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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

Best-Selling Book on Marriage Stirs Controversy

Editor’s note: Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” has written a new book on marriage called “Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage.” While the book has made news as an instant best-seller, some critics have questioned Gilbert’s interpretation of the institution of marriage. David Gibson, Marriage in the News editor of For Your Marriage, looks at the book in light of Christian teaching on marriage.

“Who would have ever imagined a few years ago that marriage would become such a debated, even controversial topic?” The question was posed, though it was really more an exclamation, in David Thomas’ 2007 “Christian Marriage: The New Challenge” (Liturgical Press). Thomas, who long taught marriage and family life in Catholic universities, believes “there is a great and glorious fit between Christian faith and marriage.”

Thomas was attentive to the “many issues swirling around marriage.” The debate today, he noted, includes discussion of “the very essence of marriage.” But, convinced that marriage enrichment is now “not an add-on, but a basic survival” tool for couples, Thomas also had much to say about the “lifelong process of ‘becoming more married.’”

Two and one-half years ago, “Christian Marriage” became the first book I reviewed for this Web site. Many books reviewed here since then focused, indeed, on marriage enrichment, or marital spirituality, or skills for negotiating married life’s daily predicaments.

At this writing, the book I’ve read most recently on marriage is Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2010 best-seller, “Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage” (Viking). It was her book that prompted me to revisit Thomas’ “Christian Marriage.”

Gilbert is someone for whom, to borrow Thomas’ words, “the very essence of marriage” is at issue. I doubt she would agree, though, about the “great and glorious fit” Thomas found “between Christian faith and marriage.”

The story underlying “Committed” has been told so frequently in the media that I will not belabor it. Felipe, the Brazilian man Gilbert loved and with whom she had traveled the world, was blocked in 2006 from re-entering the U.S. When Gilbert and Felipe asked how they might remedy this, a Homeland Security officer responded, “The two of you need to get married.”

But they had had no intention to marry, and Gilbert did not “respect wholeheartedly the institution of marriage.” She agonized over making sense of it.

“Committed” emerged from the process she then undertook, thinking it “wise to put a little effort into unraveling the mystery of what in the name of God and human history this befuddling, vexing, contradictory, and yet stubbornly enduring institution of marriage actually is.”

In the end, Gilbert makes a certain peace with marriage, and she and Felipe marry. She finds her “own little corner within matrimony’s long and curious history,” she writes.

On her wedding day, Gilbert felt “calm and grateful.” She did not yet know, but knows now, “what peace and contentment” awaited her.

Gilbert’s peace with marriage is not the sort that particularly identifies it with permanence, however, or that is sustained by the Gospel or natural-law teaching. Over time, she affirms that matrimony is an “impressively powerful” institution, and “far bigger and older and deeper and more complicated” than she suspects “Felipe or I could ever possibly be.”

And Gilbert comes to recognize how, in long marriages, two persons “become annexes of each other, trellises on which each other’s biography can grow.” She acknowledges that marriage “is both a public and a private concern, with real-world consequences.”

I asked Liturgical Press how many copies of Thomas’ “Christian Marriage,” still in print, had been sold since its 2007 publication. The answer: 1,081 copies; a first edition of the book in 1981 sold 1,025 copies.

And how many copies of “Committed” were sold? Viking Press responded that by early March it already had shipped 540,000 copies to stores. Of course, a paperback edition surely will follow.

Thus, Gilbert’s marriage discussion has made its way into many homes. “Eat, Pray, Love,” an immensely popular previous book of hers, assured her of many readers. She represents a segment of culture – populated by numerous celebrities, but many others too – whose reservations about marriage are now part of the larger society’s debate.

Marriage is analyzed continually these days by one source or another. “Experts” of every stripe appear out of nowhere on TV to discuss marital love, infidelity, prenuptial agreements, becoming happier in marriage and whether or not to divorce. For many readers, “Committed” serves, for better or worse, as a marriage resource. That is why I’m taking stock of it here.

What will readers take away from “Committed”? I will remember Gilbert’s discussion of her first marriage, celebrated more than a decade ago when she had no understanding “whatsoever about the institution.”

Gilbert writes, “I was twenty-five, I was so irresponsible that I probably should not have been allowed to choose my own toothpaste …, and so this carelessness, as you can imagine, came at a dear cost.” Gilbert says, “We sealed our vows without a single clue whatsoever about how to keep our union alive and safe.”

Were those remarks meant to endorse marriage-preparation or enrichment programs? Probably not exactly, but the effect was there. I trust that many readers of “Committed” will be disinclined ever to take marriage for granted or to doubt the personal investment it requires of spouses.

There are many points in “Committed” when believers in sacramental marriage will part company with Gilbert. But she does allow viewpoints other than hers to come forward. There is, for example, her portrait of her parents’ marriage – one involving self-sacrifice by each spouse, yet a marriage characterized by commitment, the continuing choice of a future together and ongoing love.

Gilbert, speaking as a woman, does not want marriage for her to be just as it was for her mother, but clearly she admires her parents’ marriage and life together.

If there is one chapter above all that I wish “Committed” did not include, it is the history-of-marriage chapter. She indicates she studied the history of marriage for “months.” But I need to learn the history of marriage from people who have studied it for many years – long enough to know the complexity of it all.

Gilbert learned through historical reading that St. Paul and others in ancient Christianity thought Christ’s Second Coming would occur soon, ending the world as they knew it. With our world’s future in doubt, did it make sense to embark on marriage? And it took time for Christian history to clarify the full meaning of marriage and marital sexuality; it is a history that dismays Gilbert in key ways.

But does Gilbert know that the Pauline Letter to the Ephesians compared the relationship of husband and wife to the covenant of God with his people? Somehow, even the briefest foray into what Christian history says about marriage must get around to the statement by Ephesians that marriage “is a great mystery,” understood “in reference to Christ and the church” (5:32).

Thomas, who well appreciates the scrutiny marriage underwent in Christian history, nonetheless recognized the significance of Ephesians and its description of marriage as a mystery. “Mystery” in biblical terms means “that the reality pointed to has roots so deep that they extend into the person of God. When something is mysterious in that sense, God can be touched in some way if we go deep enough into the reality,” he wrote.

Expressing hope for contemporary couples, Thomas’ final paragraph said that “God’s gift of life includes a grand love story filled with surprises and one great challenge: to love each other as Christ Jesus has and continues to love us. And this can even happen (in fact, it does!) in Christian marriage.”

But countless people today fear that marriage will not fulfill such promise for them. No wonder so many marriage books are published! They research the nature of marriage or offer advice for rejuvenating troubled marriages and keeping love alive. They investigate men’s and women’s changing roles in marriage, or survey divorce trends, or attempt to show how a rapidly changing culture impacts a household’s daily life.

No wonder, also, that people by the hundreds of thousands have purchased a book like “Committed.” Undoubtedly, many relate to Gilbert’s questions about marriage. Whether they feel satisfied by her introspective, personal responses is another matter.

But readers have a choice. They can add books on marriage to their libraries – and keep reading. Might Thomas’ book be a place to start?