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Curious Reads: I Kissed The Patriarchy Goodbye
Shannon Harris, Ex-Wife to the Prince of Purity Culture, has left behind evangelical womanhood.
Hello friend, Liz here.
#1 Today’s “top of the fold” story is about leaving behind stale evangelical conceptions of womanhood.
That is, Joshua Harris’s ex-wife, Shannon Harris, once married to the prince of purity culture, is telling her story and putting “complementarianism” behind her.
Read “I Kissed Biblical Womanhood Goodbye,” an interview with Shannon Harris, by Sarah Stankorb at Slate.
(Also, here’s a brief primer on “complementarianism” theology, which is another name for patriarchy. ;-))
Here are the highlights:
“For years, Shannon Harris’ church expected her to be an exemplar for submissive, biblical womanhood. She was married to Joshua Harris, the famed author of anti-dating handbook I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which sold over a million copies after its publication in 1997 and, in advising chaste courtship instead of dating, became a mainstay of American purity culture. Looking back, Shannon describes him then as a ‘kind of abstinence pop star.’
“As Joshua’s platform grew, Shannon became a figure in his writing, sometimes deployed as a useful narrative device. He described her having a ‘typical party life’ ‘ruled by sin’ before becoming a Christian. She’d been headed to Nashville to pursue a dream of becoming a singer. But, as the story went, God upturned both their lives after Shannon joined the church and later caught Joshua’s eye. They wound up in a courtship, preparing for marriage in Maryland.”
Around the time they married, Joshua went on staff at the church they were attending. Which meant Shannon felt pressure to conform to the “womanhood” standards of her new church community.
The standard was complementarianism, the theology that says men and women have different but equal roles according to God—the male role is one of authority and leadership, and the female role is one of submission and following.
So Shannon was explicitly instructed by church leaders to “give up her dreams,” to pursue her husband for sex whenever they argued (to initiate “making up”), to homeschool their children, and generally to stand in the background of her husband’s more visible ministry. (This “standing in the background” was literal, by the way: she describes one time when Joshua invited her on stage after a speaking event and she stood behind him for hours, silent and unacknowledged, as he shook admirers’ hands.)
Ultimately, she could not take the pressure of being the idealized Christian woman, and she fell into ten years of crippling depression. Then, after twenty years of marriage, she and Joshua divorced.
Harris sees her depression and divorce as directly tied to the Christian theologies she had been taught and had adopted, a fact she only realized when she “woke up” to the harm they’d done to her:
"There was this real Barbie moment—you know, the movie? The moment where the Barbies are waking up, and they snap out of it? I remember having that moment. That was the moment where I realized, wait a minute, this biblical submission thing—this wasn’t good for me. This wasn’t for me. This was for them. This was for their benefit. They are asking me to live in this little tiny box and be happy there. And it’s for their convenience and has nothing to do with being for my well-being.
Has the theology of “complementarianism” (AKA the patriarchy?) affected you and yours? Tell me all about it. :)
I admire Shannon Harris’ courage in telling her story so bluntly.
From my nosebleed seat on her life, I can probably count a dozen people who would begrudge her decision to do so. It’s not easy to tell the truth, and it’s even harder to change your mind publicly.
I find myself thinking a lot about where the source of the most authoritarian versions of “complementarianism” come from.
For Shannon, it seemed to arrive by means of the teachings and examples of the women in her life, not the men, from the female mentors and pastors’ wives who counseled this young wife in how to do marriage and family as God intended. According to them, God intended her to feel and be lesser.
These women were the ones to encourage her to sublimate her dreams, to minimize her talents and experiences and desires, to sit down and be quiet, to conform as all the women who came before her.
Does this experience sound familiar to you, too?
Personally, I can relate.
For example, during my engagement, my husband and I attended a premarital counseling session with one of our current pastors and his wife (ahem, now ex-pastor). There, I learned that my job as a wife to my fiance Jeremy was the same as Eve’s had been—we women were to “water our husband’s garden.” This male pastor drew this interpretation from Genesis 1, where God creates Eve after Adam, bringing her into a world created, initially, just for Adam. So, this pastor thought, that must mean that the garden was Adam’s, not Eve’s. Eve had been created for Adam; she did not have any purpose outside of him. She was supposed to support her husband in caring for his garden.
I remember leaving that session in tears, later asking my fiance, but what if I have my own garden? My own calling, dreams, desires, thoughts, feelings, opinions? Is that allowed?
Only later did I realize that my pastor got the story all wrong. In the story of Genesis, Adam never owned the Garden of Eden. God did. The garden was not Adam’s, but God’s.
The garden had always been God’s. Both Adam and Eve are named as caretakers of a garden that did not belong to them; they’re both called to tend the world, to expand upon it, and to nurture what lives there.
In other words, the role of both humans is exactly the same, a direction offered by God to humanity writ large. God was the boss, always had been, and still is, and we—all of us together—are God’s creatures. And lest we get too big for our britches, the rabbis say that we should remember that the worm and the gnat both were created before humankind ever was. ;-)
So maybe we can lay off the power plays at church? Pretty please? (If only…)
Thanks for reading.
Warmly, Liz Charlotte Grant
P.S. Check out my recent IG Live with Shannon K. Evans at. We geeked out about our pet dinosaurs that lay eggs in our backyards!! *heart eyes* (AKA our chickens ;-))
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