Review of Tim and Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage. Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God, (2011, Hodder and Stoughton)
This is an excellent and wise book on Christian marriage which started life as a sermon series preached at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in 1991. At least two sections are more strongly shaped by Kathy (chapter 6 “Embracing the other” and the appendix “Decision making and gender roles”).
The 8 chapters are:
– The Secret of Marriage;
– The Power for Marriage;
– The Essence of Marriage;
– The Mission of Marriage;
– Loving the Stranger;
– Embracing the Other;
– Singleness and Marriage;
– Sex and Marriage.
The context in which the book is written, 20+ years in Manhattan, New York, clearly shapes the way in which the conversation about marriage takes place. Theirs is a congregation full of many single young adults living out their relationships where tolerance is expected, “try before you buy” is the norm, and hopes of a “fairy tale ending” are often dashed.
What is particularly helpful is the way in which the Kellers have an eye to their context, a good grasp of the social sciences’ perception on gender roles, but primarily seek to see the Gospel shape and pervade their interpretation of what makes for marriage as God intended it.
There are four particular areas which I found refreshing:-
1) The basis for a strong marriage is friendship. Marriages that last for a lifetime are those where partners work at being good friends to each other, above almost everything else. This also means that if Christian marriages are based on friendship then they can be the place where single people are brought into the friendship.
2) The foundation of strong marriage is the Gospel. The book carefully answers the concerns of the postmodernist (who might tend to think that marriage is archaic and unsustainable) and also the traditionalist (who might tend to have a blinkered romanticism attached to bygone traditional roles). As with all Tim’s writing and speaking, the good news is a message to the religious and the irreligious:
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 this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope… 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 (p48).
3) The power for a strong marriage is found in knowing its purpose. Here Tim draws on the excellent work in Peter O’Brien’s commentary on Ephesians (Eerdmans 1999). The mysterion (Eph 5:32) is God’s unveiling of that which was previously hidden. The profound insight of Ephesians 5 is the way Paul applies the foundational text of Genesis 2:24 (for this reason a man will leave his father and his mother and be united to his wife and the two will become one flesh). The created purpose of marriage, it would seem, is in order that God would have demonstrated on earth a living, breathing illustration of his divine purposes, subsequently to be fully revealed in Christ’ relationship with the Church. Christians will find purpose in their marriage when they see the way in which God expects it to perform for the Gospel’s sake. My own debt to Peter O’Brien is acknowledged in The Diamond Marriage. Have Ultimate Purpose in your Marriage. (Christian Focus 2005) which explores many similar themes.
4) The mission of marriage of to have God’s sanctifying work on display for the benefit of others too. The goal of Christian marriage is much the same as the goal for the Christian life: to be like Jesus. Here, issues of complementarity come into play. Headship is defined as “servant leadership” and submission as being a “strong helper”. Of course, not everyone buys into the complementarian theology which pervades much of this book, but there is great insight here and the Kellers carefully warn about sins of overbearing dominance, and passive surrender; and I hope persuade others of the biblical wisdom in the complementary way in which the sexes are made.
There is more to say. But for now the wisest move would be buy the book, read it and give it away. I highly commend it.
Simon Vibert, January 2012