A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage

Book Details

Discerning Reader Editorial Review

Reviewed 01/22/2010 by Tim Challies.

Recommended. Read it to better understand why we cannot define marriage apart from God.

At the end of her bestselling book Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert fell in love with Felipe. Four years later she returns to tell their story. Having fallen in love with this Brazilian man, Gilbert began to build a life with him. But before long the Department of Homeland Security intervened, deporting Felipe for spending too much time in the United States despite not being a citizen. The only solution, the only way to gain his citizenship, was for the two of them to marry. Yet both of them, scarred from prior divorces, had no desire at all to marry. In fact, they had both sworn off marriage, vowing to remain together, but unfettered by that age-old institution.

“…I was not convinced that I knew very much more than ever about the realities of institutionalized companionship.” says Gilbert. “I had failed at marriage and thus I was terrified of marriage, but I’m not sure this made me an expert on marriage; this only made me an expert on failure and terror, and those particular fields are already crowded with experts. Yet destiny had intervened and was demanding marriage from me, and I’d learned enough from life’s experiences to understand that destiny’s interventions can sometimes be read as invitations for us to address and even surmount our biggest fears.” Yet the reality was that if she wanted to live her life with Felipe, she would have to marry him. “Within one year—like it or not, ready or not—I had to get married. That being the case, it seemed imperative that I focus my attention on unraveling the history of monogamous Western marriage in order to better understand my inherited assumptions, the shape of my family’s narrative, and my culturally specific catalogue of anxieties.”

This book, half travelogue and half sociology, follows her as she and Felipe travel through Asia while they wait for the U.S. government to grant him permission to enter America and get married. As she travels she researches marriage, trying to get to the bottom of what it is and why it is so fundamental to humanity. Committed is, then, a book about marriage. In its own way it is pro-marriage, I suppose, though only if we grant quite a wide understanding of what marriage is.

What is most fascinating about the book is that Gilbert seeks to understand marriage without any reference to God. As Christians we believe that God is the one who created marriage, that he is the one who defined marriage (as between one man and one woman, til death do them part) and that he is the one who has made it the only legitimate context for sex and procreation. And in all things, marriage is to be a display of selfless love, of full-life commitment, a reflection of Christ’s love for his people. Thus marriage simply cannot be defined without God because marriage is all about God.

Yet Gilbert determines that marriage is a social institution and one that arises by necessity even though it tends to be far more beneficial to men than to women and even though it brings about as much unhappiness as it brings joy. She shows a complete inability to properly understand the biblical position on marriage, misinterpreting Paul and then looking at the early history of monasticism to declare that Christianity has always been anti-marriage (at least until modern times, though even then it advocates only its own interpretation of marriage). “Or consider Saint Paul himself,” she says, “who wrote in his famous letter to the Corinthians, ‘It is not good for a man to touch a woman.’ Never, ever, under any circumstances, Saint Paul believed, was it good for a man to touch a woman—not even his own wife.” Did she not read about creation where God told man to “be fruitful and multiply?” Did she not read Song of Solomon, for goodness’ sake? If it is not good for a man to touch a woman (as her simplistic interpretation claims) than that couple is in big trouble!

Gilbert rightly identifies the trouble that comes when marriage is made into an ultimate thing. “Marriage becomes hard work once you have poured the entirety of your life’s expectations for happiness into the hands of one mere person. Keeping that going is hard work.” This gets her thinking and eventually she realizes “For the first time in my life, it occurred to me that perhaps I was asking too much of love. Or, at least, perhaps I was asking too much of marriage. Perhaps I was loading a far heavier cargo of expectation onto the creaky old boat of matrimony than that strange vessel had ever been built to accommodate in the first place.” Yet, though marriage is not to be an ultimate thing, neither is it to exist only to serve our own purposes. It is possible to err in both regards. When she does advocate for marriage, she does so by saying that marriage should be delayed until people are at least 30 and until both husband and wife (or husband and husband or…) are firmly established in life and career. Thus marriage becomes much less than sacrificial, much less than selfless; instead it becomes a means to further my own ends by taking care of my need for intimacy even though I do not wish to alter my life any more than necessary. Marriage becomes all about me.

Along the way she completely separates sex and marriage. That is an interesting oversight in a book about marriage. As soon as we separate sex from marriage we have made both of them less than they ought to be. She says that “the singular fantasy of human intimacy” is this: “that one plus one will somehow, someday, equal one.” Here she speaks in biblical language of the two becoming “one flesh” and yet she does so in reference only to marriage, not to sex.

In some ways Gilbert reminds me of Donald Miller–someone who is still fussing about issues that he should have come to terms with years ago. It may be cute when a twenty-year-old wonders whether she should marry and how it will change her life–when she goes on a quest to understand marriage. But by the time she is thirty-seven she really should have come to terms with it. It’s not quite so cute anymore.

Probably the most interesting part of reading this book is to watch Gilbert feeling around in the dark, bumping, stumbling, fumbling, as she tries to get to the bottom of marriage. She grapples all around the outside of it, writing about love and sex and infatuation and commitment and parenthood–and yet she completely, utterly misses the point of it all. “We invented marriage. Couples invented marriage.” But no, they did not. Without God she cannot understand marriage precisely because marriage is all about God. The closer she gets, the further she seems.