Monday, January 14, 2013

The Three Weavers

My copy of The Three Weavers, complete with lots of post-its flagging the many troublesome spots. 

This is a letter I sent to Shelley Noonan, the author of The Three Weavers Plus Companion Guide which contains the short story "The Three Weavers" plus a study guide. This story has always bothered me and I think it's about time someone pointed out the issues within it. In addition, I'll send this critique to any author/company who republishes this abysmal story in the future. If you haven't read it, I believe that it is available online as it was published in one of The Little Colonial books in 1903. The original story was written by Annie Fellows Johnston but it has been republished by many Christian authors because of it's perceived merit. Anyway, here's the letter: 

Mrs. Noonan,

Allow me to introduce myself, I grew up in a happy Christian home, was homeschooled, and am now a young, college-graduate. I’m pretty familiar with many of the books popular in the homeschooling/courtship movement in the last decade and the ideologies that drive their authors. Recently, your edition of “The Three Weavers” came to my attention.

As a child, I received the story of “The Three Weavers” in a collection of “Christian” fairy tales. While I liked the story, something about it always bothered me, and as I’ve gotten older, I finally realize why I was disturbed. This story runs counter to scripture and presents false truth―based on works and not on grace. In order to be certain that the story presented was the same as mine, I purchased one of your editions. To my dismay, the text is even worse than the one I read as a child. In both editions, “The Three Weavers” teaches that God doesn’t keep His promises, that love is conditional, that it’s always your fault―even if someone else causes your pain, that grace and forgiveness are not possible, and that good things only come when you do everything right. Additionally, the study guide provided in your edition renders the text even more disturbing, especially because there is no attempt to counter the warped ideas of the text. The study questions even further some of the repellent ideas presented in the story. I know this letter is long but it contains the issues that I found within the “Three Weavers.” I’ve gone through the whole book, making notes and carefully studying the ideas and concepts presented. I tried to divide my analysis into two sections and so I’m looking at the story first and then the study guide. Please take your time and really consider what I've written.

Before beginning, I must define the word “biblical.” For my purposes, “biblical” means scriptural truth, rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ and the character of God. All too often, Christians believe that if something is in the Bible it is “biblical” and thus, right and worthy of emulation. This is completely erroneous―if this definition is followed, it means that slavery, bigamy, incest, and genocide are also “biblical.” Thus, my use of the word “biblical” refers to scriptural truth.

One of the first problems with “The Three Weavers” is that it was written during the later-Victorian period and contains ideals popular at that time. Though some books from this time period are wonderful, many written for children exhibit empty moralism rather than truth. Some books from this time, such as the Elsie Dinsmore series, even include racism and/or neo-colonial ideas. It is wrong to believe that any story from this era (or any other time) is “Christian” or biblical simply because it mentions God and/or employs “Christianese.” Many book published at this time used Christian language and sentiment because it was popular to do so and thus, they must be held to a high standard and carefully examined for their merit. Scare tactics are also common in stories from this period―which is highly unbiblical as we are told not to fear (2 Tim 1:7). Unfortunately, this story contains features typical of a sentimental Victorian story that isn’t actually based in truth: fear is used as a motivator, grace is gone, the perfect girl is rewarded, and those who fall short are doomed forever.

Looking at the text, one of the biggest issues with the story is this: if God promised that each girl would marry a prince, why didn’t it happen? This allegory portrays completely counter biblical themes as it declares that God will only keep His promises if people do everything right, keep all the rules, and work as hard as they can. This is wrong and not in line with God’s character. God promised Abraham that he would be the father of Israel and that the Messiah would come through his line. Abraham messed a lot of things up, he lied, slept with his maidservant, and his descendents weren’t much better but God still fulfilled His promise. Why publish a story that makes God seem indifferent and untrustworthy?

