The Mahaney Ladies and Their “Truman Show”

August 13, 2008 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

Back when we were still thinking that SGM might just be the church for us, I stumbled across “Girl Talk,” the blog run by CJ Mahaney’s wife and daughters.  I have to confess, I was instantly transfixed.

I spent a considerable amount of time shirking my duties as a homemaker that day while perusing their musings about homemaking, courtship, “Biblical Womanhood,” and more.  Their perfectly coiffed, sparkly-eyed, BEAMING visages in the little artsy thumbnail photo at the side of their website called to me, luring me in with an unspoken promise, that if I just listened to the wisdom of their teachings, I too could have good hair, cute clothes, and a life as wonderful as theirs.

With the nagging sense that there was something just a bit creepily voyeuristic about my interest in the mundane details of their lives – I found myself clicking over to and reading with complete fascination their stories about their courtships, for instance –  I nonetheless could hardly tear myself away from my computer so that I could go start dinner. 

And I know I’m not the only one who enjoyed reading the Mahaney ladies’ blog.  Other gals at our SGM church would often mention things they’d picked up in this or that post.  Some even had their favorite daughter – some liked Janelle’s style, while some preferred Nicole’s (daughter Kristin does not appear to write for the site as much).  Still others thought that no one could top the wisdom of Carolyn herself.  My SG friends seemed to derive much encouragement from what they found there.  And when we were new to all things Sovereign Grace, I thought I did, too.  “Girl Talk” was, in fact, a major reason why I wanted to buy into the Sovereign Grace way of “doing Christianity.”  The Mahaney ladies were absolutely pristine examples of how well life could work out if you just followed CJ’s vision for “correct doctrine.”

Actually, that was probably THE major theme of the majority of their posts – the stories they shared from their lives, the sweet, cute, often chuckle-worthy musings on their daily struggles and triumphs in their faith, all seemed to come down to how happily everything eventually turned out, all because they remained true to their commitment to align their lives with the doctrines of grace, the importance of the “local church,” “Biblical Womanhood,” and submission to authority.

Back when I first stumbled on their blog, I saw absolutely nothing wrong with any of this.  I admit that I did find myself sometimes feeling rather restless and wistful, but I would never have thought my feelings were anything but a reflection of how crummy my own efforts at “Biblical Womanhood” were in comparison to theirs.  If I gave it some time, and listened to what they had to say, and applied it to my life – if I also “lived purposefully” and had “right doctrine” – then eventually I, too, would find myself on the golden path to successful Christian womanhood.  My vague unrest was merely because I hadn’t yet reached their same pinnacle of perfection.

Or so I thought.

Somewhere around the time we decided that SGM was not for us, I gave up reading “Girl Talk.”  I only have so many hours in my day to spend online, and ironically, within months of our leaving SGM, I found most of that “net surfing” time consumed by THIS blog, “sgmsurvivors.”  So I haven’t been back to read the Mahaney ladies’ life lessons in quite some time.

The other day, though, I had reason to return to their site.  An alert reader (thanks, “Work-in-Progress”!) sent me links to their latest posts, which are on the theme of teaching daughters to be homemakers.  Once again, I found myself quickly sucked in to the appeal of their ideas.  I agreed with much of what they had to say about the importance of homemaking, and I actually found myself thinking about how I could better equip my own girls with the skills they’ll eventually need years from now when they themselves are wives and mothers.

But then…well…

I also noticed this undertone to their posts, this assumption, that not only are homemaking skills important and worthy of being passed on to our daughters.  There was a bit more to their message, something practically unstated but implied, which made me come away with the impression that homemaking for them is not just about loving the home arts.  Rather, it’s that at the same time, if homemaking is to be important, that must then mean that other pursuits have to take second place or be of NO importance.

Beneath the surface of the sweet words about homemaking lies a false dilemma.

As we’ve discussed before, I believe that SGM demonstrates a genius for engineering false dilemmas.  In my analysis of the Mickey Connolly interview, I wrote about how Sovereign Grace Ministries seems to have a strong tendency to overstate a crisis and then offer up their own unique solutions and call those solutions THE “Biblical way.”  For instance, in the case of youth ministry, there was in that interview the assertion that participation in a traditional, non-parent-controlled youth group meant that “Christian parents today have abdicated their roles as their children’s primary disciplers.”  Yet as I pointed out, that is simply not the case.  Allowing one’s children to attend a 2-hour youth group meeting without their parents DOES NOT AUTOMATICALLY MEAN that one is not still discipling them!

Yet to create a perceived need for SGM’s unusual approach to youth ministry – where parents attend all youth meetings alongside their kids and control most everything – SGM presents a problem (“Allowing your kids to attend youth meetings without your direct supervision means that you’re not discipling them!”) that is not really true.

SGM has also done this same “false dilemma” thing with dating.  They’ve asserted – through their promotion of Josh Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye, as well as their churchwide embrace of an often rigid, legalistic courtship system – that traditional dating as we know it will always lead to sexual immorality and is not the way that God would have Christians conduct their romantic lives.  Therefore, true Christians need SGM’s solution of the courtship system.

