A friend of mine just sent me a link to a post from conservative theologian and pastor Douglas Wilson’s blog. In it, Mr. Wilson offers Christian fathers a list of twenty-one questions with which to interrogate their daughters’ prospective suitors. Questions of antiquation aside, I find Mr. Wilson’s suggestion irresponsible and the theology that underlies it troubling.
Mr. Wilson begins his post with a caveat: he doesn’t view the questions as a “wooden checklist” but sees them as merely a list of ideas to get started. Unfortunately, he provides his readership with no guidance about how these “ideas” are supposed to lead anywhere, and it is clear that most of his readers (or at least many who commented on the post) have taken his advice as a checklist, caveats aside.
The theology underlying Mr. Wilson’s questions seems to be that if one’s life is generally in order (his house is neat, his bills are paid, he has a good GPA, and he goes to church every Sunday) that he is a good man and will make a good husband. Jesus had an image to describe this kind of man: a whitened sepulchre (Matt. 23:27). As Jesus declared, the lives of such men are “beautiful,” but inside they may still be “full of greed and self-indulgence.”
Mr. Wilson’s questions do nothing to sift the wheat from the chaff and offer no way to discern what is inside the tomb. For instance, take Question 15: “If you do [have a problem with pornography], please describe the nature and extent of the problem.” This question is the most interesting because it is the only one that Mr. Wilson follows with any explanation. He cautions readers: “It is important here for fathers to distinguish between the kind of periodic struggles that a normal young man is likely to have had, and the kind of obsessive behavior that indicates much deeper problems, such as contempt for women or an addictive lack of self control. Marriage is likely to fix the first kind of ‘normal’ problem, and will only exacerbate the second kind of pathological problem.”
Marriage is likely to fix a “normal” pornography addiction? I don’t think so. First of all, I don’t think there is a line between “normal” and “obsessive” abuse of pornography. It is a matter of degree and not of kind. By calling obsessive use “pathological,” Mr. Wilson only succeeds in making us take the sin less seriously than we should.
Secondly and more importantly, Mr. Wilson has failed to recognize that, as G.K. Chesterton put it, “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.” Pornography use is not simply a symptom of misogyny or a lack of self-control; it is fundamentally a cry of despair, of loneliness, and of alienation from God and humans.
The sin here is not “sexual sin”; the sin is idolatry. Pornography users have put the “gratification of the flesh” on the pedestal where God should be and they have told themselves, “If only I can achieve this, then I will be satisfied.” This is a lie. Far from being a “fix” for this lie, marriage will only shift the idolatry to other objects.
Rather than providing his readers with guidance to discern the (false) difference between “normal” and “obsessive” pornography use, Mr. Wilson would provide wiser counsel by suggesting that his readers ask “Why?” Through a bit of sound counseling, the answer to this question (which should also be asked in follow up to all of Mr. Wilson’s other questions) might actually lead to spiritual transformation. In the short term, it might also serve to discern the true state of his interviewee’s spiritual life.
The theology behind Mr. Wilson’s questions is as commendable as the recommendation that a cancer victim treat his illness with pain relievers; it’s malpractice. This patient will die, and so will any Christian who fails to address the root of his sin and instead treats only the symptoms. As Jesus himself warned, the man who merely tidies his life without filling it with the Spirit will only multiply his sins (Matt. 12:43-45).
I would suggest that a better set of questions (presuming, arguendo, that this whole courtship ritual is a good idea) would strive to answer the questions, “How big is God in your life?” and “How small is everything else?” These two questions are at the heart of the greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). The answer to them, garnered through more wisely-phrased questions, might actually tell a father something about his prospective son-in-law that couldn’t be learned from reading his resume.
Notably absent from Mr. Wilson’s list is any question that would indicate how his interviewee views his money or his possessions. This oversight is consistent with a Christian theology that seems to overemphasize performance while underemphasizing spiritual transformation. In fact, Jesus himself points out that the filth of the Pharisees is their greed and their self-indulgence. They have placed themselves and their petty desires in the place of true worship, which means love of God and corresponding love of neighbor. A man who gives freely and generously to his neighbors in need while holding back little for himself is far more likely to be a good bridegroom than one who hoards his possessions yet has a good GPA, is a hard worker, and has never had sex before marriage. The first man has understood more clearly the call of Jesus.