Turning to the characters, there are multiple issues in their moral compasses. Dexter is clearly an abusive, authoritarian father; he blows up and yells at Dinah when she asks a simple question and refuses to treat her with respect. Yet, the study questions do not address this: “Dinah went to speak to her father about the loom ‘with eyes downcast and cheeks flaming.’ What does this tell you about Dinah’s personality?” (74). What should those studying the text write here? It is clear to me that she is abused―she presents the classic signs of being afraid of her father. “Do you think she approached him in the correct way? Why or why not?” (74). What exactly are the questions driving at here? How exactly should one approach a bully? Especially when the bully is a parent and you are a child. What could Dinah have done? Is it Dinah’s fault that she’s abused? Acting as if abuse is okay is very wrong―the study guide should address Dexter’s sin far before it addresses Dinah’s fear. Also, the text is very vague about Dinah’s situation: if she didn’t disobey her father, her cloak would never have been ready for her prince and when she did, she doesn’t get the prince. This presents a completely lose/lose situation. Her father was clearly wrong to forbid her from weaving and yet, the study guide says that even though her father is a “tyrant” her “error came when she chose to weave in secret after he told her not to weave at all… Dinah’s life would have been easier and less disappointing if she had just obeyed her father. Severe as he was, God placed him over her to guard her heart and protect her from harm” (59). This presents an extremely sticky situation. Can’t we admit that we live in a fallen world and there are some fathers that are not worthy of obedience? What if a father asks a daughter to do something morally wrong? Or tries to completely thwart her chances at happiness, as Dexter did to Dinah? In this area, the study guide excuses the abusive behavior of the father and pins all of the blame on the daughter. How is this okay?

Elton’s behaviour was disgusting―if Esmee really needed to stay perfectly pure in order to marry a prince, then it is half his fault that she didn’t. Yes, she chose to give away multiple cloaks but he encouraged her in this, teasing her and saying, “‘Is that your prince?’ or ‘Is it for this one you weave?’” Esmee is a child and then a young girl; she needs guidance and takes her cues from her father. He certainly has a large part in her not taking her work seriously and even tempts her to sin. Jesus said in Matthew 18, “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!” (v.6-7). Elton’s sin is very serious and unfortunately, is not addressed by the study guide. For a book that encourages parental guidance, I would think that this area should be emphasized so that father’s (and mother’s) understand how important it is to keep from tempting their children to sin. Again, the father is the one primarily at fault but it is the daughter who suffers the total and complete consequences. I find this very disturbing and off the mark.

Each girls’ relationship with her father seems to be the product of chance… it seems that none of them actually could do anything to change their situations. Dexter was abusive and controlling, Elton was careless and uncaring, and Griffin was the model father. This presents a rather strange determinism; the idea that the daughter’s fate is out of her hands, being steered by her father and his actions, and cannot be remedied. Doesn’t it seem wrong that Dinah and Esmee are doomed to their fate by the poor choices of their fathers? At the end of the book, the study guide confirms this idea in saying, “From the day of the daughters’ births, the fathers set into motion the conclusion of the story by their words and deeds (or lack of them!)…. What the fathers sowed, the daughters reaped” (122). What does this tell girls with fathers who fall short? That they have no hope of a future? Plus, this takes scripture out of context! The study guide claims, “we will examine more closely the law of sowing and reaping (122).” What law? Galatians 6:7-10 is clearly speaking of an individual and their personal choices affecting their personal life…not the lives of their children. For according to God’s law, “Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin (Deut. 24:16).” Deuteronomy 24 is referenced several more times in the Bible, such as in 2 Kings 14:6: “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sins.” Thus, the claimed “law of sowing and reaping” is not a law and the phrasing of the study guide seems like an attempt to add to God’s word.

By the way, where are all the mothers? I know that the original story does not say anything about the girls’ mothers, but it is odd that they aren’t in the picture. Did the girls just spontaneously generate? Didn’t this ever bother you? Honestly, I find it a little creepy and weird that mothers don’t seem important in this tale and for the most part, are even left out of the study guide. I agree that most fathers need to work harder in building relationships with daughters but at times, the book’s ideas seem over the top. Purity is a subject that a daughter needs to discuss with both of her parents, not just her father. It is wrong to focus more on one parent or gender than another.

Later in the story, Griffin tells Gabriella that the man she has noticed is not for her and says, “This is not the one that has been promised by God for you” (95). Are we supposed to assume that Griffin was a prophet or priest? This passage seems to indicate that he has become a priest who has complete control over all of Gabriella’s decisions. What if Gabriella was destined to marry a page or knight who was a prince at heart? How did Griffin know any of these people were right or wrong just from looking at their outward appearance? “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). I understand that this is a fairy tale… but why would we encourage people to act this way in real life? To be honest, I really don’t appreciate the story’s vilification of normal, common people such as shepherds, pages, and knights. It seems to be written from a 19th century upper-class perspective and it seems strange to me that we would try to encourage this line of thought in the 21st century. Plus, it doesn’t follow Christian history as King David was a shepherd, some of the first people to receive the news of Christ’s birth were shepherds, and Jesus himself was a carpenter, born into a poor family.

