Friday, January 06, 2012

Book Notes: The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy Keller & Kathy Keller

The New York based pastor and author Tim Keller (most well know for his Christian apologetic work The Reason for God), has kept up a quite phenomenal publication rate over recent years. His latest title, co-authored with his wife Kathy is an exploration of a Christian vision of marriage. I have read quite a few books about marriage, most of which have been useful in different ways with their various emphases. Early in marriage I read Wallerstein and Blakeslee's The Good Marriage, a detailed piece of secular social research which helped to set us a good trajectory. Years later I read Nicky and Sila Lee's The Marriage Book - which is practical, and brutally realistic and full of brilliant ideas for day-to-day married life. They write as Christians, but make their materials accessible and useful to all. The Keller's book is something quite different to either of these however.

The Keller's book sets out a uniquely Christian view of marriage; its design, nature, power and purpose. It is based not just on biblical texts about marriage - but also (as one would expect from Keller) on a vision of life as being lived in response to the grace of God. His view of humanity is that we are sinful and flawed, but unreservedly loved by God in Christ who is in the business of reconstructing us. Obviously this has huge implications for marriage, not least because it sets the goal of life as the grateful pursuit of Christlikeness, something which in marriage becomes a shared, joint endeavour. They explore this endeavour through Biblical reflection, quotes from a range of thinkers, and anecdotes from their own marriage as well from several decades in pastoral ministry.

The book kicks off with a contemporary discussion of the way in which 'St' Paul taught that marriage is meant to be a "reflection of the saving love of God for us in Jesus Christ, which is why marriage helps to understand the gospel and the gospel helps us to understand marriage.(p15)" This is a helpful illuminating chapter which neatly lays out the spiritual vision for Christian marriage which fills the Keller's thinking. It's in this foundational chapter that they also offer an apologetic for marriage itself, as the covenant commitment - which rather than being a restrictive barrier to human happiness actually helps create the conditions in which human love and happiness thrive (a theme fully developed in chapter three).

The second chapter focuses on the Christian couple's dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit, to re-make character. Marriage properly understood will involve a loss of freedom, of independence and is commitment to lifelong compromise for the sake of the other. This, obviously militates against contemporary notions of the "me-marriage" in which the essence of the contract is the quest for self-fulfilment through the (presumably disposable) union. It also is in strong tension with traditional marriage structures, which see the imposition of strictly defined gender-roles as the key to marital stability and happiness.(p66) The essential problem of humanity they argue is innate selfishness, the corrective is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the power to change is The Holy Spirit. The book is actually worth buying for this chapter alone!

The vision of "Spiritual Friendship" is something that I have listened to Keller preach on as a model for Christian fellowship in the church. The fourth chapter of this book applies this idea as the "mission of marriage". St Paul's theology of sanctification provides a lens through which to walk through life with another flawed human being - with the vision before you of the person that both you and God will help your spouse to become!

In chapter five some of the common problems which surface in different phases of marriage are mentioned. The waning of initial infatuation, the point at which opposites no longer attract and begin to irritate, and some common misunderstandings, differing assumptions about marriage/homes/family, communication errors and typical gender differences, are discussed. While these different issues have each ruined marriages, the Kellers helpfully describe the power of healing love. The determination to love in all its forms and categories (eg Greek: storge, philos, eros, agape;  that is affection, friendship, erotic love, and service, respectively) can overcome these barriers - and the determination to 'love' even when there is a deficit of 'like' towards a spouse is the key to rekindling 'like'. The essence of love here is a covenant commitment to spend a lifetime investing in the other, especially when our emotions are rebellious. The "five love languages" (familiar to anyone who has done The Marriage Course) are also deployed here, intriguingly also described as "currencies", another excellent analogy.

