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Providence Professor Publishes Book on Marriage
2013-08-16

After teaching courses in marriage and family for over 20 years, Dr. Dennis Hiebert, Professor of Sociology at Providence University College, has published a study of the influence of Western culture on Christian conceptions of marriage. Sweet Surrender: How Cultural Mandates Shape Christian Marriage arrived in bookstores in July. “In our increasingly post-Christian society, most Christians think that their values of marriage are ever more counter-cultural,” says Hiebert. “But when we look at what contemporary Christians claim to be the essential biblical ingredients of marriage in light of historic shifts in Western culture, we see how much a product of culture those beliefs really are.”

Hiebert is not writing as one scholar to other scholars, but as a scholar seeking to bring the insights of his academic discipline to the average thoughtful reader, assuming they have no background in sociology. Nor is the book what many perceive sociology to be, full of social statistics. It is instead a rich mix of social history, social theory, and social ethics, grounded in a fresh reading of the biblical text regarding marriage. What sets the book apart is that, instead of beginning with biblical interpretation or counseling psychology and being another Christian handbook on marriage that mistakes the Bible as a marriage manual, it is a thoroughgoing Christian critique of culture.

Hiebert’s thesis is that contemporary Western Christians have sweetly surrendered to culture regarding what marriage ought to be. They have taken their cultural imperatives and interpreted the Bible to be teaching the same values and practises as culture teaches. They have unknowingly and therefore uncritically adopted cultural values and practises as biblical, turning cultural conformity into a Christian virtue. Though some of these values and practises have positive effects, others are neutral, and many are unhealthy for both individuals and society.

In particular, Hiebert examines ten cultural mandates of marriage, including the method of mate selection, the social connectedness of marriages, the primacy of marriage as a calling, the personal need-fulfillment of spouses, the character of love, the goal of intimacy, the dynamics of sex, the problem of conflict, the causes of divorce, and the nature of commitment. In each dimension, Christians may still want to comply with cultural values and practises because of the great challenges of truly living counter-culturally, but they best not mistake those values and practises as originally or solely biblical.

In his conclusions, Hiebert writes that “current Christian definitions of successful marriage are excessively restrictive, anxiety-producing, and counter-productive for average Christians, the large majority of whom are tormented by the ideals that tyrannize them, and by the all-too-common disjunction between how they view marriage and how they experience it.” The primary benefit of coming to greater cultural awareness about marriage is that Christians are liberated from expectations that in truth are not biblical, but merely cultural.

Early reviews of Hiebert’s contribution are generous in praise. Other Christian scholars have assessed it as “courageous and intelligent,” “insightful, timely, and strongly recommended,” and “a provoking challenge and corrective.” One reviewer on Amazon described it as “a refreshing dose of articulate, prophetic truth. . . a bracing antidote to soft-headed silliness. . . thick with sober wisdom and serious research.” Another reviewer who has counseled hundreds of couples over 40 years writes that it clarified “the concept and meaning of marriage better than any book I have ever read.”

A book for Christians who are ready to rethink their assumptions about marriage, Sweet Surrender is available from Christian bookstores and Amazon.ca.

 
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