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real marriage

Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together

[Editor’s Note: This review is taken from the January issue of Credo Magazine, “In Christ Alone.”]

Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together. By Mark and Grace Driscoll. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012. 236pp.

Reviewed by Jeremy Pierre

Real Marriage is a hard read.  Mark and Grace Driscoll are quite direct about the hardships of marriage, particularly those that are native to a sexually broken culture.  They are also unequivocal about the complete surrender to Jesus Christ required to overcome these hardships.  No one will be comfortable reading this book.

And that probably fits well into the Driscolls’ purpose for it.  They want to show that real marriage is a profound and challenging journey of friendship, and this purpose is clear from the opening chapter in which they tell the inglorious history of their own marriage and how they journeyed out of shame and misgiving and into the freedom of forgiveness and cleansing in Jesus Christ.

The book is divided into three parts, though the book largely fits into the first two: “Marriage” and “Sex.”  The last section, “The Last Day,” is a single-chapter practical guideline for evaluating your marriage and making plans to improve it.

The Marriage Section

In chapter 2, “Friend with Benefits,” the Driscolls give an overview of the marriage relationship, basing it conceptually on friendship, a basis they point out is overlooked in Christian literature on marriage.  In fact, friends is the acrostic they use to convey the various aspects of the marriage relationship, namely: fruitful, reciprocal, intimate, enjoyable, needed, devoted, and sanctifying. Chapters 3, “Men and Marriage,” and 4, “The Respectful Wife,” are appeals from Mark to men and from Grace to women on fulfilling their proper role in marriage.  In his chapter, Mark calls men, based on Genesis 2, to be productive, hard-working adults who are tough yet tender. In her chapter, Grace describes what respect for one’s husband looks like in real life, emphasizing that respect is conveyed outwardly as it is cultivated inwardly.  Chapter 5, “Taking Out the Trash” is a hard look at the presence of sin and its effects in marriage.  The Driscolls consider sins of commission and omission that fragment marriage, and how they are remedied in the gospel of Jesus Christ through repentance and forgiveness.

The great strength of the marriage section was the many helpful insights into marriage and its practical demands.  Particularly strong were the chapters appealing to men and women by Mark and Grace, respectively.  Mark’s chapter looks men squarely in the eye and calls them to leave the self-centered foolishness that men get away with in our culture and to do the hard work of honoring their wives.  Grace’s chapter is a gracious appeal to women to be willing to reassess how they relate to their husbands in order to establish godly respect.  These chapters are a strong representation of the practice of biblical complementarianism, and in fact stand as the two strongest chapters in the book.  The chapter on taking out the trash was also a strong example of what interaction in marriages looks like when each person’s need for the gospel frames their worldview.

One hindrance to their presentation of marriage could be pointed out. While drawing attention to the need for friendship in marriage is helpful, and perhaps needed among Christian literature, making it the conceptual foundation of marriage is not necessary.  The Driscolls seem to launch their conception that “Marriage is about friendship” (23) from the research of John Gottman, who they quote as saying, “Happy marriages are based on a deep friendship. By this I mean a mutual respect for and enjoyment of each other’s company” (24).  This statement is fine in itself, but not as a conceptual launching pad for understanding the covenant of marriage. The Driscolls know this, and so they utilize their acrostic to put some theological meat on Gottman’s insights.  But the acrostic felt thin and at times contrived (as is the immutable nature of the acrostic), without any significant mention of marriage as a covenant.  The most robust discussion of covenant occurs later in Mark’s chapter addressed to men, where he uses it quite effectively to call men to commitment.  So perhaps this is merely an organizational critique, but failing to include a sufficient discussion of covenant in the chapter on the nature of marriage is a significant omission.  Marriage certainly involves friendship, but it is also a unique covenant that transcends the principles of friendship.

The Sex Section

This section contains chapter 10, “Can We _____?”, which has already garnered in its pre-release a lot of attention. The temptation would be to read the chapter outside the context of the entire section. Reading the whole section will not change the controversial nature of the chapter, but it will display the Driscolls’ desire to think biblically about sexuality.

In Chapter 6, “Sex: God, Gross, or Gift?”, the Driscolls point out that sex is not something to be worshipped nor to be despised, but to be embraced as a gift from God for the pleasure, oneness, and procreation of a married couple. Chapter 7, “Disgrace to Grace” is largely about sexual brokenness, its effects in marriage, and how to address it with the gospel.  Chapter 8, “The Porn Path” considers the realities of living in a pornographic culture and how men and women can practice sexual contentment amidst it.  Chapter 9, “Selfish Lovers and Servant Lovers” unpacks the basic principle that marriage is for holiness before happiness in the context of sexuality, showing that self-giving is actually the path to joy in sex.