In addition, the examples of the “princes” interested in marrying the Dinah, Esmee, and Gabriella are disappointing at best. In each case, instead of looking at the girl’s inner and outer beauty and accomplishments, the prince is only interested in the gift each girl can present to him. When this gift is below his standard, he doesn’t provide a second chance or any alternative to the young woman. He simply walks away and leaves forever with “one look of distain” or a sorrowful gaze (111). What does this tell young girls? That we are to judge others for one aspect of their life? That we must set expectations so high that we cannot forgive or show any grace? That their purity is the only thing that gives them value? Or, that if they make even one mistake, that a godly young man will be unable to forgive them? This is so off the mark. Look at Tamar and Judah, Samson, Jonah, and even David! All of these people made mistakes, and some even committed sexual sins, but God still used them for his glory. How blessed are we that God is the giver of second chances! Finally, who would want to marry these so-called princes? None of them seem very admirable or worthy, just full of themselves and their own importance.

Furthermore, why doesn’t the text offer a second chance to Dinah and Esmee? All we are told is that “Dinah’s heart was as broken and shattered as the mirror of the lady of Shalott” and that Esmee’s “heart broke like the shattered mirror of the Lady of Shalott” (112-113). That’s it? Do their broken hearts ever find healing? Do they recover? Find a new life somewhere away from their horrible fathers? Is this supposed to make us feel good? Are we supposed to think we’re better than them? And then the girl’s studying the text are asked to “complete” their stories? What a sad exercise. These women live in a world without grace, just what sorts of things would be open to them?

In looking at the study guide, I think I should note that statements such as “obedience is the second trait to cultivate in your daughter’s character. This is necessary for her to have in order for you to guard her heart,” are completely off base (59). No one can build character in another person! Only God can change someone’s heart. “There will be times when you make a decision that she will see you as a tyrant. Learning to be obedient, even when she doesn’t understand your reasons, could save her from untold heartbreak” (59). This is also troublesome, as I have rarely thought my parents to be tyrants. The few times I recall thinking that they were oppressive or tyrannical usually ended in an apology from their end. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” (Lord Acton). Parents who expect absolute obedience and believe that their children must have specific character qualities are emotionally abusive. Nowhere in scripture does it state that fathers (or mothers) are to guard their children’s hearts nor are they to claim absolute obedience from them. And then, there’s that whole issue of adult children and their independence. Expecting absolute obedience only protects small children who cannot understand; for older children and teenagers, this only produces outward conformity and inner resentment. Eventually, these children and teenagers grow up and more often than not, end up experiencing more heartbreak as they try to free themselves from controlling parents. The best parents are those who take the time to explain and reason and earn the respect of their children. All too often, parents do not relinquish control and cause their adult children untold irritation and pain because they cannot let go. Finally, the language used in the study guide is worrying with lines such as “Find out what scripture says about obedience and techniques you can use to train your daughter to develop this rare quality” (60). Honestly, it makes daughters sound like pets in need of obedience training rather than human beings. Also, some of the verses on obedience (60-61) are taken out of context; the misuse of scripture passages is a persistent problem throughout the study guide.

Before I go into the next section, I must address the concept of “guarding your heart.” This phrase is only found a few times in scripture (3 in the NIV) and is often misinterpreted. “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it (Pvbs 4:23).” Currently, “guarding your heart” is often used in reference to romantic relationships―i.e. keeping yourself unentangled and pure. However, that is not really what scripture means here. Guarding your heart has more to do with discernment and keeping filth from polluting your mind and then coming out of your mouth. It does not mean that you are to try to keep yourself perfectly pure and sinless―that’s impossible. As scripture says “Who can say, ‘I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin?’” (Pvbs 20:9). God promises to give us a new clean heart washed in the blood of Jesus and He himself guards our hearts. “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:7).” And this popular verse: “My son, give me your heart and let your eyes delight in my ways” is often taken out of context and really means something along the lines of “pay attention to me as I warn you about dangers you may encounter in your life” (Pvbs 23:26). Thus, the concept of guarding your heart or giving your heart to your parents is a completely modern sentiment and actually, can be quite destructive. Unfortunately, Proverbs 4:23 is often taken out of context and used to crush dreams, feelings, or ideas involving romance; encouraging a state of detachment, even in a romantic relationship, that promises to keep one’s heart “pure” and the owner without any pain. This is selfishness and certainly not biblical and can end up causing a lack of openness and an unwillingness to be vulnerable. As C.S. Lewis writes, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless--it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

