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Tim Challies

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2 years 6 months ago
True Beauty

Over the past few years I have found myself thinking often about beauty. I suppose my interest in the subject may relate to the fact that I am the father of two girls. Though they are still young, they are already being exposed to so many messages about the importance of beauty and the kind of beauty society expects from them. They already know they will be judged on the basis of it. For this reason I want to equip them with a knowledge of what the Bible says about beauty. But what does it say? What should I be teaching them?

Beauty is the subject of a new book from mother-daughter team Carolyn Mahaney and Nicole Whitacre. In True Beauty they go looking beyond society’s perceptions and misperceptions of beauty and attempt to bring the Bible to bear. They do it well.

Before I had two daughters I had three younger sisters, and for years I heard them grapple with being beautiful, looking beautiful, feeling beautiful. I heard them as they asked questions about the appropriate standards for beauty and as they doubted all we tried to tell them. I saw them try to deal with the false gospel of beauty: that beauty equals happiness, that more beauty brings more happiness, and that to be without beauty is to be without hope and fulfillment. What they didn’t want to hear is the too-easy message that outer beauty is meaningless while inner beauty is everything.

They could have used this book. Speaking for both authors, Mahaney says, “My hope is that you too will be encouraged to bring every question about beauty and every struggle with your appearance to God’s Word. My prayer is that you will trust in his Word and submit to his Word, finding hope, freedom, and delight in the beauty of his truth.” It is only God’s Word that can direct us to the deepest and sweetest beauty.

The authors begin by grounding beauty in the image of God. Because we are all made in God’s image, we all have inherent beauty. If God is beautiful, then so too are we, having been made in his image. “We are not beautiful because we fit the popular ideal of beauty, and we are not ugly or unattractive because we don’t measure up. Our beauty as human beings is not derived from ourselves. It comes from a beautiful God.” From Creation they go to the Fall and then to the gospel, showing that the gospel lays a double claim to our taste for beauty, first through creation and then through redemption. True beauty, they say, is to behold and reflect the beauty of God.

From the source of beauty, they go to the heart, showing that human beings are glory thieves, eager to steal the glory that is rightly God’s. A woman who wishes to use beauty to draw attention to herself, is robbing God of the glory that is his. From the heart they move to the body and deal with common issues—body image, weight, and the like. They speak here of stewardship, they encourage women to care for their bodies in ways that serve the Lord, and they warn against grumbling and dissatisfaction. They move outward again from the body to the clothing, discussing the importance of modest dress and rightly showing that clothing is simply an outer reflection of the inner woman.

As the book begins to draw to a close, they look at two important New Testament texts that speak to inner beauty and outer beauty. A helpful appendix provides guidance to parents who want to help their children understand God’s perspective on the subject.

What you will not find in True Beauty is the all-too-common attitude that frumpiness is next to godliness. You will not find the authors trying to convince you that beauty is a problem, that Christian women ought to be ashamed of the beauty God has given them, that they’d better not do anything to enhance it. You won’t find them saying that character is all that matters. What you will find is simple, clear, practical teaching on the nature of beauty and the sheer goodness of beauty.

Society gets beauty all wrong. As we examine the messages we see and hear all around us, we quickly spot the presence of idolatry. The beautiful are worshiped, while the plain are ignored or even reviled. Beauty is a cultural god. Mahaney and Whitacre do an exemplary job of going to Scripture to bring God’s wisdom to bear. And, as we would expect, his perspective is infinitely better. This is a book for any woman—an especially any young woman—to read and absorb.

3 years 3 weeks ago

I knew Aileen was a keeper from the first day we met (in high school) and from the first words she ever spoke to me (“I’m going to kill you!”). I can’t quite say it was love at first sight, but it wasn’t too far from it. I appreciated that she was feisty and not the least bit boring. The more I got to know her, the more intrigued I was by her strength and the more I wanted to take hold of that strength, and the woman behind it.

There are rumors out there, perhaps deliberately sown or perhaps just based on a misunderstanding, that men who hold to complementarian theology want their women weak. There are some who state that those who believe God has created men and women to fulfill different functions and to take on different roles in life and marriage want women to be pushovers or doormats. Stuff and nonsense, I say.

Recently Aileen bought Fierce Women: The Power of a Soft Warrior by Kimberly Wagner, and after she read it, she asked me if I would do the same. She had enjoyed it so thoroughly, and felt it spoke to her so deeply, she wanted to get my take as well. I was glad she asked.

Fierce Women is part biography and part theology. Kimberly Wagner is a strong woman. She has a strong personality, a strong faith in Jesus Christ, an extensive knowledge of Scripture, and a lot of natural ability. And yet for much of her life and marriage she had misused this strength. She tells the story behind her own marriage, what almost destroyed it, and what began to rebuild it. “Often marriages are caught in a destructive relationship dynamic that I call the Fierce Woman/Fearful Man cycle.” This was exactly the case in the early years of her marriage, where she had used her strength against her husband rather than using it to bless him. She had exacerbated his weaknesses instead of complementing them with her strength.

