The front flyleaf of The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God makes a rather bold statement: “There has never been a book on marriage like The Meaning of Marriage.” That seems a rather audacious assertion; but by the time I finished the book, I think I’d concede to read that claim on the back flyleaf, as well.
Many marriage books leave me scratching my head, banging my head, or really, really thankful I’m married to the man I am. This book did leave me doing the latter, but also left me thinking this would have been a very profitable book to have read if it had been available as premarital reading (not to mention less head-banging).
Timothy and Kathy Keller pack a lot of experience and exegesis into this book, packaged into eight chapters:
- One: The Secret of Marriage
- Two: The Power of Marriage
- Three: The Essence of Marriage
- Four: The Mission of Marriage
- Five: Loving the Stranger
- Six: Embracing the Other
- Seven: Singleness and Marriage
- Eight: Sex and Marriage
(The book also contains an Introduction, Epilogue, Appendix: Decision Making and Gender Roles, Notes)
Although I’ve yet to meet a Tim Keller book I didn’t like, this book pleasantly surprised me in what it had to offer. The style is certainly Kelleresque, yet unique to his other published works. (It is co-authored with his wife Kathy, with Kathy writing the entirety of Chapter Six.) Unlike many marriage books, this book is not written with only married couples or soon-to-be-married singles in mind; it is written to a broad audience, but with particular portions of it specifically addressing singles.
The Essence of Marriage
One aspect of the book that I greatly appreciated was the Kellers’s emphasis on the marriage covenant as the foundation of marriage. And really, this is the essence of marriage and the essence of the book. (Maybe that’s why Chapter Three is entitled, “The Essence of Marriage.” :))
While I think most contemporary Christians teaching on marriage would acknowledge the covenantal importance of marriage, there is often a subtle shift to teachings that seem to indicate that “keeping the passion alive” is the way to have a healthy marriage. (This is what Keller includes in his assessment that we most prize “romantic fulfillment” [see quote below] as the key to a happy marriage in our culture.) This is spiritualized and then marketed in numerous ways, coming across in emphases including:”If you practice abstinence before marriage, you’ll immediately have amazing sex on your wedding night and beyond,” “If you have a weekly date night, you’re sure to have a healthy marriage,” “If your marriage has stopped sizzling, your marriage has failed and is doomed,” and can this misplaced emphasis in parenting and marriage books can often make young parents perceive a dichotomy of the family into the couple vs. the children. And even while many of these books/teachings, if Christian in name, will attest that “love is a choice,” it is often portrayed that choosing to love is best displayed by acts of romance. While Keller doesn’t address all of these teachings individually, he clearly notes that this type of misplaced preeminence of romance detracts and confuses the essence of marriage.
Keller speaks of some of the way marriage has come to be perceived in our culture (as well as comparing and contrasting with traditional societies):
“Traditional societies made family the ultimate value in life, and so marriage was a mere transaction that helped your family’s interests. By contrast, contemporary Western societies make the individual’s happiness the ultimate value, and so marriage becomes primarily an experience of romantic fulfillment. But the Bible sees God as the supreme good–not the individual or the family–and that gives usa view of marriage that intimately unites feeling and duty, passion and promise. This is because at the heart of the Biblical idea of marriage is the covenant.” (80-81)
(Keller also quotes C.S. Lewis stating, “People get from books the idea that if you have married the right person you may expect to go on “being in love” for ever. As a result, when they find they are not, they think this proves they have made a mistake and are entitled to a change—not realizing that, when they have changed, the glamour will presently go out of the new love just as it went out of the old one…” (104))
“Sociologists argue that in contemporary Western society the marketplace has become so dominant that the consumer model increasingly characterizes most relationships that historically were covenantal, including marriage. Today we stay connected to people only as long as they are meeting our particular needs at an acceptable cost to us. When we cease to make a profit–that is, when the relationship appears to require more love and affirmation from us than we are getting back–then we “cut our losses” and drop the relationship…Covenant is therefore a concept that is increasingly foreign to us, and yet the Bible says it is the essence of marriage, so we musst take some time to understand it.” (81-82)
For me personally, I think I had enough of a foundational understanding of marriage to hold the covenantal model of marriage above the consumerist model. Yet, hearing and reading in my pre-marriage preparation, I was often led astray by the syncretization of a covenantal view of marriage and the primacy of romance in marriage.
