Real Marriage by Mark and Grace Driscoll

 In Blog, Book Reviews, Spirituality

Real MarriageIf Love Wins was the most controversial book last year, Real Marriage by Mark and Grace Driscoll is set to win the award this year. Mark Driscoll has long been in the public eye as a confrontational, no-holds barred pastor who likes to shout. Theologically, he’s part of the New Calvinist movement and a staunch Complementarian when it comes to gender roles. It’s this stance that’s drawn him the most attention, from his popular, candid and sexy Song of Solomon tour to blaming Ted Haggard’s public fall on his wife (because she “let herself go”), from claiming that stay-at-home dads in his church would be subjected to Church discipline to praising Jesus as a blood-thirsty, sword-wielding UFC fighter.

So when, in the wake of yet another controversy over gender, Driscoll announced that he and his wife would be writing a book on marriage, the Evangelical world was intrigued to say the least.

So how is the book? Well, unsurprisingly, there aren’t really any surprises. But in the preface, Driscoll makes a plea to us:

Don’t read as a critic trying to find where you think we might be wrong. Although we seek to be faithful to the Bible, this book is not the Bible, and, like you, we are imperfect, so there will be mistakes. Take whatever gifts you find in this book, and feel free to leave the rest.

Driscolls1I suppose that’s a fair request, and while it’s not in line with the persona Driscoll is famous for, we can (and should) extend him this grace. And, all in all, it’s a really good suggestion.

Real Marriage isn’t all bad, however much Driscoll’s critics wish it was. But there’s plenty to be leery of.

Early in the book, Driscoll comments:

For such a big issue, most teaching on sex inside the church is inadequate, and most teaching on it outside the church is perverted. Fortunately, God has a lot to say to us on the topic of sex and marriage.

This statement reveals major strengths and weaknesses of Real Marriage.

One thing the Driscolls do well is drag the issue of sex out into the harsh light of discussion.

Much like the questions Bell raised in Love Wins, the topics Real Marriage addresses are being asked in our culture and in the Church (albeit behind closed doors). But most pastors won’t touch them with a 10-foot pole. Like it or not, Real Marriage is going to remove the option to pretend sex isn’t an issue.

The Driscolls are also very open and transparent. They deserve to be commended for this.

*temp*Both Mark and Grace share openly and honestly about their own stories and the struggles and victories in their marriage. They do not come off as people who’ve done everything right, or as people who have all the answers. And while we could (and should, as my new friend Dianna does here) critique the tone of their story-telling, the fact is they are very forthcoming in Real Marriage. And that takes a lot of courage.

But for all the good in Real Marriage, there is plenty of bad.

Mark and Grace speak for God a lot in Real Marriage. Their theology is readily apparent throughout the book, and what’s presented isn’t open for discussion. It’s all take-it-or-leave-it. And it’s all done with the characteristic New Calvinist disregard for interpreter’s context.

Like many of his peers, Driscoll’s handling of biblical texts suggest that he doesn’t take into account his own cultural biases.

For instance, Driscoll includes a mini-commentary on a passage from Titus:

The Bible plainly says, “If anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”

Now, since this is so “plain” to Driscoll, he goes on to blast men who do not work outside the home. He does make an allowance – sort of – for working moms:

Admittedly, a wife working before kids are born, or who finds a way to make money from home without neglecting her first God-given responsibilities of Christian, wife, and mother is acceptable. But men, you should make money. You should feed your family.

Driscoll’s interpretation of this passage has been dismantled thoroughly elsewhere, but note that Driscoll’s model of family assumes that “family” means the “Post-Industrial Revolution White Middle-class Nuclear” family. But such a family structure is 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. (To be fair, they do lean heavily on Song of Solomon. But assuming the author is Solomon as they do is problematic, since according to the Scriptures, he had over 300 wives, which makes him sort of a polygamist.)

