Feminism

Captivating: Introduction to the Review

captivating

I finished my review of Helen Andelin’s Fascinating Womanhood a few weeks ago, and started reading John and Stasi Eldredge’s Captivating. I also have Wild at Heart, although I won’t be going through Wild at Heart the same way I did Fascinating Womanhood and will be going through Captivating, but I might allude to it every so often. My fantastic partner will be reading Wild at Heart, and will occasionally be chipping in with his thoughts on it.

I’m excited to start digging into Captivating because it is the exact opposite of Fascinating Womanhood in every possible way. Fascinating Womanhood was . . . well, I hate to say “obviously ridiculous” because so many people still believe what it says, but it was far too easy to mock– and it was far too easy to show how she was wrong about almost everything she said. When all you’d really have to do is put up a post with a list of quotations to show how awful a book is, that’s not really a review.

Captivating, on the other hand, is far more subtle, and it’s obvious from the opening pages that John and Stasi are going to be straining with all of their might to make what they teach seem palatable. That makes it more interesting to discuss– and I’m looking forward to having posts with more nuance and less open annoyance. The best thing about engaging with Captivating, I think, will be showing how a lot of what is going on in Captivating is unconscious– it will be much closer to pointing out how sexism operates in modern evangelicalism, which I think will be much more useful for me– and us.

If you’re not familiar with Captivating, this is what appears on the back of the book:

Every woman was once a little girl. And every little girl holds in her heart her most precious dreams. She longs to be swept up into a romance, to play an irreplaceable role in a great adventure, to be the beauty of the story. Those desires are far more than child’s play. They are the secret to the feminine heart.

And yet―how many women do you know who ever find that life? As the years pass by, the heart of a woman gets pushed aside, wounded, buried. She finds no romance except in novels, no adventure except on television, and she doubts very much that she will ever be the Beauty in any tale.

Most women think they have to settle for a life of efficiency and duty, chores, and errands, striving to be the women they “ought” to be but often feeling they have failed. Sadly, too many messages for Christen women add to the pressure. “Do these ten things, and you will be a godly woman.” The effect has not been good on the feminine soul.

But her heart is still there. Sometimes when she watches a movie, sometimes in the wee hours of the night, her heart begins to speak again. A thirst rises within her to find the life she was meant to live―the life she dreamed of as a little girl.

The message of Captivating is this: Your heart matters more than anything else in all creation. The desires you had as a little girl and the longings you still feel as a woman are telling you of the life God created you to live. He offers to come now as the Hero of your story, to rescue your heart and release you to live as a fully alive and feminine woman. A woman who is truly captivating.

It’s just the back of the book, and already I got problems.

As far as how it’s been received: it’s got about 230-240 reviews on Amazon and Barnes and Noble each, most of which are overwhelmingly positive, and there isn’t a single negative review at ChristianBook; most of these reviews have something along the lines of “I want every woman to read this book!” Out of the 18,000 reviews on GoodReads, 11,000 gave it 4 or 5 stars. It’s been well-received in the evangelical community– my own church regularly uses Captivating and Wild at Heart for both the married-couples and segregated men/women small groups and Bible studies. I’ve had it recommended to me at least a half-dozen times by different people, each person claiming that Captivating is a different sort of book– it’s not those other books that I don’t like. It’s better.

I’m going to be working with the “Revised and Expanded” edition that was released in 2010, but the book was originally published in 2005. It’s got 12 chapters, so I’m hoping to do this in about three months, although it might take a bit longer than that since I’m anticipating having to more thoroughly parse out– or put in broader contexts– what the Eldredges say in order to show how what they teach is problematic or unhealthy.

Also, can I comment about how I’m more than a little annoyed that the authors are John & Stasi Eldredge when Wild at Heart was just written by John? Why does John get to be one of the authors of a book subtitled “Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman’s Soul”? Oh, right, I forgot. Silly me, thinking women were capable of writing books about our own gender on our own.

(A possible alternate explanation is that Captivating quotes Wild at Heart pretty heavily, which comes with another set of problems.)

