August 25, 2006

A Biblical Critique of Debbie Maken's Book "Getting Serious about Getting Married" (part 7)

PART VII: Chapter 6 - "The 'Gift' of Singleness and the Sovereignty of God" (Magic 8-Balls and the Present Distress about Presents)

How does God operate in the lives of believers? Does he have a special mate picked out for every one of us? These are tantalizing questions and I suspect that they have been the fodder for a lot of theological speculation (or should I say "whittling on God's end of the stick"). In light of these questions, Mrs. Maken devotes Chapter 6 of her book to a discussion about how people relate the sovereignty of God to their chances of getting married. I must admit that Mrs. Maken raises some legitimate issues about the assumptions many people have about God's providence. However, as I have indicated, Mrs. Maken application of her principles still leaves something to be desired.

On p. 86, Mrs. Maken states:
"Don't get me wrong: I believe wholeheartedly in the sovereignty of God. At the same time I also believe we have free will and a responsibility to pursue God's will for our lives. God's sovereignty doesn't mean we are puppets who cannot take action until he pulls our strings. On the contrary, we are expected to live our lives in ways that follow God's will and do what is right in his eyes. When we misunderstand God's sovereignty, it can become merely an excuse to be lazy and justification for our refusal to assume God-given roles. We must cooperate with what we know to be God's will for our lives--whether it's loving our neighbors or honoring our parents. Obedience requires action."
To this, I say a hearty "Amen." I have to concede that if a person wants to get married but simply waits for God to send some sort of mysterious sign about what direction to take in finding a spouse, success probably won't follow. Moreover, even in the promises that God has clearly made to his children, faith requires obedience. It was true under the Old Testament; it is true today.

Mrs. Maken, however, then asks a question at the bottom of p. 87: "If singleness is a gift like marriage, and if the two are both morally equal and good, then why pursue marriage?" I understand that Mrs. Maken probably meant this to be a rhetorical question, but I thought I turn it back on Mrs. Maken and her supporters. Truly, why would anyone want to trade the benefits of singleness for marriage? There must be an answer to this question that doesn't involve the misapplication of scriptures; dubious studies that don't distinguish between correlation and causality; sanctimonious platitudes about how adversity builds character; or language that is downright insulting.

One Woman's Refuse is Another Man's Gift

Mrs. Maken, naturally, does not see singleness as a gift. She assumes that calling singleness a gift is a "non sequitur." We are told that since God only a called a select few to be single and enabled them through the "gift of celibacy," we cannot logically assume that just anyone should be content to be single. Of course, I reject Mrs. Maken's assumptions about the "gift of celibacy" as they are based on flimsy conjecture about what Paul teaches in 1 Cor. 7.

Mrs. Maken asks a lot of rhetorical questions about singleness as a gift. Why do so many people hate being single? Why are they single for so long? Why weren't there more singles in the past? What happened to the Genesis mandate to "be fruitful and multiply"? Why have so many singles lost their virginity? I have dealt with the so-called "mandate" of Genesis in my earlier comments. As for the other questions, they make for some interesting talking points but they establish nothing substantive in a case for marriage.

In fact, I could turn around and ask those who think marriage is a gift why so many people want to divorce. Why are so many marriages unhappy? Why is there an entire cottage industry devoted to churning out books about how to bring excitement into lackluster relationships? Why do I see so many husband and wives who look stressed out, jaded, tired, and unenthusiastic about their situation? Is marriage is gift to these people? I do not need a miraculous gift of asexuality to understand that marriage often does not bring the happiness that many people think it will. Gifts, like beauty, are often in the eye of the beholder.

Biblical Thinking Vs. Outcome-Based Theology

Debbie Maken makes some interesting remarks on pp. 88-89:
"We need to think Biblically first, then look at culture, not the other way around. Too often we no longer look to Scripture to dictate and serve as the basis for our understanding. Instead we take reality as it exists and then see if we can somehow apply Scripture to it ..."

"...Thinking culturally endorses a seductive, outcome-based theology: Whatever your outcome is--whether you are married or single--it must be God's will. But God is not a puppet, and we should not treat him as a such. We must not turn his sovereignty and his will into carte blanche approval for the choices we make. Doing so turns the doctrine of God's sovereignty (his control in exercising his will) into a rubber-stamping machine that validates every situation in life, no matter how unbiblical or personally devastating."
This is wonderful advice to heed. Just the same, I wonder how Mrs. Maken reconciles her exegetical principles with her statement on p. 15: "... I was never going to get true spiritual peace about singleness because I wasn't called to singleness, and the Spirit does not give peace about something that is outside of God's calling." Somehow we are to believe that Debbie Maken's discontentment with singleness was a sign from God that she was to be married. Somehow we are to believe that failure of people to remain chaste is a sign that marriage is a requisite for them as well. Moreover, we see throughout Mrs. Maken's book sentiments that are often expressed in popular culture: people cannot live without sex; romance is the key to happiness; unmarried men are pathetic; men need to be ambitious and make money in order to be good husbands; men are to blame for the problems women face, etc.

Who are we to say that Debbie Maken isn't engaging in a little bit of outcome-based theology herself? Perhaps she is the one who is guilty of "thinking culturally." Mrs. Maken should have been more careful about the kind of charges she levels against others in the matter of theology. The measure she uses has been measured against her, and she is found wanting.

