Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Better Love by Meeting Expectations (Book Review)

Better Love Now by Tommy Nelson with David Delk. 2008
“Better Love Now” is a soft complementarian book. “Soft” because you can snuggle up with it, pretend like it doesn’t say anything bad about women, and focus on the good parts. The sort you can give to your strict complementarian friends to keep them from being too harsh with their spouses or themselves. (My last church gave it to us at a couple’s dinner.)

Author Tommy Nelson balances the hard-to-swallow basics of complementarian belief with these positive assertions: Women can work outside the home. Women can have goals and dreams for their own lives. Don’t treat your wife like a child. Submission doesn’t mean silence or letting husband get away with evil. Abuse is always wrong.1 I also enjoyed seeing him debunk a popular complementarian ideal when he mocks the pride men have in saying, “I’d die for my wife!”

There are probably not a lot of times in your life when [you can save your wife from being] run over by a truck. You almost certainly will not have to be martyred for your wife. And the problem is that for many men, martyrdom would be a lot easier than vacuuming. Martyrdom is easier than holding your wife’s hand and saying, “Is there anything I can get for you?”

Nelson says a lot that is obvious, but in a way where it’s nice to be reminded of the obvious things. Like, communication is important. (Many complementarian books prefer to say, “Stay positive and pray, but don’t confront. See, Dr. Laura and Debi Pearl.) Instead, Nelson says, “You can’t change people by dominating them” and “It’s not you against your spouse. It’s both of you against the conflict.” That’s good advice for any relationship.

Gender Roles
But the second half of each chapter divides the topics by gender. Oddly, Nelson phrases gender roles in terms of expectations. “A wife expects her husband to provide.” “A husband expects his wife to have a well managed house.” It’s a bit of an all-knowing perspective (how do you know what my husband wants?), but it also lifts responsibility off the author. I’m not telling anyone what do to, he thinks, I’m just letting them know what their spouse wants.

This book is written for complementarians.  He isn’t trying to persuade me to become one. But the complementarian parts are the weakest in the book, not because he thinks he doesn’t need to defend them, but because they lack the substance to survive real life situations.2

The roles are predictable: men must provide and lead. Women must have a well-managed house and make family their top priority. Nelson gives grace in these roles by saying “there’s nothing wrong with a wife working” … but “as long as both spouses understand that the man has the ultimate responsibility to provide.”3 (page 25) As usual, he is adding rules to the Bible. Nelson tries to find some scripture to back this up and stumbles onto a Genesis 3 description of Adam working the ground. Then he inverts 1 Timothy 5:8, saying that because the male pronoun is used, women are excluded. (If you applied this to every verse, the epistles would become nearly irrelevant to women.) 

The concept of male leadership is predictably vague. Nelson contrasts a good leader husband with a man who is “stupid, slow, cowardly… a failure, irresponsible or violent.” Of course wives don’t want that. But the two aren’t opposites. Nelson doesn’t consider that a man can be a partner rather than a leader.4

Family Order
“Christ [is] over Daddy is over Mommy, who with her husband is over the kids- all things done in order.” (pg 105) What does that mean? What things are done in order? 

Nelson describes wives as “the one God designed to be the chief caregiver” although this is not stated in scripture. I can agree with the anecdotal evidence that it’s hard on families when the mother centers her life on career, “athletic pursuits, hobbies, friendship, and volunteer activities” instead of family. Yet can’t the same thing be said about fathers?
Are you impressed with her multi tasking or worried she isn't focused on her baby?
One scripture Nelson uses for is the commonly quoted passage against women in leadership, 1 Timothy 2:11-15 with this unusual interpretation: “Paul is saying that a woman’s purpose is not rule men; it is to raise them… No matter what else a woman does, no matter where else a woman serves, there will never be any higher calling than shaping a human life. That is a woman’s greatest purpose.” (page 117)

Nelson is trying so hard to be positive and affirming. But I can’t make this make sense. There are too many exceptions. What about women who don’t have children or don’t marry? What about authors who write books that shape many lives? What about activists who change the world and bring freedom to many outside their family? Then Nelson turns around and admits family can be an idol. I agree, but he doesn’t see that telling a women to find her greatest purpose in her family is a road to idolatry.

