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Book Review: Breaking the Marriage Idol

Book Review: Breaking the Marriage Idol

I have written at length about what it's like to be an adult single, a long-term single, a single in the church, what it's like to be celibate in a day and age where even Christians fail to recognize that as a biblical principle, what it's like to want biological children and know that the time for that to happen is extremely limited. I said I wouldn't write any more about it, I don't want to have to deal with it any more, I am tired and sad! And yet this is exactly what God is using to break me. This is what God is using to sanctify me and draw me close to himself.

I don't get to say when or how this chapter of my life ends. My singleness is inextricably linked with my identity, but not necessarily in the way you're thinking: I really do view this as my vocation, what God has given me and called me to. That doesn't mean it's easy. Our callings are not any less God-given if we are sad in them or if we are happy in them—ask any parent, any spouse. Our responsibility is to serve God in the state we are in: our feelings about our state are real, and valid, but to be taken with as many grains of salt as is necessary.

So I keep writing. Not in any hopes of discovering a "life-hack," not because I've figured it out, not because I'm looking for pity or a solution or a setup. (Although I'm not above taking all 3 if you have them.)

When I was growing up, a teenager in the height of the purity culture hey-day, I thought if I read all the books, I would be SO PREPARED for marriage. Knowledge is power. (Yes, I am an enneagram 5, why do you ask?)

I would have ALL THE DATA and I would BE THE BEST AT MARRIAGE. My parents discouraged me from reading books about marriage or singleness by single people, because "their own advice didn't work for them"—the author wasn't married. This is one of the problems with marriage as idol: it assumes that singleness is a problem to be fixed. In some ways, I can see how the same issue would arise within marriage in regards to childbearing—childlessness is a problem to be fixed, and the message is that you are not complete until married. Except, surprise, then you're not complete until you have kids. The carrot, the brass ring, is always out of reach. Because once you have kids, they have to be perfect, and your marriage has to thrive, and ... I'm exhausted just typing this.

In light of recent news regarding some of the authors of these books on marriage, courtship, dating, etc., I'd like to point out that marriage is not a box to be checked which then renders you fully sanctified: never again tempted, never again sinful. (This shouldn't have to be said! But that was absolutely the implicit—and in some cases, explicit—message in many of the early purity culture books. There is nothing scriptural about this.) Rather, in his book Breaking the Marriage Idol, Kutter Callaway points out at length that our entire lives as Christians are to be about the right ordering of our desires. Chastity (which obviously looks different for marrieds and singles) is not just about not having sex, it is about the attitudes of the heart, mind, and body.

One of the wonderful things this book does is ask you to step back and reconsider the entire, God-given purpose of both marriage and singleness: self-sacrifice, mutual submission, service rendered towards each other and the church as unto God. A recognition that marriage and singleness are different and possibly temporary stations in our journey towards the resurrection, where, Callaway reminds us, we neither marry nor are given in marriage. I've said it before, and I will keep saying it, no matter how many angry evangelicals yell at me on Twitter: the Bible literally says it is better to be single and celibate than to be married. Marriage is good. Single celibacy is good. God calls us to one or the other, but never alone, never unto ourselves: always oriented towards God, in community. Kyle James Howard had one of the most helpful threads I have ever encountered on this topic: our sanctification doesn't rest in marriage (thank God! This is VERY GOOD NEWS for the never-married single, divorced, widowed, abandoned, or same-sex attracted). Our sanctification continues in whatever station in life we are in, and you can actively resist sanctification in whatever station of life you are in. To say that all single people, or all childless married people, are selfish (another key talking point in many evangelical exhortations towards marriage or child-bearing!) is a gross generalization. If all married people were completely selfless, after all, the divorce statistics wouldn't be what they are.

Acknowledging that single celibacy is good should not be perceived as an attack on the God-given good of marriage, and acknowledging that marriage is good should not be used to tear down those who are already struggling with single celibacy. In the same vein, acknowledging that bearing and raising children is hard should not be used to crush those who yearn for children. But the key to this, beyond grace, understanding, and empathy, is acknowledging that ALL these things are good and God-given. If that isn't your premise, there's no room to even have dialogue. If Callaway is asking for one thing in this book, it is that both married and single people would learn from each other, work with each other for the furthering of the kingdom, and realize that we are all yearning for something no other person can give us: the complete fulfillment of Christ, in the resurrection. We remain co-laborers in the gospel, bearing one another's burdens. I spent my spring reading Charles Williams: once you start looking at the Christian life through a lens of co-inherence, it's hard not to see it everywhere.

Some important take-aways:

  • Human sexuality has a multitude of ways to express itself within the biblical framework of celibacy and/or chastity. As the author puts it, the "genital expression" of your sexuality is not the only part, but it's more or less the only one commonly talked about. God made us sexual beings, and our definition of what that means and looks like has shrunk to ONLY the genital expression. (This was also a main theme of Ed Shaw's wonderful book Same-Sex Attraction and the Church: The Surprising Plausibility of the Celibate Life.)

