This is a girls’ book. Jessica Thompson says so in the introduction: “Since I am a woman, I will be primarily addressing women.” I’m not sure why being a woman means that Thompson can only write to women – men seem quite happy to pontificate on female spirituality so it seems only logical that Thompson should have something to say to men as well. As she points out, “we all know that relationship difficulties are not strictly a female problem. They are a human problem.” Nonetheless, the book has flowers on the cover and most of Thompson’s illustrations are about being a wife, a mother, or a BFF. The book opens with a discussion of Janet Jackson lyrics, and Thompson says that when she and her readers feel unloved, “we go to romance novels, soap operas, or romantic movies and look there for the love we want.” This is undeniably a female world Thompson is writing to. I don’t read girls’ books very often, and what struck me most forcefully about many of the issues Thompson wrestles with is that men experience them very differently because of how power is distributed in our society. Thompson begins by pointing out that how-to relationship guides don’t work because “while you may be following all of the right steps to a better relationship, it doesn’t mean your spouse or your friend is.” Women worry more about the health of their relationships than men do because men are taught from a very early age that they are independent subjects, whereas more often women have to work relationally.
After reflecting on what godly relationships should look like, Thompson confesses that “our reality is one of brokenness. Our reality is one where we fight with our parents, yet still long for a safe place to call home. Our reality is that we are sinfully impatient and angry with our kids when they don’t get in the car quickly enough, and then we feel guilty for the way we’ve treated them. Our reality is that we are jealous of our friends for their other friendships, and yet hate that we feel that way. Our reality is that we are angry and demanding with our spouses, all the while wondering why we can’t love and be loved the way we have seen in books, movies, and TV.” In theory, this should be a comment on human sinfulness and be equally relevant to both men and women. But the illustrations that Thompson chooses (I think inadvertently) throughout the book are frequently gendered. She says that not living into our new identities in Christ is like muddying a Vera Wang wedding dress, and describes her sinfulness by identifying with Hosea’s adulterous wife Gomer. The book moves through various relationships, from children to friends to community to husbands to siblings to churches to co-workers to “difficult people,” in that order. Thompson warns against finding your identity in the successes or failures of your children and against the temptation of expecting your husband to fulfill you in ways that only God can. Once again, these are human problems, but they are also uniquely women’s issues because our society sees women as “the second sex,” defined by their relationships to men.
One story Thompson tells is about cooking dinner after having had a bad day. She came home to find her husband watching TV – he had had a hard day too – and she writes that while she was cooking “my heart was a tornado. I was angry that he wasn’t asking about my day. I was mad that I was always the one who had to cook dinner even though I had worked that day too, and on and on.” She was shocked, therefore, when they sat down to eat and he said, “You don’t seem okay. Is something wrong?” Thompson was amazed that “here I was thinking the whole time I was fulfilling my duty in relationship, and the honest truth was, he was the one who was actually concerned about me.” Her husband’s question made her feel guilty, but she never reflects that however worried he was for her, it was not enough to convince him to get up and help cook. Her solution to life’s injustices is to recognize that “Christ’s love for you never stops, never gives up.” We can love others because God loves us, and “when you sin in relationship, you have an advocate with the Father. You are free to confess your sins to God and to others. You have nothing left to prove. You don’t have to justify yourself anymore. He is your propitiation. He has taken away all of God’s wrath. When you sin, you don’t need to go into hiding; you are free to walk in the light with all of your failures exposed. He has already paid for them all.”
Thompson’s answer to broken relationships is theologically sound and she grounds it in solid Biblical exegesis. Her advice is excellent, regardless of whether you are a man, woman, or child. But I wonder whether the good news that Jesus has redeemed our sinful world doesn’t also extend to women. Galatians 3:28 tells us that “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Surely that truth should cause the Christians reading this book to work on redeeming their relationships by dismantling the inequalities that make Thompson’s life harder than it should be. It feels to me like the illustrations Thompson uses reinforce the status quo because she never challenges them. And by making the subjection of women seem natural, she prevents women from living into the very freedom she preaches. As new creations, we are no longer bound by gender norms – look like this, behave like that – and we should not bind other people to them either.