The “Chew the Meat and Spit out the Bones” Toxic Approach to Books

by | Jun 10, 2024 | Theology of Marriage and Sex | 16 comments

Chew the Meat and Spit out the Bones about Christian books leads to people reading harmful books
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Should you read Christian self-help books that are a little bit harmful?

Recently I posted an Instagram reel taken from the podcast I recorded with Natalie Hoffman and Gretchen Baskerville about the book Lies Women Believe.

Here’s what I said:

That is a big thing.  And I think part of the problem is women’s Bible study leaders will say, “Okay.  I know there’s some problematic things in it, but let’s just take the meat and spit out the bones.”  When there is this much bones, there is no meat.  And there are books that you don’t have to spit stuff out at. 

As a Christian church, we need to raise the bar and stop reading books that we know are partially harmful because there might be something good in it.  What?  You think there aren’t books that are just plain good.  There are.  But we keep reading these books that are trash, and then we just assume all books are. 

And the truth is a lot of evangelical books have been harmful because they all believe this one central lie.  And I’m going to read you this bit here.  Okay?  So this is, again, from the section on how you got to believe that every marriage can be restored.  “As Christ’s suffering was the means by which we were healed, so your faithfulness and willingness to extend sacrificial love to your mate maybe the means of his restoration.”  And she has multiple Bible verses referenced in that thing. 

And this is what so many evangelical books do.  They tell you, “Hey, if you’re unhappy, the problem is not because of your circumstances.  The problem is because of your attitude. 

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Episode 223: The Problems with Lies Women Believe by Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth

Before I get into this a bunch, I want to back up and talk about something that my daughter Rebecca (and co-author of The Great Sex Rescue and She Deserves Better, and writer of our Friday emails) often said to me about why Millennials are often deconstructing.

In short, they believed what they were taught.

They believed that you should love your neighbour as yourself. They believed the pastors who told them to read their Bibles and pray. They believed the pastors who told them that they had to be sold out to Jesus and focus on Him.

Many millennialS actually listened and internalized all these lessons.

And because of that, they’re noticing how what is being said by so many pastors and teachers looks nothing like the Jesus they were taught about. 

I was thinking about that when I read some great comments on that reel. 

Rachel H., on Facebook, said:

 It’s interesting, too, because one of the favorite analogies in the youth group days of avoiding sin is:

“Would you eat a bar of chocolate if you knew it had a little bit of poop in it? No? Because you understand it’s contaminated. That’s what sin is like”

…..soooo why aren’t we able to apply the same concept to “Christian” teachings? By their logic, I’d argue that since these books are causing actual harm (I.e. enabling abusive + un-Christ-like behavior; telling women they’re responsible for another person’s salvation and sanctification, etc) then they are actually sinful/heretical.

And no one should be eating these poopy chocolate bars. And there absolutely should be repentance and accountability. (I say this with the caveat that I completely disagree with the whole “sin hunting” culture in general. I’m just putting their arguments in a different/consistent context).

Rachel H.

Exactly. 

And as Beth G. pointed out, it actually is poison.

There is a huge difference between, “I don’t think I agree with all of this” and “These teachings are HARMFUL.” Outside the evangelical church, I can’t think of many other contexts where we’re actively encouraged to expose ourselves to harmful things because there might be some trace of “good” among the bad.

We don’t eat soil and tell ourselves that it might contain minerals our bodies need, because there are far healthier alternatives. I think that’s a better analogy for these books.

Beth G.

Keith and I are in the home stretch of writing The Marriage You Want.

It’s not out until next spring, but we’ve got tons of info in that book about what actually leads to healthy marriages. It’s all based on real studies (both our own and tons of peer reviewed work). It’s not just our opinion. We’re sharing things that have been found to be helpful.

It really bothers me that Christians have such a low bar for advice.

Why do we tolerate pastors sharing things that we know are harmful, or books that say things that cause harm?

I know some people say, “well, they don’t harm everyone, and it helped me.” To you, I’d point you to this post on why Christian books shouldn’t harm–and why it’s quite possible to write books that don’t harm

But why is it that Christians especially flee from what studies actually say, and say stuff that has been disproven? Because at some level we value dogma over data (and, yes, I know there’s a podcast named something like that!).

We’re so wedded to preserving a certain view of faith that we will stick with it even if it’s shown to be harmful. Even though Jesus told us not to do that, because “a bad tree can’t bear good fruit, and a good tree can’t bear bad fruit.” If the teaching was actually good, it wouldn’t cause bad.

So how do they get around this? Well, my husband Keith has a theory, and it goes something like this:

They define bad fruit as someone believing something other than what they believe.

Basically, if someone teaches something different from me, it bears bad fruit because it’s causing people to believe something different from me. 

Get it?

They actually change the meaning of bad fruit, so that the worst kind of fruit is someone changing their beliefs about God.

