It turns out that writing about Mark and Grace Driscoll's Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together ends up being very similar to talking about Mark Driscoll's ministry.
Here's what I mean by that: when Driscoll became nationally prominent (at least in the circles I run in) I started getting cautious questions from acquaintances that were some variation on "So... what do you think about this Mark Driscoll guy?" I'm sure my little corner of the world wasn't the only one filled with people who had heard Mark be clearly and winsomely faithful to what the Bible actually says and then heard about him doing something that appeared to be controversial just for controversy's sake or plain foolish.
My answer then about Driscoll's ministry is pretty close to my current take on Real Marriage: taken on the whole it's largely a good thing. Yes, there are parts I'm uncomfortable with. There are certainly some things that I think are clearly not consistent with scripture (more on that in a bit). However, most of what I find in Driscoll's ministry or his latest book is really faithful and helpful Biblical teaching. When one views Driscoll through they eye Christian charity - namely that none of us get it all right - I'm ultimately very thankful for what Driscoll is doing. That qualified endorsement obviously doesn't equate to wholehearted embrace across the spectrum of what Driscoll produces but it also means a wholesale dismissal of Driscoll is a serious case throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
To specifically deal with Real Marriage I'll say that the criticism coming at Driscoll's latest book is something I can understand and appreciate. I cannot imagine any scenario where I would need to discuss specific sex acts from the pulpit. However, I realize that what I will or will not touch on in the pulpit does not mean that questions like the ones answered in Real Marriage won't arise among Christians. (In fairness I should also say that I certainly disagree with the ridiculous idea that reading this book is somewhat akin to drinking out of a toilet.)
The truth of the matter is that not only do these questions arise (dare I say often) as people think through marriage and sex as Christians but also - and this is central to the value of Real Marriage - they will go somewhere for the answer. In our sex-saturated culture there are no end to sources for answers to questions like "What can a married man and woman do within in the context of their marriage." Very few of those sources are intentionally connected to God's self revelation of Himself.
I was working on this review before Driscoll issued a post on CNN's religion blog about why Real Marriage is taking such heat in Christian circles but he hits on exactly this same issue:
"Many Christians, because of upbringing and past church experiences, view sex as gross and something that should not be talked about in public.
Unfortunately, this view is pervasive in the church. Many couples have honest questions about sex and various sexual acts but struggle to find a pastor willing to teach on these topics.
With nowhere else to turn, these couples find wrong and damaging answers in magazines, television, movies, porn and more.
The practical result is that couples divorce their sex from their spirituality, talking to their pastors about "spiritual" issues and ordering their love life around advice from "secular" sources.
Next time you're in line at the grocery store, read the headlines on the women's magazines that are shouting at little kids standing in line with their parents. Our culture has made the wrong answers about sex far easier to find than the church has made the right answers to find."
This book is largely pastoral. While I bemoan the fact that a lot of people who reach out to this book will be doing so as a means to avoid having these conversations within the context of a local church I am thankful a Biblically-informed voice is available for them to hear.
That isn't the only reason to commend Real Marriage. The book does a good job of modeling for readers the necessity of taking every issue of life to the Word of God in order to find God's revealed will. It also does a pretty good job of walking readers through how to apply the clear teaching of scripture to areas of human experience that aren't explicitly addressed in Scripture. These are all very good things.
Of course, there is a pervasive form of legalism that sees Christian morality as a line and approaches the subject of ethics from a desire to see just how much wickedness someone can participate in without crossing that line into sin. That mentality will seize on the "Can We...?" chapter with delight and bend it to sinful ends. I would argue that rather than accusing the Driscolls of feeding that mentality we should acknowledge that good things can be turned to wicked ends.
The major weakness I see in Real Marriage is directly connected to an element that should be a strength. The key model for marriage presented by the Driscolls is friendship. At first blush that is great: marriage is in fact friendship. It's just that marriage isn't only friendship and the Driscolls door a poor job of letting their readers know that. There is only a passing glance given to Ephesians 5, a text that should be central to any Christian book on marriage. To leave readers thinking that marriage is just about friendship rather than presenting friendship as one component of the way marriage models for humanity the Christ's love for His church is to strip marriage of the lion's share of it's dignity. If I can illustrate my point I would say this reduction of marriage to friendship is akin to reducing Jesus to merely a good teacher - calling someone a good teacher is only an insult to someone who is infinitely more than that. In similar fashion reducing marriage to being mostly about friendship is an insult to an institution that is so much more than that. This failure to put the beauty of Ephesians 5 in front of its readers is a much more grievous fault on the part of Real Marriage than the "Can we...?" chapter, at least to my mind.
At the end of my book reviews I like to make a recommendation (either to read or stay away) to any who read the review. Would I recommend Real Marriage? Sure, with some qualifications. One - anyone who isn't at least engaged has no need to read this book. In fact, I would strongly recommend they stay away. Two - if this will be the first book you've read on marriage then I recommend you pass Real Marriage until you read some more foundational treatments of this subject (to be named in just a moment). Three - if direct talk of a sexual nature will scandalize or offend you then stay away.
I will still recommend When Sinners Say "I Do": Discovering the Power of the Gospel for Marriage
as the first book about marriage anyone should read. The second that should be read is The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God
. For most people reading those two titles will make reading Real Marriage superfluous. However, for those who want to supplement what they've read about marriage after reading Harvey and Keller then Real Marriage would be a fine option.
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