October 25, 2011

Book Review: My So-Called Life as a Proverbs 31 Wife

UPDATE: Sara Horn was gracious enough to stop by and reply to my review. Please see her post in the comments.

You know that old adage about a train wreck being so horrible you just can't look away?

I got maybe 15% into the So-Called Life and thought, "No, it can't really be this bad. There's no way it can be this bad." So, I found myself plowing through the book as fast as possible to get to the end (took less than a week) because I just had to see how it ended, hoping against hope that soon, very soon, it was going to get better.

I don't think I've ever written a book review just so I could warn you against reading a book. So this is something of a milestone. In case that didn't come across, I'll say it loud and clear for all to hear, I do not recommend My So-Called Life as a Proverbs 31 Wife.

I'll admit, part of the problem was that I went into this book with (what turned out to be) way too high expectations. I borrowed this book from a friend who got it because Sara Horn spoke at her Bible Study (PWOC). So, I assumed that it would involve or be about....Bible study. That I would actually learn something through reading it. A big leap, I know.

Instead, it's a memoir that basically reads like a collection of blog posts, short chapters covering a variety of topics, including some that made absolutely no sense in the overall narrative. There are whole chapters that involve nothing more than "day-in-the-life" type stuff, but don't connect to the rest of the book or contribute anything to the general topic. You could cut them out completely and not miss anything. Which, personally, makes me feel like I wasted my time reading them. I don't like when people waste my time. It's rude.

So-Called Life is about the author, Sara Horn, attempting to live out the verses of Proverbs 31 to the letter after hearing her pastor speak a message from it one Sunday. She takes the chapter as a literal checklist and starts at the beginning, slowly working her way down through (almost) all the verses.

I'm a big list-maker. SoldierMan teases me, but if I don't make a list every morning of the things that must be done today, they just won't get done. So I sort of understand Sara's need for a list. I have a big fondness for lists. But you can't boil down a relationship to lists.

Listen, I think it's always a good endeavor for a person to try and improve themselves. It's even better that someone does this through the principles in the Bible. But Horn's method had some big holes.

First of all, she creates this ficticious person named Martha 31 to compare herself to. She admits that this character has the same name as the sister Martha in the New Testament, which I found incredibly ironic.

In case you don't know, Martha had a sister named Mary, and they were good friends with Jesus. One day Jesus comes over for dinner and Martha is busy, well, doing Martha 31 things: preparing food, cleaning the house, etc. Mary is sitting in the living room hanging out with Jesus. Martha gets irritated and asks Jesus why He doesn't tell Mary to (essentially) get her butt in gear and do her fair share! And Jesus replies, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has made the right choice, and it will not be taken away from her." (Luke 10:41-42) Some versions word it "better choice," but the sentiment is the same.

So, yes, it's more than a little ironic that Sara names her example in this exercise in legalism after the person in the Bible known for being more concerned with "doing" things rather than just being with Jesus. Oh, yes, I said legalism. Because that's what this So-Called Life experiment was all about, even if Sara never writes that (and perhaps didn't even realize it herself).

Throughout the book, never once is the issue of grace brought into play. Not even in the last couple of chapters, where she finally seems to have an epiphany that "you don't have to 'do' in order to 'be.'" I can say that because she never warns her readers against attempting to follow in her footsteps, against becoming slaves to legalism and under the burden of keeping a "law" God didn't write.

Here's my biggest problem with the book: Sara's goal was to operate her life by chapter 31 of Proverbs and nothing else. Why is that a problem? Because Proverbs 31 isn't the only chapter of the Bible. When you focus myopically on one passage of Scripture to build your life around, you will always fall into the same trap Sara did: misinterpreting Scripture and living a life of legalism.

Am I overstating? Well, consider this: The entire book revolves around Proverbs chapter 31, without any comparison verses. Any. It's not until the last few chapters of the book that other verses in the Bible (and outside of Proverbs) get more than a passing mention. And even then, it's only after Sara visits a church where the pastor preaches on Ephesians 5. That portion is written in such a way as to lead the reader to believe it's the first time Sara's ever even heard of Ephesians chapter 5, where Paul writes specific words to husbands and to wives.

