Writing About Marriage in the Midst of the Culture Wars

Despite several failed attempts at becoming a born-again Christian - not even the altar call at a Billy Graham Crusade stuck - I’m not an evangelical Christian. I’m part of the so-called “mainline” church. We ordain women. We take the Bible seriously but rarely literally. Many - though not all - of our congregations are affirming of gay and lesbian Christians, having prayerfully discerned that God is love and love is love.

For a long time I kept to my tribe. I didn’t bother the evangelicals so long as they didn’t bother me. But a few years ago, I made the first of many evangelical friends and found my faith enriched by the significant gifts of evangelical Christianity.

I also began to understand what a big tent evangelicalism can be. Yes, you have Jerry Falwell Jr., the President of Liberty University who may be the only person with whom I am less pleased than Donald Trump at the moment. But you also have people like Karen Swallow Prior, a Liberty University professor who is uncompromisingly conservative, yet marvelously magnanimous toward those who believe differently. The tweet she has pinned for her nearly twelve thousand followers on Twitter to peruse is this biblical gem:

Karen and I disagree about loads of things, but our warm friendship is one of several that has renewed my hope that the Body of Christ can withstand the culture wars and fulfill the vision of unity cast by none other than Jesus himself.

But this hope is newly frayed. A few weeks ago, Time magazine reported that InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA, a large and influential organization that runs a broad network of campus ministries and the well-regarded InterVarsity Press, will begin firing employees who personally support marriage equality. Though such circling of the evangelical wagons is fairly commonplace as the culture wars rage on, many who are familiar with InterVarsity were nonetheless surprised by their inflexible stance. InterVarsity has always come across as willing to include progressive perspectives. Leaders recently endorsed the Black Lives Matter movement, acknowledging that despite some ideological differences, the mandate to stand up for racial justice was compelling enough to justify throwing their support behind BLM. The InterVarsity Press catalogue is diverse, smart, and ecumenical in spirit. Unsurprisingly, a group of IVP authors protested the new policy in a letter to IVCF.

The InterVarsity kerfluffle made me uneasy, not only because of what it portends for the unity of the Church, but also what it foreshadowed for me. I had set a lofty goal for myself: to write a book that could strengthen marriages regardless of theological or cultural convictions. But writing about marriage in the midst of the Christian culture wars is not for the faint-hearted.

In the author’s note for Very Married: Field Notes on Love & Fidelity I acknowledge that at some points I may seem to betray the liberals, and at others I risk my reputations with the conservatives. These were prophetic words. My fairly traditional take on issues such as premarital sex has alienated liberal readers, including many of my progressive Christian peers. And my wholehearted affirmation of marriage equality has cost me amongst many conservative evangelicals.

The doors have started closing. Firmly.

Even though the beloved pastor and theologian Eugene Peterson wrote in the foreword that Very Married is the “very best book on marriage I have ever read,” I worry that many people whose marriages could be enriched by it will never hear of it. Many (though not all!) Christian media outlets will not touch it. One editor wrote to commend me as a true pastor who gives her hope the church can survive the culture wars - and then regretfully informed me that my belief in the beauty and blessing of same-sex marriage makes my book too fraught for mention in her magazine.

I get it. The publishing industry has been in crisis for more than a decade; magazines can’t afford to lose subscribers, and you can bet that appearing too liberal is a highly effective way to alienate a conservative base.

The evangelical world is newly in crisis as believers flock from the social and theological convictions of the religious right, which is to say that I’m far from alone. In an interview published this week, the popular author and speaker Jen Hatmaker was asked if she would attend a same sex wedding. “I would go with gladness and I would drink champagne,” she responded. “I want the very best for my gay friends. I want love and happiness and faithfulness and commitment and community.” The response has been ugly. Hatmaker has been viciously attacked on Twitter and in the fundamentalist blogosphere. And - wait for it - her books were swiftly banned from LifeWay Christian Stores.

Very Married is on the banned books list in some circles, but it is in excellent company.

I’m still hopeful that in the fullness of time, the Body of Christ will be healed of these divisions. I’m still hopeful that convictions about marriage and sexuality will cease to be a test of orthodoxy, and that Christians of diverse theological convictions will be reconciled at the table where Christ himself is the host. I’m still hopeful that the fruit of the Spirit - love and joy and peace and all the rest - will overcome the spoils of the culture wars.

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