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Altared: A Book on Marriage that Everyone Should Read

November 27th, 2012 | 6 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

“Now here’s a strange thing: a well written, immensely thoughtful exploration of the meaning of marriage that challenges our obsession with it without devaluing it. This is a lovely and needed book that I hope everyone reads.”

That was the endorsement I wrote for Altared:  The True Story of a She, a He, and How they Both Got Worked Up about We.  And I meant every word.

Let me lay this out clearly for you, so there is no confusion:  This is not only one of the best books written by folks my age that I have read.  It is also a searingly thoughtful, earnestly heartfelt examination of how many young people in the church learn to think about sex and marriage set alongside a refreshingly biblical alternative.

altaredAltared is the tale of how two young folks met, fell in love, and then decided not to marry.  Yes, that gives away the ending.  But no, it doesn't ruin the book.  Not. At. All.  Their reflections on loneliness and solitude, on forgiveness and love, on learning to love God before and within learning to love another--they have lived out the story and given to us the meaning.

And the results are edifying and, for my money, exactly right.

Buried on my hard-drive is a draft of a book that I have written but never published.  It is a book that explores how our view of marriage determines how we date, and how contemporary attitudes toward sex and singleness lead to a myopic focus on marriage within the church and an astonishing disregard of it outside the church.  Claire and Eli's effort says much of what I wanted to say, only better than I have ever said it.

Take this bit, for instance:

The first [problem with the message that marriage solves our lust problems] is that marriage doesn’t solve all our lust problems. “True love waits” naturally implies a finish line, either for love, sex, or both. The phrase hints that our wait will, at some point, stop. And yet, as many of us know, the waiting does not stop, and love, to the contrary, is something to be nurtured and grown into rather than acquired in a moment. This is true both physically and relationally, and also as it relates to our sin. The fact that the married life is not free of lust and struggle might seem obvious to anyone with a few married friends, and yet we don’t have to search long before we hear someone speak as if marriage ends the battle. Teen purity talks more than implied this idea that marriage was the great solution to sexual sin—or at least they did for me.

Second, if marriage was presented as the main fix for lust, perhaps it was because we often had only a shallow vision of self-denial. If self-denial or self-control to us meant only that we didn’t have sex until we got married, and then we could gratify ourselves, we missed one of the larger implications of discipleship and of following Christ. Discipleship is not just hanging on until marriage; it is, as we’ve said, a gradual and complete reordering of all our desires, sexual and otherwise, so that we can live more wholly for Christ.

Maybe the most remarkable thing about the book is how not angry Claire and Eli seem to be about the whole thing.  In fact, contrary to Ted Cockle's review, I found them to be disarmingly and refreshingly candid about the struggles evangelicals have on this issue without falling into blaming their upbringing for the sorrow they've experienced.  This is a book written to help the church, not berate it.  And that shows through in their prose.

That Jesus or Paul couldn't get hired as a pastor of any of our megachurches suggests evangelical Christians idolize marriage more than we realize.  And that not only marginalizes single people and undermines our witness on other aspects of sexual ethics.  It has a corrosive effect on how we help young people enter into the institution and on our marriages themselves.

Altared offers an approach that is markedly different.  Serious without being dull and reflective without being narcissistic, the book strikes a balance that few are able to achieve.  If Claire and Eli's work becomes the new standard bearer for books exploring marriage and dating within the evangelical church, the movement would be considerably better of on these questions than it happens to be today.

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Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.