Tim Challies doesn't think much of the Driscolls' book Real Marriage. The only question I could think of, given what I know of Driscoll's preaching on Song of Songs is, "Why should he think much of it?" So much of Driscoll's preaching and teaching on marriage seems to have been anchored (or tethered) to Driscoll's sex fantasy take on Song of Songs it's no surprise that Challies can't figure out how the Driscolls ground their ideas on exegesis or an adequate comprehension of the Gospel.
Challies' mainly negative assessment of the book overall is interesting more for Challies' connection to the Reformed and neo-Reformed circles than some other reviews. The reviews that have come down the pike so far have tended to be fawning or scathing and for the least surprising of all reasons. People are either already on the Driscoll train as a purveyor of Jesus or they loathe him because they think of him as an idiot, a homophobe, a misogynist, and other things.
I've written at some length on the problems inherent in the John MacArthur critique of Driscoll here. MacArthur ultimately holds to the same sexual-love-only way of reading the text that Driscoll does. It's sort of like the old joke attributed to a comedian where the punch line is "We've already established what you are and now we're just negotiating a price." That Puritans cheerfully affirmed an allegorical/typological reading of the eroticism in Song of Songs is by now so easily established people like Driscoll and MacArthur who blanche at the application of erotic imagery to Christian reflection on God's love have tipped off that they are not, to borrow some phrases I picked up from Michael Spenser, "truly Reformed".
Carl Trueman has only recently set his sights on the gimmicky ways in which pastors like Ed Young Jr. and Mark Driscoll have employed sex as a preaching topic. Trueman is late to the party and it remains to be seen whether his contribution will constitute a corrective on the exegetical problems of Driscoll transforming Song of Songs into a book about wifely strip teases and holy blow jobs.
I only had occasion to read the foreward and chapter of it myself. I don't anticipate myself being on the fast track to marriage and if I were going to marry I don't now see a reason to take the Driscolls very seriously on that subject. I already knew Mark and Grace had fornicated with each other prior to marriage. The revelation that Mark Driscoll made sex and marriage gods was about as shocking a discovery to me as that Batman uses batarangs or that Spiderman has web-shooters and that one of his enemies is Doctor Octopus.
But the stuff about how Grace was sexually abused and that she didn't trust Mark enough to tell him this years into the marriage or that she'd cheated on him back when they were dating in the early years and in high school was, I admit, a surprise. The surprise is how these two people could have pontificated about how Christian marriage ought to look betweeen 1997-2007 while the kinds of problems that they recount in Real Marriage were such significant issues for them. I had my suspicions that there was a lot of "Do as I say the Bible says, not as we've actually done in our marriage." coming from Mark and Grace Driscoll but the opening material of their new book shows that the nature of this gap was more epic than even I thought possible.
The level of mistrust and resentment described by Mark and Grace about their marriage left me thinking something besides, "Wow, what great advice from godly people this book will have." What I ended up thinking was, "Maybe lifelong celibacy isn't really that bad a deal." All these years Mark Driscoll has been screaming at guys to grow up, get jobs, get married, and make babies he was resenting his wife for not putting out enough in the bedroom while being unaware of her history with sexual abuse because she didn't trust him enough to tell her? If she'd mentioned she wasn't completely faithful in the early dating years he wouldn't have married her? He had sex with other women before he married Grace, right? By the measure of Christian sexual conduct doesn't this mean Driscoll didn't quite have a leg to stand on there? Cheating being a deal breaker I can get but Driscoll by his own account shares that neither her nor Grace were living up to the Christian ethical teaching on sex. As Fearsome put it, there are Christians who say all sin equally separates us from God until adultery comes up and then all bets are off.
I've seen unbelievers review the new book and they have remarked that from where they stand it sounds like Mark and Grace had a great sex life until they took their Christian faith seriously, began to abstain, and then began to dread and resent each other. The unbeliever reasons from this that the problem in their marriage wasn't that they had unresolved tension over stuff Grace neglected to mention after years of marriage so much as that their attempt to retroactively shoehorn their practice into a Christian mold made the miserable.
Cessationists will have a field day with all these dreams Mark says he has had revealing secret things to him. They will camp out on pornographic divination again, I guess. Unbelievers will suggest this is a form of emotional and relational manipulation. Cessationists, unbelievers, and egalitarians will look at Mark's casual reference to divinely given dreams and visions of sexual sin and suggest the man is completely insane. They will likely also suggest that Grace is as bad as Mark. One reviewer had an on-line conversation that charitably said that the practical advice the Driscolls offer is actually pretty good so long as you ignore all the things they say you have to believe to implement that advice.
