Over the years, Christians have produced and read far more books on how relationships and singleness should work than on how these things actually do pan out. Vicky Walker’s new book Relatable: Exploring God, Love, & Connection in the Age of Choice, based on a survey of more than 1,400 people, aims to change that.
Walker writes from a more-or-less Protestant British perspective, but American Christians will find much they recognize. Over the course of 12 chapters and several appendices, Relatable covers everything from the history of marriage to typical teachings on gender roles to, of course, sex. But she also gets into stickier matters like the role of technology and the church’s significant sex-ratio gap—the latter a topic that raises questions of dating outside the faith.
Throughout the book, she leavens this often-difficult discussion with a welcome dose of humor. It’s not quite Monty Python, but Walker brings an almost C. S.-Lewisian appreciation of the comedy of our romantic foibles.
Framing Sex and Relationships
Much of the book reports the results of Walker’s survey, which encompassed a sizeable but somewhat homogenous group. Women vastly outnumbered men (71 percent to 26 percent; some didn’t answer this question) and less than 2 percent identified as Catholic, apparently none as Orthodox. Of the 900 who specified their ethnicity, 90 percent identified as white. The last number may partly reflect British population demographics, as well as a tendency toward segregated worship that extends into other social networks.
For those interested in further reading, Valerie Y. Bernard-Allan’s 2016 PhD thesis, “It Is Not Good to Be Alone; Singleness and the Black Seventh-day Adventist Woman,” provides a good complement to Walker’s book. Though Bernard-Allan uses a different research methodology from Walker, both women make substantial use of respondent quotes to illustrate the themes observed. Given her data set and survey questions, Walker doesn’t unearth some of the challenges that emerge in Bernard-Allen’s research, but both women report similarly lofty views of marriage.
In Walker’s case, her format provides more latitude for commentary. Thus, Relatable also weaves in critique and recommendations. Though Walker never states her own views explicitly, the sections of advice reflect a particular concern with emotional health.
And no wonder. As she reports, “Half of the survey respondents (49.8%) agreed with the statement ‘Christian culture emphasises [sic] abstinence over teaching about healthy relationships.’” (As I’ve argued previously, that’s because the church tends to focus more on sexual boundaries than the ethos implied by Christians’ call to self-giving love.)
When it came to Christian teachings, however, I found Walker’s critique more uneven. For the most part, she reserves her criticism for Christians’ flawed reading of the Bible—and certainly, our spiritual forefathers sinned no less than we today. Thus, Walker notes some of Augustine’s more harmful influences on the church’s theology of sex and rightly challenges teachers who overlook Jesus’ and Paul’s singleness in their thoroughgoing praise of marriage.
Her modern lens proves less helpful, though, when Walker confronts the Bible itself. Summarizing Deuteronomy 22, for example, while in somewhat humorous vein, she seems to miss some of the original context. As Don C. Benjamin writes in The Social World of Deuteronomy, “Promiscuity was not simply a lack of sexual discretion, but a symptom of the risks which the father of a household was taking with its resources.”
It would be unfair to ignore Walker based on these minor issues, however. After all, her aim is less critique and more reportage. In that, she’s made an important contribution to our understanding of how Christians frame sex and relationships. Based on the information she provides, much of that teaching needs to change.
Central among the themes Walker reports is a tendency to view marriage as the natural and ideal outcome of (almost) every Christian life. Some even view it as a nobler, holier way to live than the single life.
Yet, as she convincingly shows, this teaching ignores not just the Bible’s own teaching and stories of several significant singles but also the church’s very daunting sex-ratio problem. And it’s not just a numbers issue.
First, women outnumber men in the church. According to numbers Walker cites, women in the British church may outnumber men by as much as two-to-one. Further, a 2016 Pew report found that Christian women also tend to be more devout than men, in measures like prayer and church attendance.
Even more difficult, Walker also reports a significant gap in insistence on a Christian spouse. While almost two-thirds of her female respondents would only marry a Christian, only half of the men felt the same way. As she puts it:
[W]hat arises swiftly and awkwardly is a maths problem: if only half of Christian men insist on a partner of the same faith, that means only one-sixth (16-and-two-thirds %) of Christian men in total share the same conviction as almost half ([or] 45%) of Christian women. Yes, for every hundred Christians, 16-and-a-bit men and 45 women have “same faith” as a nonnegotiable.
And that’s assuming all these hundred Christians are single! As any regular church attendee could attest (aside from a few Hillsong churches, perhaps), that’s not the case.
Churches rarely—if ever—acknowledge this reality. Walker’s book doesn’t offer a solution to the problem, but it does provide an opportunity for churches to start acknowledging it.
Short of massive revivals among men (an aim that even efforts like Promise Keepers and Mark Driscoll’s work never achieved), the church must change how it talks about singleness and marriage.
If many of us won’t ever marry, the church needs to reframe how we connect the life of faith to the life of marriage. Fortunately, we have a lot of great material in our sacred text, if we would only read it a bit more completely than might be comfortable.
For churches uneasy about surfacing that issue, Walker’s book provides a great tool for starting to get more honest about how we’re doing with relationships and what the church tends to teach about them.
These may not always be comfortable discussions, but a faith that reveres humility as Christianity does should always receive correction and critique with the understanding that they might hold some truth. And as we confront more of the lies we’ve believed, it provides a chance to experience God himself more deeply. What Christian doesn’t aspire to that?
Anna Broadway is the author of Sexless in the City: A Memoir of Reluctant Chastity (WaterBrook). She is currently researching a book on the global experience of singleness among Christians.