Feminism

"Zimzum of Love" review: 97-121, "Sacred" and "Epilogue"

This is the last post on the book, and I find myself wondering if I can enthusiastically endorse it. It’s certainly different than every other Christian marriage-advice book I’ve ever read, and I’ve deeply appreciated those differences. It’s straightforward, honest, authentic, all things I appreciate, but at times it got a little boring because they frequently dipped into pretty conservative Christian ideas about the role and purpose of marriage, and I think they skirted more difficult questions or avoided them entirely. They didn’t examine problems like we’re just not happy anymore, or we want completely different things in bed. It’s such a short book that at moments it just feels sort of shallow.

However, that is also it’s strength: it is easy to get through, easy to swallow, easy to digest, and the ideas they do address can be radically different from the typical evangelical lines. For someone who’s coming to this book without having shed their patriarchal understandings of marriage, this is probably as far as they could conceivably go, so it’s a good book for that sort of person. If you’re already a feminist and already believe in marriage as an equal partnership, this book will probably be less helpful.

Someone commented on an earlier post that there’s plenty of secular marriage-advice books that don’t need a biblical dressing-up in order to be considered legitimate, and most likely have better and more nuanced breakdowns of married relationships– and that is probably true. However, a big part of me does want to see an in-depth examination of egalitarian Christian marriages. Healthy relationships are healthy relationships, Christian or not; but I do think that marriage has a sacramental aspect for Christians and that’s not something you’re going to see addressed in a secular book.

Which is why I appreciated the “sacred” chapter here. So often when evangelicals talk about marriage it’s all about how it’s a metaphor for Christ and the church, and that’s why we should all be homophobic bigots. Having that completely cut out of the discussion was … nice. I do believe that my marriage is a sacred bond– since I’ve gotten married, it’s become easier for me to understand why Paul chose the mystery of this particular relationship to illustrate the relationship of Christ to the church.

However, I would stop short of some of their statements, like this one:

Sex is spiritual because you are an integrated being. Your skin and your soul are connected. This is why casual hookups leave people so profoundly empty– there’s nothing behind them. (102)

And … just no. This argument doesn’t hold water with me anymore, because while I agree that we are our bodies as much as we are our souls, what the hell is so special about sex? I am an integrated being, yes, but I do all sorts of thing with this body that are essentially meaningless and don’t leave me feeling “profoundly empty.” I eat cheeseburgers. I dance to pop songs. I clean my apartment. I read Cosmopolitan. I enjoy slapstick comedy. I do all of these things with my body, and they don’t have to have a deep spiritual connection behind them in order for me to think they’re pretty awesome and to avoid feeling “empty” afterwards.

But … moving on. In the epilogue, Kristen shared something that I found to be one of the best things in the book. Her second pregnancy was incredibly difficult, as she struggled with something akin to asthma that the doctors couldn’t identify or treat– she described it as “drowning”. The last three months forced her to rely on Rob for a lot, and she said this about that time:

Kristen: It was the first time in our marriage when I had nothing to give … But it wasn’t just that, it was the vertigo that came from our relationship being so one-sided. Up until that time, there had always been a sense that we were creating a life together. But all of a sudden I found myself giving all of my energies to simply surviving. It was very difficult to accept this.

Rob: Grace.

Kristen: Yes, grace. I had to fully accept that I had nothing to give. All I could do was receive. Sometimes, that’s all you can do.

That made me cry. I haven’t been married very long, and we’ve only been together three years. But in that time I’ve thought of us as a partnership. We help each other, we take care of each other, we look out for each other. Over the last few months, though, it’s been a lot harder. Frequently we run into days like today. Today, I managed to feed myself, do a load of laundry, and write this post. I wanted to organize my desk, run some errands, and finish reading either Dianna Anderson’s Damaged Goods or Rachel Held Evans’ Searching For Sunday, and … just nope. I went to sleep at 6 this morning, woke up at 10, came out to living room and cuddled with Elsa until 2, and … putzed around until 3:30 when I started working on this. And that … that makes me feel like shit. I want to be productive, dammit. I want to contribute. But I am exhausted and depressed an my insomnia is going to drive me insane, and I don’t have a whole lot to give.

But Kristen’s husband said Grace. And Kristen said “Sometimes, that’s all you can do,” and it was a very timely reminder that whatever it takes to survive one day after another is good. I don’t have to beat myself up for making it through another day in one piece.

I don’t think I’ve encountered something this honest in a Christian marriage-advice book that wasn’t slimed all over with sexism. And that makes me happy, and overall, pretty satisfied with what they’ve written.

So– is Zizmzum of Love a perfect book? No, but it’s not really fair to expect any book to be perfect.

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  • Dana

    Wow, that epilogue passage is worth the cost of the book! And I am glad it was encouraging to you. It is something that I want to imprint in my brain. I have been married 34 years and in the last few years I have developed chronic migraines. One of the hardest things for me has been to accept my limitations and to not always do what I need to to take care of myself because it puts more on my husband. (By the way, he has been wonderful, not just helping me, but encouraging me and helping me to see all the joy I have in my life).

  • I’m glad you found that when you needed it.