And here's the thing, I do appreciate the Driscolls have stayed together through thick and thin and have made their marriage work despite Driscoll's possible sex addict/marriage worship issues and Grace's experience with sexual abuse. It can't be easy to have been a victim of sexual abuse and then end up getting married to a bullying sex worshipper of the sort Mark Driscoll says he was. The anecdote where Grace got a short haircut Mark didn't approve of seems sad to me. I'm an unmarried man, I've never even been on what I would call a date but it seems to me that if a man loves and is physically attracted to a woman it won't be contingent on something as pedantic as how long her hair is. If a woman is altogether beautiful to a man she'll potentially be altogether beautiful whether she has hair or not. Physical beauty fades, time and gravity inevitably defeat us all.
Years ago when I was still at Mars Hill I pointed out in a provocative episode that there is actually nowhere in the Bible where mutual sexual attraction is prescribed or given as a precondition to be met in order to make a marriage work. Driscoll disagreed. He said it was a necessary thing. Okay, fine, so I'm the never married guy who's never been on a date but didn't C. S. Lewis point out in The Four Loves that all kinds of people were brokered into arranged marriages who didn't have sparks flying on the wedding night who, despite all that, still had sex and children? Lewis' point was to contrast the modern era's obsession with eros with the practice of previous cultures in which if you had the mutual twitterpation thing that was fine but that no relationship would last solely on that.
The part that Challies says is the strongest point for the Driscolls' book on marriage is the discussion of friendship. It is here that I would suggest a potential problem lurking under the alleged strong point of the book. If you actually pay attention to Driscoll's discussion of friendship over the last decade what would lead you to believe he actually understands what friendship is? Driscoll used to say that he and Grace had sex before marriage and that caused problems later on. Well, by now it's become clear that there were huge problems that were not necessarily "caused" by fornication but for which fornication could be seen as a symptom. Mark and Grace, to go by what they share in the first chapter, took the physical/sexual shortcut to compensate for a lack of emotional and spiritual and intellectual intimacy in their relationship. This would explain why over the last fourteen years they have had no advice to the unmarried other than "Don't have sex" without providing much by way practical observations.
Pertinent to friendship, how would Mark or Grace Driscoll know from friendship? How many friends does Mark Driscoll have? I don't mean "good friend" in the sense that Mark Driscoll normally uses that phrase in public, someone who wrote a book he is promoting or who has endorsed something he has published or who has invested in some project he's getting behind. I'm not married (which in Mars Hillian parlance might mean I don't know "anything" about "relationships") but it would appear that if the foundation of a marriage is friendship in marriage then friendship becomes a paramount consideration. How many friends does Mark have? Last year he discussed the numbered rankings of 0 through +10 friendship with his wife as +10. Anyone wonder if that doesn't telegraph a problem? If Mark Driscoll is going to tell us now in 2012 that he used to make a god of sex and marriage with the implicit claim that he's over that what's with the spouse having +10 friendship and no one else?
Let me put it another way, there are people Mark Driscoll has publicly described as "a good friend" over the years. Has Mark Driscoll said even ten words to Lief Moi in the last four years? Has Mark Driscoll spent time with Mike Gunn, the other co-founding pastor of Mars Hill, in a setting that was social and not in any way connected to the business of running churches? Well, maybe but I don't know whether Mark has said five words to either of the co-founding pastors he used to refer to as friends. Mark once said of Wendy over at Practical Theology for Women that she was "a good friend". Wendy is a wonderful sister in Christ and is pretty cool. In fact we're both members of the same Presbyterian church so I'm not just blowing smoke here. I wouldn't say we're friends but we're fond acquaintences.
Yet this gets at my concern about Mark and "good friend". He could describe Mahaney as "good friend" and that would just mean he's promoted Mahaney's book on humility or had the man speak at Mars Hill. It's not entirely clear to me now that C. J. Mahaney is the kind of person who could meaningfully instruct Mark Driscoll on humility. If Driscoll has seemed unconvincing on humility he can seem even less convincing about friendship.