*edit: I don’t know why I didn’t think of this earlier, but this would be fantastic. This doesn’t just have to be a review– we could also make it into a book club. If you already own Captivating or don’t mind spending money on it, we could read it together. I’ll post my review every Monday, and then whoever’s read it can pitch in with their own perspective. Brilliant, no?

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  • Fay

    Looking forward to your review! I remember reading this as part of a group in college, and the main things I recall are: 1) a place where the author seems to blame herself for being raped, and 2) a friend of mine felt very out of place reading the author’s section on Dads, since my friend’s family didn’t fit into any of the described categories.

  • I can already tell that this book doesn’t leave room for women like my wife, who never had the fairy tale fantasy. The very idea of being “rescued” never appealed to her. At least (from my limited exposure), the Eldredges seem to behave decently toward each other. I don’t see a tendency toward the sociopathic like I do with Michael and Debi Pearl. This should be an interesting series.

    • Yeah, my initial response to the blurb on the back of the book is that it manages to be both very, very wrong and yet fundamentally right at the same time.

      Lots of women don’t have the fairy tale fantasy. The entire fairy tale fantasy is an invention of modern times. It’s obviously wrong to say that’s whats at every woman’s heart.

      At the same time, lots and lots of people have fantasies where they are more important than they truly are. Nearly all of us, I’d expect. Most of us desire to be loved and cherished by someone else, which is why these kinds of marriage books commonly work; they’re writing prescriptions for a disease that nearly all of us are afflicted with. It’s the part where they try to say that all women do and must feel these exact feelings that they quickly drive straight off the rails. That’s one of the more significant surface problems with these books.

      • That’s an interesting point. You are right that most of us do long to be loved and cherished and desired. That’s not an exclusively female longing.

  • Yes. I am so excited for you to review this book. I haven’t read it, but it has been recommended to me so many times. I have usually just said that I’m not interested in reading a book that can be paired with Wild At Heart, which is so obscenely problematic, but my real reason is that I don’t want to spend time reading something that will just make me angry. Knowing that you are analyzing the content on my behalf is great. Thanks!

    • srs

      Hello – can you describe what you found “obscenely problematic” w/Wild At Heart? A friend gave it to me a while ago and I haven’t read it yet but it is on my book shelf waiting. I’d love to hear some criticisms of it to go along with the praises I’ve seen. (Thanks)

      • Well, I don’t know I’d go so far as to call it “obscene.” Disappointing and frustrating, but “obscenely problematic” is a bit too intense of a description.

        Wild at Heart emphasizes patriarchal ideas about men– that they were warriors, hunters, “wild”. These archetypes set up men as the dominant and aggressive gender, but completely ignores men who do not fit inside those descriptions. In American culture, men who are outside these boxes are mocked, ostracized, and punished until they are forced to conform. Wild at Heart christens these attitudes as biblical, or “from God,” and now it’s not just a matter of culture– if men aren’t manly enough in the way that Eldredge approves of as manly, then they’re failing God.

      • “Obscenely” is probably an overreach, but even today, a friend was telling me how damaging the Wild at Heart message was to him. He doesn’t fit the masculine ideal that the Eldridges promote, and it was so damaging and hurtful to him in college to hear the concrete language from them and his peers/leaders saying, “This is what a man looks like/desires/does.”

        He is a man. He does not look like/desire/do the things that Wild at Heart says make someone a man. He had to reject the Wild at Heart message in order to find value in who God made him, not who John Eldredge told him he should be.

        • I think I went the route of “obscene” specifically because of how angry it makes me that this book hurt my friends. The obscenity of it is that it makes me want to shout obscenities. 🙂

        • Count me as another man who doesn’t fit the stereotype from Wild at Heart. It is annoying to have American macho stereotypes portrayed as either “the way things are” or the way “godly” men are supposed to be.

  • I can already tell that this is going to be a really interesting series. How often do you think you’ll be updating it?

