Saturday, March 22, 2008

Captivating review

At long last, I'm back on track for reviewing books. (It's been five months... gah!) The last few months have been incredibly busy, and we had a snag with the books getting to me. Today's review is of John and Stasi Eldgredge's book Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman's Soul. Published in 2005, the book has become a continual bestseller in Christian nonfiction, and at the same time a subject of some controversy - especially as John Eldredge has been accused of ascribing to open theism. I'll largely be avoiding the issue here, since it's mostly irrelevant to the book itself. The book is the authors' attempt to speak to issues women face from sin in general and Western culture in particular. They open the book by proposing to "venture into this exploration of femininity by way of the heart" - specifically by posing the questions:
What is at the core of a woman's heart? What are her desires? What did we long for as little girls? What do we still long for as women? And, how does a woman begin to be healed from the wounds and tragedies of her life?" (p. x)

The remainder of the text is an exploration of the Eldredges' proposed answers to those questions.

The text consists of a brief introduction followed by just over 200 pages of text broken into twelve chapters. Each chapter consists of multiple sections, working through a thesis introduced at the beginning of the chapter or responding to a question brought up by the previous chapter. Each chapter is opened by a quote or three providing insight into the content and thoughts of the chapter. (The most memorable was their quoting C. S. Lewis as having said, "Even to see her walk across the room is a liberal education.") The content consists largely of alternating blocks of thesis and illustrative narrative, either from their own experiences (largely Stasi's, as one would expect) or from their interactions with others. The Eldredges answer the questions they posed by laying a foundation in the first chapter and then developing the ideas of that chapter through the text, primarily focusing on "what makes a woman come alive" by addressing her desire "to be romanced, to play an irreplaceable role in a great adventure, and to unveil beauty" (p. 8).

The authors carry the book as a running conversation with the reader, anticipating feedback and responding to it as they move along. As such, the language is light and conversational, the sentences easy to parse. The chapters are short and relatively easy to digest. The perspective of the anecdotes is indicated (in most cases; see below) by a parenthetical indicating who is doing the telling. Scripture is mixed in liberally throughout the text, to a demonstrative rather than expositional effect. Each chapter neatly ties up its own questions and thoughts, while introducing a particularly incisive statement of the thesis developed throughout and transitioning toward the next chapter. As a whole, the text built to a conclusive finale that left the reader fully satisfied, at least from a literary perspective.

The book has a number of outstanding merits. It is well-constructed, and has excellent flow from idea to idea. The ideas presented are excellent, and mostly in accord with Scripture. They Eldredges are in fine form as they recount story after story both of immense pain caused by the destruction of the imago Dei - the image of God - in the Fall and immediately follow with stories of healing and hope. Their succinct and accurate demonstration of the ways in which women grapple with their role in this world - with their very selves - is excellent indeed. They paint with a broad brush, of course, but a largely accurate one, as they note the ways in which women have been trampled upon and broken by both the world at large and their own selves. Women are beautiful (and in more than merely their appearance) in ways that are a marvel to me. They see the world in ways I cannot.

They dealt responsibly with wounds delivered to women by both men and women, refusing to slip into a neo-feminist "blame men" mentality. In what I think was probably the best chapter in the book, they dealt with the power a mother has with her daughter, and with the remarkable "sister" relationship that women have with each other. Throughout the book, the Eldredges emphasized the healing power of Christ and His desire to make women whole: to make them as they were intended to be by stripping away all the false layers that have built up as futile defenses against the world, to make them beautiful in Him. This consistent return to Christ was a breath of fresh air in a culture dedicated to self-therapy and self-healing.

One significant weakness included a number of niggling editorial failures: the explanation of what, precisely, Alter is - it's a translation of Genesis by Robert Alter, a Hebrew scholar - until five pages after introducing it, or failure to tie up various stories opened for illustration in the text. At one point the authors claimed that "saints from ages past" said something and then immediately and without transition quoted John Eldredge's book Wild at Heart (p. 35). Throughout the text, transitions between authors were sometimes unclear (specifically, the indeterminate use of "I" in a multi-author text as opposed to the more standard "we") when, as occasionally happened, they forgot to parenthetically note who was speaking. Existing transitions between voices are often choppy. These sorts of mistakes simply frustrate or mislead the reader in small but unfortunate and thoroughly unnecessary ways: this is what a good editor is for!

More significant were the assertions that were at best left undemonstrated by Scripture and at worst wholly unsupported by it - even, perhaps, contrary to it, however well-meaning. In the former case we have their recounting of the Fall - but without a single use of the word "sin" and only the pithy, "When a man goes bad, as every man has in some way gone bad after the Fall..." (p. 50) to even address the issue of depravity and our need for Christ. They continue by noting of man their belief that "what is mostly deeply marred [by the Fall] is his Strength" (p. 50), and of woman that it is "her tender vulnerability, beauty that invites to life." Insofar as these are a part of the image of God planted in us, they are somewhat right, but they miss the fact that it is actually that imago Dei that is marred, and our relationship with God. Strength and Beauty (if they are indeed men and women's primary God-reflecting attributes, another unproven assertion) are but the parts of the image of God, and that is the fundamental loss that makes this lesser loss that the Eldredges do mourn so grievous: a point which they could (and should!) have made.