    I’ve rewritten the rest of this comment three times, trying to hit “supportive” rather than “trite.” Just–I know depression makes this effectively impossible to believe much of the time, but you have nothing to feel guilty about.

    • Rebekah

      Obviously I know this wasn’t intended for me but as someone who lives with depression its nice to be reminded of that because feeling guilty is just another way to beat yourself up when that’s the last thing u need.

      And Samantha I’ve had days just likeyours , its a fight to focus on the things you were able to complete and not on the longer list of ‘things you failed at today’. Keep pressin on.

      • It’s true for you, too. I’m sure if Handsome, or anyone you (Rebekah) love, had the flu (say), none of us would think less of them for not being able to accomplish things while they were sick. So why would depression reflect badly on someone who has it?

  • (In passing) My suggestion would that sexual intercourse can be spiritual because it can be a powerful way of expressing love that is easily accessible to most people. But can be is an important part of that sentence. I don’t agree (this goes against most Christian teaching) that casual sex is necessarily “bad,” but much of it is non-intimate and even supposedly tough people often find they miss the intimacy. This can lead to pretending casual sex is more than it is, which is a road to all kinds of trouble.

  • I’ve been having a similar struggle to yours about finding good books on egalitarian Christian marriage, but about parenting. Finding decent Christian parenting books that don’t take physical discipline for granted or that don’t focus on obedience and raising ‘nice little Christians’ is a lot harder than you’d think.

  • Tess

    Thanks so much for this review series! As the first extended review series of an egalitarian Christian marriage book that I’ve come across, it’s been really enjoyable and I’ve looked forward to each installment. It’s encouraging to see some positive things occurring in the Christian marriage world, even if they can’t be perfect.

    I also thought this podcast interview with both Kristen and Rob Bell about the book was fun to listen to, just in case you haven’t stumbled upon it yourself:
    http://www.theliturgists.com/podcast/2015/1/26/episode-12-marriage-relationships-with-kristen-and-rob-bell

  • Tim

    I enjoyed your review of this book. It didn’t replace reading the book for myself since you focused more on your reaction to the contents than analysis of the contents in abstract, but I think what you did was valuable.

    I was very curious, going into this, how you would react to the Rob and Kristen’s portrayal of extending grace to one’s partner. I think of grace in this kind of situation as being, more-or-less: “I can see that you need something right now and you’re having trouble providing it for yourself; I have the ability to provide it for you, and I would like to do that, if you’ll allow me to. Not because I owe you, or I expect that you’ll owe me afterward, but just because I love you and I’m committed to your good.” I think that’s what Rob is saying to Kristen, and you felt Rob was able to provide an example of that without veering into sexism. If the situation had been reversed, is there any way for Kristen to extend grace to Rob or is that always going to be problematic in a male-female relationship?

  • Tim

    I think you’re right that the explanation for why casual sex is problematic in sometimes leaving people feeling empty – essentially that it is a meaningless physical activity – is insufficient. Eating a cheeseburger is somewhat meaningless, but usually leaves me feeling deliciously full. 🙂

    I think the problem is not the meaninglessness of the activity as considered on its own, but rather as viewed in contrast to what it has the potential of being. Friends with benefits sounds like a symmetrical relationship, but generally in practice it’s not: A isn’t interested in a romantic relationship with good friend B, but finds B sexually attractive enough to enjoy occasional sex. B, on the other hand, would like to be in a romantic relationship with A, but figures friendship + occasional sex is better than friendship by itself or nothing. A probably feels like the sex is living up to its full potential; B feels like it’s falling short of what B believes it could accomplish; hence the emptiness or dissatisfaction.

    The Teacher comments on loneliness and companionship in Ecc 4:7-12: “7 Again, I saw vanity under the sun: 8 one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business.

    9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

    Not to go into a dissertation on loneliness as part of the human condition, but while a cheeseburger can only ever be a cheeseburger, sex can, potentially, be one of those few activities that establishes or strengthens a significant companionship deeply desired by most. People who have that hope and expectation but are frustrated in their expectation experience that as painful and dissatisfying.

  • I can very much relate to what you’re talking about with the one-sidedness thing. The year after I got married at age 26, my chronic illness flared up so badly that I was either in bed or in a chair for almost 2 years. My young husband found himself my caregiver during that time, doing absolutely everything. I was lucky if I could get up to get a drink from the fridge during that time, while he shopped, cooked, cleaned, and helped get me a chair for the bathroom so I could sit down while I brushed my teeth.
    And it was HARD. For both of us. I felt tremendously guilty for not being able to contribute, and it was an early test of our mettle. Its 19 years later and we’re still married. I’ve been in remission or partial remission for almost 11 years, and I’ve now helped him through a terrible illness and back pain so bad he couldn’t leave the bed for a week at one point. That’s when you know what marriage is supposed to be– signing up for “worse” as well as better. It means someone has your back when you are down.
    Grace on both sides means you can do it.
    Great writing. I’ve been reading your blog for many months now and really admire your courage, strength and compassion. Don’t ever feel ashamed and think you don’t contribute enough to the world! We all offer our service in different ways. Your voice of sanity is SO needed.