I often tell men that while “fear of man” may be the theological category, “fear of wife” is the way it commonly plays out. Men who may lead hundreds or thousands in the workplace are terrified to lead in their own homes. This reflects lack of character on a man’s part, but it may also be a result of the way his wife relates to him. Wagner nails it when she says, “Your husband may never admit this to you, but he may fear you. He may be terrified to make decisions because he feels he never does anything right, is unable to please you, or could never measure up to your expectations. Or he may be intimidated by your fierceness or passion.”

The Fierce Woman can be a living inspiration but her ferocity can also morph into her husband’s worst nightmare. He may respond to her fierceness by shutting down, running, responding in harsh anger, or passively retreating to his own silent world. Rather than experiencing joy and companionship, the couple caught in this miserable cycle relate to each other more like alienated roommates than passionate lovers and friends.

She is not saying that every wimpy man is a wimp because of his wife. Neither is she saying that all of a man’s problems are really his wife’s. Not at all. She is simply saying that many women misuse what God has given them. Their greatest strength may be their greatest weakness.

There is hope, but the hope is not for women to become weak and wimpy.

The good news is that this destructive cycle can be reversed. But a strong woman doesn’t need to take on a wimpy persona or undergo a personality transplant in order to be the ideal wife. As a Fierce Woman, you can develop a fresh and intimate relationship with your husband. In fact, God desires for your fierceness to play an integral role in His plan for your marriage.

This book is about the beauty of fierceness, about women who use their strength to honor the Lord by honoring their husbands. “When you’re told the hurdle is higher than you can jump, fierceness is what gets your blood going and takes you flying over the top. It’s the passion that motivates you to leave the cozy comfort of safety for the dangerous adventure of the unknown. It’s that element of determination that holds you in place when weak soldiers flee. It’s loyalty and doing what’s right; brilliant intensity and going the long haul. Fierceness is fervent faith and lonely stands; solitary boldness and trying one more time.”

Men are drawn to this kind of fierceness because it reflects godly character. The purpose of Wagner’s book is to identify that fierceness, to celebrate it, and to direct it toward the best and highest ends. Used wrongly it can be so destructive, but used well it can be an incredible blessing.

Though this is not a book written for me, it is one I enjoyed all the way through. Wagner describes the kind of character I so admire in Aileen and the kind of character I want to instill in my daughters. She alternates seamlessly between Bible and life as she shows fierceness at its best and its worst.

Fierce Women is the kind of book a feminist will hate because it affirms God-ordained differences between men and women and because it pushes women to live for the good of others, to esteem others higher than themselves. It affirms a woman’s strength, but shows the biblical way to use that strength is to direct it in love toward others. It’s a book I highly recommend.

3 years 4 months ago
I am sure that almost every homemaker, every mother, every woman, has experienced the disconnect between what she knows and what she feels, between knowing that her calling is good and the reality that it can be exasperating and so often feels unfulfilling. In Glimpses of Grace Gloria Furman brings the gospel to bear on a woman’s distinct calling and calls her to treasure the gospel in her home. Speaking on behalf of Christian women she says,
We need to know: What does the gospel have to do with our everyday lives in the home? How does the gospel impact our dish washing, floor mopping, bill paying, friend making, guest hosting, and dinner cooking? How does the fact that Jesus himself bore our sins in his body on the tree so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness make a difference in my mundane life today?

The big question she explores is simply this: How does the gospel change the way a woman lives out her calling as a homemaker?

In the first section of the book she looks at the gospel, saying “Theology is for homemakers who need to know who God is, who they are, and what this mundane life is all about.” My favorite chapter here is “Don’t Smurf the Gospel.” Furman is both amusing and convicting as she writes about the importance of properly defining the gospel and properly distinguishing between the gospel itself and its many implications and applications. If “smurf” is a word the Smurfs used when they didn’t know what else to say, “gospel” is a word many Christians use whether they really meant it or not. It’s a word that may mean very different things to different people, so Furman calls for clarity and precision in its use.

The second section, the bulk of the book, looks at a homemaker’s many callings and shows how the gospel speaks to each of them. The chapter titles give a sense of the subjects and the tone: “Divine Power and Precious Promises for the 2 a.m. Feeding,” “All Grace and All Sufficiency for Every Dinner Guest,” “Treasures In Jars of Clay, Not in Fine Bone China.” One of the stronger chapters in this section is “The Idol of a Picture-Perfect Home.” I appreciated this chapter because there is such a clear gospel remedy and gospel application to the kind of heart idolatry that desires and demands the illusion of a picture-perfect home.

