Why I Don’t Recommend Real Marriage

February 16, 2012 — 2 Comments

real-marriageWhen it comes to Mark Driscoll, the internet is never short on things to say. Plenty of reviewers have taken the time to present a thorough overview of Mark and Grace Driscoll’s Real Marriage (e.g. Challies, Burk, and Anderson Pt. 1 and Pt. 2). That being the case, I thought it might be helpful to just explain why I don’t recommend the book. Because of those aforementioned reviews, I didn’t read it blind (metaphorically speaking of course), but went in with mediocre expectations about the value of the book. After giving it a generous read a couple of weekends ago, I can now report that Real Marriage met my expectations with flying colors.

I can sum up my thoughts in a single word (which is a technical term usually reserved for high academic discourse):


Now, before I explain why, I feel the need to situate myself in context as a reviewer of Driscoll. I have a long history of keeping up with Driscoll, going back to maybe late in my first year at seminary when I started listening to his podcast (which I’ve more or less kept up since then). I particularly enjoyed his Death By Love, and would still highly recommend that book to you.

I also attend and am an intern at a church in the Acts 29 church planting network, which as you might know, was started by Driscoll. That makes him kind of like the godfather of the organization, both in the sense of the 1972 movie, but also more realistically in the sense that he no longer runs the organization but is connected like a close family friend (note: as far as I know, he has never put a severed horse head in anyone’s bed, regardless of how some critics may demonize him).

As you can imagine, I seem exactly like the kind of person who would request Driscoll’s latest book for review and then fawn all over it. But, in the past year or so, a distance has started growing between Driscoll and I. While I found Death By Love compelling several years ago, I found Doctrine less so (though it is a good systematic theology for its size). It seemed as I matured theologically and grew more as a biblical interpreter, I found Driscoll less and less compelling. This isn’t to say his teaching is riddled with errors (though some will say that), but is just to say that I see him being dogmatic about theological formulations and biblical advice that isn’t well grounded in some cases. He’s a great communicator, but I find myself growing more critical of the content he communicates.

Driscoll is a classic “Peter” and he no doubt is aware of this. This isn’t the space to recount the recent public incidents made him a lightning rod for criticism. It is the place to note that Driscoll often says things with a rhetorical force and flair that practically invites disagreement and heated argumentation. In a post that will have to wait a few weeks to develop, I think you could make the case that Driscoll’s teaching has inadvertently taught a style of combative theology and it is only to be expected that many people would eventually turn that style of theology against him.

But I’ve digressed far enough. The point in all of this is that I’m not out to bash Driscoll, neither as a blogger from a distance incensed at a recent foot-in-mouth incident, nor as a disappointed fan-boy who found the most recent offering didn’t offer enough to enjoy.

Rather, since I am looking forward to the opportunity to do pre-marital counseling at some point and tend to find myself often giving relational advice, I’m writing to briefly explain why I don’t think Real Marriage is well suited to supplement either of those activities.

Or you could look at what follows as a brief defense of the “Meh.”

To begin, consider the subtitle to the book: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together. It sums up the book nicely, but look at the pages devoted to each topic:

  • Sex = 94
  • Friendship = 22
  • Life Together = 74

While not necessarily a weakness, it’s at least worth noting you’re getting as much space devoted to sexual topics as you are to friendship and life together. Even the sections that aren’t about sex, sometimes are, but being generous, the book is essentially dual focused:

There is sex, and then there is everything else in marriage.

Writing as they are from an epi-center of a sex crazed culture, one can hardly fault the Driscolls for feeling the need to focus so much of their book on the topic. This is more of a frank discussion of sexual ethics with long preface about everyday life in marriage, which if that’s what you’re looking for, congratulations, you’ve found it.

However, even if that is what you are searching for in a marriage book, I think you could do much better with your time and money. While proportionally the Driscolls spend the most time talking about sexual topics, in the scope of the book, it really doesn’t cover that much ground. If you’re looking for a Christian book on sex, you’re better off getting a stellar collection of essays giving a robust theology of sex (like this one) or an actual explicit sex manual for Christian couples (like this one).

Real Marriage I think is deficient on both counts. It lacks a detailed theology of sex that grounds both our embodied existence as male and female (i.e. a sound natural theology) as well as the perichoretic (fancy word for mutual indwelling) imagery that sexual intercourse is meant to entail (i. e. you can’t really “indwell” another person like the persons of the Trinity indwell each other, but you can have sex with someone and “image” that indwelling). Because it lacks that, when it comes down to practical questions regarding what is permissible in the Christian bedroom, the backdoor is left open for certain perversions to slip in, which if you need more detail, Douglas Wilson can explain for you here.

