As is by now well known, Mark Driscoll wrote a book on marriage that has proved the most controversial book of 2012 within evangelicalism. Not a high bar, but he’s jumped it with ease (followed by a close second).
Today’s post is the critique, which I imagine is what most everyone is waiting for. When we are in such moments, “the good stuff” is frequently reduced to where the other folks are wrong and we happen to be right. A universal problem, not limited to any particular current of Christianity. But it’s worth noting, as the eagerness to move to what is wrong can lead our thinking astray. Reading and writing can be a dangerous thing.
More throat clearing: let’s just all recognize that everyone’s perspective on these questions may be tainted by their own sexual history. It may be a trivial point, but it’s been rather unhappily inserted into the discussion. Driscoll himself deployed it to defang the critiques, after Rachel Held Evans used his confessions to highlight the fallibility of those who teach the “timeless truths of Scripture,” as she put it. It’s worth reflecting about the role Driscoll’s confession plays in his overall approach, and I may before the year is out. But ethical failure is not an argument, even if it might cause you to get one wrong. The questions must be handled on their own terms, at least eventually.
They fill out the theological concerns well, so I won’t repeat them here, but the lacuna is instructive in other ways.
Aaron and Tim focus on the gospel, and that’s the right place to turn. But the gospel is here confessed as a “mystery,” a mystery that pervades the husband and wife relationship even as it’s expressed in the sexual union. Both Tim and Aaron mention the phrase, but neither does much with it. It’s a point that bears expanding.
In short, Real Marriage buries the mystery along with Ephesians 5. There’s nothing left of it, both in the book’s candid descriptions of sexuality and in its transparent confessions about the Driscoll’s struggles. And the prose inevitably follows: it is clear, but rarely sings and only infrequently stirs. At the end of it, we may have seen the “truth about sex, friendship, and life together,” but it’s not clear we’ve seen the beauty. And therein lies a significant shortcoming.
Of course, the absence isn’t terribly surprising given the sort of reading of Song of Solomon that Driscoll has made famous. But whatever the physical basis for the poetry, the erotic attachment at the heart of marriage invariably moves in a metaphorical direction: it’s at bottom a desire for transcendence, after all, a desire to go out beyond oneself and find yourself in the arms of another. That’s the stuff songs are made of, which is precisely what Adam scribbles out upon meeting Eve.
At the same time, the pursuit needs a guardrail. Bonhoeffer’s well put caution is, I think, pertinent: “But, speaking frankly, to long for the transcendent when you are in your wife’s arms is, to put it mildly, a lack of taste, and it is certainly not what God expects of us.” Even so, the reflective meaning certainly goes in that direction, even if the experience should not. This book, however, doesn’t quite get us there.
Consider where Real Marriage puts the juicy details: In the most vivid chapter, the opening one where they tell their history of brokenness, we have pages of their struggles. Honest, candid stuff that I hope gives people a freedom to put words to their own broken histories.
But the resolution comes in a paragraph. I’m thrilled it’s there in reality, of course, which is where it’s really going to matter. Yet the story teeters on prioritizing the difficult and tragic over the glorious and joyful. I genuinely rejoice that they are “works in progress,” “work together as one” and the like. But the effect is less stirring than if there was equal time (at least) devoted to either side. Or instead, if they weren’t kept in “sides” at all, but we were treated to the glory of redemption breaking through every moment of the heartbreaking tale. The result is that while they tell us how “real marriage” can get better, they do not quite show us what it looks like now that it is.
Of course, the language of poetry isn’t necessarily incompatible with the sort of specificity that we see in the “Can we _________” chapter. But they do seem to serve distinct, but interrelated functions. The one is about the pedagogy of our desire: it reminds us that sex invariably goes beyond the act itself, that for all the goodness of physical pleasure the longing at work is far deeper and more powerful. The other, the specifity, aims to delineate the sorts of acts that such desire can licitly perform without corroding its intrinsic nature. Poetry needs ethics, and vice versa.
Let me fill out that last bit, though.
Part of the task of Christian ethics is to discern the inner logic of various acts, to identify their nature and then articulate our responsibilities in light of them (and a whole host of other things). This can be, no doubt, a very crude process in some cases that strips the mystery out of the most glorious of acts. But that is why I wish they had doubled down on the rhetoric. There simply is no escaping the starkness of the question when it’s put to you: toys in the bedroom, yes or no? And judging by the current fascination with such things, there’s no doubt the question is being put to Driscoll and to pastors elsewhere. There’s no need to rub people’s nose in it. But no amount of theoretical woodworking will ever get the trinkets on the shelves: the practical realities must be addressed, and with a discerning eye.
In historical terms, this sort of moral deliberation was called “casuistry,” and while it’s a shady term in Protestant circles, I for one hope it makes a comeback. There’s a question about who is responsible to engage in it, and here, contra Rachel Held Evans, is where I’m glad that Pastor Mark is Pastor Mark and not a sex therapist. As she notes, the burden of such discrimination ultimately falls upon each of us for our own lives, and I might add in this note that such things ought be worked out in communities beyond the pulpit. But the difficulty of common sense is that what’s common is rarely sensical. Outsourcing the patterns of Christian sexuality to sex therapists can reduce the whole thing as a functionally secularist enterprise with a few Bible verses stapled on. Abuse doesn’t invalidate, of course, and if you need the help, get up and go.
