We have more books about relationship, sexuality, marriage, family, parenting, baby-care, teen care, aging and elder care than you can imagine. Some promise quick solutions if you follow their easy plan. We sometimes roll our eyes at these, and even mock a few that are too cheesy. Yet, folks are dying for good conversation, eager for help, in such need of common sense advice (at least) and (even better) balanced and helpful faith-based wisdom, that a little intentional time spent reading and learning nearly anything is bound to help.
Still, I like the advise in the closing to John Piper’s recent book on marriage. In explaining why his book doesn’t describe the sociological benefits of strong marriages and the pragmatic stuff, he writes,
Focusing on the pragmatic effects of marriage undermines the very power of
marriage to achieve the effects we desire. In other words, for the sake of all
these beneficial practical effects, we should not focus on them. This is the way
life is designed by God to work. Make him and the glory of his Son central, and you
get the practical effects thrown in. Make the practical effects central, and you
Here, then, are some that we regularly recommend, some of which are fairly practical, and a few that are more foundational in nature; all are well written and a delight to read. Why read the dumb ones when you can find the richest and most useful? This started as a list to be used in a pre-marital setting and I adapted it to suggest to a small group wanting to read something together. We think these are all quite good in their own way. Enjoy.
As For Me and My House: Crafting Your Marriage to Last Walter Wangerin (Nelson) $14.99 This is part teaching, part memoir, typically passionate Wangerin— great stories, by one of our great living authors. Stuff about forgiveness and communication and failure and goodness. A good discussion guide in the back is beneficial for anyone, couples or small reading groups. I suppose it doesn’t explain all that a pre-marital course should cover, but it is a wonderful, wondeful book, and a H&M favorite. I know a pastor who gives it as a wedding gift, and tells the starry-eyed couple to read it in ten years. I’d say read it now, and every five years for the rest of your life.
Intimate Mystery: Creating Strength and Beauty in Your Marriage Dan Allander & Tremper Longman (IVP) $13.00 I really loved their bigger book based on Genesis (Intimate Allies) which uses a “case study” approach of marriage problems, and then referring back to the “original plan” in Genesis, but it maybe was a bit much for most folks. So this new one is fabulous, and much more useful since it is more slim. It uses the framework of “leaving and cleaving” and it is wonderful to see a shrink and a Bible scholar working together like this. There were, with the previous hardcover edition, a set of Bible study guides for each chapter, which now, in the paperback, are included in the back of the book making it a gem to have. There is a DVD, too. Excellent, solid, beautiful stuff. Highly recommended.
The Mystery of Marriage: Meditations on the Miracle Mike Mason (Multnomah) $13.99 Contemplative, rich, thoughtful, deeply spiritual, quite lovely. I cannot say how much I was touched by this beautiful read. Eloquent and elegant, and just a bit mystical, it may therefore not be for just everyone. A favorite of many, though; there is nothing like it in print! His friend and mentor J.I. Packer writes the tender forward. Later, get his wondrous collection of brief reflections, The Mystery of Children.
Sacred Marriage Gary Thomas (Zondervan) $14.99 This, too, attempts to offer more the “reason for” and “meaning of” like Mike Mason, but it not as deep or richly mystical as his. Still, this is a wonderful look at the deeper theological and spiritual nature of marriage. His tag line is “what if marriage wasn’t to make us happy, but make us holy.” Whew. Still, he’s not a heavy writer, tells nice stories, and brings this spirituality stuff into the ordinary, daily work of crafting a Godly marriage. There is a companion called Devotions for the Sacred Marriage: A Year of Weekly Devotions for Couples (Zondervan; $14.99; hardcover) too, which is a nice gift to give, or which could be used a resource during the pre-marital time. (By the way, I’d read anything Gary Thomas writes. Amongst his books on spirituality, Christ-like character formation, even one on enjoying the pleasures of life, he has also written the excellent Sacred Parenting and Devotions for Sacred Parenting which, like the marriage ones, bring a nice blend of philosophic/spiritual stuff and practical stories.)
What Did You Expect? Redeeming the Realities of Marriage Paul Tripp (Presbyterian & Reformed) $21.99 This is brand new and just in time to offer a significant does of reality to happy couples being married this season, or an offering of great grace to those who are struggling, as we all do, East of Eden. This is a seriously theological-informed study, yet applied in clear, pastoral wisdom to real people, with real expectations, and real hurts and sins and baggage. Can God bring redemption to dysfunctional folk like us? Does the Christian gospel empower us to live more joyfully, even in our aches and sorrows? Can a Kingdom vision and a Christian worldview help us navigate a healthy and happy relationship? Some may find Tripp’s strong views about gospel transformation off putting, but for many, it is the wondrous truth of the power of the gospel that is the only reliable foundation for a solid Christian marriage. Highly recommended.
