Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Book Review: Captivating

This week during my daily commute I have been reading Captivating (Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman's Soul) by John and Stasi Eldredge. The book promises to reveal what it means to be a woman and how to live the life of a woman as God intended on a day to day basis.

The thesis of the work is a philosophy of gender reasoned as follows:
1. Gender is imprinted at the spiritual level on the soul and not just in our physical form and genes. 
According to the authors, this principle is suggested by the contextual language of the versus in Genesis describing creation. Specifically, the verse dictating that God made mankind, MALE AND FEMALE, in his image. The authors argue that based on this inclusive language, both men and women represent the spiritual image of God and so it follows both genders display/embody attributes of God at a spiritual level.

2. Women reflect the following attributes of God: romance, adventure, and beauty.
Using numerous scripture references, the authors do a good job of demonstrating that romance (the call to pursuit; the quiet whisper that says I am here for you when you are ready, pursue me), adventure (intrinsically linked to grand, meaningful action), and beauty (the restful respite that takes your breath away and makes you feel at ease like a beautiful garden or gentle river or fresh cut flowers) are all attributes of God. However, I think John and Stasi fail to lead the readers through any well reasoned, logical proofs on why these three attributes are specifically tied to women. Instead, they merely provide examples of women who embody these attributes and use parenthetical questions such as "(don't you agree?)" to push the reader to accept their conclusions.

Do I agree with this premise? It does seem that I've been imprinted to the depths of *my* soul with a desire to be pursued, with a quest for adventure, and with a passion to be beautiful inside and out. But I'm not every woman, and I'm not sure I'm at all comfortable prescribing these desires for all women as ordained by God. It's especially hard at times to reconcile the desire to exemplify beauty and respite as Godly with the current push of the Western world for women to be harder and aggressive. When I was a younger woman and wanted to be pleasant and gentle and restful to others I accepted the desire as part of who I was. When I was in my 20s, business classes (and women's studies) taught me that being pleasant, gentle, and restful are qualities women are merely trained into by a sexist oppresive culture and that it would do us good to free ourselves from the shackle of these desires. Studies are often trotted out to show the #1 reason men succeed over women in the business world is because they aren't constrained with a desire to be pleasant, gentle, and restful to others and that when women adopt the posture and attitude of men they too outpace the rest of their female colleagues in rank and pay (but sadly they experience more marital and relationship discord and are not well liked). And now here comes John and Stasi asserting that being pleasant, gentle, and restful to others are the very embodiment of God within us. Are they right, or are they fools and tools of the patriarch?

3. Women are most fufilled and most useful in serving God's kingdom when they cultivate and embody these feminine attributes of God.
According to the authors, women are uniquely qualified to draw others into the kingdom and enrich the lives of others in discipleship when we cultivate these attributes I've detailed above. We can move hearts and mountains with our inviting hearts, our adventurous spirits, and our gentle and soothing beauty. Not only are we most effective when we focus on romance, adventure, and beauty but we are most joyful and fulfilled. Again, in lieu of providing reasoned arguments as to the validity of this premise, here the authors simply provide examples of women who are working life in line with this philosophy and suggest readers give it a try to see what fruit it bears. They also caution that by ignoring this principle and showing neglect in providing careful cultivation, these attributes will remain, as they are part of our souls, but they will grow weedy and untamed, resulting in a personality that is to either extreme of the attribute (aggressive and off putting/needy and clingy and desperate; reckless/listless and uninspiring; vain or harsh/frumpy or uninviting). 

The authors acknowledged that cultivating these feminine attributes can be a challenge. First, since such cultivation will further God's kingdom, evil forces will actively oppose our progress. Additionally, as mentioned above, there is currently a counter-cultural backlash pushing women to abandon these attributes and cultivate a more masculine attitude to get ahead. Finally, there is a very real fear and danger that offering these qualities to the world (and displaying vulnerability) will get you stomped on and abused. Try telling sexual assault victims that to be fulfilled they need to cultivate allure (not sexual, but personality), respite, and gentleness. There are some brief words on proper context (the author's aren't suggesting while being beaten a woman smiles and radiates beauty) but otherwise the readers are challenged to find a way to embody these attributes no matter the evil that should oppose them, no matter the western world social or business consequences, and despite the vulnerable risk it comes packaged with.

An additional idea the authors offer is that Lucifer has a special hatred of women, stemming from his envy of her beauty and his opposition to her relationship building, that fuels much of the historical oppression and degradation of women in our world. The authors detail the scripture references to Lucifer's beauty as they construct the foundation for this conclusion. There isn't really a call to action suggested by this theory; the authors simply want to make women aware of the greater context of women's issues with regard to spiritual warfare. I like conspiracy theories so this premise appealed to me. Is it possible that women have been oppressed from time eternal not just because we are, on average, physically weaker but because there is a demonic plot working against us? Interesting to ponder.

Outside of the content of the book, the writing itself is average. It's written in an easy, conversational format.
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