Breaking the Marriage Idol: Reconstructing Our Cultural and Spiritual Norms, by Kutter Callaway. 278 pp. IVP Books
When an author writes a book and calls it “Breaking the Marriage Idol: Reconstructing Our Cultural and Spiritual Norms” I would automatically assume it might create some tremendous challenges. When people hear something that challenges their community or longstanding convictions, this creates cognitive dissonance. For example, we may say to ourselves “I thought I knew this was the thing to believe, but now I am hearing counter evidence and I am experiencing dissonance or conflict.”
So many readers may ask, “How in the world can marriage be an idol?”
The only thing that was missing from this book is a short chapter on defining idolatry. Remember, an idol is anything that consumes your thoughts or becomes your core identity. You can’t live without your idol because it defines you and gives you that ultimate security and satisfaction. We get mad when the idols in our lives are challenged and we cling hard to them because they do define who we are. Idols bring power and control. Yes, that is why there is so much political idolatry. So having said this, in this book, Calloway (who actually is married) is concerned that the church as a whole needs a paradigm shift. People like paradigms. Paradigms allow us to say “This is the way we have always thought about this and this is why we do it this way.” But Calloway thinks we need to help young people and people in general to rethink what marriage is all about.
As Calloway says:
“Marriages within the church continue to dissolve as quickly and as often as those of the general population, these romanticized notions of marriage are proving inadequate. In fact, based purely on the odds, the majority of those who find their way into our offices for pastoral counsel are not going to have successful or healthy marriages. And yet, almost in spite of this glaring reality, we continue as both leaders of the church and as a church body to enact and reenact the same old story about singleness and marriage.”- Pg 5.
Calloway notes “ When marriage functions as the normative vision for Christian life, and no alternatives for relational flourishing are made available, a kind of ripple effect takes place”- pg 4. Thus, as he says, “we’ve allowed marriage to function as the standard against which all other relationships are evaluated and understood, our vision of singleness, marriage, community, sex, and even celibacy has become distorted. And the time has come for us to construct a new vision, to develop new eyes to see and ears to hear.”- pg 4.
As Calloway also notes “ Marriage is touted as the ideal relational paradigm, and anyone who doesn’t fit neatly within this framework is not only socially inept, but worse: they are not quite human. When marriage functions as the dominant metaphor for understanding what it means to be a disciple, a member of the Christian community, or even a human being, we become blind to another equally important vocation: living in mutual interdependence as people called to embody singleness in community”- pg 8.
So with some of these comments in mind, Calloway highlights some of the issues that have contributed to this problem. He discusses the impact of the prince and princess model that has rubbed off on the church. Films produced by Disney Animation Studios, the music of Taylor Swift, and the television programs The Bachelor and The Bachelorette have all contributed to this problem. As Calloway notes, in many of these reality television shows and movies “ Young single women are not quite fully human until they are wed to their soulmate, and the primary means by which they are able to find and secure their partner is rooted in the expression of their sexuality, then it makes perfect sense why the mythic world of Disney films envisions marriage as the culmination of a life quest rather than the start of a shared journey. “ pg 36. Calloway notes that this leads to an “ uncritically and distorted vision of marriage, singleness, which makes us un aware of all that is hidden from our view. We are wearing blinders, but have mistaken them for spectacles. “- pg 47.
In Chapter Two Calloway discusses the impact of the of the “purity culture” movement. As Calloway says “ Books and multimedia curricula like The Wait: A Powerful Practice for Finding the Love of Your Life and the Life You Love by Devon Franklin and Meagan Good and God Where Is My Boaz? A Woman’s Guide to Understanding What’s Hindering Her from Receiving the Love and Man She Deserves by Stephan Labossiere can lead to believing “ Sexual expression is thus pictured as the essential ingredient for an individual’s self-actualization, which is why so many evangelical leaders urge their fellow Christians to recognize that sex is well worth “the wait.”- pg 65. But as Calloway rightly notes, to reduce marriage as to being about endless sex and as the outlet for all our sexual frustration to end is misleading. He rightly notes sexual dysfunctionality can continue after being married and anyone who is married knows sex plays a very small role in the overall relationship. He also notes the pressure the Christians community places on getting married for sex has disastrous results to people who aren’t married. As he says:
“Singleness functions as a kind of extended purgatory. At best, it is a time of sexual purification that one must endure or suffer through. At worst, celibate singleness is understood to be simply impossible, especially when this season of refinement by fire extends later into life. Indeed, because faithful Christian discipleship demands that the single person abstain from that which is taken to be ultimate (sex), singleness simply cannot be seen as a gift or a calling. It can only be a curse. “-pg 78.
