I recently reviewed Are You Waiting For “The One”? by Margaret and Dwight Peterson. The authors kindly agreed to answer some of the questions the book raised for me. As you’ll notice, at the beginning of the interview Margaret differentiated her answers from those of her husband – who has recently been quite sick – but as our email exchange continued she combined their answers. I’ll post the final part of our interview next week.
Dwight thinks it is important for readers to know that we have always taken a cooperative and collaborative approach to our marriage. We try to talk with and listen to each other; some days we meet with more success than others, but the effort is always there. And we enjoy and respect each other. When we teach our class, there is a sense in which we “perform” our marriage for our students, as a way of showing them by example what it looks like for a husband and a wife to work together and to navigate both our similarities and our differences in a way that creates something new between us, namely, our marriage. At the same time, we never hold ourselves up as an example of how everybody (or anybody) else ought to be. Everyone is different; every marriage will look different.
I guess for myself I would say that happiness in marriage has nothing to do with how closely your marriage resembles a fairy tale, and everything to do with how intentionally and cooperatively you work together in the midst of whatever happens. It also has a lot to do with your willingness to ask for help when you need it, and to be open to receiving that help and being transformed by it. I’ve thought this for a long time and for a lot of reasons, but we have been learning this lesson again over the past couple of years (during which Dwight has been so sick)–these have been the hardest years we’ve had in our marriage, and also by far the richest and the most complex.
In the book you write with compassion about the college students you teach. What questions and assumptions did you hear from them that influenced your decision to write this book?
“Books that are supposedly about Christian relationships are far more driven by the assumptions of a consumerist and celebrity-focused culture than they are by the gospel of Christ.”
Dwight says he’s been impressed with what real people our students are–they have stories, they have experiences, they have hopes and dreams; we’ve learned about all of these things by listening to them. We’ve really admired the way they have been willing to share themselves honestly with us. I guess I would say that a mutual commitment to being honest and straightforward has really shaped our class and our book–we’ve tried to do this with our students, and have been honored by their willingness to do so with us.
Dwight also says that our students have shared other books on Christian relationships with us, and that we have been appalled by the poverty of most of those books. He’s right–we have been. So it has seemed to us that there was room in the market for a book that made some sense, that spoke to the real concerns of real people and offered something in the way of thoughtfulness and (we hope) wisdom.
I’m glad you brought up these other books about Christian relationships. In your book you are rather blunt – citing titles and authors – about how unhelpful you find much of the Christian literature about relationships, sex, and marriage. As theologians, what are the common themes in some of these books that you find unhelpful?
Our sense is that too many books that are supposedly about Christian relationships are far more driven by the assumptions of a consumerist and celebrity-focused culture than they are by the gospel of Christ. These books and their authors assume that the good life, the blessed life, is all about being a star and having exactly what you want. This is presented as what God wants for you–God wants your mate to be perfect, your romance to be perfect, your wedding to be perfect, your wedding night to be perfect, and for you then to live happily (i.e., perfectly) ever after.
Of course life is not like this. And when Christian advice-givers suggest that it is or ought to be, one unfortunate effect that this has is to encourage people to lie, to themselves and to others, about what is really going on in their (un-perfect) lives. Or if not actually to lie, then to conceal the truth. And where there are lies and concealment, it is very hard for there to be authentic relationship and the possibility of real love and growth and healing–which is what Christian relationships are actually about.