A Review of Sweet Surrender by Dennis Hiebert (Cascade, 2013)
by Carolyn J. Mackie
A swift, cursory glance at the cover of Canadian sociologist Dennis Hiebert’s book about Christian marriage could have been enough to make me blanche and turn away. To a single, 30-something, feminist Christian like myself, a patriarchal title like Sweet Surrender, coupled with a saccharine image of a white picket fence, would normally indicate that, for me, the book in question qualifies only as a hate-read. In fact, it may have been just this sort of raging impulse which led me to pick up the book and take a closer look – and discover to my surprise and delight that, rather than advocating feminine surrender to male dominance, Hiebert’s title is a hugely ironic jab at the ways in which Christians have surrendered to cultural norms in our conceptions of marriage.
It seems like the book couldn’t come at a better time. The question of what marriage really is has come to the fore in the last few years, as state, church, and society alike have been forced to reconsider their respective answers to this question. Whether the response is retrenchment to established ideals or movement toward a change in the essentials of marriage’s definition, the question itself, and the difficulties we have had in answering it, point to an ambiguity in our collective understanding of an institution that many would still consider to be a vital constituent of our social fabric.
When we make the question more particular – what is Christian marriage? – our task is not necessarily any easier. And Hiebert’s contribution is, blessedly, to complicate the task, rather than simplify it. Hiebert walks his reader through ten “cultural mandates” related to marriage, asking questions such as, “Should marital parners select each other?’, “Should marriage be a separate social unit?”, and “Should the goal of marriage be intimacy?” In response to each question, Hiebert makes explicit those cultural mandates which have shaped and continue to shape Western conceptions of marriage and relationships, yet which are so ingrained in our collective consciousness that they often remain unnoticed and unchallenged. He then considers responses that Christians offer to these same questions, and finally, considers what Scripture might have to say. In most cases, Hiebert discovers that, while Christians may claim to have a biblical understanding of Christian marriage, we are most often merely conforming – surrendering – to the narrative of the culture we find ourselves in.
Hiebert is careful and incisive in his investigation, not shying away from challenging either the claims of secular romantic culture or those of contemporary Western Christendom’s love gurus. Hiebert is a sociologist, not a theologian or a Biblical scholar, and readers should not expect a constructive theology of marriage or a depiction of what Christian marriage should look like. However, he does offer a much-needed contribution to the marriage debates, as well as to individuals who are interested in the meaning of marriage for personal, relational reasons. Hiebert’s gift is that of asking the right questions and challenging us to think about what we are saying and doing. We are not so counter-cultural as we think we are – or as we should be.