  • “She longs to be swept up into a romance, to play an irreplaceable role in a great adventure, to be the beauty of the story.”
    It’s interesting to me that my 5 yo -son- (who has yet to watch any of the Disney princess movies) would probably want most of those same things if he could articulate it. Well, if by “romance” they mean something more than being rescued by a prince. It seems like the basic problem is the felt need to define women one way and men another. I was just talking to my dad (a veteran Evangelical missionary) about this recently – saying that books/articles that define men and women are too narrow. He said, “Yeah, when I read those I think ‘I’m a woman.'”

    It’s so common, though and it needs to be addressed. I’m looking forward to your review.

    • I’m tired of all these rigid gender descriptions too! Every time I read an article talking about the “male brain” or the “extreme male brain” theory of autism, and identify with the described traits, it feels like the authors don’t think I’m really a woman. Gender roles aren’t just religion’s problem.

      • Wouldn’t it be nice if we could be part of the solution, though, rather than the problem?

  • I’m pretty sure John is on there as an author to help sell it, more than anything. It was probably a requirement of the publisher for marketing.

    Wild at Heart really spoke to me in high school. More than a decade later, I’m not a fan, but I think that Eldredge’s heart is in the right place. I have a mate who went to his retreat/camp and found it enormously helpful, though I still think Eldredge is myopic in the sense of, “this is what I prescribe and it is the only way.”

    I’m really looking forward to your reviews, though. As a young Christian man, I asked some women in a college ministry years ago what books I should read to better understand the young Christian woman–which books were they reading, and that they felt expressed them? Captivating was on that list, so I bought it, but never got around to reading it. I suspect I shall enjoy your analysis more than the actual text. Cheers,

    • That myopia you describe is one of the defining characteristics of modern Evangelicalism. As Samantha pointed out during the previous book review series, there’s an expectation that the person who reads the book is white, suburban and wealthy. In a way, that’s a healthy form of knowing your audience, and I’m not saying it’s wrong to write a book that tries to help white, affluent suburban women have better marriages, but when you start passing your advice off as the literal Will Of God, you’re stepping into a much deeper river than your shoes are set to handle, and you need to step back to make sure that you’re not going to be drowning yourself in your problematic theology.

  • I’m excited to read the review! 🙂
    I read the book years ago, and remember thinking the content sounded good, but overall I came away feeling slightly guilty and possibly unfeminine since I didn’t really fit the prescribed categories.
    The authors seemed to be well meaning, and the book is an improvement on many of the strict fundamentalist messages I received growing up, but I’m sure I would see it differently at this point in my life.
    I may have to dust off my copy. 🙂

    • It would be awesome if some of my readers read along in the book– I think that could really help the conversation, especially to have multiple points of view on the same chapters.

      • I love the idea of a read-along for this and any other books you review in the future! Maybe eventually you could create a sort of book club for such things? That sounds like it would be really cool, which I suppose proves exactly how much of a nerd I am, but oh well, it still sounds interesting to me. 🙂

  • I notice the blurb assumes “romance” equals “adventure.” Huh. Not since the 1800s, it hasn’t. And I highly doubt they’re using “romance” in the archaic sense; more likely they’re using them both to mean “getting married.”

  • Betta Splendens

    When I was a little girl, I fantasized about being a meat-eating dinosaur, being queen, being a boy from the Renaissance, being Leopold Stokowski conducting “Fantasia,” being Louis Pasteur, and being a soldier in the Revolutionary War, among other things. I don’t think romance ever came into the picture. The closest I ever came to that was the time I pretended to be “married,” but I hardly ever mentioned my “husband” during that game and I think it was just because I wanted to know what it would feel like to be grown up. I’m sure that if you had asked me, I would a thousand times over have wanted to be “wild at heart” rather than “captivating.”

    I guess my heart just isn’t feminine enough. 😉 Can’t wait for Mr. and Mrs. Eldredge to tell me how to fix that! /sarcasm

    • I just have to say that I think your wanting to be Leopold Stokowski is awesome.

      • Betta Splendens

        Actually now, years later, I have recently discovered that I want to be a conductor… so go figure….

      • Ditto!

    • Tamara

      I love your childhood fantasies! What a cool kid you must have been. I fantasized about being Sarah Connor and pretty much every character ever like her, male or female. Not super feminine either.

