Saturday, January 14, 2012

Matthew Lee Anderson on Real Marriage--a lesson that we should not underestimate the obvious

I've made it clear (despite links from other bloggers that seem to have misunderstood what I have been writing) that I not only have not read all of Real Marriage but don't feel a need to. I have no reason to doubt other people will be genuinely helped by the book in some way.  I have written earlier on this blog about how I have found the confessions from chapter one depressing, particularly as someone who was actually part of Mars Hill from about 1999-2008. 

But I love reading (and writing) analysis and criticism.  You know what I mean (or should), the kind of analysis and criticism that is not "critical" in some pejorative sense but in the academic sense.  I like to think through connections and ideas and theme.  I loved threading G. K. Chesterton's observations about the lunatic from Orthodoxy into C. S. Lewis' observation about Eros as demon in The Four Loves to arrive at "Heart of Ice" and its depiction of Mr. Freeze in Batman: the animated series.  The best criticism is not an exercise in pedantry but a journey of discovery.

So tonight I turned to Matthew Lee Anderson's review of Mark and Grace Driscoll's Real Marriage and stumbled upon a moment of discovery.  There was something I was unable to put together about what I found depressing about the chapter and it's not necessarily something the chapter may indicate about the book as a whole.  No, Anderson gets to something that I realize describes my impression of the majority of public teaching Driscoll has done that I could remember from my Mars Hill days, all those years hearing Mark say stuff from the pulpit that retroactively has taken on significance with some confessions. 

But first I will note a few things out of Anderson's order for reasons that I hope are clear by the time I wrap things up.

Let me pick a specific problem that I think stands out. They rightly acknowledge that the effects of pornification on our culture and our views of sexuality. As they put it, “young people are increasingly likely to consider that which is pornographic to be normative sexuality” (143). Very true, and aptly put.

Yet there is no acknowledgment that the acts described in the infamous “Can we _______” chapter have been brought to the mainstream by the very pornographic culture we’re decrying. We might call it a genetic fallacy and say that the act’s okay, despite the culture that is normalizing it. But given Driscoll’s (and my own) interpretation of Romans 1 and homosexuality, that won’t pass muster. Culture and the acts they sanction are more interrelated than we realize, and if the tree is rotten the fruit might be questionable too.

The Driscoll’s are surprisingly unconcerned with the pornification of the marriage bed, and don’t quite seem to realize that the questions themselves might be coming from a people whose imaginations have been stunted. It’s occasionally worth challenging the premise of questions in order to reach beneath the surface and understand the problematic forces at work in our evangelical culture of sexuality. That the Driscoll’s do not is nothing if not a missed opportunity.

This is, to be very plainspoken, one of the things that eventually came to bother me even while I was a member of Mars Hill.  If the acts the Driscolls describe in the infamous chapter have been brought to the mainstream by the very pornographic culture the Driscolls warn against on what basis do people discern that they are within the realm of Christian liberty? 

Driscoll’s definition of lust seems to, well, miss the mark. He detours a whole lot of Christian history and witness describing lust as disordered or inordinate desires

Anderson goes on to explain that this is a problematic definition of lust at its base.  He spends time discussing that the problem with lust is not simply the object of the desire but the nature of the desire itself so far as sexual desire goes.  Now I have heard a pastor or two make a case that lust/idolatry can and does spring from a disordered desire but this association was not one restricted merely to sexual lust. 

In many passages in Scripture lust and adultery are descriptions of an impulse to non-sexual sin and as ways of talking about idolatry.  When I was at Mars Hill I saw some on-line discussions about whether or not it was even POSSIBLE for a person to lust after their spouse.  The idea was that since lust was defined simply as sexual desire that was impure that, no, this couldn't be true.  I, the single, never-married virgin proffered a drastically different way of discussing lust.  If "lust" is more globally connected in the biblical documents with idolatry and adultery is also associated with spiritual infidelity then it can be the easiest thing in the world for a person to lust after a spouse as though one were lusting after another god. 

God does not condemn lust for anyone that a person may have for a person who is not one's spouse, God condemns all lust as idolatrous.  It just so happens that some lust involves sexual idolatry and this can happen within a marriage.  But not all lusts that are idolatrous are adulterous in the most literal sense.  Some of us realize we can have a lust for what may be useless theological debates and don't always resist temptation like we should.  Well, I speak for me, not you. If you feel like going back to a concordance some time and finding some lust that God says is totally awesome and liberated and free and without shame you can get back to me and give me the chapter and verse sometime. 

