With eager anticipation, I looked forward to reading Timothy and Kathy Keller's book, The Meaning of Marriage. Tim is situated in the Neo-Reformed camp and yet, he has a distinctive voice which sets him apart from many in that community. Kathy and Tim have been married for 37 years.
Their book has such a different spirit and depth to it than Mark and Grace Driscoll's Real Marriage.
An essential focus both books share (beyond a Neo-Reformed reading of marriage) is their vision of marriage-as-friendship. As I observed in my review of the Driscoll's book, this is progress!
The Christian community (especially evangelicals) has not devoted much energy integrating friendship and marriage. The Driscolls claim they have read 187 books on marriage and "not one of those books had one chapter or major section on marital friendship." I wonder how many Catholic books on marriage they read! And, they certainly didn't read my book! But they also go on to claim that they could only find "one significant book written on the theology of friendship."
Now I do wonder about the accuracy of their claims but speaking from personal experience, the Driscolls are not exaggerating. This is an extraordinary weakness in the evangelical community. There is a significant silence amongst evangelicals integrating sexuality, friendship, and marriage.
One of the striking things about Keller's book is a stark contrast between what he claims is a biblical view of marriage and the contemporary expression of self-fulfillment. To portray this contrast in its most black and white terms, Keller paints the picture between the new "Me-Marriage" which, on appearance, "seems so liberating" and spiritual friendship between husband and wife.
I was pleasantly surprised by Kellers putting forth marriage-as-friendship. He puts forth a robust, resilient, and remarkable view of friendship. "For believers in Christ," writes Keller, "despite enormous differences in class, temperament, culture, race, sensibility, and personal history, there is an underlying commonality that is most powerful than them all. That is not so much a 'thread' as an indestructible steel cable."
This is a powerful statement of deep nonromantic beauty and goodness about the powerful oneness we share in Christ as friends.
Keller supports this by taking us into the "new creation." Here, he extrapolates the eschatological import of the oneness we share in Christ that is expressed through spiritual friendship.
Don't miss this point.
Keller grounds Christian friendship in the eschatological reign situated in the new creation. It is not something that is yet to be attained. It is present in the here-and-now between the "already-and-not yet."
He then proceeds to assert that the two features of real (authentic?) friendship are "constancy and transparency." He maintains "real friends always let you in, and they never let you down." He goes on look at these features through the "one another" passages. He infers, "any two Christians, with nothing else but a common faith in Christ, can have a robust friendship...It is the deep oneness that develops as two people journey together toward the same destination."
Keller does a "Driscoll" though--a surprising disappointment. He completely ignores the long absence of this kind of deep friendship between men and women in marriage. Out of nowhere (especially if you have any knowledge of the history of friendship and/or marriage) he suddenly announces to us that Proverbs 2:17 makes it clear that one's spouse ought to be your best friend. This would be a startling claim for most Christians reading the same Bible prior to the 20th century. Here, Kellers' reading departs from Christian tradition. But they don't even acknowledge male dominance over women in the tradition.
Of course, this works well to those neo-reformed readers of his book who live in a romanticized soul-mate culture. But he bypasses the history of friendship which was a "single-sex" only experience; women were deemed inferior to be equals with men in friendship.
This is an enormous weakness/oversight in the book.
Why do I say that?
To overlook this is to miss the important question: What does equality and mutuality look like between men and women in friendship?
To the Keller's credit, one of the most positive strengths about the book is the spirit of mutuality in spousal friendship that emanates from the pages. This is one of the reasons why Scot McKnight could say, "This is one of the finest books on marriage I've ever read."
But the mutual spirit of friendship also pushes us deeper into the "self fulfillment" side of things--something in which the Kellers portray as something not good for marriage or Christianity. Their spirit of mutuality steers us ironically, not away from the conversation of self fulfillment but takes us full circle directly back to it! I'm perplexed why Scot McKnight didn't address this. This is not a small thing.
I applaud the Kellers for advancing the spirit of mutuality between men and women far deeper than anyone else in the Neo-Reformed world. But since they are firmly rooted in the complementarian paradigm their mutuality only goes so far. For those of us who fully support women and gender equality, do we give the Kellers a get out of jail free card as polite complementarians? Or does their book promote a "polite oppression" of women as Pam Hogeweide describes it in her book, Unladylike?
Can we ignore the embedded inequality situated firmly within their complementarian marriage? Is this the wisdom men and women are looking for? Scot McKnight praises the wisdom of this book in his first post reviewing the book. But for numerous specific women (not just an abstract number) within complementarian marriages this promotes the inequality for women and all that goes with that.
I think we need a deeper conversation about friendship within marriage if one is going to posit spousal friendship versus self fulfillment as our choices. I think the Kellers are on the right track. I think marriage as self fulfillment has some issues. But the culture of self-fulfillment has also been a strong ally for women to flourish beyond gender roles and traditional "duty" to stay at home.
I believe the wisdom that is present within mutuality in Christian friendship offers a path forward for husbands and wives. I suggested in my book "that the possibility of deep spiritual friendships between the sexes may decrease the divorce rate among Christians." I am fully on board with the Kellers there.
But I see a deeper connection between self-fulfillment, friendship, and unlimited, unrestricted flourishing for men and women that reveals deep mutual wisdom.
When Keller asks in contrast to the personal fulfillment culture, "How different would it be if we were to fall in love especially with the glorious thing God is doing in our spouse's life?" there are limitations to his vision of friendship, self-fullfillment, women, and God.
Even in a positive light, a woman's self is always subject to an eschatological sacrifice in the new creation according to the Neo-Reformed model. In other words, in keeping with the traditional model, specific women must find their meaning not through unlimited possibilities corresponding to their deepest God-given gifts and desires as women (any individual impulse toward a pastoral calling would be a dead end) but to the gender roles and duties of family and community.
As Pam Hogeweide has so clearly stated in her book, Unladylike, "When Christian women trivialize our experiences of inequality, we often do it with the idea that we are being selfless and Christlike.. Women minimize our inequality as we compromise our personhood to keep the peace."
Deep mutual wisdom in friendship does not restrict one gender from their fullest human possibility in living, serving, and flourishing. How many deeply gifted, specific women in the Neo-Reformed world are told that any thought or desire which may spring up in them is anchored in self-fulfillment?
So, while I see the Kellers have given us a gift for their devoted love to each other, I think Tim's casting the contrast between spousal friendship versus self-fulfillment takes us into a deeper conversation about friendship between men and women (including husbands and wives) and self-fulfillment. In our Western world, friendship for women has been socially liberating and life-giving precisely because it wasn't limited to unequal power.
What do you think?