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Shannon Harris Wasn’t Content with Being a Purity Culture Stagehand – ChristianityToday.com

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I read Boy Meets Girl decades ago as an adolescent alongside thousands of other church kids in America. It was the much-anticipated follow-up to Joshua Harris’s now-infamous book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. As a very young adult, Harris had told us all how to date (or rather, how to court) in a pure way, so that we could all make it to our wedding night as virgins.
Boy Meets Girl was going to tell us how this had all worked out for Josh on a personal level. It also introduced us to Shannon, who I pictured as Josh’s leading lady. Turns out, however, she was more like his backstage help. As Shannon Harris makes clear in her recent book The Woman They Wanted: Shattering the Illusion of the Good Christian Wife, she longed to fulfill her dream of being a singer and actor, but was instead tasked with passing out cake to the cast.
I naively read Boy Meets Girl as a love story. I thought of Joshua and Shannon Harris as an example for all of us kids out there trying to date the “right” way. The book felt like a kind of promise that, if I followed the same rules, I, too, might find my future spouse and live happily ever after.
Decades later, holding Harris’s memoir , I can practically feel the weight of her untold stories in my hands. In it, she finally inserts her own voice into the narrative, giving us an entirely different perspective on the marriage, their ministry, and how being the pastor’s wife of a famous evangelical leader left her “starving” with “nothing left to give.”
What turned Harris from being a new, excited Christian into feeling like she had been handed “heavy bricks” by the local church? Those who knew Harris before her conversion, like author Aimee Byrd, describe her as “beautiful, popular, very talented, friendly, and always smiling.” And Harris says of herself, “I was a young, talented woman, full of energy.”
She was the brave, driven kid in school who wanted to play the leading role in Annie—the singer who loved to share her voice. But shortly after her courtship with Joshua began, Shannon was thrown into a new world with a specific code of expectations and rules and a call to abandon her dreams.
She recalls being sat down early in the courtship by Carolyn, the wife of C. J. Mahaney (the lead pastor at Joshua’s church), who told her that marrying Josh would mean surrendering her own ambitions. Mahaney would even introduce her as “the girl who gave up her dreams for the local church.”
For over a decade, she played the role of pastor’s wife—cooking, cleaning, raising children, helping with church worship, and opening up her home. She would also be told what not to wear, how often she could assert her own voice, and where she fit in the hierarchy of church leadership. “There wasn’t any following my heart,” she says, “only follow[ing] the leader.”
She recalls the day Carolyn took her out to the garage to view her freezer, fully stocked with pre-prepared meals for her family and for hosting church members. Harris says that when she saw the rows of frozen chicken Kiev and chocolate mint pies, she knew this wasn’t her idea of “womanhood.” Nevertheless, she obediently conformed to the plan laid out for her, accepting that she would be “watched and monitored” along the way. To survive, Harris says that she tried to fit herself “into the quietest, smallest shell possible.”
As Harris reflects on these years of feeling like unwilling clay in the hands of male church leaders, she concludes that her entire conversion to Christianity was essentially built on “the premise of shame.” Because of this, she felt like she was always trying to make up for her sins. Many women coming out of the purity movement (that Harris’s husband, Joshua, ironically spearheaded) feel the same, that the gospel they heard was, You messed up, so you are forever dirty and guilty, and must live a life of groveling.
We know this isn’t what Scripture teaches, so why is it what so many in the church hear? This question compels us to consider the role of Calvinism in souring Harris on Christianity . She cites Calvinist theology as the reason she now pays her therapist “hundreds of dollars to remind [her that she’s] fabulous.”
The fruit she saw from this particular theological camp was a group of men who touted the doctrine of total depravity but somehow believed they got everything right. “No one else was doing Christianity right enough or hard enough or biblical enough,” Harris writes, “and their unquestionable certainty had grown tiresome.”
I, too, was surrounded by the theology of Calvinism during my formative years in the church. The Young, Restless, and Reformed movement was in full swing by the time I was in college. Harris rightly identifies some of the bad fruit that came out of the movement, such as pride, a de-emphasis on the imago Dei, and a confusing narrative about our worth as human beings. Are we totally depraved or “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14)?
