Wendy and Andy Alsup have written about Real Marriage. As former members of Mars Hill who also served in leadership they have a unique perspective from which to consider the book. Wendy used to serve in Women's ministry at Mars Hill (her first book was well-reviewed by the late Internet Monk Michael Spenser). Wendy and I also used to serve in the Theology Response Team together. I also observed Wendy moderating discussions in the Women's Theology forum on the old moderated Midrash. I have been impressed by her theological acumen and her character.
The Alsups and I also attend the same church and my positive impression of the Alsups has not changed over the years. Long-time readers will know I have regularly linked to and commented on Wendy's blog for years. I don't know Andy quite as well but I know any man who would marry and stay married to Wendy is a solid guy. I know that sounds like gushing a bit on the internet but there you go. Since as far back as six years ago I have been struck by Wendy's ability to be a voice of reason in heated settings. That women's theology forum was not a "safe" place because women were anything close to civil or thoughtful toward each other! It was a place for safe and civil discussion because Wendy actually moderated discussion, which was sadly more than I can say for the majority of moderators of Midrash forums at the time. I can name names of the people who I thought actually did moderate discussions--Wendy Alsup, Paul Petry, and James Harleman actually put in more than a token effort to make sure arguments didn't get overheated or out of hand on Midrash. They may not have always succeeded but I can testify that at least they actually tried.
So with that in mind Andy and Wendy reviewing Real Marriage has caught my attention. Since I'm posting more than once about it you can surmise it has kept my attention.
Andy explains in simple terms what others have mentioned, that as a marriage counseling book the book is middle of the road. It's not the best nor worst book out there on the subject. I might add only that having read a bit of Real Marriage myself it would appear Mark picked up things in counseling other couples but seemed certain that no counselors were ultimately qualified to counsel him because of sin in their lives. It sometimes seemed in chapter one as though Mark was implying he would only take marriage counseling from Jesus.
Seeing as Jesus was never married one wonders what practical insights and advice Jesus had about marriage! Within the Martian culture I saw over ten years single guys were said to know nothing about relationships. That Jesus was the token exception merely proved the rule. Apostolic instruction on how and why it might be better to remain unmarried got transformed into a moral obligation to marry unless you were smuggling Bibles into some foreign country to non-white people. People without non-white relatives might not fully appreciate both how stupid and racially presumptive that sort of remark comes off as.
Over the years Driscoll has made much of how ninety percent of people are going to marry at some point. Okay, how about half of them divorcing? Statistics, as the axiom goes, come after lies and damned lies. In any case it would appear that in the scope and focus of his teaching Driscoll is pretty much always going for the ninety percent. I doubt Driscoll would be capable of ever writing a book called Real Celibacy.
Andy sums up the book succinctly enough as follows:
To put it in perspective, this book is like a field guide for the young people represented by young culture in Seattle, many of whom are like a kite in the wind with marriage and responsibility having not seen it modeled well for them.
So if you've neever had marriage or responsibility modeled to you adequately in your own life the book can be useful.
If you're looking for a gospel centered teaching guide on marriage, this isn't it. If you are looking for a moderately prescriptive christian perspective on marriage and want to hear it from a couple who are in and of their culture, this might hit that target. Mark and Grace are their target demographic.
Ouch. So this means Real Marriage comes off as a self-help book written by its authors to help themselves as well as others? I don't have much reason to doubt that as "gospel centered teaching" goes that the Driscolls would simply not offer a gospel centered teaching approach. I have written obliquely about the backdoor prosperity gospel I sensed at Mars Hill where if you repent of your sins, shape up, fly right, and get your ducks in a row that that hot or hunky spouse is in children's ministry waiting for you to volunteer. That was practically the sales pitch for years for certain ministries. You weren't going to meet that future spouse in the choir because nearly all the women were married (or in my case I liked them as friends and was not interested in dating much anyway).
