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Real Marriage: A Review (Pt. 1)

January 12th, 2012 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Putting “Mark Driscoll” and “sex” together in the same blog post is like using a blowtorch to open a loaded propane tank:  the probability of the resulting explosion is somewhere in the neighborhood of one.

But you know you’ve really done it when no one can agree on which critique of you is best.  Susan Wise Bauer mostly shrugged her shoulders, while this fellow thinks it might be a “new low for Christian marriage books” that reduces women to sex objects.  And that’s not even the critiques from those who are friendly, like Tim Challies and Aaron Armstrong!

The chatter has, I confess, taken me by surprise.  There's not a whole lot in Real Marriage that is particularly new for anyone who is familiar with Pastor Mark’s teaching on the matter.  It’s unabashedly complementarian, and his by now infamous “Can we ___________” doubles down on the candor mixed with conscience that drives his little book Porn Again Christian (a similarly provocative, similarly dissatisfying little book for reasons I’ll get to in the second part of this rather ungainly review).

The real news is that Pastor Mark and his wife share their rather troubled history, and it’s this chapter that has evoked much of the response.   The passage in which Mark relates his experience learning his wife had cheated on him before they were married has particularly stirred people up:

Grace started weeping and trying to apologize for lying to me, but I honestly don’t remember the details of the conversation, as I was shell-shocked. Had I known about this sin, I would not have married her.”

This is problematic on the face of it.  As Christians who believe in forgiveness for infidelity and for everything else, the visceral gut reaction is not the right one.  But it’s a bit unfair to conclude from it that Driscoll also thinks it was the right response. After all, historical narrative is just that, and he’ll go on to write that “In idolizing marriage, I ended up demonizing Grace and doubting God.”  This is the peculiarly Christian form of writing known as “confession,” and it goes all the way back to Augustine--though given his reputation on matters sexual and marital, the comparison might be less flattering than it sounds.

A minor point, perhaps, and I’ve no plans to go about defending Driscoll against all his critics.  The day has only so many hours, after all, and he’s taken his broadsides.  My only point is that misogyny is a serious charge, and one that ought be executed with care.  It’s easy to let the passion of a misinterpreted sentence make the reader misunderstand the next, making a string of quotes look like a decisive case.  It may be right, but it might need a bit more of an argument to make it go.

Let’s move on.

At the heart of the book’s vision for marriage is a commendation of “friendship.”  They read, they tell us, a whole lot of marriage books and nary the word was found.  I confess my initial skepticism: for years I have heard from happily married evangelical couples that they were so in love because they “married their best friend.”  Prone as I am to be the affable contrarian, I have nearly universally retorted that I am quite content to interact with my wife in ways I couldn’t imagine acting with any other friend.  It’s a cheeky point meant to raise a classic conundrum. If we call married folks friends, we may not gain any understanding as much as lose a perfectly good word.

While I don’t think the concept is quite as novel as the Driscolls make it sound (it’s in the evangelical waters, even if not in the evangelical books), they moved me to reconsider my snark and give the idea a little more thought.   While I’m always interested in keeping categories clear, the conceptual fusion potentially illuminates both marriage and friendship in distinctively Christian ways.  There’s a peculiar modification of eros, the desire that gets expressed in marriage through sex, within the Christian tradition, and the possibility of enfolding in other forms of affection into it would leave none of them unaltered.

Of course, the Driscolls don’t take all this friendship business nearly as far or as deep as I might want or like.   But I’m a nerd, and Driscoll is not (though as my wife will attest, I beat him to the jeans and blazer look).  But it’s a good start in a potentially fruitful direction, and if it prompts some eager reader to extend the thought further down the road, so much the better for all.

I could go on with other helpful advice, but it woudn’t sound particularly remarkable to most of you (saturated, as I presume you are, in the world of marriage sermonizing).

Yet therein lies an important point, as it’s not clear the book was written for us.  Or at least, not only for us.  Driscoll managed to land a slot on Dr. Drew’s tv show (He conducts himself admirably).  And has been hanging about the Washington Post.  Say what you will, but Driscoll seems relatively adamant on breaking outside the narrow confines of evangelicalism and talking with someone who might not agree with him for reasons totally different than his Christian peers.

Which is to say, Driscoll may be wrong on some points, but he’s wrong with flair.  And that, for me, makes him interesting.   As I’m not yet ready to trade interested dialogue for scathing dismissals, I’m more inclined to sign on to Doug Wilson’s prudent course:   “One of the things we should learn, when confronted with such controversy, is how to be good stewards of it. We have ourselves a situation. Let us try to turn a profit on it.”

For part two of this review, click here

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.