And now I see this in the Mahaney ladies’ promotion of homemaking skills.  Like I said, I am very much FOR girls’ learning how to clean, how to cook, how to sew, how to manage a household.  I think it is important for moms to pass on these skills to their daughters.  But that does not mean that these skills must automatically take the place of anything else the daughters may wish to do.  In their use of Psalm 144:12, which they think shores up their assertion that their daughters are the “pillars that hold up the home,” the Mahaney ladies insinuate that homemaking is the primary purpose for which a woman exists.

Just how true, Biblically speaking, is this, anyway?  Particularly in light of the fact that at least some women will remain single?

Although the Mahaney ladies have attempted to discuss singleness on their blog, the truth of the matter is that they are all married.  And they all have cloyingly sweet, perfect “courtship stories” to tell, stories of how Mr. Right came along at exactly the right moment, even if they might have exhibited doubts and an occasional lack of faith.  Their underlying message is that if you just do things according to their parents’ teachings – if you follow the “Biblical Way” of parentally-controlled courtship – then you, too, will eventually get a husband.  Just hold to “sound doctrine” (in other words, whatever CJ Mahaney and the boys of the Apostolic Team decide is the “sound doctrine” du jour), and you, too, can attain their level of success and happiness.

It’s not my intention to judge the Mahaney ladies.  Not whatsoever.  But if I were to “go there” and start picking at their motives and whether or not they are aware of how they come across, I would absolutely be of the opinion that they sincerely believe their own words with every fiber of their beings.  I don’t sense any hypocrisy coming through in their posts.  I don’t think they are deliberately setting out to misguide women. I think they honestly believe that if you just have “right beliefs,” and do things “right,” it will all work out into some sort of Christianized happily ever after.

Herein lies the rub, though.

I think the Mahaney ladies are all terribly naïve.  They are not living in the real world, and they don’t even have a clue that they’re not!

Take, for instance, all of their “courtship stories,” and how they use those stories to shore up their promotion of the spiritual superiority of the courtship system. 

I would respectfully submit that – and this is not to detract one bit from any of the gals’ personal charms or attractiveness, for they all seem like women who’d have no trouble getting their fair share of male attention – had they grown up in ANY OTHER WORLD, with ANY OTHER FAMILY, with ANY OTHER MAN for their father, they likely would NEVER have ended up with the husbands they eventually did.

Each one of those ladies’ courtship stories is rife with the sense that the men those gals ended up marrying were at least as enamored with the proximity to Mahaney greatness as they were with the girls themselves.  Each one of those guys was already on the SGM leadership track.  Each one of those guys has obviously gone on to benefit, in terms of his career opportunities, by his new post-marriage family’s connections.

Please understand, I am also NOT in any way trying to imply that this is wrong, per se.  No!  I think it’s perfectly normal and should be expected, that a highly visible leader’s kids are going to benefit in many ways from his leadership position, dedication to the Lord, and so forth.  That’s actually a Biblical principle, found throughout all the Psalms that speak of the “heritage of the righteous man.”

Where I take exception to the Mahaney gals’ teachings, though (for that is indeed what their “Girl Talk” blog sets out to do – TEACH women!), is that they seem completely oblivious to the fact that their environment has helped to create their ideas of what constitutes “correct doctrine,” and NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND.

In other words, they THINK that their “correct doctrine” is why their lives are what they are.  But I’m thinking it’s far more accurate to say that their doctrine has been shaped and validated by the lifestyle they’ve been able to lead.

I was trying to articulate this to a friend of mine, and I finally settled on an analogy to the movie The Truman Show.  How many of you remember that flick, with Jim Carey playing the character of Truman Burbank, who was raised inside a gigantic man-made bubble of a world, where from birth all his dealings were carefully orchestrated, even to the daily weather, to produce the “ultimate reality show”? 

Well, the Mahaney daughters’ lives remind me a bit of Truman Burbank’s life.  And their TEACHINGS ought to pack about as much punch as Truman’s teachings would pack, if a movie character could have a blog.

Reading “Girl Talk” is too often like if Truman Burbank would start teaching the rest of the world – the world outside the bubble created by the TV producers who, unknown to him, were manipulating the entire reality of his life.  It’d be like if he would attempt to instruct the world outside the bubble on how to have career success, for instance.  His advice would be pretty meaningless, because the rest of us, those on the outside, do not have the benefit of living inside the bubble of the manufactured “career” that was provided for Truman to “work” at.

Now imagine if the Jim Carey character were to start believing and teaching that it was his “right doctrine” that made his world what it was?  Wouldn’t that just get sillier and sillier?  Imagine if Truman Banks actually had the gall to think that somehow, his “right doctrine” had an effect on his finances, for instance. 

Can anyone else see the parallel here?

To me, that’s about how it is when the Mahaney gals insinuate again and again that their parents’ “correct doctrine” is the main thing that shaped their lives into what they are today. 

