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Rob Bell


"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.


"Zimzum of Love" review: 45-95, "Dynamic" and "Exclusive"


One of the reasons why I was initially hesitant to write a review of a book I knew I’d essentially agree with was that I’d move through the book and think ho-hum, or well, duh, or this is just common sense why did we need a book about this. And then I’ll remember– oh, wait, there’s a zillion books out there that actively contradict what I think is “common sense,” so yes, we do need a book like this one. Desperately.

Chapter three, “Dynamic,” was a pretty good reminder of this, because I can’t help comparing this book to others like Real Marriage and Captivating, and I’m bumping into things that are surprising to find in a Christian book about marriage. It’s a little sad that I read a sentence like “And human beings are endlessly complex and surprising” (48), and I want to draw a little heart in the margins because I’m happy they said that out loud.

So often the messages you get from books like these is that men and women can be understood as men and women and we just have to learn what makes your husband a man or what makes your wife a woman and then you’re set. You just have to get “what makes women tick” in order to have a happy marriage– but Zimzum doesn’t go there. They dedicate a whole chapter to the idea that people are different and complex because they are people and it’s what I’ve been shouting during all these reviews and it makes me just so happy that someone else is saying it.

I also loved this paragraph from Kristen:

We all know women who have lost themselves in marriage– giving up their dreams and goals and losing their sense of self in the process. Sometimes women absorb messages from their family or the culture around them or especially certain religious environments that tell her — in subtle ways, not always with words— that she’s not an equal and therefore her needs and desires and aspirations are not as important as her husband’s.

I wanted to jump up and down about a few things she says here. First, she explicitly says how women can “lose themselves in marriage,” which is an idea I’ve seen other Christians reference in books like this but they never go on to say what they mean. Kristen lays it all out– one of the ways we can lose ourselves is to “give up our dreams and goals.” Many complementarian-minded Christians could never actually admit to this reality because they want women to give up our dreams. That is sort of the point. Unless of course our dream was to serve our husbands and be barefoot and pregnant and do whatever he needs to support him and his job or his ministry.

And then she blatantly contradicts the complementarian message, and she is clear that what complementarians say and what complementarians actually mean are not going to be the same.

I didn’t get out as much from chapter four, the “Exclusive” chapter, because to me they make observations that apply to marriage but also seem to easily apply to long-term friendships; except, they seem to be making the claim that these things are different from what happens in friendship. For example, one of the ideas they build the chapter around is that shared experiences are important– that building a life together means creating memories together, and that your marriage is enriched by these memories. Which is true … but I also think the same thing could be said of pretty much any relationship. I get why it’s especially important to do this in a marriage, but it doesn’t seem that different.

I also disagreed with the message on the last few pages of the chapter– that it is “toxic” to “put another person into the space between you.” I get why they said this, as involving other people in a personal conflict can be an extremely unhealthy and harmful thing to do to your partner. However … sometimes it is necessary, and I think this is a fairly common idea upheld by American culture: “keep your marital problems private” isn’t something they pulled out of thin air. However, I think the heavy emphasis on this can be dangerous, as it is one of the things that keep people trapped in unhealthy, toxic, or abusive relationships. If they can never talk about the problems they’re having, they will never have access to someone willing to say things like whoa that is not ok and not normal and not healthy.

They do acknowledge that if things get bad you should get counseling … but people in abusive relationships don’t know that “things are bad”– that is how they’re in an abusive relationship.

So while I don’t disagree with the general thrust of their “Exclusive” chapter, I’m again reminded that people tend not to write books like this while keeping the realities of abuse and domestic violence constantly in front of them.


"Zimzum of Love" review: 1-43, "Responsive"

Honestly, I’m still not really clear on the zimzum part of this book. Rob and Kristen seem to have connected with the metaphor strongly, but I’m not finding in it everything they did. I’m not sure how Rob was introduced to the concept, since what I can find has it appearing in Life of Pi and Kaballah, and Rob says it comes from “the rabbinic tradition.” I know I have Jewish readers, so if you could help me out with where this term comes from that would be spectacular.

At any rate, Rob and Kristen explain it as a step God had to take to create the universe– he had to withdraw from a certain space in order to create a world that wasn’t himself, that was separate from himself. This supposed retraction is zimzum: making an empty space for something else to fill. They apply this idea to marriage because they think that marriage is all about making space for the other person in our lives, and that makes sense to me. Where they go after that sort of loses me, but it’s a lovely image how they describe it.

I think the most important concept they’re emphasizing in the opening chapters is mutuality. “Mutuality” is frequently used as another word for egalitarianism in marriage, especially in Christian circles. It’s the idea that Rob and Kristen mention– that “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (41), and one that many Christian find in passages like “you are not your own.” They argue that the ideal for marriage is mutual giving, mutual sacrifice, that no relationship this intimate can survive in an environment where one is expected to lead and the other serve.

