Tim Keller is the sort of guy you always want to come to the table on an issue. He has a gift for cutting through the middle and shining gospel light on just about any topic. His recent book about marriage is another example of his surgical incisiveness. Tim wrote the book in dialogue with his wife Kathy, who wrote one of its strongest chapters, entitled “Embracing the Other,” which deals with gender roles with a refreshing tone.
I’ll get to the point and sum up what makes this book tic: it is a deeply practical exposition of marriage in light of the gospel. My understanding is that this book was largely developed from a preaching series Tim did earlier in his ministry. As such, the whole book is really a sort of sermon on Eph 5: 18-33; and it works. It works because the context in which Ephesians sets marriage is the only context in which it can be clearly and fully understood; firmly within the language of Gospel. With the covenant love of God in Christ as the background, foreground issues, like disaffection in marriage, sex, singleness, selfishness, gender roles, etc., snap to a grid that actually makes sense. It makes sense of both the beauty and the brokenness of marriage.
Tim has a unique position pastorally. He started his church in Manhattan with mostly young, single, upwardly mobile people. Our cultures resistance to marriage is very clearly embodied in that demographic. Tim characterizes the marriage perspective of the 20-something culture as “Pessimistic Idealism.” We are a culture that is “searching for an ideal person,” which basically means a person who will give me what I want without asking anything of me. The irony of this idealism, as Tim points out, is that it has led to a deep pessimism about marriage in general. If I must have the perfect spouse, and the image of perfect is so pornified and unrealistic in our culture, than marriage is also unrealistic.
Tim isn’t the first to point this out. Mark Regnerus has also noted that it is actually the modern 20 something’s idealism that is contributing to lower marriage rates and older marriages, rather than their pessimism. It’s just that the idealism creates pessimism. This generation of emerging adults doesn’t see marriage as “two flawed people coming together to create a space of stability, love and consolation…” Rather, what is required, to cite an author Tim references is “a novelist/astronaut with a background in fashion modeling” (Christopher Lasch; 35).
But Tim points out what most all married people know to be true. You never marry the right person. More to the point, you never marry a person who can fulfill you completely, because marriage was never meant to do that. That job belongs to God in Christ.
"Over the years you will go through seasons in which you have to learn to love a person who you didn’t marry, who is something of a stranger. You will have to make changes that you don’t want to make, and so will your spouse. The journey may eventually take you into a strong, tender, joyful marriage. But it is not because you married the perfectly compatible person. That person doesn’t exist." (39)
The vision of marriage that is painted by this “Pessimistic Idealism” is the consumer marriage. It is the “me” marriage. It’s that American ideal that Tim argues is so counter to the full biblical vision of marriage.
Marriage as Sacrificial Friendship
Early on, Tim lays out themes and principles that are worked out throughout the whole book. Basically, marriage is not about you and your self interest but the “other” and their interest, all modeled by the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ. Of course we know about this concept, generally, who doesn’t know we’re not supposed to be selfish? But when Tim and Kathy get into the specifics, they inflict some friendly wounds.
They move the locus of the marriage relationship from romantic love, or our cultural vision of “apocalyptic romance” – an existentially fulfilling erotic love – to what Tim calls the “essence of love, which is sacrificial commitment to the good of the other” (78). He wants to talk about marriage in the language of friendship and love in the context of sacrifice. It’s a move from a consumer marriage to a covenantal one. He doesn’t discount romantic love but argues that it isn’t the “essence” of love. This has implications for questions as seemingly mundane as who does the dishes? To questions with a bit more emotional import like how often should we have sex?
Romantic Passion and Sacrificial Love
One of the strongest points of this book is the way that Tim works out the dynamics between romance and sacrificial love. First he paints what we typically call romantic love, as the appeal of the aesthetic, or how “fascinating, thrilling, exciting, and entertaining,” something is to us (97). The aesthetic naturally gives way as we encounter an actual person, rather than the idea of a person. Before you encounter that real person you may, according to Kierkegaard, “not be loving that person so much as loving yourself.” We could sum up most, but not all, of what Tim says about this in this passage:
“Indeed, it is the covenantal commitment that enables married people to become people who love each other. Only with time do we really learn who the other person is and come to love the person for him- or herself and not just for the feelings and experiences they give us. Only with time do we learn the particular needs of our spouse and how to meet them. Eventually all this leads to wells of memory and depths of feeling and enjoyment of the other person that frames and enhances the still crucial episodes of romantic, sexual passion in your married life.”