Marriage for the Driscolls seems to be a reinvigorated idealization of the Leave it to Beaver family. And this family is every person’s created intention. The Driscolls assume full personhood is found in marriage and childrearing. Anything else is sin. There’s no picture of Biblical singlehood. Little discussion of how married and single person integrate into one larger whole in the Church.

What’s problematic for me is that none of these commands the Driscolls offer us from the Bible are actually followed by Jesus or Paul.

Both men would, according to Driscoll’s own criteria, belong in the “boys who shave” category. When your theology of personhood excludes the fullest picture of human personhood we’ve been given, you should definitely at least reevaluate your stance.

The most problematic aspect of Real Marriage is a total lack of a strong, clear picture of healthy Christian sexuality.

Don’t misunderstand me. There’s plenty of talk about sex. And like everything else in the book, it’s an inseparable blend of helpful and hurtful. For instance, Mark makes this statement early on in the book:

The previous church I had attended was Catholic, with a priest who seemed to be a gay alcoholic. He was the last person on earth I wanted to be like. To a young man, a life of poverty, celibacy, living at the church, and wearing a dress was more frightful than going to hell, so I stopped going to church somewhere around junior high. But this pastor was different. He had been in the military, had earned a few advanced degrees, and was smart. He was humble. He bow hunted. He had sex with his wife. He knew the Bible. He was not religious.

It’s a shame that the priest Mark knew was such an uninspiring person. I’ve personally known priests – and other single, celibate Christians – who live full and inspiring lives. Again, we’re missing a compelling vision of sexuality that includes a place of honor for celibate persons.

But it’s also weird, isn’t it, that the other pastor’s credibility stems in part from his apparently healthy sex life? Don’t get me wrong, I hope everyone’s marriage has a healthy sex-life, but that’s not the vibe I get from Mark’s descriptions of these two guys. It’s more of a machismo vibe that’s disturbing. I hope that I as a pastor don’t have to prove my sexual exploits to my congregation for them to take me seriously as a man and a pastor.

Instead of a clear picture of healthy human sexuality, Real Marriage mostly offers us unfair assumptions, over-generalizations and unhelpful stereotypes.

DriscollAngryIf you’re familiar with Driscoll, nothing in Real Marriage is surprising. The hyper-masculinity is in there. The demeaning language is there. The creepy preoccupation with sex is there. The love-it-or-hate-it “The Bible has a Context but I don’t ” approach to the Scriptures is there (I hate it).

But so is a real passion for healthy marriages. And it’s clear that the Driscolls’ passion is 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 in Real Marriage… well. The Church could do a lot worse. We are doing a lot worse.

Ultimately, this book will greatly please Driscoll’s fans. And just like everything else he does, people on both sides will hate it for different reasons. Personally, I think the Driscolls’ approach to the Scriptures is abhorrent. But literally thousands of people disagree with me on that. So a question I can’t really answer is “Is this book good?” That’s not really a fair question.

Two gold rings - reflected candlesA question I’m more interested in is: Is this book useful for creating healthier marriages?

So as a person who is married, has many married friends and has lived through multiple failed marriages, I answer No, it’s not. Real Marriage is a far too-mixed bag of good and bad to be something I would realistically use. It’s 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 moments later to toss the book down in disgust at the subsequent line.

BrokenMarriageThe fact is, Real Marriage isn’t the only marriage book out there. Not by a long shot. It’s not even the only book to discuss sex both candidly and from an Evangelical perspective (Sheet Music by Dr. Kevin Leman, for instance, does so better and more affordably). Henry Cloud is an excellent psychologist who has several helpful marriage books. Rodney Clapp’s Families at the Crossroads is a better theoretical look at what marriage and family look like as we move into the future. There are much better options for those wanting to prepare for marriage, grow in their marriages or find healing in or from a broken marriage.

Bottom Line: Though it’s certainly not all bad, the helpful and the harmful in Real Marriage are too thoroughly intertwined to be helpful.

