Getting Marriage Right by David P. Gushee (Baker Book House, 2004)
Reviewed by Peter Larson
Among evangelicals today there is an outcry against gay marriage. We're told that same-sex unions, if they become legal, will destroy the sanctity of marriage. What no one seems to notice is that the sanctity of marriage was trashed a long time ago by millions of heterosexuals filing for no-fault divorces. On this subject the church is silent. As Jesus said, it's easier to criticize the speck in your brother's eye than to remove the log from your own.
In his disturbing book, Getting Marriage Right: Realistic Counsel for Saving and Strengthening Relationships, David P. Gushee confronts the injustice of divorce. What we have witnessed in our lifetime, says Gushee, is the near collapse of marriage as a social institution. In a single generation, we have torn apart the sacred relationship that God created for the good of humankind. In its place we have created a culture of mass divorce. As a result, today nearly 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, 33 percent of children are born to unmarried parents, and up to 60 percent of all couples live together outside of marriage.
If we think Christians are immune from this divorce epidemic, we are mistaken. According to studies by the Barna Research Group, people identifying themselves as "born-again" Christians experience divorce at the same rate as non-Christians. What's more, Christians have become adept at justifying divorce. Gushee describes a televised interview on ABC's Primetime with Christian singer Amy Grant and country singer Vince Gill, who married after they each divorced their former spouse. Explaining her decision, Grant said she felt compelled by "fate" to abandon her spouse in favor of her "soulmate."
For Grant and millions like her, the biblical concept of marriage has been trumped by the sort of pagan psychobabble you would expect to find in Cosmopolitan or on Oprah. Commenting on this interview, Gushee observes: "The displacement of the biblical language of covenant permanence with the pagan language of fate and destiny is particularly telling. Covenants are freely made and bind their makers for life; fate and destiny are, on the other hand, things that happen to us that are beyond our control. No one can prevent them; no one is responsible; no one is to blame."
Our culture has conditioned us to believe that divorce is merely a choice made by consenting adults, with no moral blame and no victims. In truth, however, there are millions of victims: the children of divorce. As a college professor, Gushee spent five years interviewing students who came from divorced families. In many cases, their parents were ministers, deacons, and church-going Christians. The stories of these young people, reported by Gushee, are filled with grief and rage:
"[My father] lived five miles from us, and he had to drive by our house to get to his house …a lot of times I would be out in the yard playing, and he would drive by, and he wouldn't look or wave or honk or anything, like we didn't even exist."
"I was taking care of my dad. My mom was trying to fulfill her desires. And I was just kind of sitting there in the middle hoping somebody would pay attention to me….I feel cheated. I absolutely do, because I had no childhood. I went from being a third-grader to being a mother, basically."
"I wear my dad's abandoned wedding ring as a reminder of my commitment…that I would not have a marriage like my parents. It says…that the cycle stops here…it's not going to happen to me. It's not an option."
"I don't know if there is fury and wrath in nature that would be as devastating as divorce. [It's like] an earthquake…probably just the worst earthquake you can ever imagine—one that would make rivers flow backwards and just totally change the face of the earth where you can't recognize it anymore."
"There's not any closure—I will always be dealing with this, one way or another. I deal with it now in the dating relationship I am in—the day I ask my wife to marry me, I will deal with it…"
After listening for many hours to such conversations, Gushee came to the conclusion that divorce is a justice issue. He was struck with the biblical mandate: "Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed" (Ps. 82:3). Like drug-addition, crime, or abortion, divorce is an evil that does tremendous violence both to individual lives and to the fabric of society. Gushee realized that if he accomplished nothing else in his professional career, he must provide a platform for these children to be heard, "Not just so that they can shout their sorrow into the wind, but so other children might be spared having to suffer as these children have."
If divorce is a justice issue, then you would expect the church to do everything in its power to prevent it. But instead, the church has gone along with the drift of culture. As the divorce rate exploded in the 1970s and '80s, many influential Christian moral thinkers weakened their opposition to divorce or remained silent. In our desire to be nonjudgmental, the church has focused its efforts on divorce recovery rather than divorce prevention. We have adopted a therapeutic model that provides healing but no discipline. Forty years ago a pastor who divorced his wife would have been required to step down from ministry. Today that stigma is gone: Pastors get divorced like everyone else and nobody seems to care.
But God cares. The God of the Bible declares, "I hate divorce!"
So what can we do to save marriage? On this question Gushee is both realistic and helpful. First of all, we need to recover the biblical idea that marriage exists not for our own personal pleasure but to achieve God's creation purposes: the welfare of human beings, the nurture of children, the preservation of society, and the establishment of the kingdom of God. In our never-ending quest for self-actualization we have lost this larger view of marriage, says Gushee.
Also, we should stop listening to all the misguided advice on marriage that is being dispensed by our culture. Gushee calls this "Love Incorporated"—the industry of seminars and workshops that offer "Seven Principles," "Eight Steps," or "Ten Secrets" that lead to lasting love. Successful marriage does not depend on finding the perfect match or a compatible partner, says Gushee. Rather, it depends on mastering a set of virtues and skills. (One of the best ways to teach these skills is by using the PREPARE program developed by David Olson, which is based on solid research, clinical practice, and proven experience with one million couples).
Finally, we need to lower our expectations of marriage. The problem today, says Gushee, is that we are simultaneously demanding more and less of marriage: more satisfaction and less permanence. What we need to do is ratchet our expectations down, "…from overly hyped cultural romantic notions to more sober biblical hopes." According to Gushee, this requires "…humility about our own adorableness; sobriety about what can be expected from others;…patience with human frailty; self-control when expectations go unmet for a season; and above all, love, which is not self-seeking, not easily angered, and keeps no record of wrongs."
The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther once described marriage as a school for character. The tragedy today is that so many Christians are dropping out of this school, never learning the lessons that God would teach them. It is, after all, easier to change our partners than it is to change ourselves. With this book Gushee exposes the fatal narcissism in our souls that would trade the lifelong relationship of marriage with the pseudo-intimacy of hooking up.
Peter Larson is pastor of Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Lebanon, Ohio, and a contributing editor to PRISM. He can be reached at Peter@LebanonPresbyterian.org.