  • Hey, I’m also looking forward to your review and I will read along with you in my German version. The book was recommanded to me some years ago when I was moving in with my partner. I’m not sure if I finished reading it, but it’s probably redundant in a lot oft points… We’ll see!

  • Larissa

    Every woman doesn’t desire to be rescued. I desire to stand on my own feet, as my own person who has significance as an indivudual outside of being a “feminine woman”.

  • I led a women’s small group back in my undergrad days at one point, and the younger students in the group wanted to read Captivating and discuss it. I remember getting annoyed with their tendency to take passages from the Bible out of context (a chunk from one of the prophets was said to be a diatribe about Satan and when I looked it up, it was a prophecy targeted at a specific king). They also quoted things all over the place and then didn’t provide a bibliography, which is just sloppy. While I examine it critically at the time, being in the middle of a stressful semester where I had other things to focus on, I did think that Wild at Heart sounded far more exciting. Women like adventures, too. My copy disappeared somewhere years ago. I think I buried it on one of my parents’ many bookshelves and deliberately forgot about it.

  • When you were quoting the back cover, the image that instantly came to mind was “animated Disney movie”.

    • Yeah, it’s kind of amazing how much modern evangelical women’s roles seem to be influenced specifically by Disney movies that came out before 1960 and nothing else.

  • Gram Pol

    Heck, I have a problem with the opening sentence! How about transgendered women that were born as little boys physically?

  • Frances

    I’m curious to see what you think of the book. I read it years ago (10?) and don’t remember being particularly impressed at the time. I do however remember being deeply touched by John Eldrege’s book “The Sacred Romance” when it came out. It would be interesting to go back and read it now with 15 more years of life and perspective under my belt.

    • Sharon

      “The sacred romance” is truly awesome. Eldredge’s coauthor on that died, and I got “Captivating” because it was by one of the same guys… And it was horrible! But the sacred romance really is wonderful, in my opinion.

  • PJB

    I’d love to do the ‘book club’ thing. I think I still have a copy from ’round-about 2005. See you Monday!

  • Ooooh good, I’m looking forward to reading what you have to say. 🙂

  • Oh, I love captivating. It’s helped me more than just about any book on the market. I certainly agree that the gender sterotypes are painful, though – but they gave me permission to admit that I was hurt, permission to cry, permission to admit that I was emotionally and spiritually abused. And that helped me. Captivating resuced me from my nervous breakdown

    • Jan

      Yeah, same here! Though now I can read it and go “woah this is still really big on making boxes for men and women….” even though it gave me space to breathe and go “okay, the desires in my hearts are given by God and that is GOOD and I don’t need to apologize for having a heart that wants adventure and whatnot because, according to this book, it is the heart that makes us feminine/masculine and not necessarily our actions”. I recall “Wild at Heart” being a lot worse, though… like the uber-man macho manifesto or something.

      • Yea I kind of agree with you on Wild at Heart. And as I said, while the gender stereotypes are painful, the book was helpful at a time in my life where I was boggled up inside.

        • Jan

          Goes to show that Truth and Beauty can be found in many places and much of life is gray, something I’ve been discovering more and more 🙂

  • froder

    When I was a little boy, I wanted to be, in no particular order, a werewolf, a physicist, and Wonder Woman. Are these therefore the ‘keys to the masculine heart’?
    Also, I don’t want to go all ad hominem, but if I were writing a book dictating how people should view the world, I would probably not call myself ‘Stasi’. Just saying.

  • I’ll be reading along too. I first bought the book when it came out, and this will be my second read. I remember being impacted by one particular thing at the time that really resonated with where I was emotionally at the time. But when I picked it up again recently to see if I remembered it the same way, I got so annoyed at the totally subjective and flimsy use of films like Braveheart as ‘evidence’ to back up overly prescriptive claims.

  • srs

    So, 1 chapter per week?

  • I’m super excited about this because the few times I’ve referenced Captivating in blog posts I got people defending the book to me, saying that I misunderstood or was misrepresenting it completely…even when the quotes I was using proved otherwise.

    I’ve been meaning to write my own posts detailing how exactly this book messed with my head (it’s suuuuuper popular with my former church) but it’s so personal I haven’t found the emotional energy yet.