That, I found, incredible. Here is a woman who, by her own account, has been leading a ministry to wives for "years" and written several books and articles on the subject. And yet she acts like, after all this time, this is the first she's heard of one of the most definitive passage on marriage in the Bible? If it's true, it's astounding. If it's not true, than that portion was either poorly written or deliberately obfuscated for dramatic effect. Both of which I find somewhat dishonest.

The other problem with that is the entire time, Sara is relying completely on her effort to keep the Martha 31 checklist. So her life becomes one big stressful struggle against the list, the world, her husband, her finances, everything. It's exhausting reading.

If you have been reading here any length of time, you know that perfection is a favorite topic of mine, specifically because women have a strange obsession with it. Sara Horn is an excellent example of that. She tries to become Martha 31 so she can be a more perfect wife. The problem is, none of us can become perfect, or even mostly great, through our own effort. We're human. We fail. And even the women around us we think are perfect have their own failings, once you get past the surface. Trying to achieve perfection through effort is futile and pointless.

Never once is that stated for the reader. Instead, we're given the impression at the end that, even though she never completely finished crossing off her Martha 31 checklist (by using a sewing machine or something), her experiment was successful, because her husband tells her he has recommended her books to some people. (Aside: we won't even get into how her husband is portrayed in the book. Didn't care for that, either.) Now, it's great that he supports her career and is proud of her accomplishments...but I have to believe, based on what she wrote, he did that before her dive in legalism began.

The entire time I was reading, I kept waiting for some spiritual discipline to come into play, especially considering every third page included a reference to the author's "ministry." And yet, you get almost halfway in (Page 93, to be specific) before any mention of praying to God for help in becoming a better wife is mentioned. That's a big deal, folks. Because even then, it's presented as, "At this point, with things in our lives being uncertain, it's time to turn to God." There's not a whole lot of prayer and reliance on the Holy Spirit (was the Holy Spirit even mentioned?) in this experiment. Just lots of self-reliance, which means struggle, stress and frustration.

Honestly, unless that aspect is finessed (and it wasn't) I can easily see a new Christian wife reading this and going, "God gives us such impossible standards to live up to, what's the point of it all? I can't do that!" and tossing any Biblical advice or standards for marriage out the window. I would.

That's not empowering. It's not even true. God doesn't leave us alone and floundering as we try to become better women, better Christians, better wives. That's why He gives us a relationship with Him and access to the Holy Spirit, so that He can give us the power and strength to be better wives. Again, this concept is nowhere in the book. Not even at the end.

Lastly, the biggest hole I saw in the whole narrative was that the author, who leads a ministry to women, who writes Bible studies and books about faith, never once encouraged us to imitate Christ. Not once. The only real substantive mention Jesus gets is in the last line of the epilogue. (!!) And there we are told He is life, hope, and peace. Which is true and I'm glad she put it in there somewhere. But the whole thesis of the book was about imitating Martha 31, the figurative woman in Proverbs chapter 31.

Is that who the Bible tells us to imitate? The airbrushed, glossy, vignetted Martha 31? Does the Bible tell us to imitate David, the "man after God's own heart"? Or John, "the disciple Jesus loved"? Or even Mary, who "made the better choice"?

No. "Be imitators of God, as dearly loved children." (Ephesians 5:1). We're to imitate God, to imitate Jesus. If our goal is to imitate Jesus, who is loving, gracious, unselfish and self-sacrificing, then all the other "checklist"-type things will follow as a result. I won't have to make a list with a box for "being nice" to my husband (see Sara's example with the sushi roll), because being nice is a result of being loving, gracious, unselfish and self-sacrificing. And where I fail, Jesus and grace fill in the gaps. (Hebrews 10).

All in all, I found reading So-Called Life a very frustrating and unsatisfying experience, for all the reasons listed above and more. Maybe your experience reading So-Called Life was different. Maybe you loved it and it completely changed your life. If so, please share that with us because I'd love to hear about it. Right now, I can never see reading anything else Sara Horn writes.

21 comments:

  1. I'm actually pretty ticked off a book like this even got published. Like you said, it sounds to me like it would leave the reader feeling hopeless and with a "why bother?" attitude, and that's the opposite of Christ's love.

