Introduction: On Learning To Read Beloved Writers Critically
Wife-unit scolds me whenever I find a new writer that I get very excited about. She fears that my enthusiastic nature leads me to too easily embrace whatever the writer espouses. I have gone through phases where Bonhoeffer and Marilynne Robinson, C.S. Lewis and Stephen Jay Gould were all devoured and perhaps uncritically accepted. Latterly, things have been made easier because my two main influences, Karl Barth and Stanley Hauerwas are never wrong. Especially not when they contradict each other!
Wife-unit is probably right. I would say that however, since my enthusiasm over how brilliant she is makes me liable to agree with whatever it is she proposes! But recently I have worked on developing a more critical reception of ideas. Now I can even tell you some of the ways I suspect Hauerwas goes awry (it’s a short conversation).
Tim Keller is a a Presbyterian minister in New York that I have learned a vast amount from. I listen to his sermons every week and apart from Trevor Morrow, nobody has so directly influenced how I preach. But continuing with my maturation, I have to take major issue with an aspect of what this writer, who has deeply inspired me, has published. The question that drives this essay is: “Can a single very bad mis-step ruin an otherwise fine book?”
I wrote this all out and found that I could easily spout 5000 words on reflections inspired by the book. Perhaps that is a really good thing going for it? But I have torn that up into a week of posts in an effort to stop myself from killing you all with boredom.
The Three Main Themes of the Book
The book in question is The Meaning of Marriage, which he co-wrote with his wife Kathy. I deeply enjoyed reading it. Well, most of it. Wife-unit and I listened to the sermons he delivered on marriage before our wedding and we found them very helpful. On one hand, this book is a good example of what I love about Keller’s work. He draws together his sources so sweetly. He riffs on Auden and then moves on to an article in the New York Times and then ties it altogether with some succinct exegesis. Throughout it all is the hunt to expose what grace does to transform us. This is all to be praised.
There are three main aspects to this book.
Firstly, the Kellers want to interrogate the cultural narratives that surround marriage. This is typical of their style. Tim talks often about the importance of finding the submerged stories that people are trying to live out.
The second viewpoint is the pastoral, which again makes total sense. This is not a systematic theology of marriage. This is not a philosophical ethics of matrimony. You read this book and you find yourself in it. The authors are concerned with shepherding people into verdant pastures.
But it is the third emphasis that leaves me so troubled and that is the espousal of a very narrow and limited theology of gender towards the end. The Kellers are notable for how excellent they are at welcoming and respecting different viewpoints, but this book veers off into the darkest and deepest and choppiest waters of American evangelical theology, leaving even supporters like me confused as to why this has happened.
Tomorrow I will write more about the problem with this third emphasis but for now I will draw your attention to the parts of the book I really appreciated.
The book begins with an investigation of the conflicting desires around marriage that our culture exhibits. We are tired with the institution and are suspicious of it. And yet we make such stringent demands on whoever would dare to enter into it with us:
If your desire is for a spouse who will not demand a lot of change from you, then you are also looking for a spouse who is almost completely pulled together, someone very ‘low maintenance’ without much in the way of personal problems. You are looking for someone who will not require or demand significant change. You are searching, therefore, for an ideal person – happy, healthy, interesting, content with life. Never before in history has there been a society filled with people so idealistic in what they are seeking in a spouse.
– Tim (and Kathy) Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, 33.
Even better was his section on how the essence of marriage is covenant. This is a recurring motif in his preaching – the centrality of God’s covenant in any coherent understanding of what the Bible is saying. His claim that “promising is the key to identity” (91) seems to be one of those casual lines that collapses the world from under you. Without being people who bear our word, our identities slip away. We all commit to doing things, and the put-together-ness of our sense of self (and others’ sense of us) is bound to how well we honour those commitments.
Similarly, he is wonderfully clear on the mission of marriage. The entire book is to be read as an exposition of the marriage section in Ephesians 5. The mission is the sanctification of your spouse. “What keeps the marriage going is your commitment to your spouse’s holiness.” (123) If that sounds very abstract and spiritualised, the Kellers bring it down into real life. For example: “If your spouse does not feel that you are putting him or her first, then by definition, you aren’t.” (128)
How rare it is for a pastor to be able to give such practical advice without sinking into legalism. That is avoided by constantly returning to the source of our hope. The wedding day should not be considered the happiest day of a couple’s life:
Not if you and your spouse wield the power of truth and love with grace in each other’s lives. Not if you are committed to the adventure of spiritual companionship, to partner with God in the journey to the new creation. Then, to the eye of God, as the years go by, you are making each other more and more beautiful, like a diamond being cut and polished and set.
– Tim (and Kathy) Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, 169.
So if this book settled on examining the cultural attitudes to marriage and then offering pastoral advice about marriage that is grounded in grace, how great would it be? Very great is the answer. Sadly, that is not all it does. More on that tomorrow. (Has there ever been a less suspenseful blog series??)
Your Corresponent, Thinks marriage is a lot like an orange. First, you have the skin… then the sweet, sweet innards…