    But yes, it is much more subtle because the book *claims* that it’s not like other books. Eldredge says that this isn’t a book about gender roles, and people who have told me I’m wrong about the book tell me the same thing. It’s totally about being the woman God created you to be, not about meeting certain roles! Except the woman God created you to be is this very specific thing that isn’t…me. But I can still be me! As long as I’m like -insert specific things-. But it’s not about gender roles.

    As a person who is queer as fuck, there is zero place for me in these books. The whole thing about romance is about wanting to be pursued. How does that work when I’m dating a woman?

  • I’m looking forward to your book review. I’m sorry I won’t be able to get a copy, books like these bring up a lot of unresolved issues and give me all kinds of the sads.

  • Dana

    I just ordered a used copy so that I can read along. I have a friend who regularly rereads this book, and quotes from it constantly. For many reasons, I have been skeptical about what she is getting from it. Now I have a not as tortuous way to actually find out what she is getting from this book. Thanks!

  • I enjoyed the book when it came out. I don’t remember it being super awesome one way or another, but I did enjoy it and Wild at Heart. The main thing I remember about both was thinking the last three chapters of each must have been to meet a publishers page requirement – because they just fell felt.

    Then – life happened and I left the US for an extended period of time…..twice. And I realized through that that a lot of those books had a lot more to do with white middle class norms than anything else.

    So it’ll be interesting reading the review now, after all of that – if I can find it I’ll read a long – but several international moves later, I am guessing the book is floating on the “take-one-leave-one” shelves of expat libraries somewhere in Asia.

  • Jan

    I’m glad you’ll be exploring “Captivating”! It’s only been in the past year or so I’ve noticed how insidious this book actually is (then again…I’m egalitarian now); for many years it helped me. Growing up under patriarchy, I was bombarded with messages that I was too masculine, too tough, not pretty enough, too fat, or that I would have to stop “such and such activity” because it made me too much like a male (umm…airsoft?). As such I struggled greatly with gender identity; I wasn’t even sure I was a girl (which is true for non-cisgender or genderqueer folks, but I am definitely cis). I thought something was horribly wrong with me; everything I loved was outwardly too masculine and thus bad (my love for physical exertion, martial arts, light sabor fighting, running, not washing my hair enough, dressing in shorts and t-shirts, not piercing my ears when I turned 16 like I was supposed to). As such I had huge struggles over why God made me to love certain things that were obviously so “bad”. “Captivating” was lent to me by a friend and it completely changed me life; it taught me, despite it’s flaws, that what made me feminine was what was inside my heart, not actually the actions or things I enjoy. It was a fantastic stepping stone for me, but of course now I got rid of the copy I have because I am now disgusted at how much it still emphasizes traditional male/female roles. It’s funny though… I didn’t like “Wild at Heart”, but “Captivating” was freeing for me for a time. I was uncomfortable with the assertion that “every man wants a woman to join in his adventures” and how every woman “wants to join a man in his adventure” because…um… I damn well wanted adventures for myself. I don’t think “Captivating” is patriarchal, I think it’s a perfect, perfect example of complementarianism (though maybe even a bit too liberal because it allows women to not all like baking and dressing gorgeously *Gasp!!!!*). Anyway, I’m excited to see what you have to read, especially now that I’ve moved on to the much more freeing and beautiful lands of egalitarianism.

  • Samantha, I just wanted to tell you how much your writings have touched me. While I did not grow up in as extreme a fundamentalist environment as you and many others, there were some elements of it. We got into a lot of bad theology when I was about 12. We began to listen to the teachings of a preacher whose main ideology, it seemed (because that was practically all I heard him talk about), was ‘man is priest of the home, and woman does not have the right to pray to God, she must go to a man and ask him to pray what she wants’. Then there was the purity culture with some of the Ludys’ books and the “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” ideas, which, in a nutshell, became VERY damaging.

