff.
I don’t remember much about Shannon from the book, apart from her beaming face on the back cover and a line about her being Joshua’s wife and having two kids. To my mind, she and Joshua were the role models for doing romantic relationships right. I wanted to know more about her – who was she and what was her role in all this?
What Boy Meets Girl lacked in detail about Shannon’s life, The Woman They Wanted makes up for in spades. Shannon details her journey from childhood, through to being “saved” and becoming part of the church, her courtship with and marriage to Joshua, her role as pastor’s wife, and her walk away from the church. There are details that were very painful to read. There were parts that made me upset, especially at how Shannon was apparently treated by some in the church. Which brings me to a point about personal bias and retelling the past…
The difficult thing when writing about the past is that time changes things. Memories are coloured by current thoughts and feelings, and it takes a lot of work to get to the truth of what one really felt and believed at the time. Unfortunately, I don’t think Shannon achieves this in her book. I noticed that the sections where she talks about her childhood and youth glow with longing and nostalgia, whereas the chapters looking back at her conversion to Christianity and time in the church are heavily tinted with bitterness and a critical tone.
She writes as though she never truly believed in Christianity or biblical womanhood, often talking about the disconnect between her true thoughts and feelings, and what she ended up doing or saying. And I have to wonder how accurate that really is … Did she truly spend 20 years just faking it? Or is it possible that Shannon did believe those things, but has changed her mind? Only the Lord truly knows her heart.
When I picked up Shannon’s memoir, I had just started reading Rosaria Butterfield’s latest book, Five Lies of our Anti-Christian Age. I was struck by the similarities and the contrasts between these two books. There are similarities in terms of the topics covered, and contrasts in how these two women handled them.
Reading a chapter of one and then a section of the other, swapping back and forth, a clear picture emerged of two different approaches to womanhood, truth, and the world we live in. And although the order was different, in her memoir Shannon espouses almost every single lie Rosaria warns against in her book. The crux of the matter is that the differences in how they handle matters of homosexuality, transgenderism, feminism, modesty and spirituality flow from their different understandings of the authority of the Bible as God’s word, and the gospel and what it means to be saved.
The biggest difference between Rosaria’s and Shannon’s beliefs about biblical womanhood is who they believe holds the authority in their lives. Rosaria clearly appeals to the authority of God’s word. She tells throughout her book how she has been shaped, changed and “rewritten” by God’s word. For her, biblical womanhood is bound up in what it means to be a woman saved by Jesus, seeking to live in obedience to Him in the power of the Holy Spirit.
“Are we willing to be instructed by God’s word? Do we believe that God’s revelation reigns over our own will and reason? Or, is it the other way around for us? The 16th Century French Reformer, John Calvin, declared: ‘Let us not hear God’s revealed word as if it were subject to our judgements, but let us subject our own understanding and minds to it, and receive it without calling it in question, for otherwise we will willfully make war against God and lift ourselves above him.’”
By comparison, Shannon elevates herself and her own inner “knowing” as the authority for what is true and false; right and wrong. She critiques her history through the lens of whether she was being true to herself, or living according to what others said. Instead of grappling with the words of the Bible, Shannon often refers to teachings she received from other people. Biblical womanhood, to Shannon, means putting on a mask and living according to rules and roles set in place by men.
“The ‘biblical woman’ was not a real woman, she was a picture, a projection, a product! A man-made product, literally. An ideal to achieve.”
Womanhood itself does seem to mean something to her – she often speaks about traits and characteristics inherent to women – but there is no external authority who can say what this means for any given woman. According to Shannon, each woman needs to live in a way that is self-determined and feels right intrinsically.
In her chapter, ‘freeing Eve’, Shannon completely rewrites the story of the fall so that the reader can relate to and pity Eve, instead of seeing her actions as sinful. She writes:
“If women are to be free from the heavy hand of patriarchy, we all must be free, and this includes Eve, who has been bound to a story that has in turn been bound to us. But if we free Eve from the false narrative that clings to her, we can free ourselves from our own.”
In rewriting the words of the Bible, and indeed calling them a “false narrative”, Shannon once more asserts her own authority to decide what is true. She submits God’s word to her own judgement.