They talk about it in terms of the zimzum being “responsive,” which is an idea I think gets skipped over in many (if not all) Christian marriage-advice books. What they’re referring to could probably be summed up in the phrase “you have to put your own oxygen mask on first in order to help others”– essentially, if you’re not healthy and stable, than that’s going to contribute to your marriage being unhealthy and unstable. I wish this concept wasn’t so revolutionary by Christian marriage-book standards, but it is. If all I’m ever doing in my marriage is giving and serving and self-sacrificing without giving any thought to my own emotional burnout, that’s not going to be good long-term.

It’s also important to understand that in terms of your partner as well as yourself. They can’t contribute to a healthy marriage if you force them to make their lives all about you. Rob and Kristen bring it up like this: “You make deals, and then you laugh about how absurd it is to make deals because you would have done it anyway.”

For example, my partner loves building model airplanes, and he got eight different kits for Christmas as well as an airbrush. After he had the airbrush assembled, he was excited about working on them, and casually mentioned something about doing one every month– which is where I stopped him, because in order to do one every month he’d have to work on it every single weekend, virtually all day. And while I get a kick out of the painting and help him do the extremely detailed work, I have no interesting in the actual assemblage or putting the decals on … which meant that I’d either a) have to do something I found tedious and boring every weekend in order to spend time with him or b) not spend time with him.

I was not fond of either of those ideas, and responded with “well, maybe not one a month. I’m fine with every other weekend, but not all of them”– and once he’d thought about it, he agreed. Which means that we’d just “struck a deal,” but in reality he never would have worked on those planes every single weekend, because he wants to spend time with me as much as I want to spend time with him.

One of the negative things they talk about is “the scorecard”– how easy it is to become resentful if you feel that your partner isn’t pulling their weight, so you start keeping track of how often they unload the dishwasher and such (35).

I’m practically still a newlywed (celebrated our second anniversary this month), so I have to admit I haven’t experienced The Scorecard in my marriage yet, but I have felt that way in some friendships I’ve had. Right now, though, in my marriage if he doesn’t unload the dishwasher or doesn’t help with the laundry or doesn’t help keep the apartment tidy … I’m not particularly concerned. I imagine that won’t always be true, especially if we throw children into the mix.

Anyway, I’m enjoying the book, and since this is my second read-through, there’s actually quite a bit more meat here than I’d initially realized. It’s presented so conversationally I think it’s easy to skip over some of the more noteworthy ideas.

Social Issues

Review: "The Zimzum of Love": Introduction to the Series

Hello, again! I hope everyone had an enjoyable holiday season. Mine was a good, long break that I definitely needed– didn’t really realize how much I needed it, although by the end of last week I was antsy to get back to work. Unfortunately, I bruised/broke my tailbone this weekend, which has made sitting down … uncomfortable. Right now I’m anticipating being able to keep to my schedule (except for this weekperiod week), but we’ll see how it goes. I’m not going to push myself, as how fast my tailbone heals depends almost entirely on how careful I am with it.

Anyway, many of you, my lovely readers, have asked me to take a change of pace in my review-series project, and look at a book that I might actually be able to recommend, so I picked up Rob and Kristen Bell’s The Zimzum of Love: A New Way of Understanding Marriage, as I’ve heard positive things about it. It’s a fairly short book, so I don’t think it’ll take me three months to get through like the other books have.

First off, responses to this book are pretty mixed. The reviews on Amazon are anything from “Plain and simple Rob Bell has become a wacko and a heretic” to calling the book “brilliant.” The middle-of-the-road opinion is that it’s straightforward, uncomplicated, and helpful, although not amazing. I was encouraged by people who said things like “this books isn’t as sexist as other Christian books on the subject”– so, we’ll see how it goes.

My first impressions of it from reading the jacket copy was that it’s a little unconventional. The only other book I’ve read by Rob Bell is Love Wins, which came across as a prose-poem to me, so I was expecting something different from mainstream evangelical culture, and the jacket copy for this made me thing of books like The Secret. The mystic feel to the language isn’t off-putting to me, but I can imagine a lot of evangelicals rejecting this book outright because it seems to embrace “Eastern Mysticism” (#eyeroll).

It’s structured very conversationally with lots of cute stick-figure illustrations that are gender neutral, y’all. The only thing to differentiate the two figures is their hair, but both hairstyles aren’t gender signifiers. They do use “husband” and “wife” language instead of “partner,” which was a little bit frustrating, but honestly that might have been an editorial decision as they make it clear in the opening pages that they support marriage equality.

What I did really enjoy overall was the feeling I got that Kristen was actually a co-writer. Grace Driscoll had her name on the cover of Real Marriage, but she barely participated in the book. Kristen’s voice is featured as an equal half, which was a relief.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to getting into this with all of you, and I hope that perhaps some of you could read along with me since it won’t be the typical torture-and-agony fest.

I am happy to be back.