Mulling Over Marriage: A Summary Critique of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed

Article ID: JAR1334 | By: Carole Hausmann Ryan, M.Div.

This review first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 33, number 04 (2010). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org


Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of the no. 1 New York Times bestseller, Eat, Pray, Love (a movie version, starring Julia Roberts, was released in August). Her new book, Committed, continues the story of her romance with Felipe,1 the Brazilian businessman she meets at the end of her year-long healing adventure chronicled in Eat, Pray, Love. Committed tells the story of their developing love relationship and the year they are forced to spend traveling together because of an unexpected development: Felipe, whose business is based primarily in America, cannot come back to the United States except to marry Elizabeth (after the required massive amount of immigration paperwork is in order).

Felipe and Elizabeth had already vowed their love and fidelity to each other and even exchanged rings, but they had also vowed never to marry each other. Both had experienced terrible loss in painful divorces; they are completely convinced that their continued happiness (they plan to spend the rest of their lives together) depends on their not getting married. Enter the Department of Homeland Security, with its stricter post-9/11 rules. Felipe must leave the country immediately. As the Homeland Security officials lead Felipe away, he and Elizabeth whisper to each other, “I love you so much, I will even marry you” (p. 18).

Writing with a gracious sense of self-deprecation and a superb sense of humor, Gilbert tells of the research project she embarks on as she travels with Felipe. For her own sake, she has to study the phenomenon of marriage in its history as an institution, practice in several cultures, and personal application to her situation. In short, she has to make peace with the idea of marriage itself before she can marry Felipe. Committed is the result not only of her research, but also of her years of conversations about marriage, intimacy, sexuality, divorce, fidelity, family, responsibility, and autonomy” with her twenty-seven closest women friends and family (18).

Gilbert is a journalist and great storyteller who has many good and interesting things to say. She weaves into her autobiography historical and sociological insights that demonstrate her ability to read history and cultures sympathetically. Her books are important because they reflect a personal journey out of hurt and fear and into faith and love—a journey that many in our culture are making or want to make. She tells her story so compellingly that one can deeply empathize with her even while, just as deeply, questioning some of her basic assumptions and assertions.

She takes brief snapshots of marriage customs throughout the history of Eastern and Western cultures, stopping to look more closely at early Judeo-Christian concepts of marriage. She stresses the importance in ancient Near Eastern (ANE) culture of the extended family. “Those extended families grew into tribes, and those tribes became kingdoms, and those kingdoms emerged as dynasties, and those dynasties fought each other in savage wars of conquest and genocide” (56). It is worthwhile quoting the rest of her paragraph here, to provide a glimpse of her habit of overgeneralization, as well as her overriding bias against the Old Testament (OT):

The early Hebrews emerged from exactly this system, which is why the Old Testament is such a family-centric, stranger-abhorring, genealogical extravaganza—rife with tales of patriarchs, matriarchs, brothers, sisters, heirs, and other miscellaneous kin. Of course, these Old Testament families were not always healthy or functional (we see brothers murdering brothers, siblings selling each other into slavery, daughters seducing their own fathers, spouses sexually betraying each other), but the driving narrative always concerns the progress and tribulations of the bloodline, and marriage was central to the perpetuation of that story. (56)

Several of her oversimplifications show clearly here. She states, for example, the OT is “stranger-abhorring.” In terms of OT law, the people of Israel were prohibited from marrying people from surrounding nations because foreign gods would come in with the foreigners.2 The underlying assumption here is that Israel was to be a nation set apart to Yahweh, not because of any merit of their own, but because Yahweh had chosen to love Abraham and his descendants, and through them to bless all peoples in all nations.3 Both in its understanding of covenant relationship with a unique, moral, covenant-making God and in its emphasis on loving one’s neighbor, the OT is unique among other known ANE literature.