While I agree that mutual trust does build a relationship, the discussion of trust found in the study guide is rather alarming and seems to place the father in a position that only God can fill. “Trust on her part means having a faith, reliance, expectation, and belief that you indeed have her best interest at heart. Inversely, trust can be defined for you as caring, keeping, protecting, and guarding her and desiring her best” (63). I italicized the last sentence for emphasis―this is not trust on the father’s part. Trust is defined as confidence and faith in a person or thing―a true definition of a father’s trust in a daughter looks something like this: “Having a faith, reliance, expectation, and belief that she will make the right decisions and act according to God’s word even when her parents are not around.” As for the explanation of the daughter’s trust, I love my father and I trust him but I never thought of it in such flowery terms. “Ultimately, your trust relationship with her will form her view of her heavenly Father. You have a weighty responsibility” (63). Jesus is the only person who is our example of God in human form. It is true that sometimes people view God in terms of their earthly father. Yet, this is not found, nor encouraged in scripture. We are all models of Christ, both men and women, but we are fallible human beings. We should want our children to look to Jesus and not to ourselves. Instead of encouraging fathers and daughters to trust in man, I believe it is crucial to encourage trust in God and His plans. The salvation section contains these words, “Father, make sure your daughter has entrusted her life to you” (104). WHAT? This is crazy! “She should not only place herself under her heavenly Father’s protection, but she must also trust you enough to allow you to protect her here on earth. Is she willing to place her heart in your hands? Is she willing to give you the key to her heart for safekeeping?” This is not based in scripture! Yes, it is a good idea to protect your daughter along with the rest of your children but this is just wrong. There’s nothing in the Bible about trusting your life or your heart to your parents―only to Jesus Christ. Why would any parent want to claim their child’s total devotion? No parent is perfect. Plus, when the child becomes an adult, there is no need for the father (or mother) to continue micromanaging their child’s life.

In the silver yardstick letter, the study guide states, “Your points need to be based on scripture so you can fortify your position with biblical truth” and yet, the example letter contains points that are not found in scripture (64). Number 3, “He must be able to support a family” is found nowhere in scripture and is simply based on the gender roles of our culture. There is nothing in the Bible about the man being the sole or primary provider for his family―this is a cultural assumption. Number 4, “Both of you must have similar life goals” is a nice idea and I find it an obvious goal but again, it is not found in scripture. Finally, Number 5, “He must meet with my approval” does not have any scriptural basis. As much as many people wish that there were guidelines in the Bible for dating and marriage, there really aren’t any and the God does not give parents final say in their child’s future. It is a good idea for the parents involved to approve of their child’s future spouse but sometimes, they are unreasonable or foolish. Ultimately, the choice lies with the (presumably) adult daughter to make her decision and live with the results.

Going further, this question: “What kind of (spiritual) profit would you like to see in your daughter’s life?” really bothers me (91). A father’s (or parent’s) concept of spiritual profit for their child might be vastly different from God’s plan. The accompanying Proverbs seem to be taken out of context as they cover a broad spectrum of “plans” and there are just as many Proverbs and Psalms that hold this thought: “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails” (Pvbs 19:21). It seems that only scriptures that suit this theory have been included and ones contradicting it have been left out―resulting in a narrow concept of God’s will. It is not biblical to plan out someone else’s life and the following passage holds multiple problems, “Picture the rolling of your plans like a big ball into God’s capable hands and through Him; they are established… it is a done deal!” This makes God sound like a vending machine or Santa Claus―a benevolent figure who takes the plans of men and makes them happen exactly as we desire. This is completely contrary to scripture! God makes His plans and we carry them out. We do not tell God what to do! God can do whatever He wants with us―just look at Job―because He’s God. Yet, He’s loving and has plans to prosper us and not to harm us (Jer 29:11). Yes, prayer and free will do have an impact but ultimately, our plans must be submitted to His will.