Calloway does spend time looking at how marriage the First Testament (I like how he doesn’t call it “Old Testament”) and the Second Testament. He rightly points out that God calls us to community, and to not live in isolation. But marriage isn’t the perfect or only community that God calls us to participate in.
In Chapter Four, he rightly notes that “According to Jesus, marriage is a relationship that is bound up with the present age. However, in the resurrection—that is, in our fully realized human life in the age to come—no one is married. By extension, neither is anyone having sexual intercourse.”- pg 129.
In Chapter 5, Calloway discusses the call of marriage and why people should consider marriage. This is something that is radical and goes against the grain. But it is refreshing. One reason to be married is a call to justice. He says “ The Christian call to marriage demands a response from God’s people that is consonant with God’s project in the world—even and perhaps especially in the process of identifying our prospective spouses. For example, what might it look like for single Christians to abandon their “ideal spouse” checklists and instead seek out only those partners who would enable them to respond to the call of justice in ways that would otherwise remain inaccessible? Or, to put it differently, what if the chief criteria for a future spouse were not sexual chemistry, a common set of personal interests and hobbies, or even emotional compatibility, but rather a capacity (and willingness) to collaborate in a lifelong project of caring for the outsider, the marginalized, and the oppressed?”- pg 166.
Considering marriage also means we need to consider a call to be generous. As Calloway says “ The last thing a Christian should do is pursue marriage as a way of having one’s sexual “needs” met, even if it is a more religiously acceptable way of doing so. That’s a recipe for disappointment or disaster. Indeed, the call to marriage embodies a topsy-turvy wisdom that appears as utter foolishness to the world (and to many in the church) because it suggests that the only way for us to find true fulfillment (sexually or otherwise) is to give up our vain pursuit of satisfaction altogether and instead devote ourselves to satisfying others. It is a call to be generous— to give without the expectation of getting anything in return.”- pg 174-175.
Thirdly, marriage is a call to forgiveness. As he says,
“ If the call to marriage is in fact a call to forgive, then it has nothing to do with becoming our best self or helping someone else become a better version of himself or herself. It is instead an invitation to love someone who neither now nor ever will deserve our love. Which means that one of the reasons why Christians should get married is that in and through marriage they are provided an opportunity to forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven times (Mt 18:22). What is more, when this radical commitment to forgive takes shape in the context of a relationship as intimate and vulnerable as marriage, it’s also a commitment to be wounded, perhaps even repeatedly. And the reason is that marriage is a calling to bear burdens, not just to be relieved of them. It’s to take on the pains of others, not just to be healed from them.”- pg 179.
Fourth, marriage is a call to hospitality. He says “the Christian call to hospitality extends beyond the individual commitments that spouses make to each other. As a call to welcome those who are unwelcome, Christian marriage is a call to create the kind of generative space that can accommodate unexpected visitors. And in our present age of radical individualism, the most unexpected and indeed most unwelcome visitor that I can imagine showing up at a couple’s doorstep unannounced is the community of faith otherwise known as the church.”- pg 182.
Now having read these four reasons for the call to be married, how often are these taught?
Calloway goes onto give some practical suggestions about how the ideas in this book might be implemented in the local church by the means of thinking, teaching, and educating. He would like to see single people given a voice. He thinks there is no reason for them to not be taken seriously in vocational ministry.
Overall, I found this book to be a paradigm shifting book. But then again, I like seeing paradigms challenged and, in many cases, done away with. When I was a new Christian in my early 20’s I can easily say that marriage was portrayed as the ideal relational paradigm and that anyone who wasn’t married was missing out on God’s best for their life. The goal was to find that “special someone.” I have been married for over 20 years. But as I look back, sex was idolized then and it still is today. That was nearly 25 years ago and not much has changed. It is my hope this book will be used in discipling people. It is a great resource.