Real Marriage vs. The Meaning of Marriage


In 2011 Tim and Kathy Keller came out with the book The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God.  In 2012 Mark and Grace Driscoll released Real Marriage: The Truth about Sex, Friendship, and Life Together.  The two books are arguably the most popular recently-released books on Christian marriage, and this year, I was blessed to read both.  If you’re considering either one, the following are some personal reflections that may guide you as you decide which book to cozy up with this Christmas.

Despite being authored by two very different men, the books possess some basic similarities.  Both books have an accompanying sermon series.  (One was birthed out of a sermon series while the other inspired a sermon series.  Either way, if you’ve got a long drive to make this holiday, keep them in mind.)  Although predominantly written in the husband’s voice, both books were written by a husband and wife team.  In addition, both husbands are widely respected pastors, and the opportunity to peek behind the curtain of their private lives is powerfully impacting, not to mention interesting.

The most significant difference between the books is the style in which they are written, and the angle from which they approach the topic of biblical marriage.  Driscoll’s book is written conversationally and more firmly rooted in his personal life and journey.  In the very first chapter of his book, he and Grace plunge into the story of their marriage with brutal honesty.  I think my jaw was somewhere near my knees throughout the entire chapter.  Not only was I shocked that they endured such rocky waters in their marriage, I was amazed at their vulnerability in sharing it.  And I was deeply encouraged.  I kept thinking to myself, “Mark Driscoll went through this??”  Without meaning to, I can often listen to speakers like him and assume they’ve had a peaches-and-cream life—been the perfect husband, with the perfect wife, leading the perfect family.  Chapter one of Real Marriage dashed that illusion, and in so doing, it gave me the courage to look at my own marriage with the same frank honesty.  In this way, by humbly stripping away all pretenses, the Driscolls build an immediate trust with their readers, making the rest of their message more easily received.

However, their highly personal approach can also serve as a weakness in that much of the content of the book appears to stem from their own personal journey.  For instance, one of the greatest criticisms concerning Real Marriage is its significant focus on sex; the second half of the book is dedicated solely to the issue, which some have believed to be a disproportionate emphasis.  I personally believe the Driscolls were influenced by their own journey, and because sex was a significant issue in their marriage, they give it significant attention in their book.  They also overcame past traumas including sexual abuse and pornography—each of which is given a chapter in their book.  This manner of writing makes Real Marriage personal and impacting, but also limited in its scope.

The Meaning of Marriage takes an entirely different approach.  From the get-go, Keller looks to research and statistics to examine our culture’s view of marriage.  At face value, it is more difficult to “get into” Keller’s book simply because he is methodical.  Where Driscoll dives in with a jaw-dropping story, Keller carefully builds his case.  But in the end, the case that he builds is powerfully substantial, and in my experience, more lasting than that of Real Marriage.   While I remember interesting anecdotes from Driscoll’s book, The Meaning of Marriage changed my entire worldview regarding marriage.  By building a gospel-centered framework within which to view marriage, Keller’s book systematically re-trained my heart and mind to think biblically about marriage.  To offer a visual analogy, reading Real Marriage was a little like sitting in front of a bulletin board pinned with an array of different marriage principals.  A lot of good stuff, but unrelated and hard to remember.  Reading The Meaning of Marriage was like watching a diagram come together piece by piece.  In the end everything’s related, and the concepts hold together because they are rooted together.  In this way, while Real Marriage immediately pulls readers in, attention can just as quickly be lost because the concepts feel isolated and disconnected.  However, the more one reads Keller’s book, the more fascinating it becomes as the gospel-perspective of marriage unfolds with practical implications.

A Synopsis of The Meaning of Marriage
Keller opens his book by examining our culture’s current pessimism toward marriage, a pessimism that ironically stems from unrealistic idealism about marriage.  Because we as a society have a flawed view of marriage, our expectations of marriage are not only selfish, they are sky high.  The realization that one person cannot satisfy us completely (not to mention pick up after himself!) is frustratingly disappointing.  But, as Keller points out, “This is the secret—that the gospel of Jesus and marriage explain one another.”  Marriage was always intended to be a reflection of the self-giving, saving love of Jesus Christ—a far cry from our cultural demand that marriage better bring me personal happiness, or else!  This then is the key:  “If God had the gospel of Jesus’s salvation in mind when he established marriage, then marriage only ‘works’ to the degree that approximates the pattern of God’s self-giving love in Christ” (p46).

Chapter two unearths the “cancer” of self-centeredness and the vital necessity of the Holy Spirit to daily overcome it.  Chapter three (perhaps my favorite in the whole book) tackles the age-old question—where have all the butterflies gone?  As a woman who’s foolishly let pop culture tutor me on love and romance, this chapter was hugely freeing and empowering.  In defining the difference between a “covenant” and “consumer” relationship, Keller convincingly illustrates that God’s covenantal prescription for marriage truly brings the greatest and most lasting love—love that is not rooted in the flighty whims of feeling.  Chapter four examines the purpose and subsequent priority of marriage, honing in on the joy and power of spiritual friendship.  In my own copy, this chapter has a few sections that simply say, “Wow” in the margin because I was too convicted to think of anything else to write.  Take this quote for instance:

“What keeps the marriage going is your commitment to your spouse’s holiness.  You’re committed to his or her beauty.  You’re committed to his greatness and perfection.  You’re committed to her honesty and passion for the things of God.  That’s your job as a spouse.  Any lesser goal than that, any smaller purpose, and you’re just playing at being married” (p123). 

