(RNS) — When Shannon Harris stumbled into a conservative evangelical church and a marriage to Josh Harris (of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” fame) in her early 20s, she didn’t realize what she’d signed up for.
As the wife of a bestselling Christian author, purity culture celebrity and heir to the hugely successful Covenant Life Church, Harris had unknowingly agreed to a role that came with a set of expectations for women that, she said, included a lifetime of performance and perfectionism. Her dream of becoming a full-time musician? Impractical. Her maternity dress? Too revealing. Her posture in worship? Too subdued. Her prenatal yoga video? Too Buddhist.
A lot has changed since Harris was married in 1998. In 2018, Josh Harris disavowed and apologized for the harm caused by “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” and a year later he announced his departure from Christianity and the end of their marriage. For decades, Shannon Harris tried to stuff her beliefs, personality, passions and body into the prescribed “good Christian wife” blueprint — but could never quite reach the idealized standard.
“I did not understand that in my husband’s mind marrying a woman was something like checking a box on a to-do list…I do not think he fully understood he was marrying a woman with needs of her own,” Harris wrote about her marriage in her forthcoming memoir. “But this is what he was taught in his family and his church.”
Now, beyond the confines of her marriage and her church, Harris is embracing her whole self. Religion News Service spoke to Harris about “The Woman They Wanted: Shattering the Illusion of the Good Christian Wife,” which will be published by Broadleaf Books on Tuesday (Aug. 29). This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you come to write this book? And why now?
I was raised in a secular home, and when I graduated college I joined a conservative evangelical church in the Washington, D.C., area. That is where I stayed for the next almost two decades of my life. The book is an attempt to tell my story of that time. Every single part of my life was consumed and directed by the church. I liken myself to Alice in Wonderland; I think I’m just going to peek my head in and see what the church is all about, and then suddenly I tumble headlong into this other world, a place where things seem really amazing, but they also don’t always make sense. I’m told who to be, and who to become. I get married and I have a family, and then it all starts to crumble. The remainder of the book is me trying to make sense of things until I’m finally back home in myself. The answer to “why now” is: This is the length of time it took me to have those experiences, deal with the fallout and to heal.
When you first began attending church as a young adult, what about it appealed to you?
It was wonderful at first, and I didn’t feel judged at first. There was a lot of what I call love bombing, but it was genuine. The church attracted wonderful, caring, vibrant people. I got involved with the music really early. I had not been there more than a year when I was getting my first opportunity to get to a recording studio. That actually was what I wanted to do with my life. So I thought, “Oh my gosh, this is amazing. I’m learning how to record!” That felt really good for a few minutes.
What kind of harmful theology did you encounter at the church?
My church and their brand of churches interpreted the creation story very literally. God created Adam, and then Eve. Women are second. God created Eve from Adam’s rib, so she’s not her own person. She’s been made from a piece of Adam. God gives Eve the job of Adam’s helper. She didn’t have her own purpose. And then, Eve is curious. She listens to the serpent and she trusts herself, and she becomes wise, and that’s seen as bad. She gets punished for her wisdom.
This theology puts a man in a higher place in the hierarchy. And it’s a male operating system. It’s run so men can succeed. So when I walked into my church, I learned my wisdom was faulty. My emotions and feelings are not to be trusted, and they’re not really true. On top of that, you have women being shamed for their bodies or their sexualities, constantly having to cover up to avoid tempting a man. All of these things together can damage a woman’s attunement to her body. What makes it so dangerous is that her alarm systems can be silenced and/or dismissed.
How did your courtship with Josh stop being about the two of you?
The moment my courtship started with Josh, it really did stop being about our relationship. It became about appearances. It became about getting purity right, because Josh had written this book on purity. It became about what C.J. and Carolyn (Mahaney), our pastor and his wife, needed it to be for the church. It became about making sure Josh did not, quote unquote, “fall” in any way physically. It was not about getting to know each other or exploring the relationship.