One harmful message that came out during my pre-marriage reading/counseling classes was, “if you remain abstinent, then sexual relationships in marriage will come naturally, immediately, and amazingly.” This, of course, was very confusing as a newlywed, specifically for someone whose conscience was bound to the point that when I felt we’d “gone too far” by holding hands before we were married, I felt that in order to avoid further “temptation” that my husband [then fiance] and I should no longer drive places in the same vehicle until we were married. Added to that dynamic, my husband and I also grew up in homes were “The Talk” did not take place, and when the discussion of physical intimacy was scheduled in our pre-marital counseling, we were told that we’d figure things out on our own. Although we weren’t completely in the dark, I carried a lot of baggage from some puritanical ultra-purity teachings into our marriage, and carried a lot of guilt into the early years of our marriage when I couldn’t flip the switch mentally to go instantaneously from to “purity/”shame to passion. Of course, neither could Tim and Kathy Keller, and neither can many who enter marriage similarly.
Reading this book helped me in dealing with a lot of the self-imposed guilt and confusion I’ve felt over this area, in particular. Somewhat related, I was reminded in yet another and great way in which my husband’s patience and gentleness has been manifested toward me over the years as I’ve wrestled with some of this baggage. And I more clearly see his faithful commitment to continue to love me in the way that Christ selflessly loves the Church.
It was, as mentioned earlier, also a reminder to me of God’s mercy in giving me the husband I have in Daniel. Though only a few days shy of six years into marriage, there are many aspects of our marriage vows that we lived out much sooner than we had anticipated. My husband has faithfully, selflessly loved and served me through those times, both tragic and triumphant, and this book gave me a deeper depth in the appreciation of his commitment and love.
I remember at a time when we had just come through a painful, difficult season of life (from external sources), I saw an article in Time Magazine called “Who Needs Marriage? A Changing Institution.” I remember specifically thinking, “I do. I needed my vows and I need that covenant.” Though the storm we weathered didn’t originate from our marriage, there were definitely some very deep and low times—times where we were both hurting so deeply we didn’t even know how to help one another, and times when it may have been tempting to say “maybe you [and the world] would be better off without me.” God’s grace brought us through, and our marriage grew and flourished in ways we couldn’t have even anticipated. (And yes, I know, our marriage is still quite young and has many, many more seasons of life to grow through, permitting death do not us part.) And while Time’s article prompted me to think of how deeply we needed our commitment to one another,* I would have loved to have read this book at that time, as well.
There were many additional areas in which the book was helpful, refreshing, encouraging, and challenging. I was glad to be able to read this at the same time as my husband, and it is one we think we will return to through the years.
Of course, the emphasis is not merely on physical relationships in marriage, and to draw that out as the bulk of the book really does disservice to what this book is all about. *Due to my personal emphases above (on covenantal commitment and the false importance of romantic fulfillment), I also want to clarify that Keller does not teach that the Bible claims divorce is never an option, nor does he teach that covenant commitment equals passionless, emotionless duty. Contrarily, he takes time to explain both in a way that brings clarity to some of the harmful and hurtful misapplications in both areas.
Like many books by Keller, readers will be challenged to think about more than just the specific theme of the book, and to yearn for a deeper knowledge and walk with God. Some themes I grew from in this book were 1) growing in the Fear of the Lord (and an explanation of the Fear of the Lord), 2) a healthy (but not overzealous) explanation of how “love languages” and family upbringing can affect and/or create and avoid misconceptions and misunderstandings in marriage 3) the depth of the book without depicting opinion as law, 4) the emphases that neither the models of conservative approach nor the secular approach to marriage will lead to a satisfying marriage—only the Christian principle of Spirit-generated selfishness. I really view my first read as an overview/survey, and as I read through again, I know new and different parts of the book will stand out to me.
Beyond a careful handling of Scripture, Keller also draws on the wisdom of theologians, philosophers, and numerous books, past and present. And, of course, not only does this book reflect the imprimatur of C.S. Lewis on Keller’s teaching and writing, but he also shares how C.S. Lewis was a common thread in influencing the early relationship between Tim and Kathy.
Certainly, there are aspects of the book with which I don’t agree, Scriptural connections that I don’t necessarily see, and analogies which I think break down. But, none of these are issues that I believe would detract from the overall message of the book, even in areas in which there are notoriously dichotomized perspectives among Evangelicals.