But the observation that Mark and Grace are their own target demographic seems spot on. What if you're not that target demographic? As in you've been raised in a Christian home, haven't dated anyone, and don't have the exact same baggage as Mark or Grace Driscoll? Well, it sounds as though from reviews I have read that a book by the Driscolls would not necessarily be of any use to me. I've seen the 9 reasons Real Marriage is for singles and it made me laugh. I've already shared my own doubts that Mark or Grace Driscoll seem to display much real knowledge about friendship.
If friendship is the big selling point for their book and they sincerely think friendship in marriage is not discussed in Christian books on marriage they may need reminding that companionate marriage is a relatively new invention and that "friendship" as the foundation for marriage in ancient near Eastern societies (i.e., you know those cultural settings in which authors of the Bible wrote those books of the Bible) was not the same thing. As I put it for years, to no avail, a lot of what Driscoll and other Martian leaders pass off as "biblical" is a cherry-picked selectively engineered pastiche of customs from ancient Near Eastern societies and the butterflies and twitterpation of mutual sexual attraction as a prerequisite to marriage valued in contemporary society. When I said the Bible says nowhere that mutual sexual attraction is ever necessary as the starting point for a truly "biblical" marriage Mark said that it was necessary and also preferable. He can say so but that doesn't make it so. As C. S. Lewis so wryly put it in The Four Loves lots of people got married who weren't in love but somehow produced offspring.
Song of Songs, as a book of poetry which may not refer to Solomon at all, or if referring to him sees him alternately as a villain or an archetype of pleasant life depending on who's interpreting, does not count. In fact the more earnestly a man tries to insist Solomon has to be the beloved the more problems open up in the text. If it's a fictitious work of idealized erotic love that can be typologically read as being about God and His people those blunt textual problems vanish. Of course in the hands of Driscoll Song of Songs can't be a fanciful and gentle pastoral; it has to be an epic narrative about the sexual extravagance of two married people.
Seeing as he seems to have never preached from the Psalms in fifteen years it's hard not to make a case that Driscoll doesn't really care about poetry that isn't within the rarified subgenre of sanctified erotica, at least when it comes to discussing anything from the pulpit. For a guy who keeps saying Spurgeon's his favorite preacher this seems even weirder and more inexcusable. Of course Driscoll's paid homage to Puritans whose interpretation of Song of Songs he's still going to make fun of. The fan base does not seem to fully appreciate how much a lot of what Driscoll does comes off as name-dropping more than serious attention to big names.
This book uses a combination of nonlinear narrative, and finally reverse chronology, to tell a story with the end of the book revealing greater context for circumstances within the book. ... This book is a revealingly intimate autobiography of a man who came to a breaking point and rebooted his life. This seems counter intuitive, but is actually quite enlightening when interpreting the book "Real Marriage".
The reveal within the book begins in chapter 11 with Mark under a great deal of pressure and fighting his way through it. This chapter completely changes how the book can be interpreted. In this chapter Mark lays out a blueprint for how he wants to change his life. In the intimate details that follow, Mark tells a story of mistrust and hurt that culminate in what is basically described as an emotional breakdown. The story now picks up again in chapter 1 with Mark filling in what was going on behind the scenes throughout the book. Mark and Grace were both sexually active adolescents as was fairly typical in their culture. This story now shifts to a young couple doing what young people do, making mistakes along the way. Over the years as their lives became intertwined, Mark and Grace learned more details about each-other's past, specifically as it pertains to this autobiography, their sexual past. Mark describes the emotional toll and cost in trust this caused between him and Grace.