    Today, I am married to an incredible man who would never dream of putting himself in the place of God to a fellow human (me). I thank God every day that He blessed us in this way. I guess you would say we are egalitarian. We make decisions mutually, and neither of us claim the ‘tiebreaker’ vote. We honor each other, and at different times we each *GASP!* submit to one another. Before I met my husband, I very nearly entered a relationship which would have, I see now, become very patriarchal. It terrifies me to think of how close I came. It has taken years for both me and my husband, who saw patriarchy and spiritual and sexual abuse brutally tear his own family apart, to find healing.

    Closer to topic, I am looking forward to reading your reviews. I was given a copy of Captivating by the wife of the man I just mentioned. They are longtime friends of both me and my husband. They are very patriarchal and they don’t lose an opportunity to remind us of that. I tried to read the book, but I put it down after the first few chapters and haven’t yet been able to finish it. The message that I got (my own impression; perhaps other people got it differently, and that is fine) was “there is only one kind of true woman – the one whose heart attitudes are of the girly-girl, fainting, Victorian, silent, gowned, submissive type. If you aren’t like this woman, you aren’t truly feminine or womanly. You need to be rescued. If you don’t desire to be rescued/swept off your feet/carried off by a prince/taken care of, there’s something wrong with you.” (Again, this is the impression that I got.)

    Unfortunately, that was also the subject of a two-hour running lecture I got from my dear friend who gave me the book – that if I don’t make sure to wear makeup and style my hair and dress in cute clothes and act girly, then I am dishonoring and unsubmissive and rebellious toward my husband. What I heard from her, the Ludys, and the Eldredges was all summed up in “act like a Disney princess.”

    It makes me sad to hear this. First of all, because it damaged me so much growing up. Second, because it is damaging so many other women. I am NOT at all saying there’s anything wrong with women who wear makeup or cute clothes or fancy hairstyles. Shoot, I do that on (rare) occasions. It’s just wrong to force all women into that stereotype. When I was little, I wanted to be a cowboy, a racehorse jockey, a truck driver, and a safari guide, all at the same time. Not exactly the image of a girly girl. 😛 But I think you’ve said all that much better than I in your blog posts.

    We live on a farm. We work with livestock and are outdoors most of the day. For obvious reasons, I don’t wear makeup and I keep my hair tied up out of the way instead of in a fancy style. I wear blue jeans and boots, and interestingly enough, there is nothing dishonoring to my husband in this. 🙂

    If I acted like a Disney parlor princess, the homestead would run to ruin. My husband loves me dressed up. But you know what? He loves me more when I am up to the elbows in mud to plant a garden, or when I am blowing wood dust everywhere using a power tool to build a barn, or when I am down on my knees in the dirt, covered with blood, helping a struggling goat to bring her babies into the world. Hairstyles, makeup, jewelry, and fancy clothes won’t last long there. My husband and I just don’t fit the stereotypes. 🙂

    Again, thank you for having the courage to write what you do. It has been a source of healing as well as support to me as I break free of deep-seated spiritual and emotional bondage from my fundamentalist years. It is a comfort to know that others out there are traveling the path toward breaking free as well. I believe I will try to read along with your reviews. I think it may be a key to further rebuilding.

    • emileri

      Your story is amazing 🙂 When people try to force every couple into the complementarian/patriarchal mindset, it does not always work. I totally get the “you’re not feminine enough, submit!!!” It’s awful. I think egalitarianism lends itself to more applicability 🙂

      • The sad thing about it is how it leads to so much guilt. “I’m not feminine enough? Then I’m doing something wrong. What am I doing wrong? *looks around futilely for what to fix* I must be doing something wrong.” It leads to so much self-doubt and self-condemnation, and destroys self-confidence and the ability to be comfortable in one’s own skin.

        • emileri

          Exactly!! And that leads to countless hours of self-examination, trying to figure out what needs to be fixed, which leads to doubt and fear and self-hate. Gender roles are harmful things because human beings, the wonderful and incredibly varied creatures that we are, do not fit into little, tiny boxes.

          • Precisely! And when we force ourselves and everyone around us into those boxes, then there is a very real danger (sometimes unfounded, but sometimes all too real) that we will say “Ok, now I’ve got God in a box. Look at me…I totally understand Him!” And that is very shaky ground to put oneself on…