Later, they tell story of a woman who abandoned her active ministry to her church and to unbelievers to "minister to God" (p. 208) - what this looks like is unspecified, except that it meant her abandoning every active role in the community of believers. As such, it's hard to know exactly what is meant by this, but the Eldredges do comment that this woman was chastised by her church for abandoning the Great Commission. If indeed she has ceased to share the Gospel in lieu of "ministering to God" I find myself with several questions. First, what exactly does that mean? Second, how is obeying God's commands - indeed, Christ's final command to His disciples while on earth - not ministering to God? Finally, how can we possibly fulfill both the greatest commandment and the one like it - loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; and loving our neighbor as ourselves - if we are not actively engaged in the proclamation of the gospel? Though the reader was expected to sympathize with the woman referenced, I found myself sympathizing more with the church leaders who seemed to be dealing responsibly with her error. This example was murky enough - and prominent enough - to address, but a number of similar examples cropped up throughout the book.

Somewhere farther along that continuum is their assertion that "Beauty is, without question, the most essential and most misunderstood of God's qualities" (p. 40, emphasis in the original). They failed to provide any Scriptural evidence for this assertion, and it left me somewhat mystified: God's dominant attributes as portrayed by Scripture are probably His glory, His holiness, and His relational nature. Beauty is a component of those, but it certainly does not dominate them; as such I find it difficult to swallow the assertion that beauty is unquestionably the most essential of God's attributes. (For clarity, searching Scriptures for passages on the beauty of the Lord or the beauty of God [including all wildcards] turned up a grand total of two passages. Searching for passages about "the glory of the Lord" [excluding all variants on the phrase] finds at least forty. This is no insignificant assertion.) I am willing to grant that the Eldredges perhaps meant this in a way that can be reconciled with the teaching of Scripture, but there is clearly an issue here.

Worse than this, however, was their seventh chapter (and a theme throughout the text), "Romanced." The entire proposition of the chapter is that God in Christ is wooing women to Himself as His Bride - each individual woman. This is a fundamentally wrong assertion: no single individual is the Bride of Christ. It's also an incredibly common assertion in Christian circles these days - I don't know how many times I've heard variations on "Jesus is my boyfriend" or "I don't need a husband; I have Christ." I can appreciate the sentiment behind these sorts of statements, and behind the Eldredges' chapter, but the truth is that these are wrong. They are not merely misapplications: they are a fundamental misunderstanding of Scripture - a uniquely Western one, with our preoccupation with individualism. Every single passage of Scripture cited by the Eldredges in this chapter was either addressed corporately to God's people or from one individual man to an individual woman (as in the Song of Solomon references); none of them are from God to an individual. (This is simply because at no point in Scripture is an individual ever called the Bride of Christ: only the Church is.) They conclude the chapter with an address to the reader: "You are his Betrothed, his Beloved, the beat of his heart, and the love of his life" (p. 126); and they conclude on the second to last page of the book, "You are sought after, pursued, romanced by the passionate desire of your Fiancé, Jesus" (p. 217). But this is simply not what Scripture teaches. The Church is his Bride. More importantly, His deepest intimacy is not with the Church, incredibly though that intimacy is, but with Himself: within the Trinity. This is dangerously wrong: for it sets the individual in a non-communal context in her relationship with Christ and it places us higher than God the Father and the Spirit in Christ's eyes.

It is my sincere hope that these were simply misstatements on the part of the authors, or a lack of clear communication of their ideas from their minds to the page - but regardless of their intent, this kind of thinking is leading many astray, to our great loss. We need an understanding of these texts that is not pinned on proof-texting and a theology centered on our own individual selves. We need an understanding of these texts that points to the Church and to God, not to individuals.

Ultimately, I have to call this book a very mixed bag. Much good is to be found here, and to be clear, the Eldredges were not setting out to write a text of deep exposition of Scripture's teaching on femininity, but rather to examine a picture of what femininity should look like and how to get there. I found much of value here: glimpses of women as the most beautiful part of God's creation, as tender-hearted reflections of His love, of equals who stand alongside men and complement their strength with relationship. But when all of this is mixed with the serious kinds of error addressed above, it is a dangerous combination: for without discernment, we may swallow all the bad with the good. The friendliness of the book and the ease with which it may be read have contributed to its popularity, no doubt - but I fear that it has also been the individualism and the unfaithful treatments of Scripture: treatments of the sort that Satan loves to twist to his advantage even where it was simple error on the part of the authors. I cannot recommend this book to any but discerning readers, and to them I might suggest other books with a better Scriptural hermeneutic (as I will when I come across them).

- Chris


  1. Chris - excellent review.

    I went to one of their women's retreats August 04 ... right before the book was released ... they said everything they were teaching was in the book, so I never purchased it.

    August 04 was after our 8 month separation in our marriage (I discovered his whole truth May 03)... he had been back about six weeks ... I had just remembered the sexual abuse and had just begun to work through that ... had been in counseling for a little over a year. My therapist and I discussed the retreat and their stuff a lot as he also had me read one of John's books.

    And, yes, this is for the very discerning. Though there was a lot of good that came out of the retreat and what I read, there was much that disturbed me.

    Probably one of the greatest things that disturbed me was the way people *worshiped* John and Staci. That kind of *worship* bothers me (I see the same w/ Sovereign Grace ministries, but that's another discussion).

    I find the philosophy that "all you need is God" as opposed to needing relationship with humankind a paradox in that God created us to need each other. So if we say we only need God, we are saying we don't need others ... so we're saying we don't need what God created us to need.

    btw - LOVE the quote!!!
    "Even to see her walk across the room is a liberal education."


  2. Wasn't quite what I was expecting when you said yesterday that you were going to post on your blog last night. ;)
    Very good post none-the-less, and very insightful.

  3. Chris, I just wanted to say that I read the WHOLE review.


    See you tonight.


Got some thoughts? Fire away. Please be polite, thoughtful, and kind! Please provide your name and, if applicable, website. Anonymous comments, along with all forms of spam, trolling, and personal attacks, will be deleted.