YOUR TURN: Have you read Real Marriage? What did you think? What other books on marriage have you found to be helpful?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Thomas Nelson Publishers as part of their BookSneeze.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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  • Great and charitable review–far better than I could have done. I am still stupefied that it would occur to anybody to take this guy seriously on the topic of marriage after he claimed that Ted Haggard turned to male prostitutes because his wife had “let herself go.”

  • Just finished the review and loved it.  You did a good job of honoring the good (in material and approach) without giving tacit consent to the bad. As much as I disagree with Grace and Mark’s inconsistent and anti-intellectual theology-in-practice, I really wanted this to be a good book on sex and marriage 
    I loved that you pointed out a lack of a theology of celibacy as well as pointed out how Jesus and Paul are those “boys who can shave”.  Who was single and supported himself via the donations of women? Paul and Jesus.

  • Chris, agreed.  He shouldn’t be taken seriously. The only reason I listen to the hubbub around this guy is that I know so many people who I love that are enthralled by him.  

  • Kelly Grace

    I must agree that you have done a marvelous and respectful review.  As a female and a theologian, I can get pretty fired up on this topic and the message Driscoll presents.  You invite readers into dialogue that is healthy, accountable and reflective while encouraging research back into the biblical text and a constructive critique of cultural messages.  I appreciate that you state your own position and opinions clearly – its no mystery where you stand.  Yet, I was also inspired by grace you exemplified in your statements too.  I’ll admit it is hard for me not to swear when bringing up Driscoll’s take on gender, roles, marriage and Scripture.   I found you through Eric Crisp’s facebook post – glad he linked to your blog.

  • Thanks, Chris! I knew a lot of people would be talking about and considering this book, so I really wanted to provide a voice that would give some balance. That’s hard when I agree 100% with everything you said 😀

  • Thank you Henry. I agree with you – I wanted not to dislike this book (and I didn’t dislike it all). I really wish it were more useful.

    I don’t remember who first used Jesus and Paul against Mark, but it’s a pretty devastating critique, and one I was happy to borrow. 😀

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  • Thank you, Kelly. I have a lot of the same reactions as you do to Driscoll. Needless to say, it was a tough review to write 😀

    Honestly, it did help that there was so much good stuff in there, and clear love and passion for people. For all his faults, I think he’s sincere…

  • Jeremy

    Full disclosure: I attend Mars Hill Church.
    Driscoll’s theology, like everyone else’s, is not bulletproof.  But in regards to putting Jesus and Paul into the “boys who can shave” category, I believe you have not adequately heard a description of the category.  Christ was certainly unmarried, and Paul was not at least at the time of his ministry.  But for a man to  say “I am single, therefore I’m just like Jesus” is an error of – if you’ll excuse me – biblical proportions.  Boyhood vs. manhood is not defined by marital status but by the assuming or avoiding of the mantle of leadership that God has designed for men.  Jesus was the greatest leader, and Paul was also brave and tireless in his pursuit of God’s call on his life.  Both were financially aided by the  donations of others, as God called those others to aid in the mission.  Someone living with his parents and playing Xbox eight hours a day cannot mount a credible defense of his rejecting of God’s general call on men by retorting that Paul was single and/or supported by others.

  • Hi Jeremy!

    Thanks for your comments; I’m glad to hear that “on the ground” in Mark’s church, this particular issue is addressed more thoroughly.

    I would take issue with Mark’s presentation. In the chapter on “Men and Marriage”, he certainly seems to define manhood according to marital status. Not just marital status, but a post-Industrial Revolution, middle-class, nuclear-family oriented model.

