Friday, November 27, 2015

Courtship in Crisis? Nah. The Book Review

He needs to be courageous. He needs to be the kind of writer who punches up. As King Lune of Archenland puts it, "Never taunt a man save when he is stronger than you. Then, as you please." And the motive force of all that he writes should be that he deeply loves what he is defending. Some people sign up because they have to shoot something, and wolves will do in a pinch. But others, who are more faithful at the task, fight because they love what they defend. (Douglas Wilson "Pithy or Toxic? How to Write Good Satire" Intercollegiate Review, Fall 2015.)
So I'm in a bit of a pickle. A while back, the anti-courtship blog post came out, and I came out swinging. So far, so good. But I also speculated publicly about the author's motives. Not so good. I should mention here that the author and I have never been introduced. To me, he's just Joe Stranger, author of Book. But as we live in the same region and our social circles have significant overlap, weighing in is not inconsequential. He's an 'international speaker,' as his book cover reminds us, and a public persona. I'm not even a blip on the regional radar screen. In that respect, I should feel free to 'punch up', as Douglas Wilson suggests. On the other hand, he is my younger brother in the Lord, and I should not taunt the man.

Alas, this is a two-edged pickle. I would like to be known as the Courtship Lady about as much as I would like to be known as the Sabbath Lady or the Libertarian Lady. I am fully convinced, but conviction needs a conscience, not a fan club. And Majority has always been a poor way of plumbing wisdom. I do not defend courtship because I deeply love courtship. I defend courtship because I deeply love my children, and I deeply love wisdom. The trick, then, was to write a response in which I say nothing that should not be said and everything that should be. I think this post succeeds.

My wish for Mr. Umstattd is the same as my prayers for my own single adult children: a godly spouse and a rugged marriage, and a heaping helping of contentment in this interim of singleness providentially appointed for him by his good and sovereign Heavenly Father. What follows, then, should not be taken as personal attack but as a critique of his methods and assertions.

Courtship in Crisis by Thomas Umstattd, Jr.
1. The Hook
The book opens with the author's personal story of a courtship gone very, very wrong. If events unfolded exactly as is documented in the book, then it was truly a hurtful, horrifying experience. If. However, I would caution readers here that  one man seems right until another states his case. It is natural for us to rally around someone who has been wounded. I found myself thinking, "Poor guy! This is just terr--HEY! Wait a minute!" I've been bitten too many times, taking up one person's offense, only to have the other side come to light, and the villain, it turns out, is no villain at all. It may be absolutely true that the dad in this story was unreasonable and capricious. Or it might not be true. There is another, untold side to this story. And as it was a private affair, we should expect never to be enlightened; there can be much honor in silence. This narrative can only be regarded as complete when BOTH sides have stated their cases. If the dad were to bring contradictory facts to light, well...We would be naive to take sides right now. As it stands now, it is an appeal to pity.

2. The Research
There were several problems with the claim that lots of research was done for this book. First, when there were personal stories, there seemed to be zero effort to corroborate facts with the accused. Even a simple, "Mr. Jones declined to comment' would have eased my mind at least a little. And the guy who was rejected by twenty fathers. TWENTY? This is a claim of legendary proportions. No footnotes, no verifiable facts whatsoever. Did the author 'do the research' and get those twenty names, dates, locations? And if it is true, should we not consider with Douglas Wilson that this is a feature, not a flaw, of the system? Are you not curious about just what kind of guy could get rejected by twenty fathers? You should be. Second, the author does seem to have read some opposing viewpoints, like Wilson or Harris, and that's commendable. However, the silence on Baucham was deafening. I don't know why What He Must Be If He Wants to Marry My Daughter was never addressed. But this is the handbook on courtship, after all, and it's hard for an "I googled courtship, and it's not in the Bible" hermeneutic to stand up to Baucham's level of exegesis. (To be fair, the 'google' comment was not made in the book but in the time leading up to the book.)
For every bad idea that gets its own book, there's a better book with a better idea. Engel has his Bastiat; Bell has his DeYoung; Umstattd has his Baucham.
Third, scriptural proof was scant at best. It gave this reader the impression of having been waved lightly over the flames of scripture in an effort be be taken seriously as Christian meat--but it was still mooing. If we're going to talk about how scripture informs this area of our lives, we should probably talk about how scripture informs this area of our lives.

3. Sweeping Statements
This one could link back to the research concern. "In many churches, it's taboo for married couples to talk about sex." Stats? Footnotes? Sources? Did the author visit 'many churches' and interview the married couples? Unfortunately, it was sweeping assertions like this one that seriously weakened this reader's trust in the author's ability to present a strong argument. And it isn't the only one. "One of the common modifications in Modern Courtship is for couples to keep their relationship secret from friends until the engagement. Couples do this because they fear their community will blow out the fire of their budding relationship with expectations, pressure, and meddling." Ehhhh, not sure he got his facts. I expected more scholarship than this.