These chapters take a hard look at the dirt of sexual brokenness and perversion, and do so with wisdom and hope.  Chapter 7, which included Grace’s testimony of moving from the shame to hope in the gospel, was a powerful consideration of the delicate tension between addressing the pain of sexual abuse and the conviction of personal sexual sin.  The solution to both is the cleansing power of a new identity in Christ.

It is precisely the Driscolls’ apparent desire to stand against a sexualized culture that makes Chapter 10 “Can We ____?” so frustrating to read.  In it Driscoll attempts to answer questions about what is permissible or not in the marriage bed. He uses 1 Corinthians 6:12 to create a criteria for determining what is sexually permissible in marriage.  Of any sexual practice, we should ask: Is it lawful?, Is it helpful?, Is it enslaving? (176).  This grid is exegetically problematic for a number of reasons I lack space to address, the main one being that Paul was not presenting a criteria for the evaluation of sexual activity here.  He was addressing the misuse of Christian liberty. A catchy phrase was being thrown around in Corinth at the time, “All things are lawful for me” to justify sexual immorality.  Paul counters this phrase twice in 6:12 and in the following verses by saying basically, “Yeah, but not all things are profitable to the body, which belongs to the Lord.  And sexual immorality is particularly enslaving.” Paul is dismissing sexual immorality wholesale, not trying to discern what is immorality and what is not.

Even if we accept Driscoll’s grid, his answers are simplistic to the point of being reckless.  With the qualification that both spouses are not shamed and willing to participate, Driscoll allows for a broad range of sexual expression, including anal sex, cyber sex, and role playing.  Many things could be said in response, but perhaps most helpful would be to point out that Driscoll frequently answers the question Is it Helpful? affirmatively based on the dangerous assumption that novelty of the sexual experience is the avenue to greater pleasure, that variety gives that edge of intrigue that keeps sex exciting.  Driscoll says that anal sex can be helpful “for the variety” (187), role-playing can be helpful to keep things from getting “sexually predictable” (190), sex toys “heighten the pleasure” of sex (191), and cosmetic surgery can “make us more attractive to our spouse” (197).

I have spent many hours counseling couples, undermining this very assumption.  A pornographic culture teaches that greater sexual satisfaction comes from hotter methods and better bodies.  This does not square with the sexual contentment the Driscolls promote in earlier chapters. Take the example of role-playing.  To practice sexual contentment (152), a husband and wife in bed together pretend to be something other than a husband and wife in bed together?  Or take cosmetic surgery.  Your spouse is your standard of beauty (108), but she can be surgically changed to be more beautiful to you?  Or sex toys. Your wife’s body should satisfy you fully (118), but you can use manufactured gadgets to help?

Such an assumption is by it’s very nature enslaving, for it seeks the pleasure of sex not in the abiding appreciation of a spouse’s body, but the more instantaneous thrill of novel experiences.  There is enough variety and newness to the marital sexual relationship without adopting modes of sex largely developed in a sexualized culture.  Relational engagement with your spouse offers thousands of moods, emotions, mindsets, locations, timeframes, etc.  Sex is sometimes tepid, sometimes passionate, sometimes quiet, sometimes comforting, depending on the dynamic state of the relationship, not on the physical mode.

I would make a personal appeal to the author to reconsider this chapter.  The previous chapters on sex were helpful because they sought to undermine the false assumptions of a sexualized culture.  This chapter gives into many of them, particularly the one pointed out above.  I believe that Driscoll sincerely wants to be a missionary to a highly sexualized culture and not shy away from their concerns (175).  But there is something to learn from old school Christians who may be scandalized by the conclusions of this chapter.  By not being immersed as deeply in a sexualized world, they may have the better cultural vantage point to see its errors.  And maybe this is a better way to bring clarity to sexually confused people.

Jeremy Pierre (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Assistant Professor of Biblical Counseling at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is Pastor of Member Care, Clifton Baptist Church. Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremypierre

Did you enjoy this review? Read others like it in the January issue of Credo Magazine, “In Christ Alone.”

The January issue argues for the exclusivity of the gospel, especially in light of the movement known as inclusivism. This issue will seek to answer questions like: Can those who have never heard the gospel of Christ be saved? Will everyone be saved in the end or will some spend an eternity in hell? Must someone have explicit faith in Christ to be saved? Contributors include David Wells, Robert Peterson, Michael Horton, Gerald Bray, Todd Miles, Todd Borger, Ardel Caneday, Nathan Finn, Trevin Wax, Michael Reeves, and many others.

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