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How Shannon Harris Kissed Biblical Womanhood Goodbye

Por Kathryn Post
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“The Woman They Wanted: Shattering the Illusion of the Good Christian Wife" and author Shannon Harris. (Photo by Dave Ko)

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. Reporter Kathryn Post spoke to Harris about “The Woman They Wanted: Shattering the Illusion of the Good Christian Wife,” which will be released by Broadleaf Books next week. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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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.

Kathryn Post is a reporter for Religion News Service based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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39 Respuestas

  1. I think that this dear woman was not loved the way God in the Scriptures prescribed that Husband should love their Wives, and the fact that her ex-husband defected from the Faith, really hurt her perspective about her understanding of who God called her to be as a Christian woman and wife, unfortunately. I really hope that at some point in the near future, she will have an authentic encounter with the Christ of the Scriptures, and that she will allow HIM to love her and to show her who she can be in relationship to Him. Reading this short excerpt of her story is sad and heart-breaking, but I haven’t lost hope for her!

    1. I think the church’s treatment of her was what hurt her perspective. She was basically taught that she had nothing to add to the conversation, and this was on top of Mahaney’s assault of personal questions that he had no business asking her. I am glad for her that she has been able to reconnect with who she really is, and I hope that as she continues to grow in this area that she will find for herself just how pleased her Father is with her.

  2. TAG wouldn’t let my (late) wife operate the sound mixer board, because “that would put her in a position of authority over the man preaching”… Go figure.

      1. Take And Give — it was the earliest iteration of what became PDI, then SGM, then SGC, a small “family of churches” led by CJ Mahaney.

    1. They really got authority and service all wrong. If a woman could carry Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, why wouldn’t a woman be able to serve at the mixer board? Even if they were right in man-centered hierarchical complementarianism (which they aren’t) this is a ridiculous extension of their doctrine. I attended SGM churches for nearly 11 years and the failure of leadership to respect women and treat us as joint heirs was one of the most negative experiences of my young adult life.

  3. I can really relate. I too married someone without knowing him, and tried to conduct my marriage on the “keep the appearances shiny” principle. I finally realized that I was living a lie, and have pressed in to finding Truth ever since that time.
    I really look forward to reading her book.

    1. Lisa – Unfortunately, your experience sounds like the experience so many of us have had. I bought into the lie that a regular church attending and church volunteering man would also make a quality Christian husband. What I found was a man living a double life. He presented a nice facade at church on Sunday morning and Wednesday night services and was a completely different person in real life. The church appears to now be faced with many people, women in particular, who realize that they were sold a bill of goods. However, instead of the church honestly facing their harmful messaging and the resulting fallout, they are doubling down on the bad messaging.

      I’ve been looking forward to reading Shannon’s book since it was announced. We have heard so much of Josh’s story. It will be interesting to read her story.

  4. Shannon ran into a trifecta of bad stuff: Having to survive under CJ and Carolyn; having your husband appointed lead pastor at age 30 when it was clear neither him nor Shannon were ready for it, and being part of one of the weirder churches on the planet. I visited Covenant Life once or twice and couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I don’t know how she stood it. And then she got cherrypicked for an arranged marriage. That said, “Finding a Christian wife at Covenant Life,” someone told me once, “is like shooting fish in a barrel.” There wasn’t a ton of other Christian guys around; Josh was available, what was not to like? What is unclear is why she became Christian in the first place. Unlike some teens and kids who experience rejection for being a Christian and thus make the hard choices early on whether they will stick with it, Shannon walked out of a secular lifestyle into a Christian one at no cost to herself. If she bought into following Christ at an emotional and spiritual level, that is not apparent in this interview.

    1. In answer to your question about how Shannon initially came to Christ, according to one of Josh Harris’ books from over 20 years ago, “Boy Meets Girl,” before he met Shannon, someone giving guitar lessons to her initially witnessed to her about Jesus. She then later read through the book of Romans as well as Josh McDowell’s book, “More Than a Carpenter” which gives historical evidence of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. According to Harris’ book, “One night, alone in her room, she repented for her sinful and self-centered life and believed on the Savior she now knew had died for her.” The sad thing about all that unfolded in her life afterward with her ex-husband and their church is how it apparently altered her views of the Christian faith, Scripture and wanting nothing to do with Jesus.

    2. Is this Julia Duin the reporter? I’m just curious.

      Also, your comment about her not receiving a negative reaction to becoming a Christian is very insightful. It sounds like she was never challenged to count the cost of discipleship to Jesus. As someone who grew up hearing and singing “Is Your All on the Altar?” that’s hard (for me) to imagine.