Harris concludes that, to heal from this theology, we must strive to connect “to our own wisdom, to nature and our bodies, to our own fulfillment in work and pleasure, and to our own ways of being and doing.” And I imagine many readers have underlined that particular sentence in their copies of her book, finding it refreshing to think so positively about themselves and their bodies after years of sermons on our “foolish hearts” and “sinful flesh.”
But what does this really look like in practice?
Sometimes, it might look like bringing your neighbor freshly made bread, just to cheer them up. But other times, it might look like following your own wisdom and seeking your own pleasure, like binging on a sleeve of Oreos while watching porn. Or trolling someone you don’t like online instead of spending time with your kids.
We can and do image God in all sorts of beautiful ways, but without Christ we are sick—sinners in need of salvation.
We are stunning image-bearers of God, and we have inherited Adam’s sin. We are wonderfully made, and we fall short of the glory of God. Both are true and do not war against each other. I think Harris rightly warns us against “worm theology,” but where she falls short is this: If we only emphasize our goodness and deny our sin problem, we lose our need for repentance, which means we lose the gospel, which means we lose Jesus.
One morning during her honeymoon, Harris says that Joshua was down with a migraine, so she decided to wander around on her own. Soon she spotted a man in blue jeans and a flannel shirt doing some woodwork through an open door. She writes of that moment, “I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen a man so attractive, and I stood in the doorway a few seconds looking at him.” Then she admitted to herself, “Now there’s a guy I’d like to have sex with.”
This story is set in the context of early worries about her marriage as proof, I suppose, that there was already “trouble in paradise.” But the truth is, if the genders in this story were reversed—if a married man (say, Joshua Harris) was talking about how he stopped and stared at a woman through an open door, thinking about how he wanted to have sex with her during his honeymoon, while his new wife was in bed with a headache—let’s just say that Christian Twitter (sorry, X) would rightfully be in a tizzy.
Instead, many Christian readers of Harris’s book who tweet about how poorly Harris was treated by the church (because she was), and reviewers who write about how we should listen to her story (because we should), say nothing about the fact that Harris offers an entirely different gospel than the gospel of Jesus Christ.
By the end of the book, Harris has sloughed off the entirety of human depravity, calling the original sin that brought Jesus to earth to die for us “brave” and reframing Eve in the Garden of Eden as “a woman who took initiative.”
And while I can respectfully and compassionately listen to Harris’s story and affirm many of her critiques of the modern church, I cannot endorse all her conclusions, especially when she dismisses our need for Christ and chooses herself, rather than the Holy Spirit, as her ultimate guide. In one chapter, Harris explains how she is now learning to trust her own “intuition, inner voice, heart, [and] wisdom.” To understand what she means by this, we might look to the very next chapter, where she labels Eve's act of eating from the forbidden tree “wisdom,” asking: “What if Eve did exactly right by taking the fruit? What if she was supposed to have wisdom?”
Paul, anticipating our human tendency to abuse Christian freedom as a license to indulge our own flesh, warned the Galatian church that our desires and the Holy Spirit are often in “conflict with each other” (5:17). This means that we cannot always “follow our hearts” and expect that we will naturally choose Christlikeness. We need help. We need the Holy Spirit, the “Helper” whom Jesus left for us when he returned to heaven. To deny this is to reject the very words of Jesus.
Many will respond to Harris’s retreat from the church by asking, “Can you blame her?” After the horrible ways she was treated, why wouldn’t she turn away? When reading stories like Harris’s, we must grapple with the reality that, as Harris points out, her “church experience is sadly representative of many others’ experience.”
We would be foolish and arrogant to dismiss her story just because she admits that she no longer knows if God exists. Many churchgoers, specifically women, are worn out, wounded, and finding more healing in therapy than the church.
Part of this is because the church has told them that they must—like Harris—fit themselves into a tiny box made by men in order to be a good Christian. We can recognize this, pointing to the church and its corrupt leaders, and tweet angrily.
But I think it is also time to soberly consider the ways we might have personally contributed to pushing people out of the church—people like Shannon Harris. People like your friends, who you mock for deconstructing their faith. Maybe everything they have seen and experienced in the church has nothing to do with Jesus, and they’re walking away without ever having seen his face.
Rachel Joy Welcher is an editor at Fathom Magazine. She is the author of Talking Back to Purity Culture: Rediscovering Faithful Christian Sexuality.
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