The mission of marriage, according to Tim, is sanctification heading toward glorification. Married people look at one another and say, “I see all your flaws, imperfections, weaknesses, dependencies. But underneath them all I see growing the person God wants you to be” (122). Marriage is to work toward our holiness, setting us apart to Jesus. And “romance, sex, laughter, and plain fun are the by-products of this process of sanctification, refinement, glorification” (123).
“Paradoxically, this means Paul is urging spouses to help their mates love Jesus more than them. It is a paradox, but not a contradiction. The simple fact is that only if I love Jesus more than my wife will I be able to serve her needs ahead of my own. Only if my emotional tanks is filled with love from God will I be able to be patient, faithful, tender, and open with my wife when things are not going well in life or in the relationship." (124)
The book had a chapter dedicated to singleness, and it is very refreshing. Tim adds a dimension to the conversation about singleness I’ve heard very few trumpet. He reminds us that marriage is “penultimate.” In a culture where romance is the center of life and everything else is just “forward and afterward,” the Christian view of marriage is actually very counter cultural. On the one hand, we have the highest view of marriage, because we say it was created to be a reflection of the love relationship of God to his people and on other hand we demote marriage because it is a reflection of ultimate meaning and not itself ultimate. All that means “We should be neither overly elated by getting married nor overly disappointed by not being so – because Christ is the only spouse that can truly fulfill us and God’s family the only family that will truly embrace and satisfy us” (194).
That really high, though secondary, view of marriage is helpful for a number of reasons. First of all, it confronts a church culture that tends to make marriage the goal for all and where singles can feel like second-class citizens. It also confronts the vision of “apocalyptic romance” that pervades our Disney-romance Culture and slips into the church as gospel.
I will also confess that I took a bit of enjoyment from Tim’s dismantling of the I Kissed Dating Goodbye courtship mythology. He shows us that traditional marriage patters had their own forms of idolatry and going back to an older one doesn’t solve the issues at hand. The “History of Dating” section was an enlightening read along with the few bits of practical advice he gives to singles seeking marriage.
There is one chapter of this book on marriage dedicated to sex. You would think you’d need more, but I was surprised by how much Tim was able to accomplish in less than 20 pages. Of course, the reason he could do that is because he and Kathy put a great deal of energy into laying a theological foundation for marriage and unpacking the themes of sacrificial love, friendship, intimacy, etc. that sex drops into that grid of caring for the “other” pretty effortlessly. Without being graphic, he lays out principles to direct our sex lives.
He quickly sketches a biblical ethic of sex and applies it to cultural values, singles and married. He says sex is a “sign and a seal of our oneness with God and each other” (234). He argues for the importance of erotic love in marriage and the glory of sex as a reflection of the powerful exultant love of the trinity. He talks about valuing giving pleasure over getting pleasure. Again, these are not new concepts, but they are freshly applied.
In many ways, Tim and Kathy aren’t saying anything new. Kathy’s chapter on gender roles is much of what you might expect (though with some of what you might not) and the principles of sacrificial love and friendship and “other” orientation are nothing particularly groundbreaking. But the clarity and incisiveness with which these sustaining principles are applied is fresh. Tim is generally always masterful in his interaction with the “spirit of the age.” He doesn’t do theology in a vacuum but in dialogue with our culture and the people he’s serving as a pastor. That also, is not a very common approach, or least one not commonly done well. Usually we begin with principles born out of experience and find the text that supports it. This book starts with theology, what is true about God and our relationship to him, and works back to what that means for us and our relationships.
My One Quibble
I really don’t have much I would have changed about this book. But this is a review so I’m supposed to gripe about something. And, I do have one gripe. At times the book felt a bit disconnected from those who might be struggling with more serious issues. The theology and principles applied with wisdom in the book could help to guide and direct the most difficult marital mine-fields, but most of the on-the-ground examples portray conflicts in marriage (with the exception of a couple) that are not earth shaking. You get the feeling that Tim and Kathy have had a relatively healthy marriage with few major issues to contend with. That might not be true, and it’s not I like I wish it was, but it feels a little disconnected when one of the most used examples is Tim not liking to change the baby’s diaper, even if he was illustrating a great point
Having said that, the content of the book could be applied to anybody in any circumstance, and he certainly makes reference to a wide array of challenging issues. I just wish there was a bit more gravitas with the personal and pastoral illustrations.