  5. I felt a deep sadness for the loss of precious youthful lifetime evoked by Shannon’s testimony.
    That said, it is clear that she is giving herself over to recovery, rather than dwelling on that loss.
    Her narrative on beginning secular, then tumbling into the Alice in wonderland all-encompassing experience of that Church and that theology and that marriage, then re-becoming secular, has a broad validity: whether that recovery of the secular, is a way-station, or a final destination. Her lifetime spent, then unifying God and Bible and secular, in ways which theology so often fails to acknowledge and grapple with.
    That latter point about theology leaning into the divine and transcendent, and rather orphaning the secular from its considerations, pointing up an aspect of the Biblical script. Namely that the way the script is crafted, lends itself to the extreme interpretations (here of Adam and Eve in Genesis) which Shannon speaks of as informing that Church and its theology. This something concerning about Biblical scripts, that all Christians might do more to acknowledge and grapple with.

  6. Buy her book!! This article is just a promotion for her book. I am disappointed that Mrs. Roys runs these type of articles.

    Again, this article is nothing more than a promotion for the book. It’s sad that this can be considered “news,” especially on a “Christian” website.

    Keep the commercialization of Jesus going!! By the way, it’s available on Amazon for $25.

    1. I concur.

      You can take the girl out of evangelical culture but you can’t take evangelical culture out of the girl. There’s always a ‘testimony’. There’s always an awakening to a new self. And very often, there’s a product to sell.

  7. “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.”

    “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.”

    Trusts herself? Becomes wise?? Wisdom is seen by God as bad???

    Premarital sex?

    If this heretical way of thinking is a preview, this book will be void of godly wisdom and full of wordly perspectives and false teaching from an unbeliever.

    Why is this being promoted by the Roys Report?

    No thanks.

    1. I agree with your thoughts on this article. I wonder why The Roys Report picks up articles from the Religious News Service which often takes unbiblical positions and are heretical in some of their views. This article is about a book that appears filled with heretical statements and unbiblical principles as you have pointed out. It reads more like a commercial as others have shown in their comments. It’s unfortunate that Roys Report has included it on their website.

      1. We report on developments within the church. Shannon breaking her silence and speaking out is a significant development, whether her views are Christian or not. That’s why we published this article.

        1. It was an inspiring article and I’m genuinely grateful you published it. Sounds like this woman has finally refound herself after wandering for decades in the Evangelical Desert.

      2. Publishing a promo piece for someone who has gone apostate may be, on some misguided level, “restoring the truth,” but it isn’t “restoring the church.”

        Normally appreciate the work of the Roy’s Report, but this one misses the mark.

        1. I understand your opinion, but I think Shannon’s experience is important for people in the church to hear, so it’s not repeated. Many are abandoning the faith because of the awful, and unbiblical, way in which they were treated. It’s my prayer that hearing stories like Shannon’s will prompt positive change.

    2. The “godly wisdom” in her book will require some reading between the lines: Don’t treat people the way she was treated.

      Unless you only care about the experiences of those who are still professing Christians.

  8. I don’t think the problem is that men who study and create theology is lack of study of the outcomes. The problem is that they don’t care about the outcomes. Gregg Harris profited from stealing and spinning paradigms (that other people created), He and those like him used fear and empty promises to sell those ideas to a couple of generations. There is one thing that makes the Word of God ineffective — the Traditions of Men.

    I am so glad that God is Love and that His love can permeate all of the harm and the suffering causes by such wishful thinking and all of the fallout from man’s paradigms. Nothing can seperate us from it. May we all know the immeasurable, exceeding greatness of His love, and may He give us the power and motivation to grasp it. My heart breaks that there was not enough love between them to sustain Shannon’s union with Josh, because I have seen that love transcend this kind of damage, too. But if there wasn’t enough there for them together, may the be better and made whole apart. May all like them become whole, if they were ever permitted to do so in the first place.

  9. I’m glad she woke up (Along with her husband) and moved on from this odd fad in Evangelicalism.

    I feel privileged that I also walked away when this new trend was taking hold in Evangelicalism in the last 1990s.

  10. From the sounds of this interview, Shannon never had a true surrender to Christ as Lord and Savior. For those seasoned in the faith, this book may have no effect on them. But for new believers or those who think they are believers but are truly not, this book could be detrimental.