    He says,

    “For most of human history, a male would go through two life phases: boy, then man. The transition from boy to man was comprised of five events that happened almost simultaneously or in very close succession. As a man you were to
    1. Leave your parents’ home;
    2. finish your education or vocational training; 3. start a career-track job, not a dead-end-Joe job; 4. meet a woman, love her, honor her, court her, and marry her;5. parent children with her (Gen. 2:24).But the fools’ parade hijacked the march to manhood.” (emphasis mine)
    I find it fascinating that:A. None of these passages has biblical support except for the last, and that passage has no interpretation attached to it. It might support 1 and 4 (though even those are dubious), and certainly not the other three.B. Jesus didn’t do any of these, at least not the way Mark describes them:1. In first-century Palestine, a man lived in his father’s home until his father died. The “house of the father” (bet-av in Hebrew) was the core social unit of the ancient near eastern world, and was more closely akin to an entire 3-generation family living in one home than a nuclear family.2. Jesus would’ve most likely apprenticed Joseph. He would have learned Scripture from Rabbis in Nazareth and in his home, and he would’ve studied carpentry with his (earthly) father.3. As far as we know, Jesus was a carpenter until his baptism, when he was called to start his itinerant ministry. But categories like “career” and “dead-end-Joe” are totally anachronistic.4. Unless you’re a Dan Brown fan, this didn’t happen.5. See above.And the same goes for Paul.So let me offer two thoughts as responses to your comments:First, I am glad Mark addresses the “boys who shave”. I know the guys he’s talking about and they need to be addressed.Second, my actual problem is that Mark oversimplifies everything. If your two main guys don’t fit into your categories, that’s a big problem.

    I am all for talking about manhood. But Jesus and Paul were both men, and neither fits into the definition of manhood as Mark presents it in Real Marriage. Again, if this is different on the ground at MHC, I’m glad to hear it. But it needs to be communicated more carefully elsewhere, too.

  • In some ways, Driscoll’s sincerity ends up becoming one of his more annoying problems, for me at least as someone who wishes to speak up against all the bad in his theology. Quite frequently, I’m given the excuse that “he’s sincere about it, so we have to commend him for that,” as though believing in something wrong is okay, simply because of the sincerity of said belief. We tread into dangerous areas when we begin excusing things based on sincerity, as I have seen so many Driscoll defenders do.

    That said, I think I will likely agree with your conclusion – that there is some that is helpful, but it is far too intertwined with the harmful. And that, for me, is what is MOST dangerous about Driscoll’s particular brand – there’s just enough truth there that people find that truth and excuse all the crap that surrounds it. It’s like finding a small gem in the midst of your dog’s poop. It may be valuable once it’s cleaned off and set aside by itself, but you have to do the dirty work of sorting through the crap. And you really can’t ignore the fact that it went through your dog first.

    There are a number of very problematic interpretations that Driscoll has to leap through to get to some alright conclusions – for example, from what I’ve read, the conclusion that he arrives at in the “Can We___?” chapter is one I would actually agree with – that a sex life is for mutual benefit of both partners and therefore they should do what they feel comfortable with. But I disagree so much with the assumption that a pastor has ANY say in the matter – my approach to it is that your pastor really isn’t your sex therapist and if you have to seek outside approval for something in the bedroom, there are larger problems with your marriage. So, there’s that.

  • I also think that for all his faults that he and those that follow him are sincere.  Wrong and damaging to actual people, but absolutely sincere.