That’s why pastors often warn people against reading The Great Sex Rescue. Sure, it may help you enjoy sex more; identify marital rape; deal with objectification; find freedom from porn; get help from sexual pain; end obligation sex; and revive your libido.

But it may also mean that you don’t believe that men are in authority over women anymore. 

And that second part–that’s the REAL bad fruit, as far as they are concerned. 

They define fruit by what people believe, not by healthy relationships, thriving faith, or good mental and physical health.

The emphasis on belief over experience and action is relatively new in Christianity.

Even the idea that the way that you become a Christian is that you say a certain prayer once when you are 8, and then no matter what else you do throughout your life you are saved–that is such a new idea of faith. 

It was really boosted and became more mainstream in the 1800s with the revival movement (think Dwight L. Moody), and then Billy Graham really solidified it (as did many others). Faith became primarily about saying a prayer, which was primarily about what you believed, not what you did.

So as long as someone says they believe that Jesus died for their sins, they’re all good, even if they treat others badly, hoard money, or indulge in sexual sins. 

As denominations started to proliferate, the things that people split over were largely about beliefs too–do we do infant baptism or adult baptism? Are we pre- or post-millennial? Are we Arminian or Calvinist? Were the spiritual gifts for a time or are they still with us? And those who had different beliefs were often considered heretics, even if they gave their money to the poor, treated each other lovingly, and invested in the kingdom.

When Christianity became about what denomination you are, and whether you have said the prayer, then beliefs are elevated over everything else.

I’m not saying that beliefs don’t matter, or that we’re not saved by grace. But the elevation of beliefs at the exclusion of pretty much everything else has meant that we have often lost sight of what the kingdom is (I write more about the significance of Jesus’ start of His ministry in this post on Luke 4). 

A medieval Jesus-follower would not see faith as we do

It would not be a series of beliefs that you tick off to ensure that you are going to heaven. Beliefs matter, and it would be assumed that people adhered to the creeds. But it was more about how you live your life.

We are followers of Jesus, not just believers in Jesus.

Jesus is the Way, not just the Truth. He doesn’t just embody what we are to believe; He embodies how we are to live. 

After all, even the demons believe–and shudder (James 2:19). Our faith is not just belief; it is bringing the kingdom of God to earth. It is participating in the mission of Christ, which is not just about preaching that He died for sins, but about creating disciples who will follow the way of Jesus.

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And maybe, if we embraced Christianity as kingdom, we would understand good fruit in a different way.

We wouldn’t see good fruit and bad fruit as dependent on whether people believe just like me. We would see it as whether people are living life abundantly. Whether relationships are based on love and honesty and dignity or coercion and authority. We would see whether people are emotionally healthy and whole, or whether they are hiding things from themselves, others, and God. 

Our faith would not merely be an intellectual exercise, but would encompass everything of who we are: body, soul, and spirit. 

That’s a long explanation for why Christians often follow harmful books, but I think it’s an important one. 

So many of us have been taught growing up that what we believe is all that matters, even if our lives are miserable and our relationships are terrible and our faith is stifling us.

That’s not what Jesus taught. 

And maybe, if we followed what Jesus actually said, we’d get a better understanding of how He actually wants us to experience wholeness, peace, and good relationships. And that this is a part of the Christian life too! 

What do you think? Why do we disagree on good and bad fruit? What can we do to help people recognize harmful books? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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16 Comments

  1. Ann

    One problem I’ve had is that there was a long period of time where I was not able to tell “the meat from the bones”. Being in an unhealthy relationship can do that to you!

    For someone to say “yeah I just spit out the bones, but it’s mostly a good book” is like saying that they don’t care that someone else was CHOKING ON THE BONES.

    I’m glad you’re committed to publishing a book that does no harm.

    Reply
    • R

      Excellent point, and I thoroughly agree! I swallowed “Win him without a word” and”Be sweet no matter what he does to you” for 20+ years. Guess when though actually changed… When I quit listening to those books, got a backbone and set some basic boundaries.

      Reply
  2. CMT

    “But it may also mean that you don’t believe that men are in authority over women anymore.
    And that second part–that’s the REAL bad fruit, as far as they are concerned. “

    I’ll take it a step further: it’s bad fruit because in these systems, “faith” is about maintaining hierarchy and authority. When people change their beliefs, they may challenge the status quo of the controlling system. They may leave it entirely. They may persuade others to challenge or leave it too. Very bad fruit indeed, for the people who are invested in the system.

    Reply
    • Kay

      I think this is it. It boils down to different moral foundations (per Jonathan Haidt). Anything that challenges hierarchy and purity codes is “bad fruit” according to their theology, whereas most of us here have a moral foundation of care and harm reduction. They care more about power over people than people over power. We aren’t speaking the same language. :-/

      Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        It took me a while to realize this and articulate it, and it was absolutely heart-breaking when I did. That’s what made the authors’ that we critiqued reactions so faith-crushing. I had thought they genuinely cared, and they showed they didn’t. It took a while to get over that shock.