I have no doubt that the Mahaney ladies’ home was a very wholesome environment in which to grow up.  I do not question that their parents’ teachings helped them to avoid sinful choices and immorality that would have put big roadblocks in the way of the nice things that have happened to them.

But I would assert nonetheless that their present-day successful lives as financially stable stay-at-home moms with husbands ensconced in SGM pastoral positions would simply NOT have happened in the same way if CJ and Carolyn did not have dynamic, magnetic personalities and had never set themselves up as examples to emulate, strive for, and want to BECOME.

“Correct doctrine” has about as much to do with the Mahaney daughters’ ability to avoid the grueling reality of the paycheck-to-paycheck workplace (and to instead be enabled to focus solely on the “home arts”) as Truman Burbank’s relationship skills had to do with whether or not he got married.

So all their talk about “correct doctrine” makes me tired!  It sounds smug after awhile, and silly.  And it’s not even TRUE.

After all, if a doctrine is “correct” – that is, if it really IS from the Word of God and not just an invention of man – then it can be correct in all ways, for all walks of life, for everyone who earnestly puts it into action.  And with the teaching that a woman’s only fulfilling, valid role is being a homemaker – and with the implication that anything else, like going to college or pursuing a career, is just a distraction, a waste of time, quite possibly even “dishonoring to God” – we find a doctrine that simply cannot be “correct.”  It is NOT from the Bible, because it does not hold up as true and workable across the board.

I think one of the reasons that the Bible is NOT full of specific lifestyle instructions (detailed instructions on what to wear and eat, where to work, and so on) outside those meant for the Israelites is because God’s larger truths about love, righteousness, and salvation transcend whether or not a woman works outside the home, goes to college, wears pants, or manages her household’s finances.  God does not specifically spell out in Scripture that, for instance, the HUSBAND must always be the one who balances the checkbook (something that SGM has taught for years, by the way) because such a mundane detail is just not that important in the grand scheme of the Christian faith.  It’s cultural.

As are many of the “right doctrines” that the Mahaney ladies seem to teach as absolutes.  Like their assertion that training a daughter to cook and clean is the most important thing a mother can do – how would that play out in a tiny village of AIDS orphans in the heart of Africa?  If a mom is struggling simply to find food to feed her starving children, perhaps “how to beautify the home” is NOT actually what the Bible says should be EVERY woman’s top priority!  And perhaps NOT making “the home arts” her top priority in that situation would actually NOT be sinful, as is implied whenever something – like homemaking – is taught as “God’s best,” or the “wisest way.”

The ability to have time to “honor the homemaking arts” in the first place is directly tied to one’s financial status.  Let’s bring it even closer to home and take some average SGM girl, someone less well-connected, whose chances of snagging an attractive, financially solvent, eager-to-court-and-be-discipled-by-CJ-Mahaney-himself guy are basically slim to none?  Is there really a “Biblical” command for such a girl to spend all her young adult years focusing primarily on home-keeping?  Couldn’t “Biblical womanhood” for her involve going to college and acquiring some skills that she could use in the workforce until the day when such a young man DOES come her way?  Or in case such a young man NEVER shows up?

What of the wife whose husband becomes ill or dies?  By necessity, wouldn’t “Biblical womanhood” for this lady encompass taking advantage of the opportunities opened to women today and actually becoming equipped to be a breadwinner, rather than elevating cooking, cleaning, and sewing to a level that God never intended them to have?

I wonder how much harm the Mahaney ladies’ blog has done to the women who read there and come away with the impression – as I initially did – that it all comes down to “right doctrine” (that is, SGM doctrine) and nothing more…that if they just implement SGM’s teachings on “Biblical Womanhood,” they too can have glossy hair, sparkling eyes, and husbands who make enough money so they can stay home and focus on the “truly important” stuff like homemaking?

How many women are inspired by the Mahaney ladies’ teachings, are following all the SGM mandates, are doing everything correctly, and yet are still stymied by lives that will never, by any stretch of the imagination, be quite so wonderful? 

Especially because as we all know, there IS only one CJ, and the Mahaney ladies have the corner on THAT market?

I don’t know if you, Dear Reader, are one of those ladies.  I know that for a brief while, I was.  But ultimately, I have to tell you, don’t let such false teachings get you down.  The Mahaney ladies probably mean only the best and are perfectly sincere in their beliefs, but they are completely out of touch with the reality where 99% of the rest of us live.

Even in my post-SGM/post-sgmsurvivors mindset, I still can’t help but find the “Girl Talk” blog fascinating.  But it’s fascinating in a way that makes me feel like I’ve just witnessed Truman Burbank instructing people about the stock market.  Only it’s worse, in a sense, because the Truman Burbank character would never have thought to say that his advice reflected “right doctrine,” or “God’s way.” 

The producers – the real powers who controlled his life – would have distracted him and kept him from ever being so silly.

© 2008 – 2010, Kris. All rights reserved.