But what Anderson mentions in part two of his review of Real Marriage that haunts me, now that I have read, it is this:

At the end of it, we may have seen the “truth about sex, friendship, and life together,” but it’s not clear we’ve seen the beauty. And therein lies a significant shortcoming.

This is what I find haunting, the realization that after hearing maybe a decade of sermons from at least one Driscoll touching on marriage and sex it has dawned on me that I've never heard anything that made marriage sound beautiful.  Driscoll can keep telling us it's beautiful (much more on this shortly) but that isn't the same thing as drawing out the actual beauty he says is in real marriage of Song of Songs.

If at this point Driscoll says that says more about me than his preaching or teaching I can just agree, and then ask: "Well, you've got one of the older love poems in the history of world literature.  You keep saying it is frank without being crass.  Yet if after ten years all you can wring from the poetry of the Scriptures are techniques and positions; a book full of lists of bullet points and grids about what is and isn't right to do in marital sex; various statistics backing up sweeping assertions that are sometimes true; and then you round things off with advice about a five year plan ... is it actually my fault I missed the bit where there might be some beauty and poetry in there?"  Well, maybe there's the tortured beauty of the cross that we evangelicals are so loathe to explore ... . 

It's the instruction manual that has one level of meaning and a practical application with bullet points.  It's the instruction manual that is first of all concerned with getting from point A to point B properly with the fewest digressions.  It's the instruction manual that lays out from the lesson plan where you should by year 5 if you've passed all your exams. 

It's the poem that can be enjoyed for thematic fluidity and even frivolity.  It's the poem that can revel in something that doesn't even mean anything but sounds pleasing.  It is the poem that invites swirling levels of meaning and association, nuances and images that take on different meanings at different times when the same poem is read.  It is the poem that alludes with a wink and subverts with a pun.  It is the poem that can elude and allude with the esoteric and opaque just when you think you have grasped the plain and only meaning of the text. To borrow a line from some poet I'm not sure Driscoll has read, it is the poem that is free to not mean but be. 

While form can follow function in the arts, as in architecture, when a chapter has a title like "Taking Out the Trash" could that not signal to us that some of the art or poetry at stake has a certain functionality like the beautiful ivory-toned lines of a well-functioning toilet with a sturdy toilet seat that has a fascinating seat cover that was created by, I don't know, the Rembrandt of toilet-seat cover art?  Such an artist must exist, really, and who could deny in the moment of dire need that a toilet can become, in that urgent moment, the most practical and necessary and, yes, beautiful of all domestic works of art?  But it has an art and beauty you don't bother to consider even when the thing functions as it should.  And when it doesn't function as it should you curse its failure. 

Mark Driscoll once joked that as members of the church body go he was (at least sometimes) the colon so perhaps Mark Driscoll is precisely such an artist for such a time.  But perhaps this, if true, confirms Anderson's concern. To continue with my mundane metaphor, the art of the toilet is a domestic necessity for the Western church yet the toilet is, well, apt to be stained by those very things for which it has been appointed to be eliminator, always carrying with it the whiff of toxins and human byproducts unless it is itself scrubbed free of that debris. 

Perhaps the observation of both sympathetic and unsympathetic critics is something as prosaic as this, if Mark Driscoll is the toilet of evangelicalism whose goal is to flush out all the waste that does not constitute the true Christian evangelical faith who, exactly, cleans the toilet?  Let's run with the supposition that Driscoll is the colon of the body of Christ as he has joked and this is a necessary role.  When does the colon need an enema? When does the toilet need to be cleaned? Are we supposed to believe that Driscoll is a self-cleaning toilet?  Is his wife a functional pastor?  But in marriage the two become one so this is still, at bottom, a self-cleaning toilet.  Let no one volunteer to clean the toilet that cleans itself. The consequences could be dire. If Mark Driscoll had never once referred to himself, even in jest, as the colon of the body of Christ I wouldn't have even thought of any of this.

It may be some of the critics have circled listlessly around certain observations they have not been able to make, perhaps, because the discovery is too prosaic for the words they want to use.  Perhaps they do not truly have words prosaic enough to meet the prosaic discovery on its prosaic occasion? Perhaps some only see the stereotype and missed that perhaps the Driscolls sincerely aspired to the gestalt.  Anderson remarks that the grittiness of the first chapter finds its resolution in a paragraph.  To wit, we must say the paragraph of resolution must be, as in any best-selling contemporary evangelical book, a pedestrian deus-ex-machina. 

