You know an evangelical book is controversial when the New York Times and the Daily Mail start covering the fallout. That happened last year when hipster pastor Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, failed to say unequivocally that non-Christians go to hell. It’s about to happen again with Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship and Life Together, a marriage and sex manual from Seattle megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll and his wife, Grace, that just cracked Amazon’s top 50 and is sparking a heated online debate.
Just about everything Driscoll says seems calculated to go viral. One of the biggest evangelical celebrity pastors, he’s developed a reputation as a testosterone-oozing Calvinist bruiser who shouts down his congregation, swears from the pulpit and sometimes seems to think that if you’re not cut out for the locker room, you’re not cut out for heaven. If you’re a woman, you’d better make sure you keep your husband fed and serviced.
A quick review of Driscoll’s greatest hits: Stay-at-home dads are “worse than unbelievers.” James Cameron’s Avatar is “the most demonic, satanic film” he’s ever seen. A wife should keep herself “sexually available” to her husband and, if she believes the Bible, better be giving him frequent blowjobs. “Effeminate” church musicians should be mocked on Facebook. Abstaining from alcohol can be a “sin.” The church has turned Jesus into a “a Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ,” when he’s actually a “prize fighter” who is “coming back looking for blood.” The Bible says women can’t have leadership positions in church because they’re “more gullible and easier to deceive than men.” Male masturbation is a “form of homosexuality” if there’s not a woman present.
It’s not difficult to imagine how this brash sloganeering has angered both conservative and liberal evangelicals. The Driscolls’ new book falls into that predictable divide, drawing fire from critics who dislike Driscoll’s aggressively “complementarian” view of gender roles (i.e., female submission), and from conservatives who think maybe the church just shouldn’t talk about anal sex. It has something to offend everyone, including a chapter titled “The Respectful Wife,” and another titled “Can We _____?” that gives qualified approval to oral sex, anal sex, masturbation, and other common evangelical taboos, as long as they’re in the context of heterosexual marriage.
Evangelicals have heard this stuff before from Driscoll, but the first chapter of Real Marriage, is something different, and it’s creeping nearly everyone out. It deals with the rocky early years of the Driscoll marriage, including premarital infidelity and dealing with past sexual abuse. Though many have praised the Driscolls for their brutal honesty about their struggles, actually reading about them can be cringe-inducing. At best it’s extreme oversharing, and at worst some see it as more evidence of Mark’s pervasive obsession with sex and a degrading view of women. He recalls having a dream, shortly before Grace gave birth to the couple’s first child, in which he “saw in painful detail Grace sinning sexually during a senior trip she took after high school when we had just started dating.” He awoke, threw up, and asked her if it was true. She confessed, and he was “shell-shocked. Had I known about this sin, I would not have married her.”
Blogger David Moore of Fuller Theological, who wrote several posts on the book, said that even though he’s “not much of a feminist,” Driscoll’s dramatic overreaction to his wife’s high-school affair struck him as another example of the guy’s view of his wife as his sexual servant. Moore picks out numerous passages from Real Marriage that seem to show Driscoll primarily concerned with the sexual needs of men. “This book is an astoundingly unbelievable work of disrespect for women,” Moore wrote.
“Grace is often cast as the damaged and sinful wife who withholds sex from her deserving husband, Mark the hero who is justified in leaving his wife but instead comes along to rescue her,” wrote Rachel Held Evans, a popular evangelical blogger and author, discussing the dream episode. “The amount of guilt and shame that pervades this part of the book makes me so sad.”
The reaction to the rest of the book has varied widely according to the views of the critic. Evans, who often challenges the traditional evangelical view of gender roles, took the Driscolls to task for manhandling scripture passage to fit their message. “Grace’s chapter on submission will make egalitarians cringe,” Evans wrote. She describes how the chapter twists the Old Testament story of Esther, a young Israelite woman who was forced to marry the king of Persia, into a modern moral lesson about wives submitting to their husbands. The Driscolls “fail massively” to understand the story of Esther, Evans argues, and crassly treat the racy Song of Solomon as a “sex manual.”
Tim Challies, a pastor and blogger who lives in Ontario, said that even though his own ministry proves the sexual proclivities of evangelicals are just as much influenced by pornography as anyone else’s, he still isn’t sure the church should discuss them with the Driscolls' degree of detail. “I am not at all convinced that every discussion needs to be had,” he wrote. “There is something we can do that avoids the extremes of explicit discussion and head-in-the-sand avoidance.” He added that he’d be embarrassed for his wife to read the Driscoll book, not out of prudishness but a desire to “protect” her.
The treatment of the book as a shock document is jarring considering how long “straight talk” about sex has been a feature of evangelical cool. (As I write, a Texas pastor and his wife are livestreaming themselves in bed on the church roof to promote their new sex book.) The Driscolls’ tone is straightforward and factual, far less graphic than a Judd Apatow movie, and surprisingly free of Driscoll’s infamous overstatement. Mark Driscoll has said virtually everything in Real Marriage in other books and sermons, and his permissive stance toward deviance in the marriage bed has precursors at least as far back as 1981’s Intended for Pleasure, a popular sex manual written by Ed and Gaye Wheat. Historian Susan Wise Bauer points this out in the Christian review Books & Culture: “The recommendations can pretty well be summed up in two phrases: Sure, if you both want to, as long as it doesn’t cause a problem. Fair enough, but Ed Wheat, among others, already said it.”