Tim Keller's The Meaning of Marriage is a wide reaching book on the topic of Marriage. Keller's focus is broad, and he says his "primary goal is to give married and unmarried people a vision for what marriage is according to the Bible" (p12). The book is vintage Keller: The style is conversational, the insights are thoughtful and the approach is entirely Bible focused, with a particular emphasis on Keller's type of Grace focused Christianity. This is not to say that only Christians should read the book. On the contrary, Keller draws equally from personal experience, biblical exegesis and a whole variety of sources, and he states bluntly that he has spoken on marriage at "innumerable weddings", adding that "Most people who do not share our ...Christian faith are often shocked by how penetrating the Biblical perspective on marriage is and how relevant it is to their own situations" (p14). In this review I'll aim to fairly describe the contents of the book in such a manner as to give you a good idea about whether you want to read it. (This is lengthy. Consider yourself warned!).
With regards to his experience, Keller is in a unique position. He's been married for 37 years, he's counselled countless married couples, and he's been both the pastor of a small church in Virginia and now a sizeable church (many thousand) in New York City where 80% of the congregation is single and most are young. This gives Keller some fine credentials for writing a book on marriage which is valuable to both unmarrieds and marrieds, and that is in touch with various perspectives.
Keller begins chapter one by aiming a salvo at contemporary culture's view of marriage. He bluntly says he is "tired of listening to sentimental talks on marriage", and continues with "much of what I've heard on the subject has as much depth as a Hallmark card" (p21). Keller does an admirable job of making an entirely sociological, empirically based case that marriage benefits individuals. But he also cautions against looking at marriage as a way of improving one's prospects of self fulfilment. Keller's vision of marriage is that through marriage "the mystery of the gospel is unveiled" (p48). And what does this mean? In Chapter two Keller suggests that it's all about submitting to one another, and that it is the transformative, sanctifying nature of the Holy Spirit who gives us the power to do this. He contextualises Jesus's words from Matthew as follows :"If you seek happiness more than you seek me, you will have neither; if you seek to serve me more than serve happiness, you will have both" (p59). Keller contrasts this Jesus focused, serving other approach with the results of Dana Adam Shapiro's Monogamy, where it was clear that self centeredness was "the heart of what led to marital disintegration" (p57).
In chapter three Keller argues that marriage is a covenant, and a promise of future love rather than simply a symbol of current love. He contrasts a "covenant" relationship with a "consumer" relationship. He notes that people will inevitably change throughout their lives, and thus that you will wake up one day and realise you're not married to the same person who walked down the aisle towards you. At this point, the covenantal understanding becomes crucial and you need to "do the acts of love, despite your lack of feeling" (p104). The results of this will be that your attraction will be "transformed" into a humble appreciation of the other person and that your love will grow "wiser, richer, deeper and less variable" (p105). Keller argues that the view that feelings lead to action is mistaken and backwards- actions lead to feelings more reliably. This problem is compounded by the observation that feelings are fickle and we have a higher degree of control over our actions. And constantly acting to put our spouse first is necessary for a marriage that works and grows.
Chapter four is titled "The Mission of Marriage", and Keller writes about becoming "spiritual friends" and assisting each other on the journey towards holiness. The vertical nature of the relationship between God and man is contrasted with the horizontal nature of the relationships between people. Marriage is something that can more closely approximate our relationship with God than any other human relationship: "In his redemptive work, Jesus is both friend and lover, and this is to be the model for spouses in marriage" (p 119). In chapter 5, Keller gets more specific about how to "Love the stranger" (that you find yourself married to). Marriage has the power of truth- the power to show you the truth about who you are, as no other relationship can. If we allow our spouses to be honest with us, we can use this power to help transform us for the better. Marriage has the power of love, an "unmatched power" to affirm and heal (p146). But we must engage in loving acts with the right tools by being aware of our spouses love currency (or "love language) and understanding how to use those tools (p 149-161). But there's a conflict- we must use the powers of truth and love to benefit our marriage, and never to hurt our spouse (which would be very easy to do). How to do this? With the power of Grace- the most important skills in a marriage are forgiveness and repentance, and we can forgive and love even when our spouses don't really deserve it, because Jesus forgave us and sacrificed for us when we didn't deserve it either.
The final three chapters build on the earlier framework Keller has established for marriage, but they are more stand-alone in their content. Chapter six - penned by Tim's wife Kathy- is on gender roles in marriage, chapter seven is on singleness and chapter eight is on Sex.
Kathy Keller makes a Biblical case for men having sacrificial and serving authority and wives engaging in sacrificial and serving submission. A fair objection to this point is considered by Kathy but not entirely answered- if sacrifice and servanthood is coming thick and fast in equal parts from both sides, then practically what difference do the roles make? And how can decisions be made if both sides are meant to be serving each other, and can't agree? One needs to go to the Appendix ("Decision Making and Gender Roles") to get the specific, practical answer given by the Kellers: "This should be the place where the one the Bible calls "head" takes the accountability" (p243). In other words men make the final decision because men have "ultimate authority and responsibility" (p185). I personally am not 100% convinced that she effectively justified her belief that this is an "obligatory" command that God has instituted for all people in all places-one size fits all- rather than just a general Biblical guideline.
In Chapter 7, singleness is shown to be a good way of life according to Christianity because for Christians, our future is "not guaranteed by our family but by God" (p196). The early church had a "revolutionary attitude" to singleness by institutionally supporting widows- a very unique practice in that day and age (p195). Keller makes a persuasive argument, showing that the positive view of singleness given by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 can fit snugly within the overall gospel narrative. The chapter also provides some practical advice for those singles who have decided to seek marriage.
Keller finishes the book with a discussion on Sex. He says sex is a way for two people to reciprocally say to each other than "I belong completely, permanently and exclusively to you" (p224), and that using sex for anything less is not only morally wrong according to the Bible but also will cause personal harm. He discusses yet another revolutionary claim by Paul that "the husband's body does not belong to him alone but to his wife", in a time when women were considered the legal possession of their husbands. Keller talks about using sex as a gift to your spouse, as opposed to something for personal gratification- again, an example of a unifying theme in the book that marriage should be an other-focused, selfless thing. Sex "reflects the joy of the trinity".
Overall, I found the book to be well argued, insightful, and well sourced. I am someone who is dating but not married, and I look forward to buying a copy of this book for married friends who will bring a different, deeper perspective. It was common for me to be reading and to think "I wish I'd read this years ago!"- and I'm not even married! So I'm interested to hear the thoughts of those who are, or have been for a long while. I'm grateful that Keller has transcribed his vast life experiences and accumulated wisdom onto the pages of this book, and that he can communicate his ideas clearly whilst remaining realistically aware of opposing views and the philosophies that underpin them.
One query on the book is the lack of discussion about children. The Bible says we should "go forth and multiply", and the Bible also warns against having sex outside of the marital relationship. Put two and two together and clearly, excluding immaculate conceptions, Christians should only have children when married. Furthermore, most people who are married, whether Christian or not, do actually have children. So I was surprised at the total lack of specific discussion on how marriage relates to the process of raising a family. Also, although the book was somewhat practical, there were still occasionally times when I wished Keller would quit talking about biblical passages or his theories on marriage, and instead explain exactly how his theological or general point plays out in day to day life. These are both minor quibbles, however, and I would wholeheartedly recommend the book to others. 4 stars.