Two things led me to pick up Tim Keller’s new book on marriage, both of which were pressing. The first: I needed a “marriage book” for Pastoral Care class at seminary. The second: I had an engagement ring burning a hole in my pocket, and it was gonna be there for another week before I could “unload it.” So you might say matrimony has been on my mind, for both academic and personal reasons. Seeing as I also happen to contribute on occasion to Mockingbird, the question quickly took on a larger scope: where does a grace-dependent Gospel junkie like me find a good resource on marriage?
It wasn’t but a day or two after posing that question verbally when a friend told me that Tim Keller, the well-known New York Presbyterian minister, had just come out with a marriage book (Keller has made it onto our website plenty of times). A few days later, I’m happy to say I found what I was looking for in The Meaning of Marriage. The book is based on some lectures that Keller gave in the early nineties about marriage, which I am told are extremely popular and have been helpful to a number of Mockingbird readers. I personally enjoyed it so much that it has tentatively become “the book I’ll use for pre-marital counseling” should I eventually be ordained.
As a young man soon to shed his singleness, I’m probably not qualified to say much about the nuts and bolts of the content. But there are three observations I’d nevertheless like to make. First, the gospel is in every chapter. Second, Keller does not lift his own marriage up as a model for emulation, and third, he does an amazing job deconstructing the particular myths that both Manhattanites and the rest of my fellow “millennials” believe. The first is helpful because, well, the gospel is foundational to everything, so it should be in every chapter. The second is helpful because, no marriage is perfect, and it’s always distracting when an author lifts up their own experience as “how to do it” without also lifting up it up as “how not to do it.” Keller is heavier on the latter, opening up about the flaws and fights instead of giving eye-rolling instructions that all start with the letter “c.” Marriage is, according to Keller, a man and a woman “being Jesus” to one another, living, by God’s grace, lives of mutual self sacrifice. Failure is to be expected, but it also not the final word.
Some excerpts worth sharing from the text:
The reason that marriage is so painful and yet wonderful is because it is a reflection of the Gospel, which is painful and wonderful at once. The Gospel is—we are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared to believe, and at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope. This is the only kind of relationship that will really transform us. Love without truth is sentimentality; it supports and affirms us but keeps us in denial about our flaws. Truth without love is harshness; it gives us information but in such a way that we cannot really hear it. God’s saving love in Christ, however, is marked by both radical truthfulness about who we are and yet also radical, unconditional commitment to us. The merciful commitment strengthens us to see the truth about ourselves and repent. The conviction and repentance moves us to cling to and rest in God’s mercy and grace.
The hard times of marriage drive us to experience more of this transforming love of God. But a good marriage will also be a place where we experience more of this kind of transforming love at a human level.”
That’s the sort of thing that you find throughout the entirety of The Meaning of Marriage. Keller uses phrases like “you never marry the right person” and “the stranger you married” to exhibit the alienation and reconciliation necessary for spouses to live together.
In John Tierney’s classic humor article “Picky, Picky, Picky” he tries nobly to get us to laugh at the impossible situation our culture has put us in. He recounts many of the reasons his single friends told him they had given up on their recent relationships:
“She mispronounced ‘Goethe.’” “How could I take him seriously after seeing The Road Less Traveled on his bookshelf?” “If she would just lose seven pounds.” “Sure, he’s a partner, but it’s not a big firm. And he wears those short black socks.” “Well, it started out great … beautiful face, great body, nice smile. Everything was going fine—until she turned around.” He paused ominously and shook his head. ”… She had dirty elbows.”
In other words, some people in our culture want too much out of a marriage partner. They do not see marriage as two flawed people coming together to create a space of stability, love and consolation, a “haven in a heartless world,” as Christopher Lasch describes it. Rather, they are looking for someone who will accept them as they are, complement their abilities and fulfill their sexual and emotional desires. This will indeed require a woman who is “a novelist/astronaut with a background in fashion modeling,” and the equivalent in a man. A marriage based not on self-denial but on self-fulfillment will require a low- or no-maintenance partner who meets your needs while making almost no claims on you. Simply put—today people are asking far too much in the marriage partner.
Two words of caution in approaching this book. First, Tim and his co-author/wife Kathy don’t shy away from discussing gender identity in theological categories, for example, notions of “headship” that some might understandably find uncomfortable (in which case I direct you to Lauren Larkin’s series of posts on the gospel and womanhood). Even if you take issue with their take on that topic, though, there are plenty of other insights to glean. Second, the book’s intended audience is the unmarried or newly married, not those with years of marital experience, who might be tempted to use the book to grade themselves. While young and restless mellennials will find plenty of value, those dealing with other marital situations (separation, divorce, adultery, coldness, frustration, hopelessness, you name it) might find themselves thirsty to hear how the Gospel might meet them in their situation.
But those are relatively minor qualms. By and large, this is an invaluable resource. In fact, I started writing this post back in December, right after finishing the book. Over New Years, I proposed to my gal, who is now my fiancee. I told her about the Keller book, and after reading it, she declared it to be the best book ever on the subject and wants to read it again every year of our life together. In fact, it took me this long to get the book back from her so I could finish the post!