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  2. I too was unimpressed with this book, although my final thoughts were nowhere near as eloquent as yours. I didn't like it because I didn't learn anything from it. Felt like a colossal waste of time. Interestingly, I saw a bunch of hype about this book on facebook prior to the publishing release date, but have yet to see any positive reviews surface now that people have actually read it...

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  3. I am really glad you wrote a review on this. I have been looking at the book here and there but never actually purchased... and now I won't be!

    I have to tell you, I love the way that you defend all of the things you see wrong with it. I tihnk that you back it up with reference and scripture and TRUTH!!

    Maybe, for future blog posts, you could share some of your favorite books for Christian women. So far I have really enjoyed and AGREED WITH all of the posts I have caught by you about the faith and Christians etc and think I could find some good reads on your lists!

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  4. This well illustrates why the way one approaches Proverbs colors everything he or she gets out of it. To approach it as a legal document is to misread it badly.

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  5. Wow. Won't be reading this one! I love your book review, btw. I've already started a lit from some of them. As you've heard, I think "listmaking" runs in our family. :)

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  6. Hi, I ran across your review and wanted to comment. First, thank you for reading the book, and thank you for sharing your honest opinion. I'm sorry you didn't like it but I think you may have misunderstood it, at least from my intention for writing it.

    First, the book ISN'T a Bible study. It's not intended to be. At all. It's a personal narrative about an experience I went through.

    The whole point of my book is to show the fact that none of us are perfect, which you point out in your review, but you say I was aiming for perfection. I wasn't. I saw the Proverbs 31 wife as being the "perfect" wife, and there are many women out there who see her as the ideal, and so I was trying to follow her and woefully coming up short. And I wrote it in the format it is in specifically because I did not want it to be another book where women are told what to think, but rather I wanted women to be encouraged to ask the questions I asked and seek God in leading them as wives and as moms.

    I will agree that at the beginning of my experience I was trying to follow the checklist, but it was through that year, that I learned it WAS more about a checklist and that it had everything to do with my relationship with God and what HE desires for me as a wife and a mom. I'm sorry if that wasn't more clear as you read.

    I am not legalistic. And I knew publishing this book, which is very different than my others, that not everyone would understand it or like it. And that's ok. But I have heard from a lot of women who have read the book who have been encouraged that they don't have to follow a list, but rather the One who leads them daily in their roles as wives and as moms.

    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to respond.

    Blessings,
    Sara Horn

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  7. Sorry, that should have read LESS about a checklist and that it had everything to do with my relationship with God...

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  8. WOW! As you began to describe the book and her check list of things to do I immediately thought "legalist," then you brought that up. As I continued reading I though, what about imitating Christ and his example, even though we'll never be perfect- and you spoke about that. Fantastic book review!

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  9. Hi Sara, thanks for stopping by. I appreciate you taking the time to comment on my little blog.

    I feel I must still respectfully disagree that your book doesn't encourage legalism, specifically because no other option is provided for the reader. It's fine to say, "I'm not legalistic," but without examples, it's hard to take at face value. I would really enjoy it if you could provide some examples from the book that balance out the legalistic elements.

    If the conclusions you drew were about NOT following a checklist and instead building a relationship with God, I have to ask why those elements weren't discussed or shown through example in the book as they related to your Proverbs 31 journey. You talk about asking God to help with your family's employment and financial situations, but not much beyond that. Otherwise, the book revolves around a legalistic attempt to act out Proverbs 31 to the letter.

    I understand (sort of) not wanting to "tell people what to think" but there's a difference between telling people what to think and telling people the truth. And, may I humbly add, if as you say you knew that there would be people who would misunderstand your message in this book, perhaps that's an indication that your intentions and message are not clear enough, making it difficult for the reader to reach the conclusions you detailed in your comment.

    Again, I appreciate you taking the time to comment and I'm sure the other readers who drop by today and read this post will appreciate it as well.

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  10. Ouch!

    I firmly believe when I complete reviews of products or books is that I do not publish bad reviews.

    You know a family man once created a product that he felt God led him to make so that others could use it. Many people purchaed the product and the man was able to pay his bills and get out of debt. Then a large TV programmer placed the product on the show and made a very short yet awful comment about the product for millions of viewers to see.
    Purchases of this product stopped immediately, mail from viewers flooded the man who created the product and his reputation was ruined.