To Become One: After ‘I Do’ The Real Journey Begins Chris Seay & Chad Karger (Relevant) $13.99 You may know Seay as a guru of pop culture; he’s written books on religious questions and insights found in The Matrix, The Sopranos, and, most recently, he did a nice book on Lost. Here, his down-to-earth style, and his savvy awareness of younger adult culture, and the insight learned from being a third generation pastor (his grandfather and father were Baptist preachers) all combine in an interesting, theologically mature, insightful, a
nd very, very helpful way. We recommend this book highly, and it seems to appeal well to those who are younger, a bit edgy, who don’t want pablum or cliches, but are eager for Biblically-rooted, practical advise that is authentic and hopeful and witty. Very nicely done.
Gender and Grace: Love, Work & Parenting in a Changing World Mary Stewart Van Leeuwn (IVP) $23.00 It may not be the first choice for marriage counseling as it is a bit rigorous, but I always recommend it, and truly hope many young folks read it and discuss it. If one doesn’t get this fundamentally right, there will be troubles…I think it is wise and thoughtful, but, admittedly, a bit heady and theological for some folks. Every pastor should have it though, and foist it on anybody who will go for it. As you may guess, it recommends a more egalitarian view of marriage and rejects the worldly constructs of stereotypical gender roles. The sequel, also on IVP Academic, which is a bit more demanding, is called My Brother’s Keeper? What the Social Sciences Do and Don’t Tell Us About Masculinity (in which, Beth and I are mentioned—ha!) Very thoughtful.
Marriage at the Crossroads: Couples in Conversation About Discipleship, Gender Roles, Decision Making and Intimacy William & Aida Spencer and Steve & Celestia Tracy (IVP) $20.00 This is not a simple marriage guide or an easy-to-use class book; not eve a typical textbook. It is sprawling, diverse, thoughtful, and very (very!) interesting. These two couples differ in their assumptions: one couple describes themselves as “egalitarians” and the other as “complimentarians.” (For those not familiar with the term, it indicates a more traditionalist understanding of the complimentary role of men and women, using older views of “headship” and such which has arisen in the scholarly evangelical community in reaction to the rise of evangelical feminism.) Each couple are vibrantly and robustly followers of Jesus, and they are each marriage counseling professionals. So they bring their own personal marriages and their work as specialists to the table as they work their way through this extraordinary set of conversations. It is very useful for those trying to figure out what to believe about what the Bible says and what our theological and doctrinal views might be, and it is equally practical, full of daily guidance and example of working out the details of a committed Biblical marriage.
This Momentary Marriage: A Parable of Permanence John Piper (Crossway) $17.99 I suppose regular readers might know that I do not agree with all of Piper, and yet, I really enjoy reading him, and recommend him always. He is a fiery Baptist with serious commitment to the specifics of the Bible, and he does his tough stuff with a tender heart and a hearty laugh. Of course, if we are to be Biblical people, we simply must deal with the texts (most notably in Ephesians) that talk about mutual submission, and then the ways in which men and women are called to live into the mystery–that marriage somehow signifies the breath-taking glory of Christ and His church. I do like Piper’s passion, his thoroughness, his deep desire to place everything he writes about (in this case, marriage) in the context of the Christ-exalting, God-pleasing, worth-dying-for faith which makes much of God even as we die to self. He is a fine pastor, here, walking folk thorough hard stuff, and reflecting deeply on the Bible and practical evangelical living. I pity the person whose pastor offers cheap cliches of inspiration sentiment or the latest psycho-babble from the pages of a trendy journal. In these trying times, married folk need this kind of meaty study, and I’d rather take exception to a page or two, than offer something more politically correct that is vapid. For what it is worth, he has a bit about singleness (he’s for it) and divorce and remarriage (he’s against it.) This handsome little hardback is worth giving (or having on your nightstand) if only for the splendid subtitle which reminds us that marriage is a “parable of permanence.”
Here is something else that is remarkable about this firm, little book. Each chapters starts with an excerpt of the truly extraordinary insight of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s pastoral letter on marriage, known to us as a chapter in Letters and Papers From Prison. Why not give that as a wedding gift: notes from a dying martyr…whew1 Kudos to Piper, like him or not, for wanting the supremacy of Christ to shine as we do marriage in counter-cultural ways that allow us to fully serve, love, pray and enjoy each other, and the world, for God’s sake.