Is it any wonder that Mrs. Maken's exegesis is flawed? On p. 90, she misapplies 1 Cor. 7:1-2 to single people whereas the original language, grammar, and context show that the Apostle Paul was addressing married people. On p. 92, she uses Malachi 2:15 allusion to the "wife" of one's "youth" as a proof-text for demanding that people get married young. Of course, that is not the focus of Malachi of 2:15 and such a reading puts us in the absurd position of barring marriage to anyone over the age of 35. In short, I believe that Mrs. Maken's misunderstanding of what the Bible teaches may very well be the result of her attempt to superimpose her own cultural values on the Scriptures. It may be a case of her failing to follow her own advice.

The Sovereignty of God and the Problem of Evil (or Singleness)

Debbie Maken is correct that singleness is a product of human free will. The fact that there so many unhappily single women is indeed the result of some choices made by individuals and by the culture at large. Mrs. Maken lists her favorite culprits: modern dating, the education system, failed families, immaturity, and of course, men. Noticeably absent from her list is corporatism, feminism, and the shallowness of many contemporary women. Mrs. Maken's narrative gingerly marches right along and summarily ignores the 300-pound gorillas in the room.

Yet Mrs. Maken is also correct that that God is not obligated to save people from the temporal consequences of their decisions. There is indeed such thing as "generational sin" in the sense that people often suffer the fallout of foolish choices made long beforehand by others. In this vein, we need take a cue from Mrs. Maken and ask ourselves if the unhappiness of women today is the result of "generational sin."

As a case in point, women today are becoming dissatisfied with the passivity of men. Yet for one generation, we have shouted men down, told them that their masculinity is oppressive and problematic, claimed that they need to change, etc. Can we blame men that they are in many cases only a former husk of what they used to be? Let us consider another matter: women entering into midlife alone and single. What or who is the culprit? Is it men who are afraid to commit, or is it women who have insisted on frittering away their youth on careerism and frivolity?

What I am suggesting is that while Mrs. Maken is correct on some principles, she misses the mark in her application. Women are not only reaping the bitter consequences of choices made by others, they are reaping the consequences of their own self-centered, rash decisions. Even Mrs. Maken should be asking herself if her late marriage was really the fault of the society around her or a carefree attitude that she may have had in her younger years. I read her description of herself in her early twenties on p. 11 and wonder if "getting serious about getting married" wasn't really a high priority for her at that time.

Let us turn from the matter of singleness for a moment and realize that even the choice of marrying has consequences. I pose this question: Suppose a woman is married to an emotionally indifferent man. He doesn't cheat on her, so she has no scriptural grounds for divorce (Matthew 19:9). Is it the will of God for this woman to be in a loveless marriage? I suggest that is no more appropriate to say it is the will of God that people should marry than it is to say he wants them to be single.

Why is this so? Simple. We have no business presuming to know the mind of our Creator on a matter if he has not revealed such to us (Deut. 29:29). As it is, despite what Mrs. Maken would have us believe, there is no divine revelation that personally directs us to get married, per se. In the matter of matrimony, we can pray for wisdom and guidance, but the decision to marry is essentially a decision that God leaves to us. He no more tells us which specific person we should wed than he does which road we should take to the grocery mart. The "secret things belong to the Lord." It is our job to pray, trust, and obey, not to try peer through the veil of the heavens the way some peer into a Magic 8-ball. In essence, Chapter 6 leaves us with a valuable lesson about not assuming too much about the "will of God." Unfortunately, Mrs. Maken fails to heed her own advice.

August 22, 2006

A Biblical Critique of Debbie Maken's Book "Getting Serious about Getting Married" (part 6)

PART VI: Chapter 5 - "What We've Been Taught " (Debbie Maken's Bone to Pick)

On page 79 of Getting Serious about Getting Married, Mrs. Maken raises a hypothetical situation where a woman who is starving to death shows up at a church. Mrs. Maken asks her readers what would be an appropriate response by the church to this woman. Naturally, most readers would agree with Mrs. Maken's answer: "The last thing we'd say is, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'" People would recognize that the woman's physical needs must be met as well as her spiritual needs. However, Mrs. Maken then claims the same holds true for a person's desire to marry. We are told that an emphasis on spiritual growth is no substitute in this regard.

With such an understanding in mind, Mrs. Maken spends the following chapters lambasting much of the spiritual advice church leaders give to single people (e.g., how singles can be content in their situation). Her understanding, of course, is flawed. Sex and companionship is not parallel to the basic biological urges of eating, sleeping, etc. Indeed, we have to ask why God has placed so many restrictions on the sexual drive and why he demands moral accountability with regard to our romantic desires. Where there is moral accountability, there must be the power to choose between good and evil. As it is, people do not die from the lack of sex, and there is no innate need for people to get married.

Chapter 5 rehashes claims made earlier in Mrs. Maken's book: men are responsible for pursuing marriage, God only allows a few people to be single, etc. I have already refuted these claims in my critique. Granted, in the pages that follow Chapter 5, Mrs. Maken raises some legitimate issues. I agree with her about how some religious pundits have unnecessarily frustrated single people. Many church leaders presume too much when they think God wants certain individuals to settle for singleness. Having said that, Mrs. Maken's attempt to grapple with the frustrations that single people face is undercut by her own short-sighted conclusions in the first four chapters of her book. In the following installments of my critique, I plan to address some of Mrs. Maken's concerns about how churches treat single people. There is still much about her book that I find to be disappointing at best.