The Meaning of Marriage (Book Review)

meaning-of-marriageWow. The western world is undergoing immense societal change in the last 5-10 years. With the light-speed shift in cultural attitudes regarding homosexuality and same-sex marriage, very few of us are indifferent to what’s going on.

Traditionalists see the sky falling. “What gives us the right to redefine the ancient and stable institution of marriage? Why do we believe anything good will come of this?”

Progressives and libertarians see a march toward utopia and greater personal freedom. “Enlightenment and freedom marches on as we throw off the constricting ways of the past and embrace equality, love, and tolerance. Why would anyone in his right mind oppose such progress?”

This particular cultural divide (the meaning and purpose of marriage) also generally breaks down along generational lines. Statistics reveal that the younger a person is, the more likely he or she is to support the broadening of the institution of marriage to include homosexual monogamous unions. This seems to hold true across the religious/secular spectrum. Surprisingly, even the traditional “WASPS” (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, i.e., evangelicals) follow this trend.  Take a moment to study this chart published by the Wall Street Journal:

same-sex-marriage-wsj-chartAll of this change has predictably stirred up anger, mistrust, judgmental attitudes, fear, and most all of confusion regarding how we as a people ought to define marriage. Journalists and others are right to point out that the slippery slope argument is not necessarily a fallacy (no matter how outrageous the idea seems to be right now) when society determines it is the final arbiter of truth. In other words, when majority public opinion swings from one position to another, the majority has the right and responsibility to determine right and wrong. Because there is no authority outside of us. Natural law is malleable, and we can (and should!) change it at will when we have the votes. Because the only ones who will perhaps suffer are those left behind. The majority will be fine.  Perhaps.  But where does it end?

At this point, pastor and best-selling author Tim Keller steps into the discussion to ask a few questions. If marriage is subject to redefinition, why do our attempts to redefine it hurt individuals, relationships, communities, and societies? Why don’t we admit this statistically demonstrable damage rather than deny it with our narratives that sing the benefits of freedom, self-actualization, personal fulfillment, and near-mythical romantic notions of love? What if the ancient wisdom in the Bible can tell us something about marriage? What if the Bible provided satisfying, sensible answers to our questions about marriage? What if the Bible’s definition of marriage could cut through our culture’s confusion and answer our most basic needs and desires? What if the Bible’s view of marriage is more satisfying than our proposed redefinitions? What if the Bible’s teaching on marriage corresponds to our nature as human beings and the nature of reality? What if the Bible’s view of marriage is better than the alternatives? What if the Bible has been right all along, but we’ve forgotten what it says? What if we put aside our opinions and differences for the sake of having a cultural discussion about the meaning of marriage? What would we find?

Keller’s book, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God, is a game-changer. There have been many good marriage books written by Christians in the last 20-30 years. Some describe what the Bible teaches about marriage from a textual and theological perspective. Others seek to address the myriad objections to Christian marriage by considering various situations in which marriage as an institution is an answer. For example, marriage is an answer to the dilemma of pregnancy for an unwed couple. Still others attempt to be practical marriage how-to manuals, offering various relational, communication, and life techniques to coach married couples to a happier marriage. Keller’s book is different and better in two ways. First, he has written to address all three of the perspectives on marriage. Normative: what marriage is according to the Bible. Situational: what it means to be married in the various situations that arise in life that either transcend cultures or are unique to particular cultures. Existential: what these norms and situations mean to the individual and couple as they live in the context of the wonderful and mysterious institution of marriage. Put another way, this approach to understanding the meaning of marriage is balanced and well-informed. It is multi-perspectival. Second, Keller is writing apologetically for both Christian believers and non-believers. He is a pastor in Manhattan, NYC, so his subculture is deeply secular, materialistic, individualistic, fast-paced, cosmopolitan, multi-cultural, educated, and transient. This has shaped him into a person who listens well to others and is able to answer questions in a winsome, humble, and convincing way. He stands on the authority of the Bible (not his own personally acquired wisdom, or the accumulated wisdom of his religious tradition), but makes his case by applying the Bible to today’s questions. Thus what we have in The Meaning of Marriage is the very best book that has been written on the subject of marriage for our cultural moment. I have spoken with many people who have read it, studied it, and considered it, and no one so far says there is anything better. It’s the first book I’ve read that motivated me to read again with my wife of 13 years. Both of us read through it carefully and profited immensely.