Having established a gospel-centered perspective of marriage, the remaining chapters become more focused on how to practically apply this perspective to daily living.  Chapter five delves into the incredible power each spouse has for building up or destroying based on how a spouse chooses to wield “truth” and “love.”  Keller also discusses “love currencies” (similar to “love languages”).  Chapter six, written in Kathy’s voice, ventures into the controversial subject of male female differences and gender roles.  Chapter seven is written specifically for singles (finally, a marriage book that addresses singleness with more than two sentences!)  And lastly chapter eight addresses sex, its biblical basis, and why it’s most celebrated within marriage.

A Synopsis of Real Marriage
Real Marriage is broken into three parts.  As mentioned earlier, chapter one is mostly a re-telling of the Driscolls’ own marriage story.  Chapter two asserts one of the fundamental premises of the book—that “marriage is about friendship” (p23).  Driscoll creates an acrostic using the word “FRIENDS” to teach seven biblical principles for marital friendship.  Chapter three is written directly to men (yes, I read it…I was so curious—wouldn’t you be?) One of my favorite things about this chapter is Pastor Mark’s frank, practical, “cut-through-the-malarkey” tone of voice toward men.  You could easily ask any guy, Christian or not, to read this chapter, and I guarantee he would find it amusing, convicting, and helpful all at the same time.  In the most impacting section of the chapter, Driscoll speaks to the balance between being tough and tender.  He uses characters like “Give ‘em Hell Hank” and “Little Boy Larry” (and lots more) to demonstrate how skewed masculinity manifests itself.  I had to marvel in this section at Driscoll’s ability to be hilarious and sobering at the very same time.  Chapter four, written in Grace’s voice, teaches women how to have “heads, hearts, and hands” of respect, while chapter five addresses the necessity of repentance and forgiveness in marriage.

Part two of Real Marriage looks to the sexual relationship, beginning with chapter six which describes the three ways people tend to view sex—as “God” as “gross,” or as a “gift.”  Chapter seven, written in Grace’s voice, deals with how to recognize and respond to a person who’s been sexually abused.  Chapter eight conveys the far-reaching effects of pornography both spiritually and neurologically.  Chapter nine outlines the difference between being a “selfish” lover and a “servant” lover.  Chapter ten, entitled “Can We __?”, is the book’s most controversial chapter, employing I Corinthians 6:12 to assess what is sexually permissible within marriage.  Again, I think the Driscolls are writing from experience.  As a highly influential pastor, Mark has heard hundreds of people ask the same questions—questions they’re embarrassed to ask, but questions for which they want biblical answers.  Personally, I admire the Driscolls for tackling real and relevant issues that many other authors avoid.  Nevertheless, critics have argued that his I Corinthians 6:12 grid for assessing these issues is faulty because it is rooted in what is “lawful and beneficial” rather than the finished work of Christ.  Finally, part three of Real Marriage is comprised of a single chapter with practical advice for how to “reverse-engineer” your life and marriage.

A Word to Singles
While I was reading Real Marriage, a close single friend asked me whether I thought it would be a beneficial read for singles.  I thought about it for a while before telling her, no.  While I think the accompanying sermon series would probably be helpful for singles, in my opinion, the book simply delves too deeply into sexual issues to be beneficial for singles.  I would, however, highly recommend The Meaning of Marriage to singles.  Ironically, Keller shares that it was the vast number of singles in his church that actually compelled him to write this book on marriage.  He saw warped mentalities alive within the singles of his church, from idealistic beliefs that marriage is an “end-all” to the Seinfeld approach for dating that disqualifies anyone with big hands or strange moles.  It’s no surprise his chapter on singleness is outstanding.  Keller addresses the “goodness” of singleness as well as the difficulty of it, and how to live with a healthy balance of desire and contentment.  He teaches the history of dating, and spends substantial time sharing “practical counsel for marriage seekers.”

Final Thoughts
What are you looking for in a book about marriage?  I suppose, the better question would be, what are you looking for in your marriage?  What are the issues you face?  If you have a past with sexual sin, abuse, or pornography, and are experiencing the ramifications in your marriage, Real Marriage could be a hopeful and edifying read.  If you are waning under the weight of disillusionment, disappointment, or confusion then step into the Kellers’ classroom for a couple of weeks.

Although both books have great attributes, in the end, I must agree with Tim Challies.  When asked to recommend a marriage book, The Meaning of Marriage will be my very first choice.  It is thorough, comprehensive, and cohesive.  In short, if you’re looking to slap a band-aid on your marriage, you can keep on walking past this one.  Tim Keller is not interested in the six simple steps to a happier marriage, or the five key strategies for clearer communication.  He is interested in examining the ideology behind marriage, the original intent of marriage, the meaning of marriage as defined by the Author of marriage. And if you’re willing to follow him on this journey, you’ll discover something far more lasting than the five strategies for clearer communication.  You’ll discover that the true secret to marriage is rooted in one place only—the gospel of Jesus Christ.

2 thoughts on “Real Marriage vs. The Meaning of Marriage

  1. I have heard much about the Keller’s book. My husband and I read many books before our marriage and even after marrying, as you are doing. Your sharing about both of these books is extremely helpful in my opinion. Now that I am a widow, I still may need to suggest books to those whom I know and meet. Thank you for such a comprehensive review of both books. My own marriage was blessed and our reading did help us along the way in the various adjustments we needed to make. I can testify that our marriage got even better over the years, and we did not start off badly. Thanks for writing!

  2. I have read about the two books but I yet to get them. Thank you so much for your review of the books and God bless your marriage.

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