  • Ben Clay

    hmmm, JR, there is one problem with your review that concerns me. Your comparison of the principles in the book to Paul and Jesus and your response to Jeremy.We have to assume that had Jesus or Paul married they would have certainly abided by  Genesis 2:24 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” I can certainly see how this would have been a problem for either Paul or Jesus’ ministry as it would be hard to support a family as a wandering Preacher, something Paul seems to account for this in 1 Corinthians 7 identifying that if you marry you will have worldly troubles, part of this worldly trouble is that it is more difficult to provide for a family than for merely one’s own needs. As Men, we are called to be the head of the family, now this may or may not be necessarily a command for the man to work and the woman to stay home as Driscoll seems to say that it does mean the man should be the bread winner. I know a great number of Godly families that adhere to this, and a number that don’t. Personally I see 1 Corinthians 7:24 as it states to continue on as you are called pertaining to both man and wife. If a wife is called to work so be it, if a man is called to stay home, blessings on him as well as long as they can say in good conscience that they are trying to do what God has called them to do this can become more complicated and difficult for a man to deal with when he is not working outside the home. Certainly ancient gender roles supplied the idea that men worked and women cared for the home, but this is not a mandate as I see it. To address Driscoll’s book, it seems from the quotes that you selected that he is not attempting to speak for God so much as say what he sees as conventional wisdom, that he and grace have lived out, which is not contrary to the Word and therefore may be a good model for all to follow. Driscoll however does not mince words, he readers, church attenders, etc have come to expect that so this is laid out in black and white. This methodology will always offend some, but on the other side of the coin it does stir one to take a strong response either positive or negative, which results in action, not a mere cognitive response. I think for the most part it seems a rather fair review, as I’m sure there are both strengths and weaknesses, I’m just not sure I agree with your assessment of what those respective strengths and weaknesses are.

  • Hey Ben! Thanks for your thoughts.

    I’m not sure exactly where you disagree with me. First, having read the book, Driscoll is definitely speaking for God. He (and Grace) in no uncertain terms claim that the 1950s family model is God’s play for every person.

    If I’m reading your comments correctly, you would disagree with that position; I do as well.

    Did I understand you correctly?

  • Thank you for your input, Dianna.

    I 1,000% agree with you that sincerity doesn’t excuse poor theology, especially for someone in a position as visible and influential as Driscoll’s. It’s no different from a person in a Bible study clinging to “well this is what it means to me.”

    @rachelheldevans:disqus  pointed out in her review that Driscoll is much less confrontational in Real Marriage than he has been. Maybe that’s what I was responding so positively to. 

  • Jeremy

    Hi, JR.  I appreciate your thoughtful response.  Pastor Driscoll’s communication style has always been a little more “lowest common denominator” than nuanced, and he strongly leans towards the anachronistic in his delivery – I assume in an attempt to help make what can sometimes be difficult language / phrasing more contemporary to his young, urban audience.  I believe God has more than one church on purpose and that there’s more than one honest and holy way to preach the gospel faithfully, so it doesn’t bother me that he does it and it doesn’t bother me when other pastors don’t.  

    I haven’t read the book yet, but I’ve likely heard the content in a sermon.  I agree with your analysis of the evolution of the modern family unit, and I agree that Pastor Mark paints with a broad brush when linking what the bible prescribes for family with the realities of our current family construct.  Pastor Mark often points out that there are exceptions to his generalities, but in that we are all extremely quick to paint ourselves as one of them.

  • Jr., I appreciate your willingness to offer a somewhat fair and balanced book review of Driscoll, with whom I know you theologically disagree.

    I’m neutral on Driscoll myself. Some things he says I find to be right on, revelatory even. Other things he says and does I find to be annoying, at the least, and despicable at most.

    All that to say, I think people who love Driscoll, as you stated, will devour this book. Others of us will hopefully wade through the slosh and realize it’s just a bunch of, well, slosh.

    One thing I would point out in your review is your statement that Driscoll considers anything less than marriage and childbearing a sin, is quite the statement. I can’t argue it because I don’t know for certain one way or the other, but do you have a specific instance you can refer me to?

    As always, thank you for your thoughtful and informed voice and writing.

  • Hey Nicole!!

    Thanks for your thoughts. You will definitely find some great stuff in Real Marriage. But as you said, there’s plenty of slosh!

    As for your note, Mark is actually pretty confusing. He tries to have it both ways – clearly outlining what he considers real, biblical manhood (which is the list I quoted to Jeremy above). He is clear that this is the idea for ever man (including Jesus, hence my critique).

    But then he turns around and says staying stuck in adolescence isn’t Sin it’s just Dumb.