In fact, the deep concern for, and protection of, the poor, including the “stranger” (i.e., alien, foreigner), a central theme in the OT, is not found anywhere else in ANE literature.4 Even a cursory reading of the Torah and the Prophets demonstrates how important “Love thy neighbor”—especially the poor and needy stranger, widow, and orphan—is to Yahweh and hence to the continuing well-being of early Israel. Leviticus 19:33–34 is particularly instructive here: “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am Yahweh your God.”5

The OT book of Ruth is the story of King David’s great-great grandmother, Ruth the Moabitess (the Moabites were enemies of Israel). David was the greatest king in Israel’s history in the OT, and Ruth was not his only foreign-born ancestor: Rahab of Jericho also shows up in his bloodline.6 Likewise, the consistent portrayal of Israel’s founding patriarchs and other leaders as broken human beings capable of great evil underscores the OT’s realistic viewpoint of the “chosen people” over against the foreign nations. This realistic portrait of Israel’s key players is also unique in the ANE.

Gilbert’s treatment of Jesus, the New Testament, and early Christianity shows further bias and distortion. Immediately following her paragraph quoted above, she continues:

But the New Testament—which is to say, the arrival of Jesus Christ—invalidated all those old family loyalties to a degree that was truly socially revolutionary. Instead of perpetuating the tribal notion of “the chosen people against the world,” Jesus (who was an unmarried man, in marked contrast to the great patriarchal heroes of the Old Testament) taught that we are all chosen people, that we are all brothers and sisters united within one human family. Now, this was an utterly radical idea that could never possibly fly in a traditional tribal system. You cannot embrace a stranger as your brother, after all, unless you are willing to renounce your real biological brother, thus capsizing an ancient code that binds you in sacred obligation to your blood relatives while setting you into auto-opposition to the unclean outsider. But that sort of fierce clan loyalty was exactly what Christianity sought to overturn. As Jesus taught: “If any man come to me and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). (55–56, emphasis in original)

Jesus and the New Testament are indeed socially revolutionary, but not in the way she thinks they are. For the Jewish people of Jesus’ day, God is One, He is not a man, He is their only creator and redeemer and He alone is to be worshiped.7 Jesus is evolutionary largely because He teaches that He is the fulfillment of the Scriptures (OT), the heir of King David, the Christ (OT: Messiah), and the Hope of Israel.8 He goes even further, declaring Himself to be God’s unique Son, and therefore equal with God.9 His earliest followers see Him as the Christ, the Son of God, and the Savior of Israel and of the entire world. Jesus is worthy of worship as God’s only Son and the world’s Savior.10 Jesus receives worship and His followers have no problem worshiping Him as the God-Man, through whom all things were created and by whom all things hold together.11 Now these sorts of claims may not have raised an eyebrow in other cultures that had a pantheon of deities and a plethora of gurus, but for Israel, these claims were scandalous and worthy of death.

Second, Jesus flatly did not teach, to quote Gilbert again, “that we are all chosen people, that we are all brothers and sisters united within one human family” (56). For Jesus, the “chosen” of God were those the Father had given Him, Jesus’ followers, and all who would believe in Jesus through the message of the Father and Son.12 Jesus was kind to Gentile people, providing healing and comfort to any who needed Him, and even saying to at least a couple of them that they had faith greater than all of Israel.13 While He made it clear that He is the ultimate expression of God’s love, the Savior of the whole world, He also made it clear that His primary focus at that point was Israel.14 His words about “hating” father and mother, for example, were a common way to underscore the seriousness of being His disciple as one’s first and foremost priority.

It was Saul, the fierce Jewish Pharisee who persecuted the earliest Christians, until he was practically knocked off the road in his encounter with the risen Christ,15 who became the apostle Paul and more fully developed the NT theme of God’s love for the world. The conflicts that arose because Paul brought so many Gentiles into what were essentially Jewish-Christian congregations helped form some of the earliest and thorniest theological issues for the young church.16

Paul disproves, in his own thought and person, Gilbert’s assertion that, “you cannot embrace a stranger as your brother, after all, unless you are willing to renounce your real biological brother” (56). This apostle to the Gentiles, who brought the salvation of Jesus Christ to much of the known world, made one of the most radical statements ever made anywhere, when he said, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”17 But this same man could also say:

I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit—I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption as sons, theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.18

Jesus’ goal was not to overturn fierce clan loyalty in the way Gilbert asserts. His goal was to show God’s love for the world by dying for our sins and rising from the dead, conquering death and reconciling all of us who believe in Him (Jews and Gentiles) to God.19

Gilbert also completely misses the point in her analysis of early Christianity. She states, “The early Christian plan was staggeringly idealistic, even downright utopian: Create an exact replica of heaven right here on earth. ‘Renounce marriage and imitate the angels,’ instructed John of Damascus around AD 730” (56). In two sentences, Gilbert skips from New Testament Christianity (circa AD 100) to the eighth-century views of a celibate Roman Catholic monk. An equivalent trick would be to describe early fifteenth-century Roman Catholic beliefs by quoting the viewpoints of a twenty-first-century Reformed Baptist.