In chapter six Kathy Keller wades right into the controversy between "egalitarians" and "complimentarians" over gender roles within marriage; and I suspect will annoy people in both camps! Typically many who style themselves as "complimentarians" take New Testament texts about the "headship" of the husband and infer from that very strictly gender divided roles on traditional lines. Many who call themselves "egalitarians" would dismiss biblical texts like that out of hand. Kathy Keller takes an unusual stand in both affirming the general principle of the text, but suggesting that how that works our in practice will vary according to time/culture. Therefore, "this has nothing to do with who brings home the biggest salary, or who makes the most sacrifices to care for the children. The family model in which the man went out to work and the woman stayed at home with the children is really a rather recent development. For centuries, husband and wife, (and often children) worked together on the farm or in the shop. The external details of a a family's division of labour may be worked out differently across marriages and societies" (p184). This is a serious blow to the hyper-machismo theology of the likes of Mark Driscoll which will delight egalitarians. However, before they try to claim Kathy Keller as one of their own, she will then dismay them by concluding, "the tender, serving, authority of a husband's headship and the strong, gracious gift of a wife's submission restore us to who we were meant to be at creation"! What is even more interesting than this are Keller's comments about her personal wrestling with these texts, growing understanding of them and book's appendix in which they describe how they have sought to outwork their understanding of the Bible in their own marriage.

Unusually for a book about marriage, there is a very useful chapter for unmarried people within it. It focuses on important matters such as the value and completeness of a single life, on dating, planning marriage and deciding whether to marry. Sixteen years too late for me to apply - but I can see the wisdom of much of what they say. The book then concludes with a frank, charming and helpful discussion of the 'covenant-cement' that is sexual love. Biblical texts, and personal anecdotes are marshaled to ensure that all readers are confronted with the Bible's exalted view of sex, and the importance of it for marriage.

Here's a short video clip of the Kellers talking about the book:

Broadly, this is an excellent book - which Christian married couples (and singles too) would gain a huge amount from reading (if possible together). It is biblical, wise, practical and yet pastoraly sensitive. The infusion of the Christian gospel and spiritual dynamics into a marriage book is a stimulating, challenging and inspiring project which especially in the early chapters of the book, they do remarkably well. Tim Keller is an excellent communicator, who has the ability to package detailed ideas remarkably simply. For her part, Kathy Keller was a book editor who writes equally well, opening up some deep and searching issues with deceptive simplicity. I have many friends who will balk at the complimentarianism of chapter six, however gentle, nuanced and non-hierarchical. Nevertheless, I would urge them not to dismiss the entire book on that basis, there is simply too much pure gold in here to be missed! It is a very helpful volume for anyone wanting to develop a fully Christian view of marriage, helpful for people who are married as well as anyone who might one day be. The great weight of this book is about how the Christian gospel shapes, inspires, empowers and equips us for the daily joys and challenges of developing a thriving God-honouring marriage. And that is priceless.




Andrew Morrice said...

Thanks for this Gavin.
I'm looking forward to reading your review of the Driscoll's "Real Marriage" book. I suspect it will be a little different to this one..?

That Hideous Man said...

What would be different, the book, my review or both??!

Andrew Morrice said...

I'm not sure you will describe Driscolls book as broadly excellent as you do this one - but I may be wrong.

lynn said...

Mr Hideous....

1. you are not boring, not have you been boring the internet since 2005. I find what you have to say very interesting, always.

2. You write really, really good book reviews. I hope you will write a nice one for me!!

3. PLEASE do review Real Marriage. I might buy it if you do :-)

That Hideous Man said...


1) I know a lot of people who would beg to differ!

2) Thanks! When do you publish?

3) Not come across 'Real Marriage' until the comments on this post. It's actually unlikely that I will, as I have a huge pile of books in my "in" pile, and my book-buying budget is about as healthy-looking as the Greek public finances...

Anonymous said...

Publish in June sometime.

I'll invite you to the book launch party but it does mean you will have to buy one, you know :-)

I'll be a bit scared of your review though, though I reckon you will like the children and family life chapters (family in OT and NT)

Have you heard today's big MD news? All over twitter - what he said about UK bible teachers.....