The cessationist/continuationist debate where Driscoll is concerned is not going to go away. Mark Driscoll keeps saying things that will force the subject back to the surface even if reviewers like Tim Challies deliberately skip that subject. Unlike cessationists (whose exegesis I find wanting) I think that there are more prosaic explanations of Mark Driscoll's "I see things" claim than spiritual super-powers or "pornographic divination". Driscoll's obsession with sex and marriage as some kind of divinely mandated sacrament (he has continually told us how God told him to marry Grace, after all) bleeds out into his assessment of all other subjects. It's not difficult to dig up the problems of the recovered memory therapy trend from the 1980s and see that when Mark Driscoll "sees things" he's seeing things which can be understood in terms of a script, the script being past sexual sin or trauma explains everything that is going wrong in a Christian's life today. It's not surprising this script has an emotional arc Mark Driscoll finds compelling because it is the script of how he and Grace slogged through years of unhappiness about sex in their marriage.
The thing is that not all problematic relationships and family dynamics or church member situations spring from some sexual problem. Sometimes problems emerge because some people want control and feel that the autonomy of others infringes on the feeling of security that comes from feeling in control. I used to suggest the problem with the courtship fad at Mars Hill was that this could only appeal to control freak dads who wanted pre-emptive or retroactive veto power on the boys their daughters were already taking a liking to. It's not just in marriage in which most conflicts come down to trust in a relationship. Parent/child relationships break down if the parent and child default to mistrust and a need for self-defense and self-justification. Weakness can't be tolerated if weakness means, well, that one is seen to be weak in some way.
Friendships founder if one person feels like he or she is being used by someone they considered a friend. I remember a friend of mine being upset the day he figured out that another friend of mine invited him to stuff and socialized with him until things didn't work out with a woman. He was upset because he felt like this friend of mine was only hanging out with him because he might have been a useful chess piece in getting in better with the woman. People don't mind mutually beneficial relationships and people tend to mind being used.
Sometimes I wonder if the reason Mark Driscoll took so many years to figure out how to get friendship in marriage with Grace to work could be because he does not get friendship very well and had a steeper learning curve figuring out what friendship is. Friendship is not always about you getting to decide who you spend time with but who you sacrifice your time, attention and money for. That Mark can frame his wife/the wife as the +10 friendship seems sad to me because it defaults to an understanding of friendship in which a man doesn't have a +10 friendship unless he meets a woman who will let him put his penis in her on a regular basis. That's +10 friendship? Nothing else qualifies?
If it be said by Driscoll fans at this point that I need to pay attention to what Driscoll is really saying and getting at I reply that I have heard about a decade of Mark Driscoll sermons and used to be a member at that church and have heard him on many subjects. I have been paying attention to what Mark Driscoll has been really saying over the last decade. It's become my turn to say that if you pay attention to what he's really saying you'll notice that what he's really saying about friendship sounds ... kind of weird. What about pastoral homilies on how friendship was elevated by ancient cultures as a relationship that is not bounded by some social or biological imperative? You can't choose your family and your hormones were your hormones but who you chose to spend time with was still in your power.
I submit to Driscoll fans that friendship has actually been one of his weakest points as a pastor (besides his habitual ability to completely butcher Hebrew poetry when he's not ignoring it altogether (seriously, 15 years of preaching and no Psalms?)) and that if the strong point in a Driscoll book about marriage is its emphasis on friendship it's not entirely shocking to me that Tim Challies would say that at the end of the book being read twice he can't really commend it strongly to anyone. If the strongest part of the book is about friendship and friendship turns out to be something Mark Driscoll doesn't understand that well then even the strong point may simply reveal a weakness.
Survey Mark Driscoll's sermons over the last fifteen years and ask yourself how many sermons on friendship he has preached compared to how many sermons he has preached about sex and marriage. Don't count the sermons in which friendship in marriage is discussed because there's the old axiom that men and women can't really be friends because there's always sex involved at some point. That means "friendship" in marriage can't be considered a discussion of other kinds of friendship. ;-) +10 friendship that involves producing orgasms and children must be off the table. Now, consider how many sermons Mark has preached on +1 through +9 friendship in contrast to +10 friendship. The pattern doesn't take long to observe.
To go by comments made to Challies by Driscoll fans it looks like the fanboys are circling the wagons in the usual way. It's another case of Driscoll apologism bingo per "Are Women Human?". Even after Mark Driscoll has admitted he made a god of sex he has to be defend as speaking up against problems in heathen Seattle. The mere thought that Driscoll's attempts to correct a problem paradoxically reveal it to be a problem he shares with the culture around him can't be on the table because if it were Driscoll fans might be forced to concede the possibility that at some level Mark has been a hypocrite for roughly seven to ten years of his ministry. Newsflash, Mark has been saying he was a hypocrite on those issues for years, in case you weren't paying attention. I paid attention long enough to realize that if I wanted advice on marriage and dating I'd have to look elsewhere. I'm happy they're still married but it has become somewhat clearer how and why Mark and Grace don't have any practical advice for Christians who have exercised a modicum of self-restraint in dating or who may be in a path where dating is not even a serious consideration.
