Reading the book, The Beautiful Wife, by author and speaker Sandy Ralya, whose agenda to save so-called “biblical marriage” seems a bit dubious from the start, feels like the times I’ve been asked to buckle up during a spate of turbulence on airplanes and find myself absent-mindedly checking for the barf bag in the seat in front of me (just in case I’ll need it). For a funny lampoon of “biblical marriage,” see the article I co-wrote with John Spalding here.) In some places, I find myself pleasantly surprised by the smoothness of the ride and even enjoying the views; at other junctures, my stomach turns a bit and I reach for the sick sack.
Ralya directs the marriage mentoring ministry, “Beautiful Womanhood,” which seeks in ten years’ time to halve the divorce rate in our churches. The goal is both commendable and ambitious- in places like the South, where I live, nearly one in two marriages fails (both in the church and out) with tragic ripple effects on the fabric of the society at large- and Ralya’s effort seems to be making an impact. Churches are responding. Marriages are healing.
Not surprisingly, in the same way that Ralya’s ministry focuses on women and what women can do to heal their marriages, Ralya’s book and its accompanying study guide and prayer journal are also geared for wives. The implication can in turn be that we women, as wives and mothers, bear much of the brunt for our own marital success (and, conversely, our marital failure). True to a degree, maybe, but also a bit of a canard.
Ralya at the outset rightfully acknowledges that there can be no one-size-fits-all recipe for marital satisfaction, even as she sets out her own loose rubric of sorts for how to inventory one’s marital health. Chapters organized around topics like sex, romance, self-care and, my favorite, the “professionalization” of the job of wife and mother, offer some helpful, new insights. They also survey some familiar terrain.
In certain places, Ralya’s coverage of well-glossed submission passages in Scripture leaves me pleasantly surprised. Paul’s admonition to women in his letter to Titus to “be submissive to their husbands” does not elicit an accompanying order by Ralya. Ralya takes Paul to mean here, among other things, that married women must “understand your role.” Ralya goes on to elucidate her belief in later pages that this role is a four-fold one, that of “equal partner, friend, helper and prayer warrior.”
In other places, only a little reading between the lines has me wondering if Ralya maybe secretly harbors nostalgia for the bygone era of the 1950’s, when June Cleaver of “Leave It To Beaver” encapsulated wifely perfection in her beautifully coiffed, unruffled domesticity. In a section on sex, for example, Ralya, in affirming six “God-designed” purposes (“creation of life, oneness, knowledge, pleasure, defense against temptation and comfort”), offers some indigestible views around the meaning of God’s call in Genesis to “be fruitful and multiply.” She appeals both to our fears and to our evangelistic sympathies with the following statistic released by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life- that by 2030, the Muslim population will grow twice as fast as the non-Muslim population.
“These are staggering statistics!,” Ralya writes. Maybe we should take God’s command to be fruitful and increase in number more seriously.” Ralya goes on: “As a follower of Jesus Christ, I love Muslims and want them to come to a full knowledge of Him. But who will show them the way if the Christian population dwindles by comparison?”
In other words, a growing Muslim world in which women are largely oppressed and have no voice, precisely because their only role is one of bearing children and catering to men’s every whim, becomes the basis for a challenge to Christians to have more children! This kind of reasoning is backwards in more than one sense of the term. Here the turbulence becomes a bit unbearable, and I find myself grabbing the sick bag.
In short, Ralya’s crusade to save marriages is a noble one. I applaud it. I wonder, though, if the old saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” is not at least a bit apropos here. As a mother to two children, and as a wife to a man with whom I am an equal partner, and as a woman in what is traditionally a man’s world (ordained ministry) I often find myself exclaiming at the messiness of our familial life these days; but I wouldn’t trade this in for six kids, a pristine house and a life confined to domesticity any day- even if it meant more “orderliness” and a world with more Christians than Muslims in it. Women should of course be free to make the latter decision, too, and be supported in their choice. But to prescribe this sort of thing, I fear, does the very thing that Ralya abjures- offer a recipe; and, it is a recipe that, if followed to the tee, will take us back to another age, one that I don’t want to live in.