  11. 1
    I get tired of Christians responding to stories of people leaving Christianity with ‘it’s so sad they were never real Christians’ or ‘It’s so sad they never knew the real Jesus’ or ‘I pray that one day they will encounter the real Spirit of God’. I’m certain this comes from a place of kindness and care. But it seems to serves as a defence for the Christian against an uncomfortable reality: really really real Christians can and do stop being Christians for valid reasons and their lives are not diminished by their exit.

    I was a very real Christian with a real relationship with God for 30+ years. I was a pastor for 15+ years. And then I stopped believing in God and I left church. The fact that I left does not mean that what came before was fake or ‘merely religion’. (I wrote briefly about this here: https://open.substack.com/pub/fforest/p/-tree-336-i-dont-exist)

    Good Christian people, I implore you to add People Who Were Real Christians And Knew Jesus Then Later Left The Faith to your categories of things that exist. I exist. Shannon Bonne exists.

    2
    Julie and team, I’ve been reading for a while. This is my first comment. Thank you for the work you do. It’s so important that there are people in the church who love the church and who are willing to tell the truth even when the truth isn’t pretty.

    1. They’re trying to sooth themselves.

      The takeaway shouldn’t be “well she wasn’t a Christian” but rather “man, we need to treat people better than that.”

      1. Yes, we absolutely do need to treat people better in the evangelical church! But, I would take it a step further. Many evangelicals need to learn how. to treat women as people.

    2. Well said. Most evangelicals are in denial about True Christians™ ever leaving the faith. It makes them uncomfortable imagining people like themselves leaving Christianity for valid reasons… maybe that could happen to them too! So they stuff their fingers in the ears, call ex-Christians names (apostates, heretics, fake Christians) and simply refuse to listen to their stories without mansplaining them.

      1. It’s soo sad there is all this finger pointing going on. This feels like a women at the well type moment.

        What’s ironic is she’s actually talking about judgy people like y’all in the church.

    3. Jeff Gill, very true. Judas was endorsed and helped by the Holy Spirit, traveling in pairs, going ahead of Christ, doing miracles. The Spirit came over King Saul to cause him to prophesy while he was hunting to kill David, then turned him back. The Holy Spirit comes on anyone God chooses to do good from their bad, and God, not the person, gets credit. So, whether they leave or they stay, it was always the Holy Spirit doing the good. The person is just the transport. They can go to hell if they stop answering the call, because it was never them that did the work. It was always the Holy Spirit. ( I have this re-occurring dream where I don’t finish school, college or high school. I finally sought the Lord because I was having this dream for years, and it scared me. The Lord said, “I wanted you to see what you accomplish apart from me. You always give up, always fail, never succeed. The only way in real life that you finished and completed everything you have done with Excellence and Highest Honors, is because of the Holy Spirit. Hell is for losers and quitters like Satan, people who get kicked out, lost in the battle. Heaven is for the winners, never giving up, always until the end. You need something from heaven, the Holy Spirit, to get you there to the end. )

  12. This is an amazing article and kudos to the Roys Report for publishing it.

    This sentence really strikes me: “I think the expectations of complementarian churches especially inflicts a slow burning trauma that comes with unique and devastating consequences to women.”

    Those who are upset at what Shannon has to say may be the ones who need to hear her message the most. Toxicity in the church is harming and driving away many people, particularly women.

  13. (A MAN) once explained it this way to me. “It’s a 3 step process to death. Judas didn’t like the hardship of the ministry. Judas focused on himself, taking the money. Judas betrays Christ to his face, so a demon (Satan) takes over the person. Then death, person killing themselves. Eve didn’t like something. Satan had her focus on what she wanted. She betrays Adam to his face. God then begins using demons to curse women, and death becomes a possibility.” As a nation, most people know someone like Shannon, in that second stage, focus on self because they don’t like hardship. The next phase is betraying God to his follower’s faces, which then allows Satan and demons to take over, then they destroy themselves. This book is important for women to read, feel justified in their actions, be selfish, follow down the path they are already on. That is what is meant by the Greek word about Judas, not that he was predestined from birth, no, but that he was in his heart, unable to be saved, already headed for destruction when Christ recruited him. Christ just gave him the opportunity to speed up the process. Anyone who falls away, they were already headed there, all disciples teenagers except Peter under 20, unable to pay temple tax. Shannon was going the wrong way even before Joshua, heart about what she wanted as a teenager. Joshua, like King Saul, just seeking to please others, dad, denomination, whatever, same result. Remember Galatians, that when we restore others, be careful we don’t fall.

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