Why Marriages Succeed or Fail…And How You Can Make Yours Last John Gottman (Simon & Schuster) $15.00 This is not written from a Biblical perspective, but it emerges from what may be the most important marital research yet done. Dr. Gottman has pioneered extraordinary methods of observing couples in action, and for 20 years has been documenting at his center/learning lab exactly how couples interact. His tested methods show exactly what practices and traits are needed for a successful long-term relationship, and exactly what attitudes and habits create patterns that erode a happy marriage. What he shows here is surprising (frequent arguing itself isn’t bad; financial problems aren’t the worst thing; more sex doesn’t necessarily improve a marriage.) Gottman notices how habits of making sour faces—signs of contempt—are one of the most reliable indicators of a doomed marriage.
His breakthrough study of over 2000 married couple has lead him to make this remarkable claim that he can predict within 94% accuracy which people will stay marriage and which will divorce. Coupled with a foundation of Biblical theology and graceful spirituality, I think this kind of secular book could be very, very helpful.
Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts: Seven Questions to Ask Before and After You Marry Les & Leslie
Parrot (Zondervan) $19.99 Surprisingly insightful, these two authors are very sharp,
and I’d recommend anything they do (and they do a lot!) This one is obviously most designed for pre-marital use, although I think
anybody could benefit from it. It is a bit more psychological,
self-helpy and practical that the ones I’ve named above, so I’d recommend it be coupled with some sort
of substantial theology of marriage for a sound foundational framework.
Still, the Parrot’s pick the key topics of handling money, sexuality,
communication and such and offer very helpful insight into how to handle these matters. It is really very fine, so engaging and useful. There are separate workbook guides
for men and women, too, that can be purchased separately. And, now,
there is a brand new DVD curriculum, too. Very cool.
Very, very valuable for some will be another one they did with a similiar title, Saving Your Second Marriage Before It Starts (Zondervan; $17.99) which is arranged in a similarly helpful format, designed for those going through a re-marriage. That one, too, has workbooks for men and women to do on their own. Again, it has a most practical flavor and although rooted clearly in the Christian faith, avoids serious Biblical questions regarding the appropriateness of remarriage. This one offers “nine questions” to answer, geared specifically for those in this awkward sitatuion…
Drs. Les and Leslie have done some other popular marriage and family books, but one
little one that might be helpful is a small, very fun book, The Love
List (Zondervan; $14.99), which
names things couples should do once a day, once a week, once a month,
and once a year. A lot of wisdom presented in a clever “check up” kind
of way. Another invites men and women to “trade places” as they work through the habits of their relationship. A very recent one documents different personality types and “love language” sorts of things. We stock all of their work
Ten Great Dates Before You Say I Do David & Claudia Arp (Zondervan) $12.99 These are fun and interactive “dates” that have a “point” or experience built in to then discuss. What a great idea! They wrote one years ago for married couples, now revised and entitled Ten Great Dates to Energize Your Marriage (and there is another one called Ten Great Dates for Empty Nesters) which have been so popular, they did a pre-marital one. Fun and interesting and a good resource to have on hand, even if you don’t do (or have the couple do) all ten in a row. Some groups have done the dates, and then gathered later to talk about how it went, what they learned, and process the conversations in the book.
Sheet Music: Uncovering the Secrets of Sexual Intimacy Kevin Lehman (Tyndale) $14.99 We have lots of fairly standard sexuality books—I still love the classic Eerdmans release by Lewis Smedes called Sex for Christians—which is arranged in three units: creation, fall, redemption. I suspect that his Biblical/theological reflections are still the best. But we list this newer one by the ever-popular and creatively crazy Kevin Lehman because he is so upbeat, well known, and enjoyable to read. Excellent, even if it is pretty racy! Clifford & Joyce Penner’s Gift of Sex (Nelson; $14.99) is often used for those who have no sexual experiences, who need clinical and instructional information. Very frank and clear.
Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity Lauren Winner (Brazos) $14.99 Especially for those who are not yet or currently married, this is simply a must read; the best on the topic I know of for serious young adults. Of course, Winner is a hip and serious writer, and her prose shines, her stories are very illuminating, and her broad vision is very solid. Did I say it was a must-read? A, while you’re at it, get a hold of her other two, her conversion memoir, Girl Meets God and her Jewish-inspired set of spiritual practices, Mud-House Sabbath.
The Christian Lover: The Sweetness of Love and Marriage in the Letters of Believers Matthew Haykin (Reformation Trust Publishing) $15.00 I needn’t remind you how profound, deep, and eloquent old letters often are, and this handsome small hardback makes not only a very special gift and keepsake, it is a model of Christ-centered, beautiful renderings of the meaning of marriage. A few of these are from famous folks, hymn-writers, Puritans, authors. Most are not. They are substantial and well worth reflecting upon (even if you aren’t a church history buff.) If you value the instincts of the past, though, this is a real gift. My, my, how folks used to think and write and live.
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