Couples' Devotional Bible
Zondervan, 1472 pp.

Grace for the Moment
By Max Lucado
J. Countryman, 398 pp.

Joy Breaks for Couples
Edited by Dr. Larry & Rachel Crabb, Paul & Nicole Johnson, Dr. Kevin Leman, Drs. Les & Leslie Parrott, Gary Smalley, Becky & Roger Tirabassi, Dr. Neil Clark Warren
Zondervan, 220 pp.

Evangelical Christians report more happiness in marriage and more satisfaction with their sex lives than any other group in the United States. Three recent books--the "Couples' Devotional Bible," "Joy Breaks for Couples," and Max Lucado's "Grace for the Moment"--try to connect domestic bliss with spiritual development.

Very different in approach, all of these books contribute to the modern evangelical affirmation of marriage and sex. For centuries, sex has provided Christians with great controversy. Evangelicals since John Wesley have held that grace can make all things pure, battling the Protestant suspicion of the body and Catholics' exaltation of celibacy. In the 1950s and '60s, sex researchers like Alfred Kinsey and the team of Masters and Johnson found correlations between faith of all sorts and sexual dysfunction. Then came the '70s, when Jesus People got the Spirit, Marabel Morgan wrote that sex was as clean as eating cottage cheese, and preachers like Josh McDowell of Campus Crusade for Christ and Tim LaHaye of the Moral Majority told couples to "put Jesus Christ at the center of their sex life."

By 1975, a Redbook magazine survey found 74% of strongly religious married women were having orgasm in sex, as opposed to 62% of the non-religious. Tim LaHaye made stronger claims for "spirit-filled," or Pentecostal, Christians, and studies from the '90s have continued the trend. Today, many of those who see the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit not only avoid misusing sex but also seek the power of God in sexual life and in building their families. These books reflect that new consensus.

The "Couples' Devotional Bible" brings together Bible verses (using the New International Version) with devotional passages from 143 evangelicals, ranging from Dale Evans (wife of TV cowboy Roy Rogers) to Frank Peretti (author of "This Present Darkness" and other best-selling novels of spiritual warfare). Couples who follow the book's plan can read the Bible text and a useful devotion for each day of the week, with questions and activities for weekends and a subject index on topics from adultery to finances to sex to work.

Unfortunately, the devotions do little to help readers understand biblical perspectives on marriage itself. Take Proverbs 31, which praises the wife who "considers a field and buys it," then "plants a vineyard." This woman is also celebrated for helping the poor, selling her goods to merchants, and having a strong arm. There's plenty in the chapter that could point beyond stereotypes of women's work and provoke a couple's discussion of what strengths to value in each other. Instead, this book quotes Proverbs 31:12, which cautions that the noble wife brings "good, not harm" to her husband and argues that no one is good but God.

Similar opportunities to discuss forgiveness after adultery (see the prophet Hosea, or Christ's words about the woman who is nearly stoned in John's gospel) are missed. The editors also pass by the core of I Corinthians 7, wherein Paul discusses abstinence from sex and whether Christians should marry, in favor of a meditation on unselfishness. After the Genesis story of Jacob working seven years to marry Rachel, then being tricked into marrying Leah, and the struggles of both women to have children, a devotion discusses the presence of God without a word about marriage.

This isn't to say "The Couples' Devotional Bible" wouldn't make a great gift to give your spouse or a couple you know. But be warned that the title is misleading: The book's strength is in presenting positive thinking and coping techniques with a biblical background, not helping people find wisdom in the Bible.

"Joy Breaks for Couples" gives its advice through stories and prayers by 11 marriage counselors, eight of whom are married to each other. Some of this advice seems childish--Les and Leslie Parrott praise laughter by describing how they disrupted a serious play when he took a withered banana from his coat and laid it on her knee. Dr. Kevin Leman sounds old-fashioned when commending women to become more "assertive and aggressive" by dressing in Saran Wrap for their husbands.

Often, these authors seem too involved in the counseling process, mixing their families with their business. "Write a mission statement for your marriage," urges Nicole Johnson. During a marriage seminar that Gary Smalley was running in Hawaii, he tore the covers from his wife's bed at 5:30 a.m. because he felt "inspired to work on our marriage goals for the upcoming year."

But "Joy Breaks" has useful advice on communication, and the couples do tell some moving stories. The book acknowledges changes in gender roles, including working mothers and husbands who stay home with children. But there's less joy here than earnestness. For the authors of "Joy Breaks for Couples," marriage means an exercise program for two.

In contrast to the upbeat "Joy Breaks," Max Lucado's "Grace for the Moment" tells readers to "make major decisions in a cemetery." A collection of readings from Lucado's books arranged for every day in a year, "Grace for the Moment" might interest couples who already know Lucado, or who enjoy discussing theology. From his base at the Oak Hills Church of Christ in San Antonio, Texas, where he preaches to 1,200 every Sunday, Lucado has become a force among the Third Wave of evangelicals and Pentecostals that includes the Promise Keepers, Pat Robertson, Bill Bright, Robert Schuller, and the Vineyard movement. He has written at least 15 books, which have been anthologized and repackaged in more than a hundred forms. Drawing fire from within and outside his denomination, Lucado sees Jesus working in many churches. He explicitly subordinates doctrine to experience, letter to spirit.

Lucado, the most original spirit in these devotionals, is not for the faint-hearted. A dozen of these meditations dwell on hell; one presents prayer and worship as "cannons" fired on the enemy. When Lucado considers that despite our purposes and plans, without God "we are flotsam in the universe," he bridges a gap between evangelicals, neo-orthodox Christians, and the Buddhist idea of insubstantiality. Invoking the infinite desire that finds rest only in God, Lucado echoes Augustine. But Lucado sometimes lets sentimentality creep in, as when he sees God as a middle-class father putting a child to bed. The best selections set human families against eternity.

Any of these books could help couples, but for most marrieds, the Bible remains the best value.

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