Nelson makes statements of human nature based on personal and cultural experience rather than scripture or statistics. “Men tend to enjoy adventure and risks; women prefer predictability and stability.” His defense of this is odd, explaining how wives don’t like negative surprises, like husbands flirting, missing, looking at porn, being moody, or feeling like the marriage is shaky. These are all negative aspects of risk, not adventures. I assume Nelson thinks men want excitement in their travels, career, family, hobbies, etc. I don’t think men find an unstable marriage to be a desirable or exciting risk.

The desire for security, and for women to want stability, can be parental and dull. It’s a big problem in Christianity. I love this thought in Just Courage by Gary A. Haugen, the founder of International Justice Mission.

Many Christians suspect that they are travelling with Jesus, but missing the adventure… a sense of disappointment in the way their life is turning out… successful dads, accomplished moms… we thought our life would be more significant. Our day is a harmless routine… muted monotony… It had seemed like following Christ was supposed to be a bold adventure of power and beauty and singular importance... but it doesn’t feel right to complain when God has been so good to us…  a voice asks us, now what?

Nelson knows this. He’s come across it in his ministry many times. He quotes a friend who said, “When I was in college… we used to dream about God, ministry, China, and Africa. We wanted to live for great things. Now that we are all married, it seems that we are weighed down by a desire to maintain our families and physical lives.” (page 95) This quote was in a section about men expecting the freedom to minister beyond the family.  Does he think women don’t want that? Women are foreign missionaries, activists, they endure imprisonment and shame for justice and love. Yes, some women may just want security. But I can’t promise that’s what God wants for them.

Haugen’s book also describes protective American parents, and the response of their children when they realize their parents prefer them to have a life of safety over a life of meaning. It’s disappointing. Yet this is the life we prescribe for wives, what Nelson thinks they want and find purpose in.

Nelson defines respect with some kind thoughts- When you respect someone, you recognize that they don’t exist just for you. Every person around you is worthy of respect. Forgiveness is important to respect. How you talk to or about your spouse in public shows respect.  Don’t talk to your spouse like they are stupid or the enemy. Good simple advice.

Yet for some sad reason, Nelson had to end this lesson with a painful paragraph: “Men turn into idiots when they don’t get respect. They do incredibly stupid things: materialism, workaholism, pornography, adultery. When a man feels that his wife doesn’t care for him, respect him, or value him, it’s much more difficult for him to resist temptation.” (page 148)

I’m not saying wives should disrespect their husbands, or that anyone doesn’t feel hurt and want to act out when they are disrespected. But Nelson makes this a lesson about blame. It’s putting the responsibility for a man’s behavior on the wife. Your husband is looking at porn? Well, have you been disrespecting him? Please don’t teach that a man’s sins originate and can be repaired by a woman’s respect.5

The close vulnerability of marriage allows spouses the opportunity to deeply wound and belittle each other. Building your partner up means respecting and encouraging them. But we also have a personal responsibility over our own actions and attitudes. If you want a good marriage, let go of blame. Release some expectations. Marriage shouldn’t be about power.

Admitting the obvious fact that abuse is bad is not the same as providing help for the abused or re-examining our theology to see why it enables abuse.
2 If I could “fix” this book, I would still list all the expectations that Nelson asserts husbands and wives want. I’d have each spouse checkmark all the needs that apply to them, and then communicate about it. Which needs are being met? Are some needs unfair or imbalanced? Which needs have been neglected in the marriage? What is required other than the spouse to fulfill some of these expectations? Then they could adjust his formatting to the unique situation of their marriage.
3 Oddly, later (page 71) Nelson mentions the possibility of a wife earning more than a husband, and doesn’t seem bothered by it. So I’m not sure what he means when he says the man must be the main provider.  Is providing not just about money?
What are leaders? Nelson says little. Leaders are “going somewhere.”
5 In the postscript, Nelson briefly discusses his struggle with clinical depression. He doesn’t mention what medical care he received, but doesn’t frame the illness as a spiritual sin, but rather something that happened, tested and strengthened the marriage. I wish we could have heard more about that process.

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