I will turn it over to Kristie Anyabwile to provide her perspective on the book since she writes as a member of the core audience:

We need gospel fuel to joyfully serve our families, and that’s what Glimpses of Grace provides. Many days I unload a barrage of law upon my family, when what they need from me is grace, encouragement, and reminders of God’s faithfulness. I thank the Lord for using Gloria to point me to the glorious gospel of his grace so that I might extend the same grace to my husband and children. As homemakers we can be smothered by the ordinary, blinded by the mundane, living in a fog of routine and fatigue, unable to see how to clean messy noses or break up sibling squabbles for the glory of God. In Glimpses of Grace Gloria helps to lift the fog by showing us how the gospel can change our perspective as we serve and love our families.

Aileen and I both read this book and both enjoyed it a lot. We saw that Gloria uses both precision and grace as she shows that the good news, when properly understood and carefully applied, must transform the way a woman carries out the task the Lord has given her.

3 years 8 months ago
Motherhood was something I planned for, something I wanted, so why was living it out so drastically different from my expectations?” This is a question many an honest and searching mother has asked herself. If motherhood is so good, so desirable, so obviously the will of God, then why does it have to be so difficult? Why does it feel so unfulfilling? This was Sarah Mae’s question as she faced another day of caring for her children after yet another sleepless night—one of those days where she was just too tired and too worn out to be a mom. “Down to the bone, to the deepest part of my soul, is the love I have for my children. Every day of my life is imperfectly offered to them. But the little years, they’re hard and oftentimes lonely. It’s like a secret we fear sharing, just how life-altering motherhood is, especially when you don’t have training or support.”

Mae found both training and support through Sally Clarkson, an author who would also become a dear friend and much-needed mentor. Together they have written Desperate: Hope for the Mom Who Needs to Breathe, a book that, judging by its early reviews, has resonated with mothers.

Sally and I want to encourage you to keep going even when it feels like you can’t, and we want to help you. We won’t offer you formulas, but we will offer ideas, perspectives, transparency, and wisdom. We have some ideas for you in getting help, and we are making a plea for older women to remember the tired years and come alongside young mothers, so that our children and our children’s children will know how to serve and to receive help.

Mae and Clarkson collaborate in a very natural way. Mae, whose oldest child is just six years old, describes motherhood as she goes through it. She identifies concerns, confesses exasperation, asks question. Clarkson responds as the mentor, the one whose children are older and grown, the one who comes alongside those who are in the trenches.

I have no first-hand experience of motherhood, but what I can testify is that the questions Mae poses are the very ones that Aileen and I have discussed so many times. Almost every area of frustration is here: the never-ending piles of laundry, the house that begins to fall apart before the cleaning is even complete, the children who won’t sleep, the children who don’t want to obey. But it goes deeper than that. Here too is the self-reliance and unrealistic expectation. “A good mom, in my mind, was up bright and early before her children woke up; she got dressed, did her hair, put on her makeup, had her quiet time, and had breakfast simmering in the pan as she went to wake up her babes. Of course in my fantasy she was always cheery, always smelled good, and never raised her voice. She was what God never asked us to be apart from Him: perfect.”

The authors’ solutions to such questions and frustrations uniformly lead back to Scripture.

Each of us has a story, but God, who originated the design of motherhood, is the expert advisor to whom we should turn. God has equipped us for every good work, and I am quite confident that He who designed this role to be so eternally significant is the one who is ready to help, support, instruct, and guide. He will provide all we need for the task He has given us to fulfill. But to hear from God we must become women of the Word and women who pray, so that His voice may lead us as we grow into this role with grace. I look back now through all of the huge obstacles, unexpected twists, and challenges on this course of motherhood through my life and see that at each point, He was there, helping, carrying, guarding, and blessing as a true and present advocate. He is the reason for any success or blessing I have felt as a mother.

As the authors share wisdom, they also share hope.

Our shoulders often falter under a constant weight of performance and duty. We get caught up in the hectic cycle of endless tasks and often end up finding our lives to be a barren wasteland of burdens. We ask half-heartedly for a sip of His grace, never fully expecting Him to listen and answer. Yet Jesus wants us to come for a bottomless lake of His mercy, joy, fun, love, forgiveness, power, beauty, adventure, and freedom. He desires to give us eyes to see every moment from His perspective, looking out with a view over all of eternity—and seeing the stark difference between what really matters and what will soon pass.

When I finished reading this book, I immediately told Aileen that she would find it rich and encouraging. I want her to read it, because I know it will bless her. It will reassure her of her own inadequency and call her to depend more upon Christ, it will remind her of the value of both friendship and mentorship, it will tell her that her experiences in motherhood are universal, it will encourage her again and again to read, to pray, and to find her deepest satisfaction in God. As Ann Voskamp writes in the foreword, “if I make God first and am most satisfied in His love, I’m released to love my children fully and most satisfactorily.”

