Q & A: Tim Keller on 'The Meaning of Marriage'
The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God
November 1, 2011
288 pp., $18.98
What does your book contribute to the conversation about marriage that other books have not?
It's not simply a how-to manual. Many Christian marriage books are "here's how to work on your problems." On the other hand, the book is not just theological or "here's the biblical view of marriage." The most recent and the best-selling Christian books on marriage from the last few years were either theological, polemical, or absolutely practical. This is a combination of those. Most books I know on the subject recently have not been written by pastors; they've been written by counselors or theologians or people like that. This book was originally a series of sermons. When you preach, the sermon usually goes from the theological to the more polemical and into the practical.
You suggest that the Bible's teachings come "not only in well-stated propositions, but also through brilliant stories and moving poetry." Has the contemporary church been less effective in presenting good stories about marriage than in stating propositions?
I don't know that I would say the church has been great at laying out rules, and I don't think it's actually been very practical. The theological tends to be propositions. The polemical tends to be arguments. The practical uses lots of stories to give you the gist of what a good marriage should be like. Somewhere in Mystery and Manners, Flannery O'Connor was asked to put the basic point of her short story in a nutshell. She said, 'If I could put it in a nutshell, I wouldn't have had to write the story.'
I believe she says a story can't be paraphrased.
Yes, that's right. I think what she means is a story gives you an excess of meaning that no proposition could possibly convey, or even a set of propositions. There's meaning that comes with a narrative that is certainly somewhat propositional—you can put some of it into propositions—but the impact is greater.
On a practical level, the church doesn't do a great job of giving people a vision for what God wants marriage to be. I actually think that's a way that my book is somewhat different in that it's almost as much for a non-married person as for a married person. I actually think, in the end, what is very practical for both singles and married people is they need to get a breathtaking vision for what marriage should be. I don't know if the strictly theological, strictly polemical, and strictly practical books do that.
One of the paradoxes you talk about is how the commitment of marriage actually produces freedom: the freedom to be truly ourselves, the freedom to be fully known, the freedom to be there in the future for those we love and who love us. Why do you believe that the commitment of marriage is viewed as largely anything but freeing today?
Our culture pits the two against each other. The culture says you have to be free from any obligation to really be free. The modern view of freedom is freedom from. It's negative: freedom from any obligation, freedom from anybody telling me how I have to live my life. The biblical view is a richer view of freedom. It's the freedom of—the freedom of joy, the freedom of realizing what I was designed to be.
If you don't bind yourself to practice the piano for eight hours a day for ten years, you'll never know the freedom of being able to sit down and express yourself through playing beautiful music. I don't have that freedom. It's very clear that to be able to do so is a freeing thing for people, with the diminishment of choice. And since freedom now is defined as all options, the power of choice, that's freedom from. I don't think ancient people saw these things as contradictions, but modern people do.