What I find curious is that Mark writes in Real Marriage as though there were no one who could speak into his life about anything. Really? No one? The counselors were all in marriages as messed up as Mark's, we're told, or they were in sin. Did Mark ever stop to consider that God uses sinners despite theri sin? If Mark can only get advice from someone perfect what would happen if he asked Mars Hill members to use the same criteria in receiving counsel from him that he took toward others? If Mark had made a god of sex couldn't that vitiate all his preaching about Song of Songs? How could he scream at single guys for fornicating if he'd made a god of sex himself? What difference does it make if one happens to be married if one's pressuring the wife for sex the way an unmarried man pressures his girlfriend to put out? Would Mark have been morally superior on the subject of sex merely by virtue of being married?
Even if I set aside the exasperating 2002-2007 courtship fad Mark Driscoll got behind the recent confessions of the Driscolls in Real Marriage should be troubling to anyone who has paid close attention. I remember the shock single people at Mars Hill had around 2004 when Mark admitted he and Grace fornicated a lot. How does a pastor give advice to singles on sexual purity if he was, in Driscollian parlance, banging his girl like a screen door in a stiff breeze? While Mark was regaling people in 1999 and 2002 with sermons about how sexually available the good Christian wife was supposed to be he may have been resenting his own wife for not being more sexually free. While Driscoll was reading wifely stripteases and holy blow jobs into Song of Songs and telling men they needed to have a lot of money and a real job he got to this point by letting his wife be a financial beast of burden as he consolidated his ministry. Driscoll fans seem unable to fully appreciate the retroactive significance of these confessions in light of Driscoll's public image. So let me quote Jesus to provide some potential points for thought.
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
Very long P.S.
Don't take the Gospel Coalition review seriously. The most controversial chapter has not been the chapter on wifely submission. The controversy has been mainly over "Can We ____?" so far. The second controversy has been about the level of over-sharing in the book and things related to that and the contention by egalitarians and unbelievers that the Driscolls are insane. If you only read within the YRR echo chamber you might be led to believe that the "real controversy" is about wifely submission but if you put down the crack pipe and read what people are saying outside the YRR echo chamber you'll quickly notice that the controversy surrounding Real Marriage isn't really about wifely submission.
The long run controversy will be about Mark Driscoll's habitual reference to God telling him things directly and plainly that don't match up with the expectations of cessationists or even most Christians who are continuationists. Mark seems certain God audibly instructs him to a degree that he won't take very seriously being claimed by anyone else most of the time (if ever). Claiming God gives you super-powers to discern who is sinning against you is the actually controversial statement that has been running through Mark Driscoll's public utterance and as blogging goes the second biggest controversy in blog-land after the bit about effeminate pastors was the "I see things" clip.
The Gospel Coalition already has established that they basically promote Driscoll's books and accept whatever Mark happens to say at the time as copacetic.
Since I was actually at Mars Hill during the Doctrine series and was in a position to know that 1,000 members left over a combination of things I can't take a Gospel Coalition plug for a Driscoll book seriously. Early 2008 was when people left for one of a few reasons: 1) they were upset about the by-laws changing and being told they had to agree with them or bail 2) they were upset that Driscoll and the other pastors, after months of stonewalling on the firings of Paul Petry and Bent Meyer admitted both men were fired over their objections to the by-laws 3) finally being told by MH leaders that an expensive building purchased in a capital campaign from 2005 was not being used and could not be used for the objectives that were publicly advertised in the capital campaign and the book Reformission Rev 4) Membership contract renewal fatigue 5) disagreements about the increasingly multi-site nature of the church overall. No substantive changes in doctrine actually occured during 2008 at all and the pending revised doctrinal statement wasn't even on the table for elder discussion at that point. I wrote at more length but with less organization on this in the link below.
Merely because Mark Driscoll has convinced himself and others that Mars Hill lost 1,000 members at the time the Doctrine series was going on and so that meant it had to be because members didn't like the doctrinal requirements being firmer doesn't mean there's truth to the claim. If the Driscoll's book Real Marriage has shown us anything it's that the gap between the public pontification a Driscoll makes and the behind-the-scenes reality are not always the same. To be on the safe side assume that Driscoll will wait anywhere between four to ten years to concede that the gap between image and reality is bigger than previously advertised.