Very Married

I’ve been invited to be on the launch team for the new Herald Press book Very Married: Field Notes on Love and Fidelity, by Katherine Willis Pershey.  Being on the team basically involves getting a free pre-release copy of the book, reading it, writing a (honest) review, and spreading the word.  The book is officially released next week, September 27, and is available for pre-order at Amazon HERE.  Here is my review.

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Very Married is a deeply personal book about a deeply personal subject.  It’s a book about marriage, but also a book about a particular marriage – that of the author and her husband.  It takes its title from a quote by Audrey Hepburn who once said, “If I get married, I want to be very married.”  The quest to be very married, despite the difficulties of marriage, is a thread that runs throughout.

The book itself grew out of an essay by Pershey, published in Christian Century magazine, titled “A long obedience.”  In the essay, Pershey tells of her relationship with “the person with whom I did not have an affair,” someone with whom she felt “the sense that we were inhabiting the same sphere of energy.”  Ten years into her fulfilling, although often times challenging, marriage, the experience of being strongly attracted to another man was a shock to her system.  She trusted her husband enough to tell him all about it.  Wounded, but appreciative of her honesty, he received the situation with grace, and their marriage was strengthened.

The piece became the most widely read of all Christian Century articles in 2015.  It shows up as chapter 9 in Very Married, right in the middle, and so the book as a whole forms something of a big hug around this chapter in Pershey’s life.

The book is personal, but it’s also remarkably comprehensive.  Pershey talks about weddings in the era of Pinterest, pre-marital sex and her involvement with the evangelical “purity” culture of the 90’s and her repeated failure to stay “pure,” depression and alcoholism, divorce, gender roles, non-traditional marriages, marriage (and sex) with children, in-laws, and, of course, the power of covenant and fidelity.  Pershey pulls in wide ranging quotes from David Brooks to Beyonce, from the Apostle Paul to Elizabeth Gilbert, from Ben Affleck to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  She fully affirms the beauty of marriage equality, but also finds favorable citations from conservative pastor Timothy Keller and a Focus on the Family article.

One of the chapters I especially appreciated is titled “When justice rolls down.”  In it, Pershey writes, “Without a doubt, this book is profoundly shaped by my social location – by the particularly pleasant field in which I make my notes and observations.”  She goes on to sketch out how social location impacts marriage, using the African American experience as an example of how a history of oppression and obliteration of the family unit continues to play out in that community.  She ends that chapter by saying, “If we want to wax poetic about the virtues and benefits of marriage, we must also advocate for policies and programs that empower people to access those virtues and benefits for themselves.”

If there’s one area Very Married fails to address, it’s the always-present role of money and finances in a marriage.  This is mentioned in passing at different points, but does not play as central a role in the narrative as it does in actual married life.  This is not a fatal flaw, but because the book so carefully covers so many different facets of marriage, I found it a noticeable and unfortunate omission.

Pershey is a writer, a wife, and a mother, but she’s also a pastor.  She frequently grounds her own experience and thoughts in the words of scripture.  I appreciate that she does not use scripture to outline “five principles for a healthy marriage,” or “how to have a biblical marriage.”  Rather, she approaches the scriptures with both reverence and a willingness to wrestle with their strangeness, cultural distance, and, at times, outright offensiveness.  She also manages to affirm the goodness of some of the traditional boundaries around sexuality and marriage, without being heavy handed or absolutist.

As a married pastor myself, someone who walks with people through marriage preparation, weddings, the daily stuff of married life, and, occasionally, divorce, I also appreciated some of the anecdotes that inspire me to be an ever more loving and thoughtful pastor.  In the chapter about her own wedding, Pershey shares the full text of a poem written by a beloved poetry teacher.  The poem begins: “No one knows the source of the splendor / that spills over us every day. / Ben and Katherine, take your dousing. / Refuse the towel./  Stay wet / When you don’t know what else / to do, bow your head.”  I also appreciated the inclusion of a lovely liturgy from the United Church of Christ called “Order for the Recognition of the End of a Marriage.”  If ever a divorcing couple in my congregation wishes to hold a ceremony for the occasion, I’m grateful to know this resource.

The greatest gift of this book is that by being deeply personal with her own marriage, Pershey welcomes the reader to do the same, either in their own marriage, or in their relationship to the institution of marriage.  Pershey models the kind of authentic engagement with the real stuff of marriage that is the necessary task of anyone who wants to become and remain very married.

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