Other reviewers have remarked upon how sloppy and confusing Real Marriage is about facts, dates, timelines and the like. Seeing as Mark Driscoll got his degree in speech communication it's not surprising that he and Grace would not be all that good about writing as an art unto itself, or that when it came time to write a book about doctrine Breshears was brought on board. If it takes a former member and deacon at the church to actually make sense of the chronology this a potential sign that the writing was not very clear. :)
Throughout the book, when talking about intimacy and marriage issues, Grace describes how her actions had hurt Mark and, in hindsight, how she had fallen into this state of low self worth through abuse, reinforced by patterns that were present in her own view of herself and through people in her life. Mark describes the toll on him and their relationship and the effect this had on his ministry in the church. What stands out as odd however is that Mark shares equally intimate details of these events, but from a different perspective. What started in chapter 11 now adds context to the back story. This book was written as a chronicle of a young pastor struggling to understand his wife and then her response to him. Chapter 11 is about reverse-engineering your life from the last day forward. This sounds like a reasonable approach, everyone needs goals to strive for. Wait, what?! Somewhere things got off course. Are we talking about life goals or a relationship?
I have not read the book but I've read enough reviews to know that Mark was going to trot out "reverse engineering your life" yet again. You'd think for a self-described Calvinist who leans so heavily on the sovereignty of God and direct revelations that Mark Driscoll wouldn't be so continually fixated on reverse engineering his life. He wouldn't be advising young guys to have a five-year plan in which they imagine whether or not they will be married, how many kids they will have, how much money they will make, where they will live and those details. Since I'm not a member of the Politburo and the Soviet Union fell apart decades ago I've never warmed up to this five year plan stuff. Is Mark Driscoll secretly a Soviet dictator or something? Maybe it's just my fault I was a kid who grew up to see how the Cold War sorta worked and began coming of age during the years the Berlin Wall came down?
What stood out earlier as odd about Mark's perspective of the past was that Grace was humbly reconciling her past, but HE wasn't! What at first appears to be a book about their marriage is really a book about Grace's marriage. We actually know very little about Mark's. From the beginning of this book, Mark has made passing references to Grace's mistakes and abuse that lead to difficulty in their marriage, but what about him? He had been in previous sexual relationships prior to Grace, and with Grace prior to their marriage. What affect had this had on him and how he would view relationships going forward? Not much is said about this, in fact Mark barely recognizes his responsibility in this at all.
Yes, I'm glad I'm not the only one who noticed this even from chapter one. Mark Driscoll spends some time explaining his anger at Grace's lack of faithfulness to him but it didn't seem he ever stopped to ask himself why he was attracted to the sort of woman who would be sexually available to him outside marriage. I didn't feel like reading all of Real Marriage to find out. That Andy Alsup could read the book and notice that Mark Driscoll never once addresses the question of why he was drawn to women he could fornicate with lets me know that it wasn' t just me wondering about that question in just chapter one of the book. That the question never comes up and is never answered may be more telling than anything.
When viewed as a whole, the end gives context to the beginning and now some pieces fall into place. This is a story told by the inside voice in Mark's head about a period in his life when he was a pastor under pressure in a large young church. He acknowledges the effect his depression and anger had on his relationship with his wife and on the church and then his resolve to attack that problem and take it apart until it was gone. He decided he deserved better and set out a path to achieve that. He has yet to recognize his own responsibility in much of this, to the point that his wife is publicly apologizing to him for past offenses he participated in himself with seemingly no remorse or consequence on his part. The dichotomy between their viewpoints is striking.
What is particularly striking in light of, say, the snafu with Andrew, is that if Mark Driscoll can state in a book that the cure for his moodiness was more frequent sex then the cure for his unstable moods is something he may be deprived of by divine providence one day. He'd better take heed from a pastor like Bill Clem who explained how sex was impossible during the final years in which his wife Jeannie was dying of cancer. If Mark Driscoll needs sex to stabilize his moods then if it were anyone but the top dog preaching pastor at a megachurch a guy who admitted he needed sex to stabilize his moods would probably not get the support Mars Hill members put behind Driscoll now. As for all those unmarried people, do orgasms get to be a mood stabilizer for them? What's good for the goose should be good for the gander, right?
At length I arrive at Wendy's part of the review, which I'll write about in a separate entry.