    I personally do not want to have that negativity for a person on my conscience. I would hate to think that what I said defeated the purpose of what the person/ God intended for the product or the book in this case.

    I a currently reading Sara's book and I am inpsired by her efforts. I am enlightened by her honesty.

    Thousands upon thouseands of books have been written on self-help, women, the Proverbs 31 Woman etc. One person my not be ready to read through scripture, a non beleiver may not understand a whole bunch of bibilical knowledge and meet her where she is at. It may inspire her to take the steps to focus on her Jesus, Husband, Child, and her writing.

    As the saying goes one purposes junk is another persons treasure. I would hate to withold a persons treasure that they would receive from this book just because I found it not to be "good" in my opinion.

    It is her story and because Sara is a Christian it is God's story. It is not complete because He is not through with her yet, just as He is not complete with you or I.

    Thank you for the opportunity to share what is on my heart today.

    a latte of blessings,
    Jeanie

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  11. Kudos to you for speaking with an open mind and heart and thank you for sharing your opinion. I also think it's great that Sara stopped by to give her input. It's refreshing to have an honest, respectful discussion of such opinions. That is often lacking in our world today.

    I have heard other things about this book - both good and bad. Despite the good reviews, I have not been compelled to read it. This is mostly because everyone's journey to being a better wife and woman of God is their own. I think it's unfair to put anything of that nature into writing because we all have different paths to achieve that goal.

    I will give Sara credit (although, admittedly, I have not read it for myself) for putting her words on paper. Often times, that provides the best reflection into ourselves.

    That said, it's dishonest to pretend that a book like this is written only for one's own reflection. If that were the case, it would be unnecessary to publish it. Instead, there is a clear goal to inspire, or as she says encourage and lead, than her message seems to be unclear.

    Books like this fall into the self-help category (in my opinion) and while this might be viewed by some as motivation to be a better wife, there are 100 other books that teach you how to be a better wife in 100 other ways. That's perhaps the best thing about the publishing world - and the best thing about being able to write a review on it!

    :)

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  12. I appreciate Jaci's honesty and Sara's bravery in replying. It's not easy to write a negative review, and it has to be the hardest thing ever to read one about a project you've put your heart into!

    But I have to respectfully agree with Jaci's perspective. There is a growing cottage market for books that attempt to "de-mythologize" Proverbs 31. That the market exists at all lies at the feet of the general American evangelical church. I can think of few areas than this area of biblical womanhood that highlight the consequences of bad preaching and teaching, especially to us women. We fall back on looking at passages like these as lists to be followed because we've been taught that's the way Proverbs and every other book in the Bible works. We know it's not right, and we live under the burden of not knowing a better way.

    But there is a better way, His name is Jesus, and He Himself said that He is the way to everything we need to life in God - woman, man, married, singe, parent or not. Any book about some aspect of Christian living - study, narrative, or whatever - that doesn't in some way seek to factor the truth of the gospel into its center, will not serve its audience well. Jaci's review indicates clearly that this book is in that category.

    Every book teaches. Every book has an argument. And if this book's argument teaches women a wrong way to look at God's Word, and sends women truly seeking Him in the wrong direction, then the last thing we should do is not say something.

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  13. Rachel's comment preempted much of what I wanted to say. Primarily, that my comments were not about Sara as a person, but rather about what was presented in her book. I'm sorry if that wasn't clear.

    As Christians, the Bible commands and requires us to examine whether any work - book, sermon or blog post - claiming to discuss or represent God or His Word actually does. "But test all things. Hold on to what is good." 1 Thess. 5:21

    As to whether or not my little blog post can prevent God from carrying out His will or "defeat His purpose," I will close with this:

    Remember what happened long ago, for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and no one is like Me. I declare the end from the beginning, and from long ago what is not yet done, saying: My plan will take place, and I will do all My will. ~ Isaiah 46:9-10

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  14. Understandably so, however scripture does state that we live together with Him we are called to encorage one another and build each other up (1 Thessalonians 5:10-12)

    Is this what we are doing here?

