This is a rare, and very special book. Before reading it, having followed Treweek on Twitter for a while (Which I’d recommend, and other platforms too), I was fairly sure I’d be in agreement with what she’d have to say, but I was blown away with the calm, confident how of what she says in this book. It is worth noting that I’m a reader who is male, and has been married for more than 11 years at the time of writing. I’ve got single friends and some relatives, who I value deeply, and respect – but I came to this book as someone seeking to better understand, love and support them, rather than looking for something to disagree with.
I’m also someone who believes that the purpose of sex, relationships and intimacy is ultimately to point us towards Jesus, and that marriage is not a step on the road to sanctification, but rather one of two ways to rightly live in the light of God’s creation and Christ’s call to discipleship. Treweek things that too, I think, and her book shows us why singleness, despite being obviously in some ways different to marriage, is not less than marriage, and married people are of no more value than single people. At times, I felt challenged to consider how, as a married man, I could better honour, celebrate and affirm the validity of singleness, chosen or unchosen – a challenge that will sit with me for a while.
Treweek’s book is based on her doctoral work, and is a relatively academic book – though she writes well and it is not as dense or dull as some PhD theses I’ve read. Indeed, the reworking of that project into this has given the church a book that brings deep biblical-theological reflection to bear on a topic which has big pastoral and personal implications. After a brief preface and introduction (the latter just 6 pages), Trewweek divides her book into four parts – ‘The Context of Singleness’, ‘The Diagnosis of Singleness’, ‘The Retrieval of Singleness’ and ‘The Meaning of Singleness’. These are supported by footnotes (yay, not endnotes!), a nearly 30 page bibliography (for a 315ish page book that’s a good sized one in my opinion) and General and Scripture indices.
The first part, ‘Context’, is actually one of the most practically useful – not least as it challenges various assumptions, cultural shibboleths (the primary culture in view being Christian, particularly Protestant/evangelical, Anglo-American culture) and historical misnomers. Consider this, from the close of chapter one:
“the perception of singleness as broadly deficient continues to dominate contemporary Western cultural discourse. From early modern Europe through to the contemporary West of today, the single person – and particularly the single woman – has been variously depicted as ‘an old maid, a spinster, an androgyne, a rebel, a marriage resister, sad, mad or bad, embittered, sexless, surplus, celibate, virtuous, a menace, homosexual, a bachelor woman, or an independent woman.’ Despite their being a sizable percentage of the population, secular Western societies have consistently typecast the unmarried person as ‘the other’” (p. 24).
I think it is fair to say that most of the time the church is a lot closer to that culture, than we might admit or be aware of. The subsequent chapter tracks Christian singleness since the reformation, particularly noting American evangelicalism, by the late 1970’s, denigrating singleness “while marriage and parenthood became heavily promoted as the most noble of all Christian aspirations” (p. 31).
In the second part, ‘Diagnosis, Treweek comments that “Today’s unmarried Christians are generally perceived to be lacking authentic self-actualization in the areas of love, intimacy, romance, sexual satisfaction, friendship, and even general happiness” (p. 49). Again, is the church really that different from the culture we are meant to be salt and light in, or is this ringing some slightly uncomfortable bells, dear reader? Treweek calmly and carefully unpacks each of those claims, taking apart falsehoods as the book prepares to move on to retrieval and construction. This is no progressive diatribe (Treweek is a conservative Anglican in Sydney – so I’ve deliberately not used the word ‘deconstruction’, as that is nowhere near what she is doing here, rather, it is careful analysis, before launching into careful and intelligent [whilst conservative] theological, historical and biblical work) – though in being honest and clear, several ‘big evangelical names’ and their work are brought under scrutiny. I did wince a few times, growing up as I did (And still remaining in!) a British evangelicalism that does import a lot from America, though it wouldn’t be fair to blame the USA. The second part of this second part considers the value and ‘belonging’ of singleness – two vital words, the latter very often associated with marriage and community, yet often not fully extended to singles.