    But then he turns around and says that we weren’t created to live in adolescence; we were created to become mature men.

    So… staying stuck in adolescence is not being fully who we were created to be. (all of this is the first few pages of chapter 3 in the book)

    I don’t know how that’s NOT sin.

    And to be clear, I agree with Mark that staying immature is bad. I don’t even have a problem calling it sinful. We just disagree about what a mature man looks like.

    Did that clear my comment up? Do you think I’m being unfair?

  • Thank you, Jeremy!

    Your comments are encouraging and helpful. I really appreciate that Mark allows for exceptions and I really like that he specifically calls us not to use them as excuses.

    I just wish he’d put that in the book. A few sentences would’ve gone a long way to shore up his credibility with a lot of people who don’t listen to him from week-to-week.
    Thanks for sharing them here!

  • Ron Head

    Hi JR, I found your site (a little late to the party) after
    reading your review on Real Marriage at Relevant. I really enjoy this fuller
    review on Driscoll’s book, and found it be one of the best reviews on Real
    Marriage I read so far. I especially enjoyed the last section actually gauging if
    the book is helpful or not. It’s certainly one thing to review a publication to
    see if it holds up to one’s own theological positions (which is something I am
    guilty of doing quite often), yet it’s another to try and find something
    helpful/useful in something you find many disagreements with. For that you
    should be commended.

    I was wondering what you thought about Driscoll’s defense of
    his new book on CNN’s Belief Blog (http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/01/06/pastors-detailed-book-on-sex-divides-reviewers-sparks-controversy/)? He stated that people who have issues with
    Real Marriage are reacting out of their own personal struggles as opposed to
    any theological problem in the book. To be fair he said he hasn’t read any
    review on his book yet, so I’m assuming his response is more of a deflection of
    the usual criticism he receives. I agree with his argument to a point – I know a
    lot of my own objections to his teachings are probably grounded more on my
    personal experiences/biases than on sound exegesis. But Driscoll’s comment also
    speaks to a lack of self-reflection on his part – i.e. ‘everyone else has a
    problem, not me’. I could be harsh with that assessment though. What do you
    think?

  • Hi Ron!

    Thanks for your encouragement. I’m glad you found the review helpful 🙂

    As for Driscoll’s defense, I get what he’s saying, and that’s certainly true of a lot of reviewers. It’s the same as saying “Mark’s book says a lot more about who Mark is than who God is” or something like that. Not necessarily a BAD observation.

    But what I do think is unhealthy is Mark’s apparent unwillingness to hear any criticism. A favorite thinker of mine, Tim Sanders, just said the other day that criticism is like pecans. You have to crack it open, find the meat inside and then pitch the rest of it. I think Mark’s just refusing to acknowledge that the pecans are even there.

    In the spirit of my review, I’d advise Mark to take the reviews to heart, look for the nugget of truth in them and pitch the rest. But then he’s no listening to me anyway 😀

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  • Anonymous

    Such a great blog! Thanks for the honesty. 

  • Thanks very much, Dabney! Glad you enjoyed the review!!

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  • jfszabo20

    I have to readily admit that I am one of those that finds Mark Driscoll’s works amazingly convicting.

    JR, I came across this review after listending to your StoryMen Episode 1 podcast and heard your reference there.

    My wife and I read through Real Marriage together and found it intreaguing and thought provoking. It’s stresses on the importance of communication in a marriage is well done and emphasizes that if married you need to be speaking candidly with your spouse because they should be your best friend. It also emphasizes the importance of intimacy and the fact that in church many pastors won’t even speak about it lest they offend someone. The church that we attend the pastor will willingly point out when a sermon is going to be PG-13, but he will emphasize that he is just the messanger and he is relaying what is in the Bible. (Heaven forbid that a pastor actually preach the Bible verse by verse)
    So truth be told, I agree with your interpretation that Real Marriage is not all good, but I feel that is is far from bad.

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