Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Book review

I'm not going to try to talk about everything - I still have work to get done this afternoon, in the form of writing up this week's assignment (yay for a job! - more on that later). Instead, I'm going to start by doing a book review, something I intend to start doing on here every so often. My general approach is going to be as follows: Describe the book, then discuss its author(s)'s style, then discuss the general merits and demerits of the book, concluding with my overall impression and recommendation regarding it.

I just finished reading a book called Boundaries in Dating, by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend. The subtitle is "Making Dating Work." I think it's probably a fitting subtitle for the book. The book follows a fairly methodical progression of looking at boundaries regarding dating in different areas - for the reader, for who the reader should date, and for problems - when the reader is the problem, and when the person they're dating is. Each section has four or five chapters, dealing with specific areas in which boundaries need to be set, and the chapters themselves get increasingly specific. The focus of the book is on practical issues in dating, not so much the spiritual context, though this does play a part - I'll comment more on that later.

Style-wise, the authors' backgrounds as psychologists functioning as counselors comes through clearly; the text is filled with practical advice offered succinctly and with frequent reference to their experience in counseling. Nearly every piece of advice is accompanied by - typically prefaced by - an anecdotal recollection of a situation exemplifying the boundary (or, more often, lack thereof) they are then discussing. The text is clear, and the reading kept light both by their style of prose and inclusion of prose; in many ways it feels more like a well-delivered seminar than a book, which is perhaps unsurprising given their background as cohosts of a radio program.

The merits of the book come in the form of its practical advice. Each boundary is a very good one, and the practical wisdom they give on the implementation of these boundaries is likewise good; the experience they have in dealing with these situations in real life is clear. Moreover, the authors do a good job of incorporating Scripture as the foundation for the boundaries they set, placing its value above that of common sense (though they make clear that common sense has plenty of value as well). However, while I found the practical advice to be overall sound, I found their underlying spiritual premises to be thoroughly unsound, and disturbingly so. They preface the book with what is essentially a rebuttal of the arguments forwarded by Joshua Harris in I Kissed Dating Goodbye. In so doing, they make clear that they missed the points Harris was trying to make, and this remains clear throughout the book. For those of you who may not have read Harris' book - and I highly recommend it to anyone, regardless of whether you're single or dating (and my mom said it's even good for married people) - I'll summarize his essential points.

Fed up with broken relationships and damagin patterns in his dating, Harris went to Scripture, and came away convinced that dating is wrong in the sense that as practiced in general, it reflects a fundamentally self-centered attitude. He's not in any way against the idea of "dating," but rather rejects the notion of doing things the way the world (and unfortunately, most Christians) does it: focusing on self. Harris himself "dated," so to speak, in pursuit of his wife, but did so in rather unconventional ways (most people of Harris' mindset are calling it courtship, but he rightly notes in another volume that the name is irrelevant; the mindset matters).

Back to Boundaries in Dating - the authors apparently (wrongly) came away from Harris' book with the impression that he was rejecting dating in any way, and missed the fact that he was rejecting a methodology of dating, not the concept of going on dates. The authors argue that dating without the end goal of marriage to the person you're dating is not only alright, but in many cases desireable as a way to grow yourself. (Note the use of "self" there at the end, it's a common theme.) While I understand their argument on this point, I find that every example they offer of such growth can be equally well-accomplished in the context of friendship alone - and without the emotional (and often physical) intimacy of dating. In fact, of the seven points they forward as reasons to date (in their preface), all can quite easily be met in the context of friendship. Moreover, as one particular example from the sixth point makes clear, the only reason to date (instead of remaining friends) when marriage is not the goal is self-gratification (I doubt the authors are aware of this - more on that in the conclusion). Their sixth point is summed up in the final paragraph as follows:

Dating gives people a context to meet and spend time with a wide variety of people. They can find out what they like what they need, and what is good for them.

Again, all of those things can be easily accomplished through strong friendships. But the bigger problem here lies in the fact that those should be the motivations for dating. Dating is not about finding what we want, or meeting our own needs. It's about pursuing God's will to see if the person we're pursuing is the one He wills for us to marry so as to serve Him and His purpose. Moreover, in the context of dating, we shouldn't be looking to meet our own needs, but laying ourselves down as servants to the person we're dating. This flaw in the authors' mindset is clear throughout the book; even the good advice they give is damaged by this underlying issue; in nearly every chapter at some point the good advice is temporarily sidetracked by this attitude and some advice is given that, while not necessarily horrible, is hardly the best. For example, in their chapter on physical boundaries, the only boundary they advocate is "no sex" - other than that, whatever you're comfortable with. The root of this argument comes from the flawed idea that dating is about self - they even note that there should be gratification of sexual desire in dating. The problem isn't that there ought to be an overall concern for purity, according to them, it's that people need to respect when each other have different boundaries - on which latter point they're not incorrect, but in missing the former they miss the more important point, and a more important boundary. In their conclusion, the authors list six points to consider about dating. One of them is focused on the person we're to marry; the rest are all focused on self-gratification. This is the only demerit to the book.

Overall, I find I can't really recommend the book. The spiritual issue here simply outweighs the good of the practical advice for most purposes. I must note here that I don't think the authors had any intent of promoting selfishness. What they did do, however, was defend the way people date right now, and because that pattern has come from the fallen world, it's flawed. The world approaches dating with a "how can I gratify my desires?" approach, and this book only modifies the question a little, to "How can I gratify my desires safely?" I'm sure the authors had no such intent, as their heart to honor God in the book comes through clearly, but as Harris notes in I Kissed Dating Goodbye, that's just the wrong question to be asking. The book may be useful if you have already established clear spiritual understanding of what dating/courtship ought to look like, in that there is some very good advice in it. If, however, you have yet to clarify those matters in your heart - if you're not yet committed to the idea that dating is for the one purpose of deepening a friendship toward marriage (not that youc an't date more than one person, but it should always be with that end goal in mind) - then I'd advise you to avoid this one for now; and in fact that'd be my advice in general. There are other better books on the topic, including Harris' Boy Meets Girl.

Now it's off to my other writing work... I'll be back either tonight or tomorrow night with an update on some of the other things I've been thinking. Our Lord's blessing to all of you!

- Chris

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