Let me share just three small areas of weakness: First, there were times that I wanted the authors to dig just a little bit deeper. For example, when dealing with inadequacies and addictions they introduce the subject of heart idolatries, but they do little more than that. This would have been an ideal location to dig into the concept—such a helpful one—in a bit more detail. Second, there are several words and phrases that seem just a little bit too vague or cliche, where I believe the authors would have done well to expand on them a little bit (e.g. “Lean into Jesus”). Third, there are times when they seem to indicate that raising children in a Christian environment can predispose them to become Christians. There may be a sense in which this is true—the Lord does work through Christian families to draw children to the Lord—but that relationship was not made as clear as I would have liked. As so many parents can testify (and as Clarkson writes in a Q&A at the end of the book), the Lord makes no guarantees.

Those minor concerns aside, I very much enjoyed reading Desperate and am convinced that it will bless and encourage any mother who reads it.

4 years 3 months ago
There are parts of the Christian life that can be easier caught than taught. A godly mentor is able to serve as a powerful display of the way truth works itself out in a life. The second chapter of Paul’s letter to Titus commands older women to take an active role in mentoring those who are younger and Debi Pearl steps into the role of mentor in Created To Be His Help Meet. At the time of writing this review, it has been on the market for 8 years, yet it is still ranked inside the top 3,000 books on Amazon and sit at #35 on the list of marriage books. It is selling well and is gaining influence.

Pearl seeks to be the Titus 2 woman, sharing with her readers wisdom that she has accumulated in many years of being a Christian, of being a wife, of raising a family. But there is a serious problem. Throughout the book, Pearl shows that she is a poor and unwise mentor. In place of the wisdom and the fruit of the Spirit that ought to mark a mentor, she displays a harsh and critical spirit, she offers foolish counsel, she teaches poor theology, she misuses Scripture, and she utterly misses the centrality of the gospel.

(Note: I am familiar with some of the controversy surrounding the Pearls and what they teach regarding disciplining children. To keep this review focused, I will not discuss their child-raising techniques.)

Areas of Agreement

Created To Be His Help Meet is not entirely bad, of course, and Pearl offers several valuable insights. She and I agree that the Lord has created women to be distinct from men not only in body, but also in role. In his wisdom, the Lord has given to men the position of leadership in the home and he has given women the complementary, helping role. She says, “When you are a help meet to your husband, you are a helper to Christ, for God commissioned man for a purpose and gave him a woman to assist in fulfilling that divine calling. … As we serve our husbands, we serve God.” Pointing to the Trinity, she shows that there is nothing inherently undignified in a helping role: “Men are created to be helpers of God. Jesus willingly became a helper to the Father. The Holy Spirit became a helper to the Son.” She shows that a husband and wife who embrace these roles are able to be a display of Christ and his church. “Knowing that my role as a wife typifies the Church’s relationship to Christ has molded my life. As I reverence my husband, I am creating a picture of how we, the Church, should reverence Christ.”

That broad theology of complementarity is a consistent thread from the first chapter to the last and, when combined with some wise and clever insights, assures that there is some value in this book. Alas, these nuggets of gold are surrounded by too much waste, too much folly masquerading as biblical wisdom.

Critical Spirit

Perhaps most troubling and most noticeable of all the book’s weaknesses is the anger and harshness that pervades and influences so much of what Pearl says. This is one of the harshest, angriest books I have read on this side of Richard Dawkins and this critical spirit is displayed in insulting language, in lack of sympathy, and in the passing of harsh judgments.

Here is an example from early in the book: “A few years back, there was an overweight hillbilly woman who worked in the local store in our hometown … this woman was ugly, I mean hillbilly ugly, which is worse than regular ugly.” Not surprisingly, this woman does not end up being the hero of the short story Pearl tells of her. First she mocks her ugly appearance, and then her ugly demeanor.

At one point Pearl describes a woman she had conflict with and labels her “The Crazy Lady.” When this woman eventually has an apparent nervous breakdown, Pearl is quick to determine that this breakdown was God’s judgment upon her, saying “God had visited her with madness. He does ‘fearful’ things like that.” Never is there even the smallest shred of grace or sympathy in her words or her tone; never does she consider that this woman may have suffered from a mental illness.