4. Naivete
(Okay. I think I've been quite restrained, golden even, up to this point. But here's where I 'punch up.' If one is old enough to be an international speaker/public persona/thrower down of anti-courtship gauntlets, one is old enough to have the smack laid down wherever smack is required. And, boy howdy, some smack needs to get laid down here regarding just horrid comments on sin and sexuality. If my own adult children said this stuff, they'd get the same response. So you can swallow back the 'You're so mean' nonsense. I'm not mean; I'm Mom.)
The author asserts that willpower will keep us out of sexual sin. Just say no to Froyo after the movie. And his proof text is not scripture, but a study on cookies and radishes. Not.even.kidding.
He also says, and I quote, "If we focus on the banquet, we won't be tempted by the dumpster of premarital and extramarital sex." I have this hilarious friend who would quip, "Hey kids, sex is GREAT. Now go have fun, and don't put anything of yours into anything of hers!" Focusing on the banquet of all of God's righteousness does NOT keep us out of the dumpster of sin. Thus, Romans chapter 7...and the rest of the epistles. And the gospels. And the Law. And the pro--well, you get the point.
Here's another one: "In Erica's community, no strict ritual full of 'guard your heart' rules governed dating, and the community lacked a 'hook up and break up' culture. Because of this, most hearts were guarded and most promiscuity disappeared naturally." Um. I may or may not have laughed out loud at this point. Promiscuity has been going on since time immemorial. Without even trying, I can think of five people conceived in the good ol' days of going steady. If his grandmother thought boys weren't thinking about sex when they were dating, perhaps he would have done better to talk to his grandfather. His grandfather would have assured him, as men have assured me, that boys were thinking about sex. Boys think about sex because that's how God made them. And that's good, good for marriage, good for creation; it just needs boundaries.
Umstattd's flippant treatment of sin and sexuality incensed me, especially when I think of impressionable young people reading it. 

Back to restraint...

5. Jurisdictions
"We value liberty more than life itself." Aha. THERE it is. There is the driving force behind this book, a kind of 'you're not the boss of me!' approach to life. My problem with this statement is the confusion between 'liberty' and 'libertine.' Someone who values liberty values good government. So we value a state that does what a state is supposed to do, a church that does what a church is supposed to do, and a family that does what a family is supposed to do. We disdain a state that excommunicates adulterers or raises children, a church that raises children or punishes criminals, a family that punishes criminals or excommunicates adulterers. We are glad when the state punishes criminals, the church excommunicates adulterers, the family raises children. In contrast, the author speaks like a libertine who disdains the role of the family in an adult who is ready for marriage. But listen to Baucham: "Nothing in the New Testament would suggest that fathers should stand down as protectors of their daughters' virginity." (55) There's an example of the heavy lifting in What He Must Be. Umstattd's book doesn't even break a sweat.

Honestly, I'm puzzled by all of this. I am left wondering what the burr is under the author's saddle. What I would love to see is some statistics on the percentage of the Church that actually favors courtship; I imagine it's minuscule. And if it is, courtship can hardly be left holding the bag for what the author sees as prolonged singleness. But attacking the families who do courtship (like all twelve of us) is like attacking your quiet neighbor for being quiet. You might as well wage war on Zoroastrians.

Did I get anything positive out of the book? Yes. While the author's fundamental premise, 'courtship hurts people' is about as sound as 'guns kill people,' I am mindful that even gun enthusiasts respect guns. Likewise, as parents, we would do well to approach courtship with the same respect. These are real people. These are real men and women with real giftings and uniqueness and hurts and sin and baggage. These are Image Bearers. And they deserve courtesy, gentleness, and kindness even in the midst of rigorous inspection. I like to think that by the time all of our children are married, anyone who has ever interacted with our family will have been treated respectfully, even if firmly.

Let me reiterate. I wish the absolute best to the author in his pursuit of marriage. I have a high view of marriage because God has a high view of marriage, and it doesn't matter a whit to me whether you got to the altar via dating or courtship. This post is not about my view of courtship. There are several places I could have elaborated on what I think, but this is strictly a book review, so I refrained. Second, maybe courtship is really in crisis, or maybe not. I am not personally convinced, but only time will tell. We have not gotten a child to the altar via courtship, but it seems like the wisest course of action at this time.

The work that can ably prove that courtship is truly in crisis will require:
1. A publisher who oversees bona fide research, as in actively gathering hard data, corroborating facts, interviewing representatives from all sides (yes, even the dreaded dragons), not merely passively assembling a bunch of blog comments. No scholar worth his salt would regard that as actual research.
2. A pastor/theologian who oversees and ensures careful use of scripture.
Maybe someone will write that work. But Courtship in Crisis in not that work.

In the final analysis, I predict this book will find a comfortable spot on the shelves of the average Christian bookstore, alongside Osteen and Eldredge. I predict it will get rave reviews from teens and twentysomethings, egalitarians, and hands-off fathers.

I'll be over here giving thanks for my Dragon. :)