In the activity on page 107, these two lines gave me pause, “You will protect her from men that are not qualified” and “You always have her best interests at heart.” First, who is the judge of the qualifications? The father? Both parents? What if their criteria is not biblical? This is an extremely sticky area because there are many, many stories of parents ruining the relationships of their adult children, especially in conservative evangelical circles. Controlling your teenage or adult child’s love life is not biblical or right. Second, many evil things have been done with the words, “I have your best interest at heart!” We should be teaching parents to give their children to God and let them go as Hannah entrusted Samuel to the Lord.

The text of the study guide places a lot of emphasis on crushes being evil and wrong and a girl could start to think that she’s lost her purity, or part of it, by having a crush. Crushes are normal. Every young girl has them and they are a part of growing up. With a bit of common sense, they aren’t a big deal. Demonizing crushes only leads to guilt and anxiety as girls are afraid to admit that they have feelings and believe that they are sinning in having natural attraction to a young man. Nowhere in the Bible does it state that attraction to the opposite sex is wrong, in fact, Song of Solomon almost encourages a healthy appreciation of attraction. As long as they do not turn into willful sin, crushes are a completely normal, natural part of being young. Attraction happens and making it into a sin is only setting up young women (and men) for failure and guilt. In addition, there have been multiple reports (and I know from personal experience) that teachings like these can cause serious emotional problems. If a young girl turns off her emotions or views good things as dirty or evil, she will have a long and hard time recovering when she does marry.

The concept of a mistake is poorly defined within this text and could be confusing to girls. Is it simply having a crush? Or is it actually a physical action? Again, does the text really mean that a woman’s value is only found in her purity? If so, what about victims of rape or incest? Or those who make one mistake or come from a troubled background? Are they now devoid of value and unable to receive forgiveness? I believe that virginity is important and purity is beautiful but neither purity nor virginity are commodities that can be “lost forever.” For those who repent from a life of sin, choosing purity can be a reality. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).

Overall, this book places a high emphasis on getting married with the discussions of hope chest, purity ring/ceremony, and wrapped gift/letters to be opened before the daughter’s wedding. While I think these items are well meant, they may not be the best thing for daughters. These things can easily become idols and encourage frustration with singleness―which is also considered a gift on par with marriage in God’s word. What if it is God’s plan that the daughter never marries? What if she is single for a prolonged period? Marriage is a beautiful, God-given institution and gift but it is not the ultimate end of any person. Our purpose is to love God and glorify Him forever. In fact, Jesus was not married, nor were many of the prophets or the Apostle Paul. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul writes that it is better to be single and that “it is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do” (v.7). Our Christian culture has made marriage into an idol, caused untold suffering, and put unneeded pressure on those who have been called to temporary or even permanent singleness. There should be some portion of this book that acknowledges the gift of singleness and does not make marriage into an idol.

I know this has been long and probably hard to hear, but someone needs to say it. It is my hope that you complied and published this work in ignorance of its errors, both scriptural and moral. Obviously, you are not the first Christian publisher to wrongly believe that this story is worthy of study. Still, I beg you to consider the product that you are selling. It needs to be seriously re-written or taken off the shelves all-together. I will be posting this review on my blog because unfortunately, the damage has already been done. Multiple copies of “The Three Weavers” from many different publishers are floating around, wrecking havoc on the lives of otherwise normal people. I want this critique to be available to anyone who searches for this book and thinks that it might be a helpful resource.



Arlan said...

I've not read "The Three Weavers." I try to avoid moral fiction generally because it's a bad combination, but I've read enough of it to suspect that you are fair in your criticism.

It's things like "“The Three Weavers” teaches that God doesn’t keep His promises, that love is conditional" that really bother me about what I've termed "moral literature."

To me it is intolerable for a book I am supposed to agree with if it has anything like this: "This allegory portrays completely counter biblical themes as it declares that God will only keep His promises if people do everything right, keep all the rules, and work as hard as they can. This is wrong and not in line with God’s character." I would rather read an attack on God delivered honestly than God so dishonestly shown.

Heather said...

Wonderful, thoughtful, truthful letter. Thank you for taking the time to write this. Did you ever receive a response from Mrs. Noonan?

Ingrid said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ingrid said...

Thank you for your kind words. :-) As of today, I have not received a response from Shelley Noonan. I'm hoping that she will respond but at this point, I don't hold out much hope. Unfortunately, those who author these types of books tend to ignore all criticism and don't seem to be accountable to anyone. I'm probably a bit jaded but then again, I've seen this happen a lot among "Christian celebrities."