From here on, all of Gilbert’s statements about early Christian beliefs are hopelessly anachronistic. She reads back into the New Testament and early Christianity the worldview and beliefs of later medieval Roman Catholicism. She states that the “new Christian paradigm as modeled by Christ’s own example” was to be “celibacy, fellowship, and absolute purity” (56). “Since there would always be more potential Christians to convert, there was no need for anybody to sully himself by generating new babies through vile sexual congress. And if there were no need anymore for babies, then it naturally stood to reason that there was no need anymore for marriage” (57). This is a terrible distortion even of Roman Catholicism. And, of course, she nowhere includes the ancient Eastern church, or even the wide variety of thought represented by the early Western church fathers.

The truth is that while some early church leaders (second-century and later) embraced celibacy as a means of gaining greater closeness to God, and while more than a few were certainly misogynists, these developments arose as Christianity increasingly lost contact with its New Testament and Jewish roots. These distortions grew out of the Western church’s increasing assimilation of Greek and pagan culture and thought, as this new faith became more influential and powerful in the Greco-Roman world.

Nowhere is Gilbert’s misrepresentation of NT Christianity more disturbing than in her treatment of Paul’s writings on marriage. She quotes Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:1: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman” (NASB). Then she adds, “Never, ever, under any circumstances, Saint Paul believed, was it good for a man to touch a woman—not even his own wife” (58). This is such a fundamental misrepresentation of Paul that, to be charitable, I must conclude that she has never read 1 Corinthians 7. In fact, Paul says the opposite in the very next sentences, where he instructs married men and women to have sex often and not to deprive each other in this area.

She continues, “In every possible instance, Paul begged Christians to restrain themselves, to contain their carnal yearnings, to live solitary and sexless lives on earth as it is in heaven” (60). Wrong again! Paul’s actual motivation for asking his readers to remain single, only if they could handle it, is because in their circumstances, where Christians were being persecuted, scattered, and killed, it created much more hardship for them if they married. It also allowed them to focus on their devotion to Christ in troubled times. Paul spends as much space in this passage instructing married people how to be loving and peaceful in their marriages (including his enthusiastic views on married sex!) as he does instructing the single people how best to live.

Nowhere in Paul or the New Testament is marriage and married sex regarded as sin. Nowhere in the New Testament is Jesus’ celibacy ever even brought up, much less used as a model for Christians. In fact, the New Testament teaches the opposite. Paul notes that Peter and the other apostles took their wives with them on their missionary journeys—he chose not to, though he also had the right to do so.20 Since Pharisees were required to marry, Paul had most likely been married at some point, and was probably widowed.

Paul has such a high view of marriage that he describes the marriage relationship as providing a metaphor of Jesus’ relationship to the church, the bride of Christ.21 This passage gives us a good theological framework in which to understand Jesus’ celibacy. The reason we are not married in heaven is that, collectively, we are the bride of Christ. In other letters, Paul has detailed instructions for families—husbands, wives, and children. He writes much more frequently about marriage than he does about singleness. In one of the most telling statements of his views on marriage, Paul informs Timothy that, in the last days, false teachers will “forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.”22 For Paul, the forbidding of marriage is the sign of a denial of the Christian faith!

I have to admit, I was astonished at Gilbert’s blatant falsehoods about Paul and disappointed with her treatment of early Judaism and Christianity. At the very least, it is clear she has read little or none of the primary sources of Judaism and Christianity, and she is evidently relying on the reports of a very few biased, apparently angry (at least in this area) historians. I hope that when Gilbert writes more nonfiction, she will do the legitimate work of historical investigation (including consulting the primary sources, as well as a much wider variety of scholars) and leave her biased, largely fictional accounts of early Judaism and Christianity behind. —Carole Hausmann Ryan

Carole Hausmann Ryan, M.Div., is a freelance writer who lives in Montana with her husband, Mark, and their two children, Timothy and Petrea.


