Marriage is one of the most-written about topics among Christians. Rarely is it written about well. Katherine Willis Pershey is one of the few writers up to the task. Her new book, Very Married: Field Notes on Love and Fidelity, stands out among Christian marriage books for its depth, style, and vulnerability. She wrestles with the difficulties of marriage with honesty and humor, and her love of marriage itself shines through.
Cracking open Very Married, I was a bit surprised. It was not a “Christian marriage book” as I expected. It didn’t go through the different aspects and challenges of marriage with lessons, tips, and exercises, neatly tying each to a biblical principle or Bible verse. Rather, it is a memoir. Its twenty chapters do touch on many of the classically difficult aspects of marriage—sex, money, conflict, kids, in-laws, navigating gendered role expectations—but do so through vulnerable accounts of the author’s own life.
Many Christian readers will be discouraged to find that Willis Pershey affirms same-sex marriage. This is unsurprising given her mainline background. And, while she is firm in her conviction, it is not central to the book, and she is respectful toward those who disagree. She is, in her words, “an apologist for marriage” who believes that “the practice of two people entering into a lifelong monogamous relationship is worthwhile. Good, even” (p. 23). The book focuses much on celebrating marriage, and little on who marries. Regardless of your stance on same-sex marriage, this book is worth your time.
Willis Pershey’s writing is a pleasure to read. The back cover of my review copy describes her style as “lyrical, honest, and witty.” I couldn’t agree more. Yet, amidst the wit and humor is a depth and concern for her subject matter that can only come from a profound respect for the seriousness of intimate relationship. Her tone is that of a friend who loves marriage and, like many of us, wrestles with the challenges that come with love and faithfulness in a changing culture.
Her honesty and humility is refreshing, not just about her experiences, but in her willingness to admit those who don’t share her views still have valuable things to say. She “begrudgingly appreciates” Tim Keller’s words on premarital sex, though she “longed to write him off on principle” because she disagrees with much of his theology (p. 53). She goes on to share her struggle to articulate just why and how this matters so very much, though she believes with all her soul that it does. She explains,
I don’t know how to encourage my parishioners—let alone my own children—to consider saving certain intimacies for the wedding night without descending into the same sort of supercilious finger-wagging that contributed to the calcification of my shame. . . . So perhaps I hold up my own pain: all that fooling around before marriage ever did was give me a world of hurt. But I can’t hold up my pain without also lifting high my joy: all that fooling around within marriage ever did was give me a world of healing. (p. 56)
This is a struggle that I suspect has weighed heavily on many generations. I wonder if our reluctance to admit to feeling ill-equipped to talk about this well, combined with American Christianity’s squeamishness about—but also obsession with—sex is one reason that the American church has failed to articulate an ethic of sex and sexuality that can engage truthfully and tenderly with broader culture. And of course, it’s not just in talking about premarital sex that we face this challenge. It extends to marriage and even to Christian ethical standards, more generally.
Wrestling with this tension is, I think, at the heart of Very Married. Here is a writer who longs to share the goodness of Christian marriage, but finds herself caught between two seemingly unmovable forces. On one side is a Christianity whose approaches feel out of touch, if not harmful, and often obscure a beautiful truth. On the other side is a culture that is moving on, and in so doing, missing out on something beautiful.
Willis Pershey’s approach is to hold up her pain and her joy with honesty. One never gets the feeling that Willis Pershey speaks as an authority on marriage, dispensing wisdom from above. Instead, she invites the reader to learn alongside her. And as she does, she creates space for conversations on how we might learn to better articulate the beauty of marriage to a culture that questions its merit. These are conversations I believe we need to have, sooner rather than later.
In a way, Very Married is exactly the Christian marriage book I would expect from an author of my generation (Millennials), which Willis Pershey is. It offers less in the way of answers and more in the way of questions, wrestling, and exploration. It is more memoir than guidebook.
Then again, most of what we learn about marriage and relationships comes from those we observe—our parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends. So perhaps Very Married is something of a guidebook for marriage after all. One that doesn’t declare its own wisdom, but invites you to discover the wisdom within its pages.
Katherine Willis Pershey doesn’t tell us how to be married; she shows us what it has looked like for her to love and be loved. Readers will walk away from Very Married sharing her profound and complex appreciation for this relationship we call marriage. That is an achievement worth celebrating.