When a woman writes to ask Pearl how to deal with a husband who idolizes television and allows their young children to view inappropriate shows, Pearl responds by telling her to imagine the day her husband leaves her. “You will wonder if the baby-sitter is having her boyfriend over for a little sex in the bedroom while the kids watch TV alone. The young children will cry when you leave for work, and the older children will be glad to see you go so they can exercise their new found liberties.” It goes on for a long and taxing paragraph before Pearl writes, “Now, Susan, let’s come back to the present. If you continue to dishonor your husband, the above scenario will likely become our own personal nightmare—soon! … The Devil would love to steal your children’s souls. He will not do it through your husband’s TV; he will do it through your dishonor.”

Shortly after this tirade she begins another about “a new breed of woman today,” describing women who have gone through divorce and are now single moms. “They dress cheaply; their hair has a ragged cut, and the dark circles under their young eyes testify to their faded hope.” Even though a husband was addicted to pornography or had anger problems, it is the wife who brought about her divorce. “It all started when you were mad about a TV commercial, or when he watched the car races on a Sunday afternoon. It got worse when he wanted you to do something exotic sexually. Divorce is never planned, but is almost always preceded by certain avoidable reactive behavior and events. Don’t let it happen to you.” A consistent thread in the book is that a failing marriage is always—or very nearly always—the fault of the wife; she is the one to blame, regardless of what her husband has contributed to the problem.

For women who struggle with accepting their husband’s sexual advances she offers this counsel: “Don’t talk to me about menopause; I know all about menopause, and it is a lame excuse. Don’t talk to me about how uncomfortable or painful it is for you. Do you think your body is special and has special needs? Do you know who created you, and do you know he is the same God who expects you to freely give sex to your husband? Stop the excuses!” This is always a difficult and sensitive issue, yet Pearl offers not a trace of sympathy and absolutely no grace.

When a woman writes Pearl to ask advice on honoring a husband who is so lazy that the house and property are falling apart, Pearl has her take a “A Dumb-Cluck Test” and then asks, “Well, are you a dumb-cluck? … You asked me, ‘What should I do?’ You should get off your easy chair and learn to do a thing or two.”

Another story involves a young woman who reacted with visible irritation when her husband put his arm around her. Even though Pearl knew nothing of the context to this action, she was just a spectator from across the room, she says, “I wanted to get up and shake that girl until her teeth rattled. It would have shocked her to know that everyone in the room felt extreme disdain toward her…” Well, we know that at least one person felt extreme disdain for her, but by now you are seeing that this is rather common in the life of Debi Pearl. She is a harsh, critical and angry person and this ugly tone pervades this book. Where is the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control that ought to mark the Christian, and especially the Christian mentor? Who would want their wife or their daughter or anyone else to be mentored by a harsh, graceless, angry person like Debi Pearl?

Foolish Counsel

Much of what Pearl teaches in this book comes via answers to letters she has received. She consistently offers poor, even shocking, counsel in her return letters.

To one woman she says that if her husband sexually handles their children, that woman must call the authorities (wise!), but then she tells her that she ought to bring the children to visit their father in prison three to four times a year (potentially extremely unwise depending on the situation!). Not only this, but she tells the wife that is she does this, it will certainly win her husband to the Lord so once he is released, they can get on with life. This is far too terse and has far too little nuance to be at all helpful.

She quietly warns women away from close friendships with anyone but her husband, suggesting that for a woman to bond with another woman in this way is “a perverted expression of woman satisfying woman.”

A woman who is suspicious that her husband may be carrying on an emotional, or perhaps sexual, affair is told that she needs to “learn to use her feminine wiles” to woo him back. With no knowledge of the facts, Pearl calls the husband’s secretary a “cheap slut” and passes all manner of judgment on her. She advises this wife that instead of confronting her husband in any way, she should ooze sexuality and constantly seduce him in order to show him what he is giving up. This will work, she says. Her source of authority here is not Scripture but Loretta Lynn and her song, “You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man.”

It may be no surprise at this point that Pearl seems to have no real theology of the local church. Speaking of how she submits to her husband she writes, “there is no pastor or minister higher than my husband.” In fact, if a pastor claims authority, he is, according to her husband, “a liar and a deceiver.” With the local church out of the picture, there is no court of appeals, nothing between submission to husband and calling the police. So when a husband dresses like a woman and wants his wife to engage in perverse role-play, she can do nothing more than tell the woman to express her disgust and to tell her husband that he is going to hell. There is no room for this woman to seek counsel and help in the local church. In neglecting the role of the church and the God-given spiritual care and authority of the local church, she neglects a great means of grace to the Christian.

Much of Pearl’s counsel is utterly heartless and even that which is not is too often proud and terse and utterly devoid of biblical wisdom. She displays a distinct lack of wisdom.

Tomorrow I will show how she misuses Scripture and how she teaches poor theology. I will also suggest some superior alternatives to this book.

