- - Friday, February 17, 2012

By Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller
Dutton, $25.95, 288 pages

In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 single-set thriller, “Rear Window,” Stella (played by Thelma Ritter) gives wheelchair-bound L.B. Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart) a terse marital message along with his massage. “When two people love each other,” she says, “they come together - wham! - like two taxis on Broadway.” Then she elaborates, “When I married Miles, we were both a couple of maladjusted misfits. We are still maladjusted misfits, and we have loved every minute of it.”

An array of ideas - old and new - on love, sex and marriage are examined through a biblical lens by Timothy Keller and his collaborator-wife Kathy in “The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment With the Wisdom of God.” The Kellers dissect 16 verses from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, including the controversial “wives submit to your husbands” and the popular “husbands love your wives,” often cited in wedding ceremonies.

Mr. Keller begins by clarifying the definition of marriage as a covenant between one man and one woman, the biblical, Judeo-Christian definition. Chapters such as “The Secret of Marriage,” “The Power for Marriage” and “The Mission of Marriage” unveil a glorious institution illustrating the love God himself has for humanity.

The biblical story of God becoming a man in the person of Jesus is key to understanding one of the most controversial of St. Paul’s statements in Ephesians - specifically, “Wives submit to your husbands.”

Mrs. Keller explains: “The husband’s authority … is never used to please himself but only to serve the interests of his wife. … A servant-leader must sacrifice his wants and needs to please and build up his partner.”

This insight, also echoed throughout “The Meaning of Marriage” by Mr. Keller, frames marriage in the “God became man to sacrifice for humanity” paradigm. Sacrificial love is the power that builds up both husband and wife in marriage.

Of equal import to the union between a man and a woman is what some refer to as “a piece of paper.” They ask: Why do I need a piece of paper to prove I love someone? Mr. Keller points out how crucial a covenant - a promise before both God and man - is to allowing couples to become deeply intimate with and vulnerable to one another. It is within this dynamic that truth and love can flourish.

You might not expect an entire chapter devoted to singleness in a book about marriage. But Mr. Keller’s experience as a pastor for more than 20 years in a Manhattan church with a congregation made up of more than 80 percent singles amply qualifies him to offer his thoughts. He observes that expectations - both too high and too low - often prevent men and women from entertaining relationships leading to marriage. Singles wonder: “Is she pretty enough?” “Does he make enough money?”

“As a result,” Mr. Keller observes, “modern dating can become a remarkably crass form of self-merchandising. You must look good and make enough money if you are to attract dates, a partner, or a spouse.”

Mr. Keller suggests friendship as a good start to finding a lifelong marriage partner. A person who shares your values and interests, although perhaps not in the top 1 percentile of the looks or finance department, may be just the one who warrants a closer look for romance.

The application of gender roles in decision-making is examined more acutely in an appendix written by Mrs. Keller, who draws her experience from 37 years of marriage to Mr. Keller. Here she states that a husband and wife are to be each other’s most-trusted friend and counselor, always listening well and mutually looking to serve one another.

Perhaps the best, and most beautifully portrayed, summary of the book is found in the chapter called, “The Essence of Marriage”:

“To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.”

“The Meaning of Marriage” is incredibly rich with wisdom and insight that will leave the reader, whether single or married, feeling uplifted. While the book is filled with expertly selected biblical verses, nonreligious readers willing to “try on” these observations may find answers not only to the meaning of marriage, but to that even bigger question - the meaning of life itself.

• Albin Sadar is a happily married writer living in New York City.

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