I wondered at how someone could so brazenly rewrite God’s word and claim to know the true story, but Shannon does not believe in a real historical Eve. When she rewrites Eve’s story, she sees this as rewriting man’s words, not God’s.
Noticeably absent from Shannon’s book is the gospel – in fact, she barely mentions God at all, instead speaking often of “the church” as she tells her story. I cannot think of a single place in the book where Shannon clearly articulates the gospel, which leads me to wonder – was it ever clearly articulated to her? Did she ever know the gospel?
This is most clearly seen when Shannon writes about her experience of being “saved”, especially as it relates to her history of sexual sin. She states that she felt like she only became a Christian out of shame after being taught that sex outside of marriage is sin. She writes:
“I always thought sex was just a normal part of growing up, but came to find out all this time I had been doing something wrong and, worse, God had been watching me? (Ew.) And now there was nothing I could do to change this. I had no choice but try to make it up to God.”
“Making it up to God” is not the gospel, but sounds a lot like works-based salvation. Is this what Shannon was taught at her church? Or did she arrive at this conclusion herself?
Later, Shannon writes about a conversation where CJ and Carolyn Mahaney were questioning her on her past sexual sin:
“Now it felt like I was being punished and handed heavy bricks. First the brick that I had disappointed God by losing my virginity and damaging my future marriage before it had even started. Then another brick that I was inherently evil and no good came from within me. And another brick that I was the weaker sex. And then another brick that my body and my life didn’t belong to me. Those were heavy bricks the church handed women to carry. Is it any wonder some of us get tired?”
Indeed, trying to obey the law and live the Christian life without being saved and indwelt by the Holy Spirit is too heavy a burden to carry! For the Christian, the truth of God’s word that we have all sinned, that we are inherently against God in our hearts, and that, having been bought and redeemed by Jesus, we no longer belong to ourselves, is life-giving and uplifting. But for the one who has not had their heart changed by God’s grace, this truth sounds oppressive.
Look at how Rosaria describes her reaction to hearing from Pastor Ken Smith that she was created by God, in His image, and she, like all people, lived in rebellion against Him:
“Ken’s words made me feel guilt and shame and disgust. It took a year of Bible reading to make the link between being told that I have immeasurable worth and my violent internal sense of shame. After a year of Bible reading, with repentance, my heart, head, and soul began to arrive at a fragile consensus.”
The gospel spills out into every chapter of Rosaria’s book. I could see that not only is she a woman who is richly saturated in this glorious truth, but that she also cares that her readers are able to understand it clearly.
Rosaria writes about how she came to faith through realizing she was God’s enemy and was outside the Christian fellowship she had come to enjoy over meals. Over the course of about a year, as Rosaria read the Bible for herself and had frank discussions with Pastor Ken Smith and his wife, Floy, Rosaria was convicted by the Holy Spirit of her need for salvation.
“… while we were singing Psalm 23, God’s word started to rewrite my words. And that is when I looked into the mirror of God’s word and I saw it. I, the English professor, was misreading the text. I wasn’t dining in the presence of my enemies. I was the enemy. It was dreadful to behold: I was God’s enemy.”
I think Shannon’s story is an example of what happens to a person when she walks away from the Truth. Her story highlights the need for us all, especially Christian women, to know God’s word well, lest we be led astray by people who want to make us captive to human rules that masquerade as freedom. And we need to be on guard against teachings like this sneaking into the church.
Shannon’s vision for womanhood is rooted in her worldview which places self as the highest authority as to how one should live. It’s not surprising that someone who rejects the authority of God’s word comes to conclusions that are contrary to it. But her message offers a warning for those of us in the church who do claim to believe in the authority of God’s word. Do we truly submit to God’s vision for men and women, or do we, in practice, live like the world and baptize what we want to do in spiritual language?
But more than being a warning and an example, Shannon is also a person who needs salvation, and as Rosaria puts it when writing about her friend who walked away, God’s not done with her yet. I hope and pray that God will convict Shannon of her sin and grant her repentance. If God can save people like Saul, who killed Christians, and Rosaria, who mocked them, then he can save Shannon.
– Jessica Harvey attends Tuggeranong Presbyterian Church with her husband and three children.