(Click here for part 2)

4 years 7 months ago
Right there are the top of the New York Times list of nonfiction bestsellers is The Vow by Kim and Krickitt Carpenter. This book was published by B&H Books (a Christian publisher) twelve years ago, so what is it doing at the top of this week’s list? Well, 4 years before that the authors signed a deal for the movie rights to this story and after all these years that movie has finally hit the big screen. A new edition of the book has been published to coincide with the film and it has raced right to the top of the list.

I have not seen the movie and neither do I intend to, so this is a review of only the book. From what I hear, the film is only very loosely based on the broad outline of the story; not only is it a poor movie according to the reviews, but it also ignores the Christian moorings that are so important to the real-life characters.

So what is The Vow all about? Kim and Krickitt Carpenter had been married for just 10 weeks when they were in a serious accident in which Krickitt suffered traumatic head injuries. When she woke from her coma she had no recollection of her husband and no recollection of ever having been married to him. Not only that, but her personality was very different; once a sweet and kind person, she was now often angry and frustrated and cruel. But in his marriage vows Kim had promised to remain with her, and that is exactly what he did, suffering deeply as he cared for the wife who no longer knew him and who no longer wanted him. The Vow tells their tale, from dating to marriage to the accident and back to dating as they try to fall in love a second time. It is a stirring story in many ways—an inspirational one that deserves to be told.

Central to The Vow is the Carpenter’s Christian faith. There is never any doubt that this is a distinctly Christian book, meant to make the reader understand that the vows that held this couple together were made before God and that even in the darkest days these two remained accountable to God. They give all credit and glory to God as the one who held them together despite their unique and trying circumstances.

Yet despite all of that, I found myself wishing that this book was just a little bit more. I wanted it to dive deeper into the realities of marriage, to do more to anchor the story in gospel truths—not just “Jesus” but “Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead,” not just marriage as an institution, but marriage as a display of the gospel. The broad outline of the story is so good, but the execution feels dry and inadequate. Marriage is certainly not less than “the vow,” but it is so much more!

The filmmakers changed the story to remove the Christian elements, to add more sex and passion. I found myself wanting to rewrite or at least embellish the story, to have the characters make deeper proclamations of faith, to have them talk about the unique way in which their marriage has been able to model the real marriage of Jesus Christ and his church. It could have been more, it could have taught more truth, it could have been so much deeper and so much more inspiring with even just one or two references to the powerful words of Ephesians 5. Instead of “We love God so we have to love one another” it could have been “Jesus Christ died for my sins, rose from the dead, and now reigns supreme in this world. He gave me a unique opportunity to model his relationship with his church in my marriage, and here, by his grace, is how I did that.” It’s not that I in any way doubt the faith of the characters; I just wish it had been more explicit and that the implications of this faith had been displayed more clearly.

I suppose this is one of those books that I enjoyed but only with some measure of lament. It could have been so much more. The Vow is worth the time and the cost, but its power and value could easily have been so much greater.

4 years 9 months ago
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?

The Rest

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.

5 years 2 months ago
When Carolyn Weber arrived at Oxford University to begin her post-graduate studies, she felt no need for God and had no interest in him. An intelligent young woman who had grown up in a nominal Roman Catholic family, she was glad to rely on her intellect for the answers to life’s greatest questions. As a blooming academic, she had few mentors or models who could show that faith is not only compatible with intellectual pursuits, but that it actually enhances them.

But the Lord had plans for Weber. Soon after arriving on campus she met a young man who shared the gospel message with her and, as she came to learn, once you have heard that message you cannot unhear it. The message resounded in her heart and mind. She spent 2 terms pondering that message, learning more about it, fighting against it, reading the Bible and engaging in conversation with anyone who would speak to her. She knew that the Lord was pursuing her and she eventually began to pursue him in return.

This tale is described in Surprised by Oxford, Weber’s newly-published memoir. The quirky setting for this pursuit, this love story, is the ancient campus of Oxford University. The structure follows Oxford’s academic year and its 3 terms, Michaelmas, Hilary and Trinity. There are 3 dimensions to this love story—love for Oxford, love for a young man, and love for a Savior. The three are interwoven and inseparable; each one is fascinating.

As we might expect from a person who has dedicated her life to the study of literature, Weber is a capable writer and more than capable, really. As much as I enjoyed the story, it is the writing that truly gripped me. There were moments that I had to stop reading for a time and just ponder the beauty of well-formed sentences and perfectly-chosen words. Here is a brief excerpt in which Weber visits a local church so she can borrow one of its Bibles.

A sea of pews greeted me, each with a Bible and a hymnal tucked neatly inside every few feet. I could sit anywhere and have my pick, easily within reach.

I thought at first that I could discreetly take one, or rather borrow one, and no one would notice. But then I thought better. Reading from a stolen Bible? Something in that seemed a little coarse, even for a cynic like me. So instead I made my way to one of the back pews and sat down, irreverently crossing my ankles on the genuflecting cushion and resting my coffee on the handy little shelf for the welcome cards. I opened a Bible and began at the beginning, a very good place to start.