The book is an extended exposition on Paul’s instructions to the church regarding marriage found in Ephesians 5:18-33. The intended audience is married and unmarried people, both Christians and non-Christians. Throughout the book Keller writes chapters focusing on:

  1. The Secret of Marriage
  2. The Power of Marriage
  3. The Essence of Marriage
  4. The Mission of Marriage
  5. Loving the Stranger
  6. Embracing the Other (written by his wife Kathy)
  7. Singleness and Marriage
  8. Sex and Marriage

From the dust jacket:

This book shows everyone—Christians, skeptics, singles, longtime married couples, and those about to be engaged—the vision of what marriage should be according to the Bible. Modern culture would have you believe that everyone has a soul mate; that romance is the most important part of a successful marriage; that your spouse is there to help you realize your potential; that marriage does not mean forever, but merely for now; and that starting over after a divorce is the best solution to seemingly intractable marriage issues. All those modern-day assumptions are, in one word, wrong. Using the Bible as his guide, and coupled with insightful commentary from Kathy, his wife of thirty-six years, Timothy Keller shows that God created marriage to bring us closer to Him and to bring more joy into our lives. It is a glorious relationship that is also the most misunderstood and mysterious. With a clear-eyed understanding of the Bible, and meaningful instruction on how to have a successful marriage, The Meaning of Marriage is essential reading for anyone who wants to know God and love more deeply in this life.

Each chapter first existed as a sermon Keller preached to his Sunday evening congregation back in the early 1990s. That sermon series became the single-best-selling group of sermons ever at Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Multitudes of listeners have passed them on and recommended them as food for the soul in cutting through the culture confusion on marriage with the wisdom of God. (I’ve listened to the sermon series too, and they are not a mere repetition of the book’s contents. If you want to be inspired by the gospel and how it is beautifully and gloriously pictured in marriage in the format of listening to God’s word preached, then by all means get ahold of this sermon audio series!)

The book also includes in introduction, voluminous endnotes (don’t skip these), and an appendix on Decision Making and Gender Roles. I’ve turned to its simple, practical, and wise advice several times as a husband (for my own marriage) and as a pastor (for those who I shepherd).

Although I wouldn’t call it a weakness, Keller’s book does need some help. I wish he would have added one sentence bracing the reader for the content and style of the first chapter because it is so different than the rest of the book. At the very end of the first chapter, Keller finally shares the open secret to marriage: “Through the gospel, we get both the power and the pattern for the journey of marriage.” This conclusion on page 49 comes at the end of an extended apologetic, sociological, and statistical discussion describing the problems with love, relationships, dating, cohabitation, and marriage today. Most readers will not expect such an essay, and it may have the effect of discouraging readers from starting chapter 2. So chapter 1 is foundational and absolutely necessary to introduce the Bible as a better source of wisdom on marriage. For some readers it could be tough sledding for the first 50 pages. But you need to make the effort, because the payoff is greater understanding of our culture and how you have been shaped by its values and worldview.

In a nutshell, Keller posits that the Bible says the meaning of marriage is a permanent covenantal relationship between a man and woman, mirroring the relationship between Jesus Christ (the husband) and his cosmic bride (the Church), for the purpose of spiritual friendship that aims to see the spouse transform into their true glory-self. That’s a mouthful, but I won’t expound. You’ll just have to read the book (or listen to the sermons) for the details.

Here are a few “unofficial” study guides that others have written to supplement the book.

  1. David Murray’s study guide
  2. Do Not Disturb’s participant’s guide, leader’s guide, and “read with us” guide
  3. Marriage & Motherhood’s small group discussion guide

Here is the author and his wife speaking briefly about the book.

Here is the author speaking to a “mixed” audience at Google (presumably mostly unbelievers).

Here is the author and his wife speaking to a Christian audience at a Gospel Coalition conference.

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This entry was posted in Bible Study, Book Review, Cultural Observations, Ephesians, Marriage, Sexuality and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Meaning of Marriage (Book Review)

  1. I just wanted to send a quick “thank you” for all the great book reviews you provide. I’ve discovered so many great reads because of this. Keep up the great work. It is much appreciated!!

  2. Dixie S. Nolan says:

    This book will give you the vision of what God intended when He created marriage.

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