Most helpful critical review
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Thoughtful theology of marriage
on 17 February 2014
I read this for a clergy wives book group, and I thought I would love it because I loved Prodigal God and Generous Justice, but I only liked rather than loving it. This is a book that focuses on the ‘theology’ of marriage and tries to minimise specific application. In some ways this is good, because there are so many Christian books on marriage that say ‘this is our marriage and what we’ve learnt, so all marriages should be like this’, so it is good to have more of a focus on the theology.
I found most of the Bible stuff helpful but familiar material. He and his wife believe the Bible teaches differing gender roles (ie men as ‘head’ over wife), so this may be difficult for people who disagree with this interpretation and I wasn’t completely sold on their application of these verses, although they steer clear from being overly prescriptive about what this would look like in individual marriages, and the examples they give from their own marriage indicate that the application they envisage is far from a 1950s stereotype. For me, the great strength of this book for me was the vision it gave of what a Christian marriage could be like: I liked that they took Ephesians 5:25-27 “husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, making her holy” (p.120) as an injunction for both partners in a marriage to “help each other to become our future glory-selves” – to see the person that God created us to be and helping one another become that person in the context of great friendship and sacrificial love. This did what Keller does best: present an apologetic for Christianity that is truly attractive.
However, I do wish he had said more about the possibility of abuse. We had an animated discussion about this issue in our book club – it is difficult to describe what abuse looks like, because there is a sliding scale, and it can seem obvious to outsiders that hitting or raping someone is abuse (in an appendix the Kellers say that the loving response of a wife who is being beaten continually would be to get her husband arrested). Yet most people who are victims of abuse don’t realise their relationship is abusive for a long time, because it builds up insidiously and has become normalised. They reason: “yes, he hit me, but it was my fault for provoking him. He’s always warning me he has a bad temper. If I had submitted maybe I wouldn’t have provoked him”, or “well, I did say I didn’t want to, and that it hurt, but he said I was his wife and I had taken a vow to give him my body, so – that’s not really rape…is it?’ For this reason I wish Tim and Kathy had dealt with the issue of consent and not assumed that abusive relationships were self-evident. For example, the Kellers say that loving someone means having sex with them even when you don’t feel like it. When they say this, I imagine they have in mind the husband or wife who just feels a bit tired and would rather watch TV that night but agrees to put their tiredness aside and make love even though they don’t really feel like it at first, (and probably assumes that once they embark on it, it will be enjoyable for them as well). I do wish they had specified that particular situation instead of leaving it open for victims of abuse to assume that the Kellers are saying you shouldn’t complain about being raped in a marriage. Violence against women is frighteningly common, even in church communities, and I think increasingly Christian books on marriage and sex need to take this into consideration.
Overall, it is a good book for someone wanting a somewhat dense theology of marriage (with a thoughtful complementarian approach to gender roles in marriage), but not for those who are looking for more practical application.