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Shannon (Bonne) Harris recently premiered her much-anticipated autobiography The Woman They Wanted: Shattering the Illusion of the Good Christian Wife.1Shannon Harris, The Woman They Wanted: Shattering the Illusion of the Good Christian Wife; Broadleaf Books; August 29, 2023 She details her life, first as a young convert, then as a pastor’s wife and homeschooling mom in Sovereign Grace Church, Baltimore (SGM). Shannon tells a heartrending story of decades-long spiritual abuse at the hands of her husband, Josh Harris, her pastor, C. J. Mahaney, and his wife, Carolyn.  But the goal of Shannon’s book is not merely to share her own story. Repeatedly throughout the 244 pages, Shannon beckons her readers to follow her on the path to fulfillment through “looking inside yourself” for wisdom and truth,2in New Age and many progressive groups, our “inner knowingness” is the final authority for truth thus deconstructing your faith in Jesus Christ along the way.

Shannon was raised in a secular home; her parents divorced during her middle school years, and she and her brother remained living with their dad while her mom moved across the country to advance her career. Shannon tells of her love of music and theater from a young age and her desire to pursue a life performing on Broadway. It is in preparing to “fulfill her dreams,” a phrase repeated many times throughout her book, that Shannon is introduced to evangelical Christianity as taught and practiced by Sovereign Grace Church (SGM).

Shannon’s story actually began decades earlier as her now ex-husband Josh Harris was growing up in the home of homeschooling pioneers Gregg and Sono Harris.

As a teen, Josh made many self-confessed bad decisions about dating and eventually proposed to approach his relationships with girls in a new way. The result was the book I Kissed Dating Goodbye (1997) that sold over a million copies, landed him on the homeschool convention speaking circuit, and caught the eye of Mahaney. The no-dating message resonated with SGM, and Josh was brought on staff, eventually being mentored to become the lead pastor of the large flagship church. All that was missing was a church-approved courtship and wife.

Enter Shannon

Three years later, Josh published Boy Meets Girl3Multnomah, 2000 and 2005, detailing his courtship with Shannon and outlining a script for parents and young adults on how to challenge the world’s views of romance. The book was an immediate success, and the back cover shows the cute and perky couple happily married with children.

But all was not well in the Harris marriage. Reminiscent of the familiar story of Princess Diana, she tells us, Shannon paints the tragic picture of a young woman who was told by church authorities what friends to have, what clothes to wear, what music to listen to, when and how to participate in ministry, and how to raise her children. The goal was to make her the SGM version of a godly woman.4For more information, see my article, The Cult of “Godly” Womanhood, from the MCOI Journal All of these things resulted in more confusion and disappointment as she felt she could never be what was expected of her, all while trying to compete with the church and a broader audience for her husband’s time and attention.

Over the years, loneliness and disillusionment eventually lead to depression and a breakdown. When the SGM scandal exploded, Josh eventually resigned and moved his family 3000 miles cross country to attend a theology school they knew had a reputation for causing a crisis of faith in people. Josh and Shannon were primed for the same experience. In 2018, they announced their divorce and “deconstruction,” declaring they are no longer Christians.

Fast forward to 2023 and The Woman They Wanted.  Either history has been rewritten, or the previously published chronicles of Shannon’s fairytale courtship and model marriage to Josh were lies. Perhaps it is both. In this brave new world of deconstructing your faith, all that matters is “speaking YOUR truth.”

I have several important takeaways from this book:

To be absolutely clear, Shannon was most certainly a victim of spiritual abuse. It is a compelling and painful read. There are many kinds of abuse, but by far, spiritual abuse is the most insidious and pervasive.  In his latest book, Bully Pulpit Confronting the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church, Dr. Michael J. Kruger wrote this helpful definition:

Spiritual abuse is when a spiritual leader, such as a pastor, elder, or head of a Christian organization, wields his position of spiritual authority in such a way that he manipulates, domineers, bullies, and intimidates those under him as a means of maintaining his own power and control, even if he is convinced he is seeking biblical and kingdom-related goals.