        Reply
        • CMT

          It is really hard! I think you’re right about millennials, too. A lot of us have had similar disillusioning experiences. We were taught God is love and WWJD and all that… then saw people and institutions we had trusted fail to act on the same principles of love, integrity, purity, etc they had hammered into our heads. Many of us who have deconstructed or deconverted have done so because of the cognitive dissonance from that.

          Reply
          • JC

            I think you’ve nailed it. And honestly, it’s by God’s grace I’m still in church at all, because I’ve certainly seen enough hypocrisy, abuse, and generally abhorrent behavior to drive anyone away. As it is, I got saved out of a firm belief in God and Jesus, and that I was to follow God, not man. And I’m still following God, not man, and I’m pretty sure that’s the only thing keeping me.

            Because I won’t say I’ve deconstructed my faith. My foundation is firm and it has good bones, but I’ve done some serious remodeling and taken things down to studs in certain wings, and I’ve never been fond of the wallpaper and carpet in others.

            What’s tragic, is that I think we were given good principles. Be pure, be chaste, WWJD, pray, be introspective; but so often they were misapplied or misconstrued or just plain warped. Be pure became virginity is salvation, be chaste became everything you see and feel is sin, prayer became a substitute for action, boundaries, and speaking up. Be introspective turned from being aware of yourself and working on improving yourself to blaming yourself for literally everything that went wrong and assuming your sin (because you definitely sinned!) is the majority reason behind why any given thing happened.

            It’s hard to disentangle the meat from the bones with this stuff because the meat is all grizzle and tendons and the bones are cartilage and it’s all being sold as prime cuts. The actual meat isn’t even on your plate.

        • Nessie

          I think those were some of the harder, and more grace-filled, bits to read in tGSR. You kept giving grace upon grace to the authors you were critiquing, making it clear you believed they had hearts in the right places but just missed the mark. That was honestly hard to stomach as a person so greatly harmed by their teachings, but I saw your heart in that, extending grace and being hope-filled that they would then know and do better.

          When they clung so hard to the erroneous tenets that had harmed me so badly all the while proclaiming it was God’s way, that really broke me. If God is love, and these people proclaim God yet also proclaim harmful, unloving things over me, then God must not actually be love. Which meant that God was a liar. That is their “fruit.”

          Kay nailed it with, “They care more about power over people than people over power.”

          Reply
  3. Jo R

    So, all of sudden, non-author, non-pastor, non-seminarian Christians are supposed to use DISCERNMENT and exercise JUDGMENT as to what constitutes meat and what constitutes bones?

    Sounds pretty dangerous to me, and especially to you, you theobroflakes, but I’m justa a woman, so I guess by definition I’m not smart enough to use discernment and judgment.

    🙄

    Reply
  4. Angharad

    I’m reminded of a friend who was given some cheese from the Netherlands and said she liked the white bit but found the green bit was too chewy…she didn’t realise that the green bit was the wax covering which you weren’t supposed to eat.

    People can only spit out the bits they’re not supposed to eat if they already know they’re not supposed to eat them.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Excellent analogy!

      Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Just shared on the main Facebook page!

      Reply
  5. Nathan

    > > our faithfulness and willingness to extend sacrificial love to your mate maybe the means of his restoration.

    How about saying that this MIGHT be a small PART of the means to his restoration? You can help others along the path, but they have to be the ones to choose it and do it and live it. You can be a part of it, but we cannot truly save another. They have to do most of it themselves.

    And I’ll ignore the obvious fact that most Christian books only mean for this to work in one direction. They rarely if ever mention husbands sacrificing for their wives.

    Also, welcome back Sheila!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Thanks, Nathan!

      Reply
  6. Donald Johnson

    I do not expect to read any book and agree 100% with it, what I do hope and expect is that I learn something from it that I can incorporate into my active faith. I have learned that people see things differently than I do and understand Scripture differently than I do. It is like each person has a current framework based on what they have learned and been taught and when something does not fit into that framework, we do not toss out the framework (at least at first), we try to minimize that something that does not fit or look for an alternate explanation that does fit in our current framework. I have found that it takes a handful or two of things that do not fit my current framework to trigger the question on whether my framework needs to change.

    However, while I can differ with another on some theology details, I try to draw a line on harmful teachings, I try to call those out. I think the comp framework is inherently harmful for the vast majority of people. Where it might work in practice is where a couple loves each other so deeply that the husband never ever plays his trump card except to decide in his wife’s favor.

    Reply
    • Nathan

      Excellent points. How about this?
      Meat: Good stuff that you agree with
      Gristle: Stuff that you might not agree with, but isn’t bad enough to toss the whole thing
      Bones: Stuff that’s really bad, advocating (or overlooking, justifying, etc.) harm, abuse, etc.

      If a philosophy has meat and gristle, cut out the gristle and enjoy the meat.

      Reply

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