Published by Broadleaf Books on August 29, 2023
Genres: Non-Fiction, Christian Life, Leadership, Marriage, Memoir
"No one is coming to rescue me. I am going to have to rescue me."
As a twenty-three-year-old singer and the soon-to-be wife of youth pastor Joshua Harris, nothing in Shannon Harris's secular upbringing prepared her to enter the world of conservative Christianity. Soon Joshua's bestselling book I Kissed Dating Goodbye helped inspire a national purity movement, and Shannon's identity became "pastor's wife."
The Woman They Wanted recounts Shannon's remarkable experience inside Big Church--where she was asked to live within a narrow definition of womanhood for almost two decades--and her subsequent journey out of that world and into a more authentic version of herself. Entering conservative American Christianity was like being drawn out to sea, she writes, inexorable and all consuming. Slowly, her worldview was narrowed, her motivations questioned, her behavior examined, until she had been whittled down to an idealized version of femininity envisioned as an extension of her husband and the church. This decidedly patriarchal world, perpetuated even by the other women, began to feel like a slow death. However, when Sovereign Grace Ministries fell apart due to leadership conflicts and Shannon found herself outside church circles for the first time in years, she heard her intuition calling to her again. As she began to shake off the fog of depression and confusion, that voice grew louder. In honoring it, she awakened to the realities in which she had been trapped and found her truest self.
Singular and compelling, The Woman They Wanted will inspire women looking to reestablish connection with themselves, their inner wisdom, and their purpose.
This memoir is about the author’s experience contorting herself into the demands of hyper-conservative Christianity, both before and after her marriage to Joshua Harris, the author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye. This is one of those books where “if you know, you know,” and it will appeal to people who are familiar with her and her husband, who have spent years in similar environments, and who may have taken similar journeys of deconstructing from their faith. Throughout this book, Shannon writes about how unprepared she was after her secular childhood to get involved with a highly conservative, insular megachurch, and she shares stories and reflections from the following years of her life. Shannon shares her story in short vignettes, and I found this book compulsively readable.
Powerful and Moving
Some stories in The Woman They Wanted appear in linear order, while others look ahead or provide backstory. I found the vignettes gripping, and they build up into a powerful picture of Shannon’s life. It was fascinating to learn her side of the story after reading Josh’s books when I was a teenager, and I appreciate her vulnerability. A major theme in the book is how she suppressed her intuition, ignoring gut feelings that warned her that something wasn’t right. It made me sad to read about the many unhealthy things that happened behind the scenes in her relationship and her church, and I found her reflections very moving. She writes in a very engaging style, and her story drew me in so much that it was hard for me to put the book down.
Shannon is very honest about her experiences and feelings, but she doesn’t air all of her family’s dirty laundry or trash her ex-husband. Some people will wish that this was more of a tell-all, but I admire her discretion and restraint. However, even though Shannon is very vulnerable about her experiences, she doesn’t take responsibility for much. She often makes it sound like her regrets are things that happened to her, not choices she made. I understand that she felt trapped in a controlling environment, but because she frequently attributes other people’s wrongdoing to them while deflecting blame from herself, the double standard made me uneasy.
Experiences Under Abusive Leadership
One thing that really stuck out to me is just how controlling C. J. Mahaney was as Sovereign Grace’s lead pastor, convincing Josh to be his protégé, micromanaging Josh and Shannon’s courtship, and continuing to control Josh and the direction of the church even after he had technically retired. I had no idea how bad this was, and it was disturbing to learn about the years of manipulation and control. However, it started bothering me that Shannon made so many excuses for herself without making similar excuses for Josh, who was very young when he ended up under this controlling leader’s influence.
Shannon attributes her regrets and mistakes to the controlling environment around her, and to the challenges that she faced as a woman. Do men in abusive systems not get any sympathy or grace just because they’re not women, and therefore aren’t sufficiently oppressed? Just because women had it worse does not mean that Josh was thriving under C. J. Mahaney’s thumb. Then, when C. J. was disgraced for his abusive leadership style and for covering up sexual abuse in his network of churches, Josh was the face of the church and had to deal with the fallout.
Shannon writes about how difficult this time was for her family, but it disappointed me that she didn’t give Josh the same grace for his life situation that she wanted for hers. As I said earlier, she doesn’t use this book as an opportunity to trash her ex, but I kept wanting her to acknowledge some of the contextual reasons for why he wasn’t a better husband to her, since she gave the situational reasons behind all of her regrets.
A Missing Piece
One thing I found very strange is that Shannon never mentions Josh’s later books, not even the one about their relationship. Granted, it’s her life, and this is her memoir. She doesn’t have to write about that part of the past if she doesn’t want to, and she doesn’t owe anyone details about this. Still, I kept waiting for this to come up, and I felt like something was missing.
If Shannon had simply said that she didn’t want to talk about Josh’s further career as an author, that would have been fine, but it was really weird for her to act like none of this ever happened. This feels like a gaping hole in the book, and someone who is reading this without prior knowledge wouldn’t even know that this was a factor in her life or their marriage. It felt disingenuous and weird to me that Shannon never acknowledged this part of the story.
I also thought that Shannon should have been more balanced in some of her critiques of Christian culture, especially since her experience of Christianity was mostly limited to this one very dysfunctional megachurch. Shannon acknowledges in the preface that Christianity encompasses many different views and experiences, and she truly makes an effort to avoid over-generalizations. Still, there are a number of disappointing exceptions.
For example, she makes a flippant comment about how it must be great to be a pastor, since people will unquestioningly give you a tenth of their income. Tithes don’t all go to the pastor’s salary, and many pastors have incredibly challenging jobs, don’t receive fair compensation for the amount of work they do, and don’t have any healthcare or retirement benefits. Shannon’s saucy comment probably felt liberating to her, but it shows a lack of broader understanding or sympathy, and it also seems out of sync with her family’s difficult experiences in ministry.
Her take on the story of Eve also bothered me. In her attempts to reinterpret it, she makes up a new story that only has surface similarities to the narrative from Genesis. People have sometimes badly distorted this biblical narrative to oppress women, but distorting it to a different agenda-driven extreme isn’t the solution. I’m not sure what she was trying to accomplish by dramatically departing from the source material and presenting her take as the real story, and even though I found other elements of her deconstruction narrative sympathetic and touching, this was bizarre.
The Woman They Wanted: Shattering the Illusion of the Good Christian Wife is an incredibly powerful, highly readable memoir about a woman’s experiences in a high-control religious environment. I found this book incredibly gripping, and I greatly enjoyed reading it. I ended up having some serious critiques, especially as I reflected on it more in the following days, but I truly enjoyed this and would recommend it to others. This will mainly appeal to people who already know about Shannon and Josh, but this is such an engaging memoir that someone can also get a lot out of it without prior knowledge.
This can appeal to people with a broad range of belief backgrounds, whether they have left the faith like Shannon and Josh, are part of a progressive church, or are part of a more conservative congregation. I don’t share Shannon’s current beliefs, but that was not a barrier to enjoying her memoir. I would recommend this to other Christians who are interested in Shannon’s story and this memoir’s themes, even when they have different views.