This has been the well-documented pattern of behavior of Sovereign Grace Ministries, and there was no escape for Shannon. With no other context for theology or church life, she was quickly indoctrinated, groomed, and elevated into the role of megachurch pastor’s wife at age 30, only a few years after her supposed conversion.

Interestingly, Shannon casually mentions God several times but declares she isn’t sure she believes He exists.  She openly stated she is not a Christian and said she found studying the Bible to be boring. She had no desire to train her children in Biblical truth, and there is no mention of Jesus or who she believes He is. Rejecting a Biblical worldview, she endorses sex outside of marriage, including homosexuality. She has embraced feminist ideology and its apologists, peppering her appeal to readers with appropriate quotes. There is no indication that she was ever a believer.

I think the same can be said for Josh,5See Joshua Harris – Kissing WHAT Faith Goodbye? and as I read, I kept asking myself why he pursued Shannon in the first place. There were dozens, if not hundreds, of young women who were committed to his courtship principles, who understood the calling and struggles of a pastor’s wife, and who, unlike Shannon, had context for life within a Christian community. Maybe it is because he also wasn’t a believer. Or maybe he truly is the great storyteller he is purported to be. The details in this book are in such sharp contrast to those told in Boy Meets Girl that I had to go back and read the books side by side to be sure I hadn’t missed something.

Shannon seemed to be an eager and vivacious woman trying her best to live up to manmade commands without experiencing a life built on Biblical Truth. As with so many young men and women who have shared this experience, Shannon has chosen to identify as a victim, seeking truth and wisdom from within herself. She sees God, if there is one, as a complete killjoy who wants to squash your dreams and thwart your liberty.  Shannon, now free from this bondage, has begun her crusade to liberate everyone else.

And herein lies the great danger of this book. Her passionate and repeated plea for her readers to also embrace victimhood as their identity and to look to their inner-knowingness to find their own truth will lead many away from finding their comfort and identity in Christ. Indeed, this book will, and has already, poured fuel on the fires of those who are struggling. As one reviewer stated, The Woman They Wanted will become the vanguard of a new movement of women rediscovering themselves, their dreams, and their futures.

Not only did Shannon miss the Jesus of the Bible, but she misrepresented the Bible itself and how it is taught in evangelical churches. She claims she learned that because Eve sinned first and offered the forbidden fruit to Adam, all women, including any future women, are responsible for the sins of all mankind. She describes the sacrifices of Biblical womanhood she was modeled as “a house with no windows or doors.” She also mocks such orthodox teachings as election and original sin, saying because she was taught these doctrines, she must pay a therapist to remind her how “fabulous she is. God’s laws are not a boundary of protection for Shannon but, rather, are an obstruction on her path to self-worship.

From her first encounters with SGM to the ending of her marriage more than 20 years later, Shannon suffered from abusive behaviors at the hands of others. My heart aches for what she experienced. She was sold a fake Gospel message. But realizing it, she had two choices: to seek after the one true Jesus or to “follow her heart.” Sadly, she has chosen the latter.

Note: The response of the church to this book ought to be one of grief over the sins that were committed against Shannon. We must pray that those responsible will be exposed and held accountable. For those of us who have experienced spiritual abuse, our only hope is to cast all of our cares upon Jesus. He promises that His yoke is easy and His burden is light! (Matthew 11:30) And we must refuse to take a picture of Shannon as she is at this point in time and pray for her true repentance and redemption. Had Shannon chosen to only share her story, it would have been an interesting biographical read. By making it an appeal for her readers also to walk away from Biblical truth, The Woman They Wanted becomes a danger and should be avoided.Ω

Karen Campbell is a wife of 48 years, a retired homeschooling mom of six, and grandmother of soon-to-be 16 grandchildren. She is the author of The Joy of Relationship Homeschooling ~ when the one anothers come home

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