Recently my friend Patricia and I hatched a crazy idea: a Hate Book Club, where we read books we think we’ll hate, to better understand our enemies and also to enjoy a little righteous anger. Then we’ll each write a blog post about the experience. Looking around for a first book to read, Patricia found disgraced Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll, who once called women “penis homes.” He has an entire book where he tells you how to have a happy, successful marriage to a penis home. It’s called Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship & Life Together. Yeah, there’s an Oxford comma missing in the title, but the insides of the book are worse.
Consider this my book report. At the end I’ll even do a little report card. Here’s Patricia’s version! Compare our hate levels!
First of all, the book is technically co-written by Mark Driscoll and his wife, Grace. How much this is truth and how much it’s a convenient fiction, I don’t know. I suspect Mark wrote more than he admits. Much of the time they write as one authorial voice. But sometimes the first-person narrator switches from “we” to “I”, with the “I” explained parenthetically. For example, “Were you hoping I (Grace) wouldn’t address this issue…” Confusingly, a third strategy is dropped right in without any explanation, set off screenplay-style with “Mark: [text].” It’s a clunky means of writing a book.
The issue of Grace’s involvement is notable because of the most horrible, hateable chapter of the book, which is not advice at all, but rather the couple’s life story. Grace explains that she had low self-esteem and self-worth as a child and teenager, prone to doubt and mental crises. (Later, we learn that she lost her virginity in an abusive relationship.) Mark sensed this weakness, made his move in high school, and started having sex with her. When he went to college their relationship turned long-distance. He was “born again” for Jesus, convinced her to move to his town, and then delivered the bad news that they couldn’t have sex until getting married. So they got married.
Surprise turn of events: suddenly the sex wasn’t fun anymore. Angry that Grace wouldn’t put out on demand, Mark turned cold and uncaring, killing the mood for years. Eventually, he had a dream that she cheated on him once in high school, and she confirmed it was true. What followed was, I am not joking, an entire decade where he seethed with resentment and anger over her teenage betrayal, while she raised their first child. Naturally, she spent that decade depressed and full of self-destructive thoughts.
And now they’re writing a book about successful marriages. Reading between the lines, you can see that they still don’t have one. In one of their “conversations,” Mark writes that he loves Grace. Grace replies that she “respects” him. Multiple times, Grace admits that the couple are “exact opposites.” When Grace talks about coping with the memories of her abusive high school boyfriend, she describes the fear and shame she felt at the time. But she also describes still having it, explicitly using the words “shame,” “confession,” “redemption,” and “repentance” to describe how she copes today. Redemption for being a victim. Mark shows compassion, but never tells her that a victim has nothing to confess or repent.
Then there’s the chapter on sex, where it becomes clear that Grace never got over this trauma, but Mark is a total horndog. Her main goal in recovery has been learning to put out more. Check out the list of “Ways We Are Selfish Lovers”: “Rarely have sex,” “Take too little time and too little effort,” “Only have sex when we both feel like it at the same time” (which raises serious consent issues! Mark says “as [women] serve their spouses, God often awakens their desires,” which is a weird way of describing rape), “Rarely initiate,” “Have separate beds,” and “Intentional ploy[s] to avoid sex.” Never once does Mark acknowledge that he could be a selfish lover by demanding too much or being too pushy. Elsewhere in the book, Grace implies that she constantly struggles to will herself to service him. “I read somewhere,” she says, “that if you have sex more, it actually decreases the necessity for frequent sex over time for most men. I tried that but it didn’t seem to change anything for Mark.”
Mark has figured out another clever wheeze: he interprets the story of Sodom as banning homosexual activity, and making gay sex a sin, while letting a heterosexual husband and wife do as much butt stuff as they want. Gee, that doesn’t sound self-serving! In order to protect himself, Mark’s use of words like “reportedly” sharply increases in the section on anal play.
Some of the advice is good, some of it amusing, and some of it dangerous. A lot of the good advice is basic stuff you could get from any reasonable person (as well as some unreasonable ones, like Mark Driscoll). You know: don’t beat your wife, don’t commit rape, don’t get addicted to porn, cultivate friendship with your spouse, make time for each other, plan smartly for the future you want, sex is not shameful. Good stuff. I should point out that (1) don’t commit rape is really in there, and (2) the reason for avoiding porn is that it will literally kill you. “You will get dragged to death.” “The pulling of death is unstoppable.” Craigslist “casual encounters” are “an on ramp to death.”
And there’s the elephant in the room: evangelical Christianity. The solution to everything is prayer. Even women trapped in abusive relationships are advised to simply pray and trust God. The Driscolls do not believe in divorce. If you’re in an abusive marriage, or you found yourself married to an alcoholic, or some other horrible situation, the Driscolls’ advice is so vague as to be useless: the couple should seek “professional help”. That’s it.
Of course, Jesus was anti-divorce. And the authors proudly quote the Apostle Paul saying this (NIV translation):
“The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you” (1 Corinthians 7 4-6)
Paraphrased in the form of an explanatory flow chart:
Back to the Driscolls. Their prose is actually not terrible, and usually is clear and to the point. There are infelicities, of course, like the above-mentioned narrator problem, Mark’s off-putting sense of humor, or Grace’s tendency toward word vomit. At one point she uses the phrase “popular situational comedies on television”.
But that’s not as bad as some of the “regular people” that Mark and Grace talk to. Here’s the testimony of one woman: “In my own sin, I chose to falsely flatter that which wasn’t honorable in my husband, selfishly hoping I’d get a better experience. My sins of giving way to fear led me to submit dutifully while becoming more enslaved in my husband’s self-focused desires.” What does this even mean? What are they talking about? What were the husband’s desires and how did she plan to profit from them? This “story” is not even a story. It would make more sense if the government in 1984 had written it.
How does Real Marriage stack up as a Hate Book? Well, the parts that offer good advice are boring, mostly because it’s advice that literally anyone in the world could offer to you. In fact, you may grow depressed if you stop to consider why they needed a chapter on sexual assault being bad. Also boring are the frequent and lengthy discussions of prayer techniques and the usual confession, repentance, forgiveness formula.
On the other hand, much of the book veers from frustrating to outrageous. I’ll remember Mark’s enthusiasm for sex acts his wife sounds annoyed by; I’ll remember the one-two punch of an exhortation for husbands not to beat their wives followed by advice for women on how to obey their men. But most of all I’ll remember poor, sad Grace Driscoll, who is so blinkered by her naivete, so damaged by her experiences, and so limited by her chosen faith, that she can preach against abusive spouses without ever realizing that she has one.
The Worst Thing
Grace Driscoll’s life story, which gets more and more depressing as it advances to her present-day tragedy, a fate all the sadder because she thinks it’s okay.
The Best Thing
At one point Mark Driscoll compares a wife’s breasts to a “petting zoo”. After reading that chapter, I went with friends to the Texas State Fair, where they have an actual petting zoo. We went. I could not stop laughing. For the rest of my life, anytime anybody mentions a petting zoo, I will think of pastors getting handsy with their wives.
The GIF That Summarizes My Overall Reaction
Hate Book Club Report Card
(all scores on scale of 1-10, with 10 being most)
Hateability of message: 9
Hateability of writing style: 4
Pleasure derived from hating book: 6