While enjoying Valentine’s Day dinner this year, my husband and I talked about the joys of being married. When he asked me what has been the most pleasant surprise of the past three years, I thought for a moment, slowly smiled, and said, “Marriage has been a lot easier than I thought it would be.”
Perhaps my younger generation is just much more open about taboos and perils, but the horror stories and warnings I received as I approached my wedding led me to believe I could sooner navigate my way through J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mordor than through a successful marriage. We received pre-marital counseling, prayed often, and dove in anyway. I can honestly say that—praise God!—at no time during my 1,000-day marriage have I questioned the decision to enter into it. Marrying Nate didn’t reveal annoying habits, we didn’t start casually dropping “please” or “I love you” from our vocabulary, and I still can’t wait to see only him every day. My relationship with my husband is not perfect, and I still anticipate rougher times ahead, but marriage during the “roughest” first years was shockingly simpler than I had prepared myself for.
If your experience is like mine, you too will feel a bit on the outs with John and Stasi Eldredge. At nearly three years into their now twenty-five years of marriage, they stared across the kitchen table at one another lost, wounded, and contemplating divorce. They begin their new book, Love & War, with descriptions of the sheer impossibility of marriage. Yet, as they reveal the trials and tragedies from their past, it is little wonder that the commitment and intimacy of marriage seems insurmountable. Between the two, they admit to wounds from drug abuse, eating disorders, childhood sexual abuse, alcoholic parents, rape, pornography, premarital sex, and abortions. I join them as they praise God for healing so much of this pain, but John and Stasi err when they project their “royal mess” upon every other person who is ever to be married.
In Love & War, the Eldredges attribute the “absurdity of marriage” to innate gender discrepancies. Men and women are so fundamentally different, they assert, that it is no wonder that few can make it work. “Marriage is a submarine with Cinderella and Huck Finn shut inside,” they write (p. 155). Here we find the principle flaw in the book—the assumption that all men and all women are the same. John and Stasi write:
The heart of a man longs for a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue. Just look at the movies men love and the games little boys play. The heart of a woman longs for someone to fight for her, to play an irreplaceable role in a great adventure, and to offer beauty. Just look at the movies women love and the games little girls play (p. 30).
This assertion explains much of what John and Stasi take for granted about men and women. Hunting and sports are innately attractive to a warrior; shopping and bubble baths must enchant a beauty. As in their previous books, John and Stasi consult movies, fairy tales, and song lyrics to arrive at their conclusions. The Eldredges do sprinkle Scripture quotations and biblical references throughout, but many connections they make are dubious. For example, John explains how we know that God wants to communicate with us regularly through prayer: “Eve is made in the image of God, right? Then we should not be surprised that God loves to talk!” (p. 134).
When it comes to marriage, the Eldredges’ definition of gender also informs their view of conflict. Perhaps some of the “war” in Love & War could be eradicated if the male component was not so fixated on a warrior identity! For John, much of life must be a battle—people, road trips, and pet peeves must be won over. Fixing a leaky sink is a triumph only a man can understand. (He writes, “I tried to help Stasi relate, ‘Imagine you just lost five pounds today'” (p. 65).) John also rejects what he calls a “meek and mild” or soft Jesus, calling men instead to view their lives as a battle to be won. Yet, this seems out of step with the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 or this blessing from Psalm 37: “the meek will inherit the earth and live in peace and prosperity.” The power of Jesus is not brute strength but self-control, love, peace, and justice.
When a man believes he has a God-given inclination to battle and right to prevail, it comes as no surprise that he becomes affronted and dejected when victory is denied. “A man gets tired of fighting after a while,” John writes, “especially when he doesn’t always win. It can feel so emasculating” (p. 184). Since when is the disappointment of failure unique to men? Losing is a disappointment for all of us because we are selfish people who would rather have our own way, just as we did when we were children. Paul writes, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me” (1 Cor. 13:11). Rather than resist selfishness, John Eldredge encourages men—and men only—to indulge it. John veils this as the marital directive for a man: to “realize his strength.” Yet, I sense that what he really means when he uses the word “emasculating” in this book is that something has hurt his pride. Protecting a fragile male ego, then, becomes the central function for the wife in marriage.