Before I knew it, stealthily entering St. Mary’s by the side door with my morning coffee became something of a ritual for me. The church always owned a particular hush during the rush of a weekday. Sometimes I would return late in the evenings, too, after the Bodleian closed. I would step out of the chill into the candle glow. I enjoyed the peace, the solitude, the seeming transgression. 

Purchasing my own Bible seemed too much of a commitment, like getting married. Besides, the church was right across the street from my college, so, as they say, why purchase the cow when you can get the milk for free? I began coming more and more often.

Lilies in the field, a house with many mansions, the command to love one another—familiar echoes from an unfamiliar context. Seeds planted but nothing, really, I thought, to reap.

In this back pew I read the Bible steadily on borrowed pages. I devoured it, just as a best-selling book (which, coincidentally, it always has been). Even the long, monotonous lists. Even the really weird stuff, most of it so unbelievable as to only be true. I have to say I found it the most compelling piece of creative nonfiction I had ever read. If I sat around for thousands of years, I could never come up with what it proposes, let along with how intricately Genesis unfolds toward Revelation. That the supposed Creator of the entire universe became a vulnerable baby, born in straw, to a poor girl who claimed to be a virgin, and who was betrothed to a guy probably scared out of his wits, but who stood by her anyway. It unwinds and recasts the world and our perception of it: that the Holy Grail is more likely to be the wooden cup of a carpenter than the golden chalice of kings.

No wonder this stuff causes war, I thought as I read, between nations and within each of us.

It’s important to note that this is not a memoir of coming from darkness to fully-formed five-point Calvinism (or five-point Arminianism, for that). And that’s okay. Weber battles through the authority of the Bible, the person and work of Jesus, the ways in which her feminist worldview had shaped her perception of God and on and on. She covers a lot of ground here. There is consistently war between what she wants to believe and what she knows she needs to believe. More interesting than anything else may be her growing submission to the Lord, often at some personal cost.

When I began reading Surprised by Oxford I considered the title a weak one. But as I read it, and as the story began to reveal itself, the title began to make a lot more sense. It began to fit. Weber really was surprised by Oxford. As Jim Belcher writes in his endorsement of the book, “She didn’t come to Oxford University to think about God, but in the end she discovered that He was thinking about her; and this reality changed her life.” That was a surprise, indeed.

Quite needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I never tire of reading how the Lord draws people to himself and I found Weber’s story particularly compelling in its warmth, its wit and its uniqueness.

8 years 7 months ago
Candice Watters’ professor just about blew her mind. “I was sitting in class learning about all the ways our country was slipping from its constitutional foundations. And in a moment of exasperation, I raised my hand and called out, ‘So what’s the solution?’” It wasn’t what she expected. Her professor told her to get married, to have babies, and to do government (and in that order, too). Here she was, in grad school pursuing a master’s so she could head to Washington and fight for the traditional family. Yet here she was told that she was going about it all wrong. It all comes down to math. “The people who form families, who raise children and send them into the next generation, are the ones who will influence where our government and culture go in the future.” The conversation soon turned in a different direction, but she was changed; she was transfixed. She began to believe that she, too, could and should be married.

For all the women who struggle as Watters did, she offers this book. “It’s for all the women who long for marriage but are afraid to admit it, embarrassed by their deepest desires, or concerned that maybe they want it too much. It’s for the parents of single women who wonder if there’s anything they can do to help. And it’s for married friends of singles who want to help but don’t want to intrude.” The book’s message is as simple as its title. Get married. That’s the way God wants it.

Watters, who founded the Boundless.org webzine for Focus on the Family and who continues to contribute to it, takes the position that almost everyone is called to marriage—marriage is normative except for a very few. Many Christians, and too many probably, believe that singleness and celibacy are one and the same. But they are not. Celibacy is for the celibate—for those God has specially gifted so they may be set aside for service to Him. Those who desire marriage or who desire sexual relationships are not so called and ought to pursue marriage.

This book offers a way to live like you’re planning to marry. This does not mean clipping pretty dresses out of wedding catalogs, stuffing a hope chest, or entering the Christian equivalent of the myriads of dating shows. Rather, it means making some lifestyle changes and may mean rethinking singleness, marriage, and even men. It means living in expectation of marriage. And do that end, Watters provides a good deal of useful and practical advice.

