John and Stasi Eldredge Tell Me How to Be a Woman
I just read through Captivating again. I will give John and Stasi Eldredge this: they are good at telling stories. They use the unique tool of testimony to share, edify, and teach – which sounds good if you don’t scrutinize the ideas these carefully picked stories present.
While the entire book is plagued by lazy writing, the worst case comes right near the beginning in chapter two, the chapter on Beauty. This chapter frames much of the rest of the book. Apparently, a woman’s greatest tool and greatest reflection of the image of God lies in her beauty. We have somehow become ugly because our “feminine hearts” have been wounded.
That sounds okay at first, but John and Stasi seem lost as to a way to define beauty that does not restrict or reduce it to physicality. Their examples of “feminine hearts” rely on the physical: naturally beautiful princesses, ladies all dolled up for a cocktail party, little girls in dresses.
They make broad claims about the feminine heart, inner beauty and all that, but only provide examples of physical beauty, which undercuts their own contentions. There are no examples of beauty that do not also align with a cultural norm of beauty, all the while making the claim that Christian beauty is counter-cultural because it consists of “inner” beauty. They don’t want to define beauty as solely physical, but their examples do just that.
They point to childhood as that time when we women were most innocently beautiful, wearing twirling skirts and asking our daddies “Am I lovely?”
I don’t know about most of John and Stasi’s audience, but that’s an image with which I cannot identify. From as early on as I can remember, I hated skirts and dresses. After church, I would climb trees still dressed in my church clothes, not caring if I ruined them because I didn’t want to wear them anyway. I played sports and rode my bike everywhere. I invented a game of swinging from high up in a Willow Tree to the ground by holding on to their flexible branches. My best friend was a boy, and we’d frequently pretend to be robbers climbing over my backyard fence.
When the Eldredges ask the rhetorical question, talking about how adventurous little boys are, “Who’s brave enough to jump out of a second story window onto a trampoline?” I wrote in the margin in capitals: ME.
I cannot identify with this image of little girls and tea parties and twirling skirts, so the fundamental shaping question for the book is entirely lost on me, and, I imagine, many of my fellow females.
Movies and Art
John and Stasi propose that men and women, in their approach to life, the universe and everything, fundamentally ask different questions. The man asks “Do I have what it takes?” and women ask “Am I lovely?”
I do not believe that there is anything inherent in being a woman biologically that would force a girl to ask such a question. I know cultural impetuses that have caused me to ask it in the past, but I do not see such a question as fundamental to who I am. Indeed, I find nothing in the Bible to indicate such a question exists for either sex. John and Staci define who women are and what they do based on cultural normative examples, not Biblical text.
When chapter two attempts to describe what makes a woman beautiful, most of the case for beauty as an asset of woman is built not upon the Bible but upon art, culture and film. In talking about how women are valued for their beauty, John and Stasi write about the beauty of a woman at rest in most paintings through art history. There is even the statement, written with a tone suggesting authority, that beauty is a tool unique to women because, after looking at art in a museum in Santa Fe, “[they] had not seen one painting devoted to the beauty of the naked masculine form.” Clearly, these two didn’t spend much time in museums in Europe.
They base their thesis about women possessing this unique tool of beauty not on Biblical context, but rather on the idea that there aren’t paintings of naked men. Again, a basic knowledge of art reveals this is not even true.
It may seem like a minor point, but it speaks volumes to the approach to the book. Rather than setting out to explore the Biblical idea of femininity, they instead chose a narrative and cherry-picked verses, art, and poetry that fit just such a narrative. Indeed, the entire book struggles with trying to force a Biblical narrative into a cultural one. For every Bible verse, there are two or three movie references, often badly misread ones – who in the world sees Arwen as a warrior princess over and above Eowyn? Apparently John and Stasi. These movie references are insultingly stereotypical – Steel Magnolias, Beaches, Fried Green Tomatoes. As though every woman has seen and wants to be like the women in these movies. The book uses these pop culture references in place of Biblical support, painting a picture of womanhood that is a strange combination of Esther and Julia Roberts.
In addition, the language surrounding womanhood and womanly beauty becomes uncomfortably sexual. All the language used to describe a woman’s interaction with the world around her and within the church has sexual overtones: we “excite,” “allure,” “invite,” “entice,” “satisfy,” “seduce,” “desire,” and “arouse.” These are all used, over and over, as descriptions of what a woman does with her God-given beauty, as a representative of God. The sexual overtones become almost shrill with the chapter on being “romanced” by God, where the characterization of a loving relationship with one’s Lord is written in terms of a passionate, almost literally sexual affair, seeming to underline the idea that what a woman has to offer is inherently tied to what exists between her legs. In order to support this idea, throughout the chapter, the authors seem to take the “her” pronoun used throughout Hosea as literal – God is pursuing women, in our femininity. The Eldredges conveniently forget that Hosea was a prophet using the image of man marrying a prostitute to reflect the history of the relationship of Israel to its God. The entire thing is a metaphor meant to cajole all of Israel – not just its women – to shape up and come back to God. Jesus is not writing us women specific love letters in Hosea – he’s attempting to return his country, consisting of men, women and children to come back using the image of a wayward woman. There’s a big difference.
Never mind the fact that calling Jesus our “fiancé” puts men in an odd position. Indeed, the entire book puts men in a theologically odd position – by placing them in a simplistic box that says “You don’t have to be handsome, you have nothing to offer but protection and strength, and to be ‘feminine’ is a sin.”
Protection by Men
While they give lip service to the idea that single woman can be just as Godly without a man (devoting a whole two pages to the section!), the overarching conclusion is that things are not right until a woman’s beauty is drawn out and protected by a man. Because after all, the passive woman at rest needs an active man to balance her out. They even go so far as to write:
“It follows that God would want to ensure that a woman helping to advance his Kingdom would be offered the covering and protection of good men. Issues of headship are intended for the benefit of women, not their suppression. You know how dangerous it can be to try and come alive as a truly feminine woman. Right? God desires that wherever and however you offer yourself to the Body of Christ, you’ll have the protection of good men over you. Not to hold you back, but to set you free as a woman.”
The assertion that women need to be “protected” by men is one of the more insidiously damaging claims the Eldredges develop here. I have somehow sinned in choosing to go down a different path and eschew the protection of men because they are men.
Rather than embracing biological sex and gender as merely one facet of an entire human being and one intensely influenced by the culture that surrounds us, the Eldredges turn gender into the defining characteristic. According to them, I have probably sinned because I consider my sex not my defining characteristic, but rather an accessory: I am a Christian, a writer, a teacher, an activist, an intellectual, an academic., a sci-fi geek. Oh yeah, I’m also a woman.