“But do you know, in nineteen years of marriage my husband never once looked into my eyes and told me I was beautiful.”

Shannon Harris, The Woman They Wanted

Shut the book for a second, Aimee. Hurt with her. Hurt with Shannon. With beautiful Shannon.

I went to high school with Shannon Hendrickson, the Shannon before she was Shannon Harris. She was two grades higher than me, but we shared a best friend. Public school girls, we are. The Shannon I knew was beautiful, popular, very talented, friendly, and always smiling. Everyone adored her. I remember when our shared best friend, Kathy (one of her former girlfriends named in the book whom she was pressured to drop ties with), told me that Shannon married this Christian author I may have heard of, Joshua Harris. Shut the front door! I pushed Kathy in shock.

Shannon married the basically new celebrity Christian of the purity culture. We didn’t know to call it that, then. Of course she did! Of course he did! Joshua Harris married beautiful Shannon. And since he seemed to have an obsession with the so-called perfect courtship/marriage model (spoiler, turns out it ruined many lives), I only imagined how enraptured that man must have been after they said their “I do’s.”

Read more: He Never Called Her Beautiful

And of course I had to get her memoir as soon as it hit the shelves. I’ve followed the train wreck of Covenant Life Church with the celebrity leadership, hyper-emphasis on “biblical manhood and womanhood,” reports of abusive behavior from CJ Mahaney, the evil of sexual abuse of children and cover-up from the leaders, and church split, followed by the news of the Harris’s leaving for Joshua to attend seminary, and then the deconstruction and divorce. I only live like a half an hour or so from Covenant Life, so our church at the time picked up some refugees from there. Never have I heard Shannon’s story, though.

And it’s a story. There is a lot to reflect on that I could write about. But this line on page 202 reveals it all. Why they got it so wrong. These men could not recognize real beauty; they could only sexualize it. Try to consume it. Or else, cover it up, squash it down, silence it, infantilize it, exploit it, manage it as best they can. But never behold it. Never gaze in awe and wonder over it. Never be vulnerable before it. Or intimate with it. Or be playful and bask or enter into the invitation of beauty.

I mourned for her. Joshua, their church and its many leaders, missed the beauty all along.

Beauty captivates us because it tells a story. It’s the story our hearts already know and long for. Robert Jenson suggests, “beauty is realized eschatology, the present glow of the sheer goodness that will be at the end.” A church and a theology that subordinates women are going to miss the beauty. They are going to miss what is real. Typico-symbolically, woman beckons us to what’s real in her very being. Woman—who was gloriously created second and not from the earth! As a picture and testimony to where we are headed (people and place), the woman represents the second order—the final act of creation that we await—arrayed with the glory and radiance of the Son. Woman tells a hella story about beauty. And Joshua Harris missed 19 years of opportunity to revel in and speak to Shannon’s beauty. She never felt it. Never heard it.

Everywhere we encounter beauty beckons us to a reality that, tragically, these church-goers could not participate in. They were not seen as gift. Over and over in Shannon’s story you see that she was not free to receive and give herself—her real self. And now she is left with the sham of it all at the cost of 20 years of stuffing herself down and being a ghost of a woman. Beautiful Shannon!

“If beauty represents an invitation to the real, and goodness our involvement in it in freedom, truth above all is our reception of reality, on its terms. It is for this reason a living relationship, one with the capacity to transform.”

D.C. Shindler, Love and the Postmodern Predicament

And what is beauty but Christ himself? Our beauty and the beauty we see and experience around us is but a whisper, radiating from the face of Christ and his glory realm. What a horrible charade of a church that has missed Christ and failed to point thousands of others to beauty. All I could think about was the Song of Songs, where we have the words of Christ to his beloved, over and over and over, calling her beautiful. Where we have the words of the woman dominating the Song, reciprocating this praise and seeking out beauty. The beckoning between the two is all over the pages, sweeping us up in it with all our senses. And he tells her:

My dove, in the clefts of the rock,

in the crevices of the cliff,

let me see your face,

let me hear your voice;

for your voice is sweet,

and your face is lovely.

Song of Songs 2:14

Shannon went to church to learn about God. To walk into that life with God. And she now says:

The “biblical woman” was not a real woman, she was a picture, a projection, a product! A man-made product, literally. An ideal to achieve. You can order whole books on Amazon and become her too. But she wasn’t me and she wasn’t tons of women. She was the woman they wanted. That’s all. The woman they wanted.

Without her beauty.