Like most celebrity pastors, Mark Driscoll is a locus of controversy. Mark's comments about gender and sexuality have made him either a demon or a banner-man in the eyes of Evangelical Christianity. So when, in the wake of yet another controversy over gender, Driscoll announced that he and his wife, Grace, would be writing a book on marriage, the lovers and haters both waited on pins and needles.
In the preface, Mark makes a plea: "Don’t read as a critic trying to find where you think we might be wrong. ... Take whatever gifts you find in this book, and feel free to leave the rest."
Mark makes a fair request, and as grace-filled readers, we can (and should) oblige him. But is that possible? Can we read Real Marriage, take what's good and leave what's bad?
First, Mark's right. Real Marriage isn't all bad, however much Driscoll's critics wish it was. But there's plenty to be leery of, however much his sympathizers wish otherwise.
One thing the Driscolls do well is drag the issue of sex out into the harsh light of discussion. The topics they address are being asked in our culture and in the Church (albeit behind closed doors). Like it or not, Real Marriage removes the option to pretend sex isn't an issue.
The Driscolls should be commended for their honesty and transparency. Both Mark and Grace share openly about their own stories and the struggles and victories in their marriage. They do not try to come off as people who've done everything right, or as people who have all the answers. And while the tone of their story-telling is already a blogging battleground, the fact is they are very forthcoming. And that takes a lot of courage.
The Driscolls are clearly passionate for healthy marriages. Their passion has clearly grown in the context of ministry. It's not abstracted (in fact, a little more abstraction might do their theology well). At the end of the day, if all Christian marriages looked like the marriages the Driscolls describe, the Church could do a lot worse. We are doing a lot worse.
But for all the good in Real Marriage, there is plenty of bad. The deepest shortfall is that Real Marriage totally lacks a strong, clear picture of healthy Christian sexuality.
There's plenty of talk about sex. But like everything else in the book, it's an inseparable blend of helpful and hurtful. The machismo vibe in Mark's discussions of healthy manhood—and all it implies for healthy womanhoood—is disturbing. What counts as manly? What is truly feminine?
The Driscolls' apparent appeals to Scripture are actually grounded in an idealized, post-Industrial Revolution, white, middle-class, nuclear family. The Driscolls (apparently unknowingly) interpret the Scriptures through this lens, and it really hurts the book.
In his chapter to men, Mark establishes a model of maturity and biblical family that is formed less by the Scriptures than Leave It to Beaver. It's a model of family structure totally foreign to the biblical world. In fact, the type of marriage the Driscolls describe in Real Marriage isn't based on a single biblical couple. (They lean heavily on Song of Solomon. But assuming the author is Solomon as they do is problematic, since according to the Scriptures, he had more than 300 wives, which makes him sort of a polygamist.)
Grace's interpretation of the Esther story is similarly cringe-inducing. She chastises Queen Vashti for publicly disrespecting her husband. But how did she do this? She refused him when he wanted her to do a strip-tease for him and all his drunk friends. That's wrong? (However, the Driscolls make it clear elsewhere that they would encourage a woman like Vashti not to submit to such a sinful command.)
The model of marriage, family and maturity the Driscolls build is more a reinvigorated idealization of the nuclear family than something that arises from the Scriptures. And that would be fine, except the Driscolls present this model as every person's created intention. It's not presented as an opinion, but a divine command. The Driscolls assume full personhood is found in marriage and child-rearing. There's no picture of biblical singlehood and little discussion of how married and single persons integrate into one larger whole in the Church.
That's a problem because Jesus doesn't fit the Driscolls' picture of healthy, mature personhood (neither does Paul). Jesus would be, according to Mark's criteria, a "boy who shaves." The Driscolls' model of Christian maturity excludes the fullest picture of human personhood we've been given. That's a massive red flag.
Real Marriage lacks a model of human sexuality that incorporates both the first Adam and the second. Instead of a clear picture of healthy human sexuality, Real Marriage mostly offers us unfair assumptions, over-generalizations and unhelpful stereotypes.
So back to Mark's original request: Can we read this book "take it or leave it"? Is Real Marriage useful for creating healthier marriages?
No, it's not. Real Marriage is a too-mixed bag of good and bad to be useful. More than an issue of skipping certain chapters, it's nearly a line-by-line analysis. I found myself murmuring, "Oh, that's very good!" only to toss the book down in disgust at the subsequent line.
If this were our only option, well, beggars can't be choosers. But there are plenty of better marriage books out there. Even some that are as frank (though not as crass) about sex. Though it's certainly not all bad, the helpful and the harmful in Real Marriage are too thoroughly intertwined to be helpful.
JR. Forasteros is the teaching pastor at Beavercreek Nazarene inDayton, OH. He studied New Testament and Early Christianity at Southwest Baptist University and the University of Missouri Columbia. JR. and his wife, Amanda, love to travel and are obsessed with pop culture. JR.blogs about pop culture and theology at jrforasteros.com. Find him there, Facebook, Twitter or G+.