But, of course, sexual therapy isn’t even what Driscoll is providing in that chapter. Such a process would involve discerning where the dysfunctions are in a relationship and the role sex is playing in them (and vice versa). There is, as in any therapy, often a tacit set of norms built in, a certain standard of what the therapist thinks is “normal” and “healthy.” Here Driscoll is trying to excavate what Christians know about that set of norms, trying to describe the boundaries of Christian sexuality.
And that seems to be befitting of the role of the pastor, even on questions of such profound difficulty. Pastors function as conduits of theology into the lives of parishoners, which allows and enables them to speak theologically about practical questions. It’s an authoritative counsel, which means it’s not necessarily a command, but it’s necessary nonetheless. They are the first line of theological exhortation, and if you’d like a rant about the gap between the academics and the practicioners, I’d be happy to insert one here (though you’d be best just speaking with these guys).
As to how Driscoll goes about answering these questions, well, there’s a disagreement. Long before I get to the chapters on sexuality in Earthen Vessels, I raise cautions about the evangelical appeal to the autonomy of “conscience” in the absence of explicit commands in Scripture. The problem is that liberty for the Christian doesn’t simply mean doing whatever comes to mind in the bedroom provided both folks agree to it. It needs an order, and the order is discerned through wisdom¾a specifically theological category which is one of the many things we have in Christ.
Which means that while I agree with Driscoll that the “Bible gives us more freedoms than our consciences can accept,” it might also give us fewer, depending on the consciences at work. The task of theological ethics is to arbitrate the difference, to instruct those who are weak so that they become stronger and to challenge those who use their conscience as a bludgeon to act in ways that are disordered.
Let me pick a specific problem that I think stands out. They rightly acknowledge that the effects of pornification on our culture and our views of sexuality. As they put it, “young people are increasingly likely to consider that which is pornographic to be normative sexuality” (143). Very true, and aptly put.
Yet there is no acknowledgment that the acts described in the infamous “Can we _______” chapter have been brought to the mainstream by the very pornographic culture we’re decrying. We might call it a genetic fallacy and say that the act’s okay, despite the culture that is normalizing it. But given Driscoll’s (and my own) interpretation of Romans 1 and homosexuality, that won’t pass muster. Culture and the acts they sanction are more interrelated than we realize, and if the tree is rotten the fruit might be questionable too.
The Driscoll’s are surprisingly unconcerned with the pornification of the marriage bed, and don’t quite seem to realize that the questions themselves might be coming from a people whose imaginations have been stunted. It’s occasionally worth challenging the premise of questions in order to reach beneath the surface and understand the problematic forces at work in our evangelical culture of sexuality. That the Driscoll’s do not is nothing if not a missed opportunity.
When it comes down to it, there’s an exegetical disagreement too. Driscoll’s definition of lust seems to, well, miss the mark. He detours a whole lot of Christian history and witness describing lust as disordered or inordinate desires:
And throughout both the Old and New Testaments, God repeatedly condemns–as a grievous evil–lust for anyone but your spouse. The act of desiring the unclothed body of a person is not a sin. The issue is which person’s unclothed body you are lusting after. If it is your spouse’s, then you are simply making the Song of Songs sing again to God’s glory and your mutual joy. If it is not your spouse’s, then you are committing the sin of coveting (the bold is mine).
There’s a thin understanding of “desire” here, as though it were as easy as simply wanting one thing. We might desire to lie with our spouses for all sorts of reasons, some of them healthy and others not. Yet those reasons seem to have either a positive or a corrosive effect on the nature of the desire itself–a point that they grant everywhere else in the book except when talking about the marriage bed.
Yet this reductionistic understanding of lust won’t hold up. It can’t hold up, because it’s not true. And so on the next page Driscoll takes it away. In decrying excessive reading of fantasy novels by females, he slips in a whole category of objects of lust who don’t exist: the characters, before they’ve ever been acted out on film.
The introduction raises the possibility that our lust isn’t simply determined by the object of our desires, and whether they are someone else’s spouse or potential spouse. Last I checked, fictional characters are no one’s possible spouses. Instead, it is determined by the particular quality of our thought. To put the matter differently, lust is not simply a matter of which body I want to see unclothed, but also how I want to see my wife’s body unclothed.
Of course, they do decry being “selfish lovers,” and appropriately so. But their list of what form this takes doesn’t leave room for the possibility of excessive sexual desire being a form of selfishness. And while they reject, rightly, sexual assault within marriage, the standard of lust they explicitly articulate neglects the possibility that pornofied marriages, where sexual desire is never checked, breed the conditions for sexual assault in the same way watching porn does.
Doug Wilson has suggested that we need a theology of nature, a suggestion I can endorse. But we also need to recognize that while articulating the moral order (the language I prefer for it) is absolutely essential, something more is needed in order to bring about the transformation of our desires and to move us from the brokenness we know in our marriages to the glories that await. The poetry is not accidental to the Scripture’s teaching on sex, but essential, and the reformation of desire is an endless one that involves new ways of seeing the world and ourselves in relationship to it.
The Driscoll’s book gets us halfway there, to thinking through the pattern for marriage and for married sexuality. And for that we can be grateful. It is hardly a perfect work, and I have laid out the concern as fairly and carefully as I can. Yet there is nothing learned outside of gratitude, and if evangelicals wish to do better and go beyond–as I hope the Driscoll’s would want us to–then we do well to find the good and praise it, to sift the remains, and to set about the work of articulating the alternative in ways that are more effective. Because the Driscolls are right about this much: many marriages are desperately broken, and we do them no service if we cannot ourselves paint the more excellent way.