Unfortunately, at least for me, agreeing to the courtship was like already agreeing to marriage. I feel like we completely bypassed the exploration stage. Our courtship was 10 weeks long and there was a rush through to completion for reasons I’m not sure I fully understand. We didn’t have much time together alone, and as far as I can tell, C.J. was actually calling a lot of the shots. So I think I was very naïve. I didn’t really understand Josh’s relationship to his audience and his work, or what C.J. was after.
Can you talk about the time you were questioned by C.J. and Carolyn Mahaney? What did that interaction teach you about the expectations you’d face as Josh’s spouse?
C.J. and Carolyn invited me over to their house sometime during the 10-week courtship. We had dinner and then we went into the living room, and they very decidedly and purposely — and by “they” I mean C.J., because the wife sits beside the husband and says nothing — started asking me pointed questions about my life. The way I recall it, he singled out the fact that my parents were divorced, that I went to public schools. He specifically zeroed in on boyfriends. How many boyfriends had I had? When did I lose my virginity? How many boyfriends did I actually have sex with? It was very uncomfortable, terrifying, and it completely caught me off guard. The funny thing about this is, it’s all about their perception. My college boyfriend was the first time where physical sex was part of the relationship. And that’s very typical. There’s nothing really shameful about that.
So I couldn’t make sense of these things. I didn’t know why it was happening. So I froze. And then I got married like that. That’s part of why it took me so long to see what was happening.
Can you share about a time you felt pressured to stifle your real self and perform as the “good Christian woman”?
One of the very first times that happened was the first conference I went to as Josh’s fiancee. We got engaged and we decided I would quit my job and travel with him to the conferences he was attending after his book had come out. At the end of the first conference, there was a really long line of people that wanted to talk to him. He caught my eye, invited me to stand next to him, and I ended up standing next to him for two hours, pretty much doing nothing except smile and nod. That was one moment before I married that I had to talk myself through it. I thought, this can’t be what it’s going to be like all the time. But it really did point to what a lot of my life was going to be about. I wasn’t supposed to be real. I was supposed to be this idealized projection.
How did the departure of C.J. and Carolyn Mahaney, who left Covenant Life Church after C.J. was accused of spiritually abusive leadership, impact the way you viewed Christianity?
I came into that time already struggling under the impact of this doctrine that had really clamped down on my freedom and who I was. But this was a really big moment of betrayal. What rocked my faith was, I felt C.J. had abandoned the church when he was most needed. The way he treated Josh and turned on him in that moment was really difficult for me. We were cut off relationally and basically shamed. This is supposed to be church, and they teach you over and over again about forgiveness and grace. None of that was present in this moment.
But when they left, it also freed me. I could listen to myself again, and in retrospect, I began thinking for myself around that time.
How are you thinking about your spirituality these days?
I feel as though I am tapped out on religion. The closest label I could give myself would probably be I’m just back to being a secular, regular person. But I understand why religion is important to people, and I think there is a place for religion. For many people religion can provide hope and community. It shouldn’t have been the way it was for me, and I am big enough to be able to see that. But that also doesn’t mean I can go back to it.
Your book documents how you gave up your dream of pursuing a career in music. Have you reclaimed that dream?
I did feel from the time I was 3 years old that I had a purpose. Music is so much of who I am, music and creativity. When I got to Vancouver, I reconnected with music and it was one of the catalysts for me to reconnect with myself. I realized this was really important to me. How did I lose that? And if I lost music, what else have I lost? So it really set me on this path of exploring and finding all these pieces of me I realized I had given up.
In some ways, writing this book was also a creative endeavor. As painful as it was, it was enjoyable for me to develop a title and the structure of the book. I’ve thrived reconnecting with my creativity, and I’m super excited to see where it goes.
What do you hope your readers take away with them?
If there are women out there who feel trapped in their marriages and these systems, I want them to feel the freedom to go, to be healthy and to be thriving human beings, because everybody deserves that. And I really hope that churches and male pastors will read my book, because I think they need to understand. I hear people dismissing people who are deconstructing. The female experience and the experience of people who’ve been hurt by churches needs to be heard. I think the expectations of complementarian churches especially inflicts a slow burning trauma that comes with unique and devastating consequences to women. The men who make theology need to study the impact of their theology.