John asserts that at the core of a man lies the desire to succeed and win, even in his spiritual life. He admonishes men, “And guys, I think it will really help us as men to engage in prayer when we see it not as something soft and feminine, but as battle” (p. 129). Even in prayer, men—and men only—are called to win. But here is where the Eldredges contradict themselves: while they believe that only men have this God-given warrior spirit, Stasi Eldredge, too, is a prayer warrior. She fights for answers, blessings, and wisdom, for the glory of God and health of her marriage. She does not exist simply to add beauty to prayer!
To his credit, John fully respects her in this role. He needs her there and knows it. Critics of Wild at Heart might expect Love & War to subjugate the wife to junior partner, but this is not so. John and Stasi share the spiritual strength in their home and marriage. When it comes to decision making, they defer not to gender but to each other’s wisdom, strength of opinion, listening prayer, or friends and pastors. They also rightly note that the word ezer in Genesis 3 refers to Eve as Adam’s helper in the same powerful way that God is helper to his people. In these instances, their view of marriage does begin to resemble mutual submission. It is not overt complementarian theology or practice that will frustrate egalitarians who read Love & War, but rather the inconsistent and unfair gender stereotypes.
Take for instance the Eldredges’ assumptions that a woman’s needs are to be rescued, loved, heard, and most of all to feel beautiful. I hoped Love & War might distinguish the tricky concept of beauty from the way our pornography—saturated culture defines it. I waited for the authors to articulate a biblical understanding of beauty, but it never came. While Stasi repeatedly references “inner beauty,” the meaning of this expression is neither defined nor explored, and the discussion of beauty is limited to negligees and weight fluctuations, with only one fleeting mention of beauty as kindness. The enormous pressure on women to be beautiful juxtaposed next to Stasi’s decades—long struggle with eating disorders is alarming. To be beautiful is to be sexually attractive to her husband. The greatest harm here is not only that women face societal demands to be thin and sexy, but also that the Eldredges suggest this order comes from On High. Satan’s accusations of ugliness and worthlessness are repackaged as God’s design. Think of this warning from 1 John 2:16: “For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful people, the lust of their eyes and their boasting about what they have and do—comes not from the Father but from the world.” Love & War’s interpretation of beauty only fuels the shame and confusion that women feel as they struggle to meet the desires of male sexual fantasy and Christian modesty at the same time. John provides a case in point when he suggests that a woman wear clothes tight enough to show she is a woman but loose enough to prove she is a lady.
In spite of all these gross miscalculations, John and Stasi do hit a few notes right. They urge couples to pray together for a shared calling. They affirm transparency and forgiveness. They acknowledge that everyone wants to love and be loved, and that the marital relationship often mirrors our relationships with God. They warn us about our enemy named Satan. They encourage couples to pursue both like and unlike interests and reserve time for their own same sex friendships. However, when Love & War is not promoting masculine and feminine stereotypes as marital objective, its positives are so painfully elementary and cliche that I wonder if many couples can glean revelation from it.
While Love & War manages to identify some relational and spiritual truths, it builds upon a foundation of Western cultural myths. Their account of what it means to be masculine or feminine proves not descriptive but harmfully prescriptive for generations to come. Maybe my early marriage ensued more easily partly because my husband and I freely communicate our needs without filtering them through whether or not we’re “supposed” to have them as male or female. John believes that marriage frees men to discover their strength. Instead, I believe we must let marriage reveal strength and courage for women and men alike. Stasi believes that marriage helps women illuminate their inner beauty. Rather, let’s give men space to be heard and delighted in, too. Stasi believes that only women were created with an innate need to be a delight for her mate, but my husband needs to know I find him attractive all the time. John believes that only husbands need to hear a spouse affirm “you have what it takes,” but I need to hear those words with every endeavor. When it comes to gender, I don’t hold to the stereotypes John and Stasi Eldredge promote and yet somehow God has seen fit to bless my young marriage and continue to grow theirs. May all of us find delight in the pleasant surprises of marriage, even if our journeys are much different than the one charted out in Love & War.