As Mark Driscoll said so tersely about his relationship to Grace in a service about a decade ago, "We broke some rules, but God is faithful."  Duly noted but that didn't convey to me that there is poetry or beauty in marriage then anymore than a book seems to be conveying that beauty to even sympathetic readers now.  Driscoll has tended to be stronger about saying what we have been freed from than explaining what we are freed to do.  If anything what we are freed to do often ends up, in his hands, transformed into a "have to" no matter how many times he reminds us it's supposed to be a "get to".

But perhaps this sums things up for me as I've mulled over precisely why I found chapter 1 of Real Marriage depressing when I read it.  It's not just the grim realization that the high flown homilies on sex from the pulpit did not match the bitter and prosaic reality of the Driscoll's real marriage. It's that there was no beauty in the presentation Mark Driscoll did on those Song of Songs sermons all those years.  There was no poetry because there was in the end nothing more than poetry as a pretext for prose. 

Driscoll, as he's been so keen to tell us, is a man with a communications degree from a top tier academic program in America.  He has been inspired by stand up comedians, who traffic in stereotypes, generalizations, hyperbole, and statements backed by vehemence of expression rather than delicacy of observation or juxtaposition.  The public speaker is enjoined broadly as follows:

Tell them what you're going to tell them
Tell them
Tell them what you told them

And this Driscoll does quite well. 

But what are poets and storytellers so steadily admonished to do? We all know this one. Show, don't tell.  The Driscolls are both communications majors from a top tier university, as Driscoll is so pleased to have told us lately, but it seems that they utterly lack any poetic impulse since they are so busy telling us in various ways what the poetry is talking about they're not showing us much more than that they're telling us stuff. 

They do not, when I stop to think about it, even trust that a divinely inspired poem can show us enough of what we need to know for them to not tell us in an entirely new book what they say they have learned from that old book.  Whoever wrote Song of Songs really needed those Docent group statistics.  They've shown us how bad their marriage was and then comes the "working through core issues" and statistics about people you shouldn't be like. But perhaps by that point the use of the erotic poetry of scripture has become nothing more than a pretext for an agenda, an agenda that is so literally more prosaic than the poem could be in its worst translation we are compelled to ask what the point of introducing poetry into the discussion served to begin with.

So the goblet of the moon becomes the vulva.  The lover whose body seems one with the natural world, as it is one with the beloved through poetic juxtaposition and a physical and emotional bond, becomes someone who wants to try out some new positions and some brand new moves.  The person who whispers "Set me as a seal upon your heart" really wants to get down to the practical business of the five year plan to reverse engineer life with you and plan out the right Christmas memories for the kids this year. 

Over the last ten years nobody had to tell me the Driscolls have a power for draining the beauty from poetry, they've shown us over those ten years that they'd rather tell us what the poem means than to let the poetry show us how delicately yet eagerly it eludes and alludes.  Anderson's review has caught my attention.  He has shown me something ten years of Driscoll sermons can't quite tell--there are things about draining the beauty and mystery from erotic poetry that even a virgin can figure out if someone can just show him how it happened.


Mara Reid said...

WTH, I've confessed to you before that I felt impressed to meditate on SoS but resisted. When I resisted, the entire Bible became cold to me so I gave in to the impression and am glad I did.

Around that time, maybe a little before, I watch Anne of Green Gables (AGG). I'm not the romantic type. I don't get all giddy at things. In fact, when I watched the opening scene of AGG, and watch Anne become entranced by a poem, I though, "What fruit cake."

WELL... When I finally meditated on the Songs, I became entranced by it and by it's beauty every bit a much as Anne was by her poem.

You are right to say that they have sucked the beauty out of it. You have heard my various descriptions of my reactions the first time I heard MD preach on it so I don't have to go into it again. But yes, there is beauty, entrancing beauty, pointing even so far as the Divine. The Driscolls have made it base.

Anonymous said...

The person who whispers "Set me as a seal upon your heart" really wants to get down to the practical business of the five year plan to reverse engineer life with you and plan out the right Christmas memories for the kids this year.

Over the last ten years nobody had to tell me the Driscolls have a power for draining the beauty from poetry, they've shown us over those ten years that they'd rather tell us what the poem means than to let the poetry show us how delicately yet eagerly it eludes and alludes.

Some of the best use of words in modern Christain writing. I am surprised your blog has not caught the attention of more readers. Keep up the work.