NOTES

  1. “Felipe” is a fictional name.
  2. Exod. 34:15–16; Deut. 7:1–11; Ezra 9–10. Please note: I will be citing a lot of material in both Testaments to address Gilbert’s oversimplifications and false statements about the OT and NT. Issues of critical scholarship (such as source material, dates, and the progressive development of ideas in OT and NT thought) lie outside the scope of this review.
  3. Deut. 7:6–8; Gen. 12:1–3; 18:18–19; 22:15–18; 26:1–5.
  4. For example, compare the Mosaic Law code with the ancient Code of Hammurabi: “A law such as Ex. xx. 17; Deut. v. 21, ‘thou shalt not covet’ (which the Decalogue, with a perception of the fact that covetousness is the root of all law-breaking, places above all other earthly laws), is not to be found anywhere in the [Hammurabi] code. Hence it follows that the code does not recognize the law of neighborly love, since self-restraint is wholly foreign to it. The institutions of the Torah that protect those who are weak economically, which set bounds to the unlimited growth of wealth, and which care for the poor are peculiar to itself. The law of love to one’s neighbor (Ex. xxiii. 4 et seq.), which takes account of the stranger and even of the enemy, is nowhere discernible in Hammurabi’s code. The law of retaliation, of cold, calculating equity, ‘as thou to me so I to thee’; the revenge of the stronger on the weaker—these form a broad foundation on which the love of one’s neighbor finds no place.” The Jewish Encyclopedia, http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?letter=H&artid=182#ixzz0uvge7YtF.
  5. New International Version. See also Exod. 12:48–49; 20:10; 22:21, 22; 23:9, 12; Lev. 16:29–31; 19:9, 10; 23:22; 24:22; Num. 9:14; 15:13–16; Deut. 1:16; 5:14; 10:17–19; 24:14–21: 26:12, 13, 19; Pss. 94:4–7; 146:9; Isa. 58; Jer. 7:6; 22:3; Ezek. 22:7, 29; Zech. 7:10; Mal. 3:5, etc..
  6. Cf. Matt. 1:5–6. An interesting phenomenon in this “genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1) is the unusual prominence of women.
  7. Cf. Exod. 20:1–7; Deut. 6:4; Isa. 40–45.
  8. Luke 4:14–30; 9:18–36; 24:13–27; John 5:16–47.
  9. John 5:16–47; 6:25–59; 7:33–44; 8:12–59, etc.
  10. Even His own family and others, including His enemies at His birth, knew who He was. Cf Matt. 1–3; Luke 1–3. Note that the genealogies in both Matthew and Luke in these sections establish Jesus as the heir of Abraham and King David—He is regarded in the NT as the fulfillment of Yahweh’s promises to both these men. In Jesus’ birth narratives, He is regarded as the Christ, the one who is to save His people and people from all nations from their sins. Cf. Matt. 1:20–21; 2:1–6; Luke 1:30–55, 67–80; 2:25–32, 36–38. John identifies Jesus as the incarnate Word and Paul, as the wisdom of God. Cf. John 1:1–18; 1 Cor. 1:20–31. In Galatians, Jesus is portrayed as the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. Cf. Gal. 3:6–29.
  11. John 20:24–31; John 1:1–18; Eph. 1; Phil. 2; Col. 1–2; Heb. 1; Rev. 5, etc.
  12. John 17:1–12, 20–23. Read his whole prayer in John 17 to get the context. Jesus’ concern was for all who would believe in Him.
  13. Matt. 8:5–13; 15:21–28.
  14. John 3:3–21; Matt. 15:24.
  15. Cf. Acts 9. After Luke, the Gentile medical doctor who accompanied Paul on several of his missionary journeys, and who wrote Luke and Acts, Paul was the most prolific NT writer.
  16. Cf. Acts, Galatians.
  17. Gal. 3:26–29 NIV.
  18. Rom. 9:1–5 NIV.
  19. Eph. 2; 1 Cor. 15; 2 Cor. 5:11–21.
  20. See 1 Cor. 9:5.
  21. Eph. 5:22–33. Throughout the NT, “church” refers to believers, not to an institution.
  22. 1 Tim. 4:1–3 NIV.

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