So, to get what I’m saying right, yes, I am implying that a book about marriage written by Mark Driscoll and his wife Grace does not talk about sex enough. They say many good and helpful things, but the grid for answering sexual questions is deficient (as Challies explains here) and the whole conversation just isn’t well grounded (as Douglas Wilson further explains here). On those counts then, I wouldn’t really recommend Real Marriage for a marriage book focused on sex.

What about the other stuff then?

Well, if you’re picking up Real Marriage for advice about the other stuff, you’ll find some pretty decent advice about friendship, roles, and conflict resolution in marriage. My main concern is how marital roles are fleshed out, and how I think it presents a skewed understanding of complementarianism. This can best be illustrated by an anecdote from late in the book:

I (Mark) like to be early whenever I am going somewhere, and I have an uncanny ability to always know what time it is and exactly how long it takes to get something accomplished. My life moves along very efficiently and orderly with enough time to spare that if something happens or I am running late, I will still be one time.

For me (Grace), this is difficult. I have spent much of my life running late and not seeing it as inconsiderate. I have tried everything I can think of, including setting every watch and clock ahead in an effort to trick myself into being on time. Until I saw it as a sin issue, the methods were unfruitful. If I want this issue to change, I have to constantly plan to be early, and not try to squeeze one more thing in before I walk out the door.

I (Mark) have spent many cumulative hours of my life sitting in the car, waiting for Grace to run out the door and jump in so that I could speed off. Every second that I sit there, I am prone to get one degree warmer until I am boiling with frustration when she opens the door. And my attitude affects our children, who, sensing my frustration while sitting in the car with me, are prone to start speaking ill of their mother – especially the children who are more like me. To be a good servant, I am continually learning how to help Grace be aware of the time and when we need to go, taking the work of getting the kids ready and out the door off her plate, and working with her as an ally instead of being frustrated with her as an enemy in an effort to keep this fox out of our vineyard (p. 160, emphasis clearly mine)

Now, what’s the problem here? As they tell the story, it seems the problem is that Mark has a high regard for the virtue of punctuality and Grace grew up living in the sin of perpetually running late. But that doesn’t really seem right, and as a counselor, that’s not how I would read this situation. I don’t know the Driscolls personally, so I’m going to say what it looks like, not necessarily what it actually is.

It looks like Mark has a control idol centered on time management and rather than be confronted on this and grow in grace towards his wife (irony right?), she was led to think that running late is a sin issue (which it could be). Mark being a good servant toward his wife doesn’t involve being more gracious toward her different reckoning of time and time management but involves Grace yielding to Mark’s time preference.

The problem then, as it seemed to run like a thread throughout the book, is that when push came to shove, Grace was the one who needed to change/grow/repent/etc. and not Mark. Even in the case quoted above (which if it were a couple in our small group would be clearly classified idolatry), it is the person causing Mark the frustration to bubble out of the heart that is the problem. True, in other places Mark owns his idols (one of which he admits was/is sex). But in the practical day to day matters where the majority of life is lived, the picture presented is one of the wife more or less yielding to her husband’s preferences with the result being potential idolatries left unchecked.

That, to me, is more of a devastating critique of the book than its lack of sexual grounding. If the book is primarily focused on sex, but doesn’t cover thoses bases well enough, and if the remaining practical advice is either easily gained from an older married couple you already know (as Susan Wise Bauer notes in her review) or flawed in the way I’ve suggested above, what is there left to recommend?

Not much, and now we’ve come full circle to the “Meh.” It’s not so much that the advice is that bad (it’s flawed but not horrible), or the sexual advice that deviant (it is, but they permit deviancy rather advocate it), it’s just that it’s all just been over-hyped. You’re really being sold a book on marriage and sex BY MARK DRISCOLL! not so much a great book about marriage and sex.

That’s certainly great for book sales, but in my opinion the final product just really doesn’t deliver and really can’t earn my recommendation. There’s better books out there, and if you have the time to read, pick one of those. Or, better yet, find an older married couple whose marriage is 20 years ahead of yours, and ask them questions and get to know them. That will probably give you a better picture of what real marriage is actually like.

[A review copy of Real Marriage was provided by Thomas Nelson through the BookSneeze program]


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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