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  15. Jeanie - Absolutely. And we're doing it waaay more gently than Paul modeled with the Galatians in chapter 1 of that letter. Because we're ladies and all. ;)

    Building someone up on a weak, dangerous foundation is not love at all.

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  16. Rachael - I am not sure I understand the dangerous foundation you speak of. Is it wrong to create goals out of scripture and sharing the journey with others?

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  17. Jeanie - it's wrong to treat as law what God didn't write as law. That's legalism, self-reliance, the very opposite of following God. And yes, it is dangerous, because it turns our eyes on ourselves, rather than on Christ.

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  18. JG- I guess that is where the perception of the book between you and I are different. I see a woman taking scripture and applying it to her life.

    I always thought legalism is when you took the laws of scripture and used them to receive salvation, when salvation comes from the Lord and the Lord only.

    The book begins with a prayer in the Acknowledgements that includes the words: Lord, only you knew how these pages would be written before this whole experiment began, and I am thankful for the lessons you taught me and the changes you’ve made in my heart and my life. Help me continue to always strive to be the wife and mom you desire for me to be. Amen.

    Horn, Sara (2011-09-01). My So-Called Life as a Proverbs 31 Wife (Kindle Locations 135-137). Harvest House Publishers. Kindle Edition.

    She then follows with a Warning (which writers use often these days) That this book is not a collection of tips on cooking, sewing, and all things homemaking. If that’s what you’re looking for, please look for another book. If anything, what you hold in your hands might be better described as a collection of what not to do. This book is really just one woman’s story of her quest to be a better wife—and what happens when her circumstances don’t cooperate. My experience won’t be your experience. But you may see parts of your experience in the pages that follow. You may find yourself challenged with some of the questions I’ve asked myself. Or, at the very least, you may learn that there’s at least one wife out there worse off than you. I do what I can to help others.

    Horn, Sara (2011-09-01). My So-Called Life as a Proverbs 31 Wife (Kindle Locations 139-146). Harvest House Publishers. Kindle Edition.

    Am I understanding what you are saying? I want to make sure we are on the same page.

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  19. As someone who's written a book on Proverbs I say:

    1. Jaci, you're of course right to speak your honest mind, even if critical. I do book reviews. I HATE to give negative reviews. But I owe it to God, the writer, and the readers to be tactful, fair and honest. Having said that:

    2. Reading Sara's response, I thought, "Note to self: that is the classy way to respond to a negative review." Bravo, Sara.

    I'd only add that there is a book of studies in Proverbs (including chapter 31) of which Rachael Starke has said very nice things.

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  20. Jeanie - yes, that is what legalism means outside Christianity. Within Christianity, there is still legalism. It just takes the form of applying rules to our lives that God didn't put there in order to be "better" Christians. That's how I read So-Called Life. Yes, there was a nice little forward, but that doesn't change the fact that the rest of the book had a serious lack of Jesus.

    I appreciate your comments and your allegiance to this book. Obviously we read it differently. I'm glad you were able to share another perspective with the other readers.

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  21. Whew! I missed out on a lot by having a busy day!!

    I'm really glad to see someone do a review on this book. I saw a whole bunch of PR about it on FB a while back and thought it would be a great BIBLE STUDY. I didn't really understand the entire premise, but thought it would be something similar to a Bible study.

    I'm a little sad that it's nothing of the sort. I don't want to waste time reading a book (especially on Christianity) that doesn't teach - or teach correctly. I've did her Tour of Duty Bible study while Joe was deployed and LOVED IT, which is why I was looking forward to reading it.

    I understand the idea behind writing about an experience - many writers do that. But I agree with you, JG, that Proverbs 31 is just one chapter and that we're more often encouraged to be like God. I think as women we're so focused on "I have to do THIS to be a good wife/mother" instead of spending time with our families and caring about them. Because when we're 90 is anyone going to care that our house was always clean? No, they're going to remember the times we spent with them - caring for them, playing with them, etc. Proverbs 31 is a good MODEL for the Christian woman, but it's just that.

    I'm glad you did a review even if it was negative. And I'm glad to see that Sara Horn was nice enough to stop in and share her thoughts.

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I was nice and didn't turn on word verifications. Please reciprocate by having your reply-to email set and not posting anonymously.