  • The reminder that the over-correction towards "marriage (and/or childbearing/rearing) is the highest and best calling for Christians" (my words, not his, since I have literally been told this multiple times), which he attributes to Martin Luther, stems from a time when singleness was being held up as the highest and best calling for Christians (being a monk or nun). Again: both are good and God-given. Our upbringing, background, or denomination may encourage us to skew towards one extreme or the other: scripture does not.

  • That the grand point of marriage is not sexual fulfillment (again: a MAJOR selling-point in purity culture, with a focus on getting your needs met. Essentially, works-righteousness, with the reward being a hot spouse and great sex, forever): it is a call to justice, generosity, forgiveness, hospitality, and yes, love. Even the sexual fulfillment rightly found within marriage is to be focused on giving to the other, not taking for yourself.

  • The idea of some kind of formal ceremony marking an individual's commitment to a celibate lifestyle, which would involve public declaration or rite of passage, accountability, and community support. This would go hand-in-hand with the idea that a family unit, or multiple family units, would commit to the celibate single, to be their family: in short, making friendships more covenantal. I have been told that Wesley Hill's book Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian has the same idea (I have not yet had a chance to buy this book for myself), and there were echoes of this in Ed Shaw's book. I have no idea how this would look, but I am all for the concept of treating friendships as deeper and less disposable. This is something I consciously work at in my life, and it has been a tremendous blessing to have the same thing extended back by a number of families. If we are in this for the long haul, and we are, the only way to navigate this world is with those kind of familial, covenantal friendships. We are family in Christ, and we can and should act like it. How many people do you have that kind of relationship with? This was a key theme (no pun intended) in Rosaria Butterfield's most recent book on hospitality. Loneliness is rampant, we need each other. I've seen so many married people online just insisting that the solution is to get married. Maybe it is! ... but do you think I haven't been trying? I need the love and support of my fellow believers now, not to have it held at arm's length as a prize once I can join the club. Also, the longing for the eternal is never going to be satisfied by anything we can experience in this lifetime. Think about it: we were made for eternity, and we are placed in a finite timeline. Things are never going to be perfect, and looking for that perfection in any one human is just going to lead to disappointment. That's also a hefty burden to place on someone, and has, I believe, led to a number of divorces and struggling marriages. Again: fall-out from purity culture.

  • Callaway identifies himself as an egalitarian: before you get up in arms about that, the way he defines that term gives me little to no trouble. Which probably makes me thin comp: I don't really care. Those terms are now so loaded, they are nearly impossible to use.

  • The book includes a number of vignettes, or short chapters, from people in various stages of life, talking about how marriage as idol has affected them. These are poignant: touching on cultural/social pressures, being held back in ministry, how this has affected the relationships they now find themselves in, etc.

  • The idea that celibate singleness serves to point to life in the new heavens and the new earth, and marriage serves to point to Christ and the Church.

  • An over-realized eschatology may be somewhat to blame for the idea that you find your ultimate fulfillment in marriage or children. (I say this all the time on Twitter, but.... sounds FV....) Everything we do, everything we are, should be pointing to the resurrection. You know the famous Augustine quote: to paraphrase, God made us for himself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in him. WE CANNOT FULLY ACHIEVE THAT IN THIS LIFETIME.

  • The narrow lens through which contemporary evangelical culture is looking at marriage really tends to leave the divorced, widowed, abandoned, or same-sex-attracted out in the cold. Our books, our media, our lecture: almost all of it is geared towards straight never-married individuals, exhorting them to get married. Here's the thing: those of us who want marriage are probably already working at it, and this endless exhortation to do something we have (up until now) found impossible is incredibly discouraging. Some of us genuinely are content not being married, for whatever reason: asexuality being one of them, and this is almost never addressed! But can we not acknowledge that there are honorable reasons why someone would choose to delay marriage? Again: if you are viewing marriage as essential to sanctification, that would explain a number of divorces: it doesn't work like that. And this I would say most fits the "gift of singleness" Paul talks about. The focus, again, needs to be turned off of ourselves, and our needs, and towards the church. How may I best serve where God has placed me? I keep seeing the accusation of selfishness being leveled towards unmarried people, by married people, and I always want to ask: do you have someone particular in mind? What are the single people in your church like? I am choosing to spend as much of my time as I possibly can in service of my church, because I can right now. I won't always be able to. Sometimes we give, sometimes we receive - seasons come and go. Maybe try talking to a long-time single? This would be the same as me leveling judgement at young parents with small children and saying "they don't spend enough time at church serving in XYZ capacity." Not my circus, not my monkeys.

I could keep going: as I read through this book, I found myself wanting to share entire chapters at a time. I am aware there is plenty in here that you may disagree with (there is some I would disagree with too), but I would ask that you read this book with a willingness to understand a little bit better what our life together can look like, and the particular challenges faced by both singles and marrieds when marriage is held as an idol.

Overall, I found Breaking the Marriage Idol deeply encouraging, and I am thankful for the compassion, clarity, and scriptural acumen with which the author writes.

Eternal Offense

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