“Disembedding” Christian marriage from cultural norms
Sweet Surrender is a comprehensive and insightful study of the institution of marriage in the context of an ever-changing Western world. It clearly defines what is biblical imperative and what is simply common cultural practice regarding marriage. An awareness of these differences will help couples and those guiding them to discern how to effectively develop healthier marriages.
Dennis Hiebert is professor of sociology at Providence University College, Otterburne, Man., where he has taught courses in marriage and family for more than 20 years. A former president of the Association of Christians Teaching Sociology, he has authored numerous academic articles on the intersection of Christianity and sociology.
“Many Christians frequently mistake what their culture teaches them about marriage for what the Bible teaches about marriage,” Hiebert writes. “Because this Christian surrender to culture feels so sweet, natural, and healthy, it is rarely questioned or challenged, even when its consequences are anything but healthy.”
Using gender as an example of how “both culture and the Bible shape Western Christian thinking on a central aspect of marriage, and how culture factors into reading the Bible,” Hiebert contends that some “interpret a text without taking its cultural context into account, which then becomes a pretext for applying it in a direct manner.”
Under the label complementarian, “men and women are seen to complete each other…[a reading that] conceals the defining characteristic of their view, which is the hierarchy explicit in it.” Others, labelled egalitarians, “contend that there is no longer any moral or theological justification for permanently granting or denying a person status, privilege, or prerogative solely on the basis of that person’s sex.” This reading “takes into account the androcentricity or male-centredness of a text written by and to men and interpreted by and for men.”
Hiebert advocates separating culture – both our own and that of the text’s original audience – from the Word of God that we may discern “the call of God that transcends culture.”
The following chapters identify 10 cultural mandates of marriage: how marriage is formed, connected, valued, pursued, characterized, focused, energized, troubled, ended, and perceived. In each chapter, Hiebert helps the reader “ascertain whether Christians have surrendered to culture on the particular issue and, if so, whether that surrender has been sweet.”
A welcome final chapter outlines what Christians can do to reclaim healthy Christian marriages.
The reminder that the Bible does not give us much direction on marriage (beyond what can be applied to all human relationships) is significant. How we conduct ourselves in marriage is mostly due to common cultural practice, developed and changed over time. What we consider to be biblical may simply be social practice that has become acceptable in our “Christian” society, or it might be a misinterpretation of “biblical mandates” written for another culture in another era.
We don’t readily recognize cultural influences unless they are pointed out to us. Like the proverbial frog in the kettle, we have grown to accept current societal norms instead of resisting the forces that would influence how we think and behave toward each other and could destroy the institution we hold dear.
For example, contrary to the teaching of Scripture, we have accepted “irreconcilable difference” as reason enough to separate and divorce. Instead of viewing conflict in marriage as inevitable and as an opportunity for relational growth and stability, we avoid it and consider dissolution instead. Hiebert’s chapter on conflict provides excellent insight to address this challenge.
Isolationism, individualism, consumerism, and the perspective of psychotherapy have crept into our relationships and shaped our marriages into something that is not lasting and not necessarily God-honouring. This book is a warning to the church. Ignoring the call to a renewal of marriage through heeding the biblical mandate for all relationships will continue the slow demise of the institution.
I love Hiebert’s closing analogy. In line with the title of the book, he says that “we have thrown ourselves into the arms of culture, passionately embraced it, andsweetly surrendered. If culture is not the lover itself, then it is at least the bed of lovers. As a social construction, it is impossible to keep the marriage bed pure (Hebrews 13:4), just as it is impossible to disembed marriage from the culture.” Surrendering to culture is the “bed we have made” and we had better not be comfortable in it.
I appreciated the comprehensive treatment of the subject, but wished for more in the way of solutions. The last chapter gives us brief suggestions for confronting the influence of culture in each of the mandates of marriage. Elaboration of these points could very well form the thesis of another book.
Though Hiebert intends the book for “all contemplative Christians interested in rethinking marriage in a manner they likely have not done before, and assuming they have no background in sociology,” I found the read challenging. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this in-depth, thought-provoking study.
Throughout the book, Hiebert emphasizes that this isn’t only a problem for the individuals engaging in marriage. It is an issue the church needs to confront. Can we work together toward transforming culture or can we create and cultivate a new subculture that will serve as an example to future generations? That is our challenge.
—A marriage mentor at Willow Park Church, Kelowna, B.C., and Gardom Lake Bible Camp board chair, Arnie Peters is a retired teacher and pastor. Arnie and Louise have 3 grown children and 6 grandchildren.