As far as I can tell, Paul (the apostle) liked to be right. Luther and Calvin, may they rest in peace, both liked to be right. Yet none of those three ever wrote anything like this:
“I told you! I told you it would be worth it!!! This is unbelievable!!!!!!!!” I imagine shouting that one day when I see Lisa and the kids in heaven. They will no longer be my wife and kids, but we will love each other more than ever. I picture myself looking them in the eyes and saying, “I told you He would come through! I knew He would be true to His promises. I knew every sacrifice would be worth it. This is insane! He is amazing!!!” (p. 131)
If, at the start of the world to come, someone greets me by gripping me tightly and saying, “I told you so”- I will know without a doubt, no matter the scenery, that I am in hell. Unless the voice is coming from Jesus, in which case I will fall on my knees and say, “I believed, Lord, forgive my unbelief.”
Be that as it may, Francis Chan’s You and Me Forever: Marriage in Light of Eternity was not exactly hell to read, but it was not a glimpse of heaven, either. In this book, the Bible is to be taken literally. Marriage is an institution created by God and it is hetero-normative, period. Both partners exist within their commitment to one another to be certain that each will experience heaven (that is NOT a metaphor). The mission of their marriage is discipleship, a pure witness to the work of fulfilling the Great Commission (Matthew 28). Men lead, through submission to God. Women follow, through submission to God. The practical advice of the book consists of guides for both individual and mutual conversation, study, and prayer.
How many times did I want to throw this book against the wall? Many. However, I more frequently found myself despairing. Chan and I, theoretically want the same thing. First, that the world may come to know and trust in the grace, mercy, and faithfulness of God as those truths were revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Second, that marriage would be understood to be a loving partnership for faithful growth and support- a sacramental gift from God that is the foundation of hope, stability, sanctification, and peace in communities. Our ability to agree on even these two sentences can only occur in a sterile environment because once we hit the ground, we are at odds which is lamentable to God (as far as I understand 1 Corinthians).
Things are different nowadays. Sin is more accessible and acceptable. Two specific areas come to mind, both deadly to marriage: pornography and flirting.
When I was a kid, a guy had to let everyone in the store know he was a pervert when he walked to the counter to buy a Playboy magazine. These days, people can look endlessly at pornography on the privacy of their own phones. And many don’t even consider that perverted. It’s the norm!
When I was a kid, a woman would have to flirt with a man face to face, in a normal social setting. Once again, there was the shame of people seeing it and labeling her a “whore” or “slut”. Now with Facebook and text messaging, women and men can approach each other in secret to test the waters. And the affairs that spring from it, as well as the divorces that result from it, have become more acceptable. Even in the church. (26)
When I read the Bible, it seems to me that sin was fairly accessible to our forefathers and foremothers in the faith. None of them seemed to struggle with finding ways to violate God’s covenants and laws. If God is the same- yesterday, today, and forever, then, sadly, the forces that oppose God are the same. They may have shiny new ways to tempt, but they are no more powerful than they ever were or ever will be. Arguing that humans are more sinful or that evil is more prevalent denies the reality of history and the reality of God’s relationship to creation in history.
Furthermore, all sin (sexual and otherwise) is a result of failing to acknowledge that God alone is God (here Chan and I would agree). Thus, breaking the first commandment (I am the Lord your God, have no other gods before me) happens when we objectify and deify anything- bodies, natural resources, money, work, power, control. The examples Chan gives do not go deep enough to the reality of sin, a felt separation from God in the world. They are superficial, shaming examples with no followed-up basis for repair or correction. The failure of the church in this situation is not a failure to preach strongly enough against pornography, adultery, or divorce. It is a failure to lift up the reality that ALL is a gift from God- our bodies, the bodies of others, our sexuality, natural resources, other animals, money, time, talents. Failure to respect and honor God’s glory revealed in all of these is a perversion of God’s desires. Period. There is no hierarchy in sin.
According to Chan, many churches lack faithful elders who can teach the faith and the faith lived out in long marriages.
In speaking to young adults in America, they tell me of how they would love to be mentored by older people who are living by faith. But they can’t find any. Some may be joyful and friendly, but no longer living by faith. Sadly, their lives consist of visiting grandkids and taking vacations. Some are still acquiring more possessions, hoping to make the best of their last few days on earth. (185)
I recently did two back-to-back funerals. One for a man, aged 93, who had been married to the same woman for 68 years. He had been a stalwart member of three congregations, quietly revealing his faith in service and perseverance. The second service was for a pastor who died just short of 70 years of ordination. His funeral was standing room only. His wife of 63 years sat just to the side of his casket. Until just before he died, he could tell you what psalm he wanted to hear for the day and why. There are many older people who live by faith, but maybe not in the churches Chan visits. Has he encouraged these seeking young people to find faithful elders in the churches where they might be (mainline denominations) or do they lament together with no action, but prayer?
All in all, this book was disappointing. Other reviews praise it, but they seem to be people who knew what they would hear when they read the book. That’s called preaching to the choir. The literal Biblical interpretation, the frank substitutionary atonement (as the only understanding), and the failure to acknowledge the mixed history of marriage as an institution and the church’s need to grapple with that fact all combine to prevent me from recommending this book to anyone.
You need to know that this theology is out there and that your parishioners will encounter it. Since I can’t recommend this book and I don’t have a ready-made suggestion to go in its place, I’ll make an alternate recommendation.
I suggest that instead of reading this book, you re-read the book of Ruth and consider the following 1) that God took generations to bring healing out of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, 2) the most famous words of commitment in the Bible are between a daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law, 3) marriage is a wholly different scenario in the Scriptures, and 4) we are all called to emulate the righteousness of Boaz by using our time, resources, and faith in redeeming those who would be left on the margins.
I received You and Me Forever: Marriage in Light of Eternity (Francis and Lisa Chan) for review. I was not offered anything in exchange for the review other than a copy of the book.