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Book Review - Real Marriage
January 02, 2012
It must be intimidating to write a book on marriage. Store shelves are groaning under the weight of titles that claim to have the key to a happy marriage, or a biblical marriage or a gospel-centered marriage. To rise above such a crowded field a book needs to offer something different, something unique, something that distinguishes it from the pack. Mark and Grace Driscoll have jumped into the fray with their new book Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together and the distinguishing feature of their book is its gut honesty, its sheer vulnerability. The Driscolls invite the reader deep into their own marriage and attempt to answer difficult, intimate questions—what they say are the questions you’d be too embarrassed to ask your pastor.
What Book Is It?
Before I look at the book’s content, I feel that I need to speak briefly about the book as a book. What quickly becomes clear is that Real Marriage suffers from a lack of clear identity, a problem that may stem from what appears to be rushed or otherwise ineffective editing. I point these things out not to be petty but because they effect the final product.
In the first place, there is a kind of sloppiness and inconsistency to the book. One example of this is the way the chapters vary so much in style, some being very personal with others being abstract and coldly statistical; even the inline subheadings can vary from chapter-to-chapter (e.g. italics in one chapter, all caps in the next). There are also factual errors, like when the Driscolls state that Solomon was the child born of David and Bathsheba’s adultery (when, in fact, that child died and Solomon was born later); there are errors in footnoting, like when a footnote contains no reference to what they have stated; there are errors in punctuation where a statement ends with a question mark, and errors in flow where a chapter references things to come that do not actually come.
Added to the editorial sloppiness is the fact that there is little internal cohesion to the book. Real Marriage reads more like a series of seminars than a cohesive introduction-to-conclusion look at a subject.
Finally, the fact that half of the book focuses on marriage and the other half on sex leads to some confusion as to the nature of the book. Is it a book on marriage or a book on sex? How do these things relate to one another in such a way that they merit equal attention? Obviously marriage is not less than sex, but is the sexual relationship fully half of marriage? Why does it receive such emphasis?
All these things together lead to a book that is disjointed and somewhat frustrating.
Such critiques aside, what about the book’s content?
Real Marriage is divided into eleven chapters and three parts. Part 1, which spans the first five chapters, is titled “Marriage.” Chapter 1 is biographical; the Driscolls share many of the challenges they have faced through their marriage and reveal that until very recently their marriage and their sexual relationship were sources of great difficulty. They stayed faithful to one another, but faced great challenges that they’ve only recently learned to overcome. This introduces the kind of transparency and vulnerability that marks the book. Chapter 2 looks at the importance of friendship within marriage while in chapter 3 Mark writes primarily to men and challenges them to take seriously their roles as leaders and providers and to learn to honor their wives. Chapter 4 is geared toward women and Grace focuses on respect, telling women of the importance of obeying the biblical command to respect their husbands. Here and in many other places we see the Driscolls firmly defending a complementarian understanding of gender roles within marriage. The 5th and final chapter in this section looks at the inevitable disagreements within marriage and seeks to model fighting well—moving past disagreement toward peace and reconciliation.
The highlight of what the Driscolls teach on marriage is probably the importance of friendship. This is, indeed, an overlooked topic and experience shows that many of the best marriages are the ones in which the spouses are fast friends. A strange mis-step in this chapter is Mark’s statement that he has asked Grace to be his “functional pastor,” Because he is a pastor and he does not have anyone to pastor him, he has asked Grace to fill that role. This must speak as much to his church’s leadership structure as to the Driscoll’s marriage; it is an unusual position and not one I would want others to emulate.
Noticeably absent in this section is a firm and robust gospel grounding for marriage.. Ephesians 5 is referenced only in passing; the marriage relationship as a mystery, a picture of Christ’s relationship to the church, is never clearly offered as the big picture or ultimate purpose of marriage. That gospel foundation is utterly, absolutely critical to an understanding of marriage and it is missing from Real Marriage. This is a tragic oversight. And I say “tragic” because the biblical understanding of marriage influences everything else—everything they discuss from chapter one to chapter eleven.
Just about 100 pages into the book, Part 2, “Sex,” begins. Chapter 6 is titled “Sex: God, Gross or Gift?” and teaches that sex is a good gift of God given for pleasure, procreation, oneness, knowledge, protection and comfort. Chapter 7, “Disgrace and Grace” looks at sexual abuse and shares Grace’s story of being a victim of such abuse. Chapter 8 turns to pornography, showing the danger it poses. Servanthood and selfishness in the sexual relationship is the subject of chapter 9. Sections on “Ways We Are Selfish Lovers” and “Reasons Why We Are Selfish Lovers” introduce good questions for discussion between a husband and wife, but somehow the chapter veers into an act-by-act exposition of Song of Solomon, ultimately encouraging a wife to be “visually generous” (i.e. strip) for her husband.