The third part is fascinating – as Treweek engages with a wide range of sources and texts, thinkers and movements, to start laying out the different pieces of the puzzle around singleness. For example (And the quote within the quote here is from a Crossway book, ‘Getting Serious about Getting Married: Rethinking the GIft of Singleness’, by Debbie Maken, published in 2006 – so not ancient!), summing up on historic church teaching around virginity, Treweek writes:
“yet despite such diversity, or perhaps precisely because of it, the sustained reality of virginity as a theologically elevated construct for nearly fifteen centuries undermines any contemporary assertion that ‘virtually all of our Christian forefathers regarded protracted singleness as unbiblical and believed that young adults were under a divine duty to marry without undue delay’. Such a premise is at best naive, and at worst disingenuous. Indeed an authentic appreciation of the Christian tradition’s approach to virginity will necessarily decenter any modern assertion that the Christian church has always viewed marriage as normatively aspirational” (p. 125-126).
This is important – just because something seems like a shibboleth now (simply, that marriage is better or holier than singleness) is just that, a shibboleth now, not necessarily reflecting history, scripture, or reality. And I write that as a happily married man, committed to historic and orthodox Christian sexual ethics. This is a book that challenges in the best way – ad fontes. Drawing on Hauerwas (though not entirely, and not beholden to him), Treweek closes her third part thus: “Christian singleness (whether chosen, circumstantial, temporary, or lifelong) is embedded with intrinsic eschatological value because it is a form of discipleship undertaken within, and making a vital contribution to, the distinct eschatological community that is the Christian church, the body of Christ” (p. 214).
When I really start enjoying reading a physical book, I tend to start turning corners and making marks. I estimate that around 1/3 of the pages I’d dog-eared in The Meaning of Singleness are to be found in the final part. This fourth part – whilst remaining rigorous and thoughtful – also turns practical, and in this I feel that this book is a more useful single volume resource than, for example, Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, which stopped rather abruptly and perhaps explains the publication of his shorter Strange New World. The budget-conscious amongst us will be glad to hear that this book is a one-stop shop. You may need a second copy, though, to read with a pastor or another leader, or just to make notes in. This fourth part contains some wonderful truth, put in a way that should challenge us: “By foreshadowing and (in a limited sense) actively participating in the teleological future of an unmarried resurrected humanity, single Christians of this age are able to provide visibility of the teleological future that awaits all of God’s people in the age to come” (p. 230. This is not a threat, but a foretaste. What a radical reimagining of singleness, in tune with Scripture, hopeful yet difficult? Marriage is not ignored – “even as the relationship between husbands and wives signifies to that greater reality, those same earthly spouses cannot be said to actually and already participate in that reality” (p. 231). Or, to put it another way – there is something better than sex, and single Christians can experience a foretaste of it, now. This is not to ignore the reality of what Treweek calls a “uniquely challenging life” (p. 259), rather, “All of this is to say that singles are uniquely (though not exclusively) capable of reminding the Christian community of the true challenge of discipleship’s call” (p. 259). These are just snippets – the reality of participation in the future, and the challenge to discipleship in the present – that Treweek explores in this vital fourth part of her book.
It may seem like overkill to spend 1500 words saying essentially ‘this book is excellent, buy it and read it’, so I’ll close with some suggestions as to why different groups should read it (Bearing in mind that whilst it is readable, it is academic, referenced, and uses words like ‘teleological’, so is not going to be for everyone):
- Single people should read it, whatever the present reason for their singleness, to see that singleness is good, for the Christian, not because it is hard, but because it points to glory.
- Married people should read it, partly to break our inherent smugness about having found ‘marital success’ (an actual phrase someone referred to me by recently), but mostly to think about the many people we will know, or should know, who are single. I reckon most Christian couples will read at least one book on marriage in preparation, and one whilst married – so why not read a (this) good book on singleness too?
- Pastors should read it to inform their preaching and teaching of salient texts (not least 1 Corinthians, particularly chapter 7), their pastoral care and discipleship of single congregants, and perhaps to care better for and work better with single colleagues.
- Those bemused by the historic Christian teaching on sexuality and marriage should read this book, because it quietly, calmly and implicitly points to the reality that there is something better than sex, and his name is Jesus.