As a man and as a married man at that, the book was certainly not written for me. Yet I found much in it that was valuable and I enjoyed reading it, and particularly enjoyed the author’s insights into the potential dangers of thinking like our culture thinks when it comes to marriage. The book has many valuable insights and corrections to the way people often think. When writing about a potential danger of aiming too high, of living a long and enjoyable life as a single before settling down, she writes, “Ironically, when you don’t need a man, your expectations for what a husband should be go up.” She deals well with the challenges that may arise when a husband and wife have both become firmly established in their single ways. She also writes well about the concept of “soul mates,” an idea that has brought about a great deal of pain and unhappiness. Too many people become convinced that God has set aside a single soul mate for them and that they will only ever be happy with this one person. Needless to say, this sows the seeds of doubt about whether the person they are with is really “the one.” In a lengthy appendix Watters answers many questions about establishing relationships, choosing a mate, and life planning.

If this book has a weakness (other than describing Mother Teresa as a “heroic single”—Come on, fellow evangelicals, it’s time to get over her!), it is the same one I’ve found in other similar titles (such as Debbie Maken’s Getting Serious About Getting Married—it offers little comfort to those who truly desire to be married but who have not been blessed with a spouse. It may make it seem almost too easy—yet there are many women who will testify that, despite desire and effort, they have been unable to marry. I can see that a book like this might exacerbate the pain some such people may already feel.

Get Married is a book about living like you’re planning to marry. Watters offers biblical wisdom and hard-won experience to encourage women to live like they wish to marry. She shows that marriage is a good and worthy goal and one that may not be too far off. The book will be a challenge and encouragement to any woman who desires to get married.

11 years 2 months ago
“Kneeling down on the hard wooden scaffold, Jane turned to Feckenham who stood by her. ‘Shall I say this psalm?’ she faltered. Overcome with emotion, the priest who had tried so hard to save Jane from this moment, could scarcely reply. After a moment’s pause, he simply said, ‘Yea.’ Jane then began to repeat Psalm 51 in English, David’s great prayer of contrition…A deep silence rested over the sad scene, nothing could be heard except for the quiet sobbing of her lady attendants. Hardened soliders who had witnessed brutality many times before stood without moving…Bracing her body to receive the impact of the blow, Lady Jane called out in a clear voice, ‘Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.’ With a stroke, swift, sharp and terrible, Jane’s short life was ended” (page 200-201).

So ended the life of a bright light in a particularly dark and strange period of English history. In a time when the Catholic powers were trying to exterminate the new Reformed teaching, the two potential rulers who seemed most likely to increase the Protestant faith both came to an early end. Edward VI, only a teenager, died following a long bout with tuberculosis. Edward was a strong Christian and committed to the expansion of Reformed Protestantism. He attempted to bypass his half-sister Mary, an ardent Catholic, who was next in line to the throne and hand it instead to Lady Jane Grey, a friend and sister in Christ who was committed to Protestantism. Lady Jane, under great pressure from her family agreed, but did so only with the greatest reluctance. The attempt quickly failed and Mary came to the throne, bringing with her a time of terrible persecution against Protestants. Lady Jane was one of those who died during this time of great conflict. Why God chose to allow this to happen - why he would allow two strong Christians to perish in order to usher in a reign of terror and persecution - is beyond our reckoning. Truly His ways are not our ways.

Lady Jane Grey by Faith Cook, is the story of Lady Jane, who is known as the nine day queen of England. The author seeks to portray Lady Jane as someone who was more than a mere pawn in the hands of powerful men, but was a young lady of starting intelligence and strong faith. Cook feels that Lady Jane’s treatment in history has been unfair, and has assigned to her far too little credit. To understand her, we must first understand that dark period of British history, and the author provides the information necessary to properly see the tragedy unfold. The strength of this young woman’s faith is incredible, that one so young could know so much.

Even when offered a chance to save her life, she refused to accept Catholic teachings. Even when befriending a priest, the only person allowed to provide religious counsel during her final days, she did not hesitate to challenge him on his erroneous beliefs. Even when she had been thrust into a position which was not rightly hers, she accepted full responsibility for her sinful actions.

Because this story cannot be separated from the period of history in which it happened, the author has to spend a fair amount of time teaching history. She does so with clarity and precision, never allowing the narrative to become broken. She successfully combines history with biography in telling the story of an admirable Christian woman. Cook aptly summarizes the importance of Lady Jane’s death. “Like the apostle Paul, she had fought a good fight, finished the course and kept her faith. Henceforth there was laid up for her a crown of righteousness - a crown none could take from her” (page 201). Lady Jane stands as an inspiration for her strong stand for what she knew to be right. This book is informative, moving and most importantly, inspiring. I thoroughly enjoyed this biography and am more than happy to recommend it.

  Evaluation Support
On the whole the theology is solid.
Well-written and easily readable. There is some depth of history in the book.
A helpful perspective on this tragic story.
It is important to see Lady Jane as more than a pawn, but as a committed Christian.
A wonderful biography and one I definitely recommend.
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