Chapter 10 is easily the most controversial chapter and the place that the Driscolls ask and answer the “Can We _______?” questions within the sexual relationship. They cover a long list of specific sexual acts and introduce a grid from 1 Corinthians 6:12. I have already discussed the shortcomings of this grid elsewhere and would encourage you not to use it in the way they teach. (Click here to find those articles) Here’s the thing: The greatest, most enduring, most ultimate purpose of marriage is that it is meant to draw our eyes and hearts and minds to what Christ has done. Thus when faced with the “Can We _______?” questions we do not go first to law and ask, “Does the Bible forbid this?” Instead we go straight to the gospel and ask, “Is this a reflection of Christ and his church? Does this come from a heart that has been radically altered by the gospel?” This gospel focus is missing from their evaluation.
Allow me to make a few observations about these chapters.
The first is that in at least two places the Driscolls refer to a man’s sexual desire as a “need.” This is a difficult term that begs further definition and one that needs to be understood in reference to the gospel, the message that proclaims our deepest needs have already been met in Christ. A man does not “need” to have sex—not in the sense he needs to eat or sleep or have Christ as his Savior. At one point Mark writes about “testosterone-induced depression,” a condition that can arise when sexual needs are not met. That form of depression may exist and there is a sense in which a man’s body craves sex. But these things cannot be properly understood without the wider context of the gospel. This context is absent and it’s a significant oversight.
Another observation is that the book is graphic. In the “Can We _______?” chapter the Driscolls look at a long list of very intimate sexual acts. A chapter earlier they look to Song of Solomon and state that each verse points to a very specific sexual act. There is no subtlety in describing sexual deeds and misdeeds; rather, everything is explained in detail. Some of these acts are so intimate (perhaps invasive is also an appropriate word) that many readers will never have considered that they even exist. As a husband I would not want my wife to read some of what this chapter contains. This is not prudishness but protection. It is one thing to address specific questions that have arisen within the marriage relationship; it’s another thing altogether to introduce those questions to the marriage relationship.
Finally, Mark’s abuse of The Song of Solomon has been widely noted and discussed, but he continues to treat it as a graphic sex manual. To treat it this way is to utterly miss the point. As Carl Trueman says, turning the Song of Solomon “primarily into a sex manual is arguably a greater act of reductionism than jumping straight from the text to Christ and the church.” (See John MacArthur and Carl Trueman for more)
There is much more I could say. On the one level I appreciate what the Driscolls were trying to accomplish here. They were seeking to build credibility with the reader by opening up their marriage and they were seeking to answer the kinds of questions people have asked them. I get that. But the result is a disjointed effort that misses the mark because it is not firmly and sufficiently grounded in the gospel. The section culminates in the “Can We _______?” questions, but answers to these questions will inevitably miss the mark if we don’t begin with the heart of marriage. How can we evaluate any action in marriage if we haven’t first talked at length about the actions of our Savior and our desire to model him?
Part 3 is a single chapter titled “Reverse-Engineering Your Life and Marriage.” The stuff of marriage seminars, this is a long homework assignment for a husband and wife to complete together to help them understand their marriage, put together goals, and finish well.
It is worth mentioning that the e-book version of Real Marriage also contains five appendices. The most notable of them may be the one that speaks of divorce. The Driscolls teach that there are six legitimate grounds for divorce: 1) Death (Rom. 7:2–4; 1 Cor. 7:39); 2) Adultery (Deut. 22:22; Matt. 5:32); 3) Non-Christian files for divorce and leaves (1 Cor. 7:10–24) 4) Sexual immorality/porneia (Matt. 5:32; 19:9); 5) Treachery or treasonous betrayal (Mal. 2:14–16); 6) Hardness of heart (Matt. 19:8; Mark 10:5). They then give the example of an abusive husband saying that if he is unrepentant for his abuse, a woman could divorce him using grounds 5 and 6. I know of no legitimate theologians who teach that these are all legitimate grounds for divorce and very few that would allow divorce under the circumstances given.
I said from the outset that in order to distinguish itself in a crowded field, a book on marriage needs an angle, something unique. The Driscolls chose to make their angle vulnerability and answers to the toughest questions. What they haven’t done is laid a solid gospel foundation for marriage; they haven’t looked at these questions in the fullest context of gospel-centeredness and the rich biblical theology of marriage. This is near-fatal because it leads to a book that is not firmly rooted in what matters most.
Having read the book through two times, I’ve found myself wondering how to best measure or evaluate it, but perhaps these criteria are useful: Would I want to read it with my wife or would I encourage her to read it on her own? Would I recommend it to the people in my church? In both cases the answer is no. This is not to say that the book is entirely without merit; Real Marriage does have things to commend it. But in my assessment the negatives far outweigh the positives. Its disjointed nature, the way it is unhinged from the gospel, the way it evaluates sexual acts through an improper grid—in all these ways and more it inadvertently lowers marriage rather than elevates it. With so many good books on marriage available to us, I see no reason to recommend this one.