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Family Ministries Book on Marriage, Sex Inhabits Known Universe, Made-Up Universe


There’s a new book out on Love, Marriage and Sex from the Adventist Church’s Family Ministries Department that occupies the space between this universe and an alternate universe that exists in the Adventist psyche.

Among the undramatic business sessions at this year’s General Conference Spring Meeting (the last stop before San Antonio for the General Conference Executive Committee), various denominational departments unveiled their latest projects and products.

I sat in the back of the GC auditorium creating a fairly banal tweetstorm on the Twitter when a book plopped down on the table in front of me: “Real Family Talk,” by Willie and Elaine Oliver, the couple behind the GC Family Ministries Department, with the Pacific Press imprint on the back cover. I scooted the book over into my growing pile of GC swag—bookmarks, phone chargers, magazines—a small treasure trove of Adventist promotional materials.

After Spring Meeting, back home in Southern California’s droughtlands, I unpacked my travel bag and “Real Family Talk” fell out. Willie and Elaine grinned at me from my livingroom floor.

“Answers to Questions About Love, Marriage and Sex,” said the subtitle, full of mild intrigue. Who doesn’t want to know what Willie and Elaine Oliver have to say about sex, I thought.

The Olivers share some impressive degrees between them—Willie’s PhD in family sociology and Elaine’s Master’s in counseling psych with a PhD in psychology in the works. So it seemed reasonable to have high expectations.

In a question and answer format, the book covers a lot of ground, and touches some very important topics.

Some important questions also go (accidentally) unaddressed. One important lead, “Is divorce an option,” sits atop a discussion of a wife whose husband doesn’t like it when she answers the phone during mealtime. After rereading the section three times to make sure I wasn’t missing something, I decided an editing hiccup (I know about those!) must have placed the header above the wrong section. There was nothing in the paragraph about divorce. Whatever happened there, is divorce an option in Adventism? The answer to the question matters a lot.

A subsequent question in the section on domestic abuse mentions the possibility of divorce specifically in this context, but the answer skirts the issue entirely. The Olivers helpfully offer resources for getting away from abuse and finding safe places. But the divorce question? “Trust God to lead you and to help put your family back together” (pg. 103).

Adventists have had a hard time with the topic, and a nuanced discussion of circumstances that make divorce not only permissible, but also necessary, would be tremendously helpful in a culture that can inadvertently reinforce abusive relationships and needlessly guilt divorcees. Maybe the next print run will sort that topic out.

Some helpful tidbits:
It’s not necessarily a problem to become romantically involved with a woman fourteen years older than you, so long as it’s not just about this “postmodern” obsession with “cougars” (they didn’t use this word, though I kind of wish they had).  Just keep in mind that brain development increases with age, etc., they advise.

Physical, verbal, and emotional abuse is never justified, and it affects men as well as women (the Olivers suggest research indicates 95% of domestic abuse is perpetrated by men against women).

When talking with your teen whom you suspect is trying alcohol, stay calm, factual and non-judgmental. Don’t lecture.

Girlfriend doesn’t want to change her surname to yours, and it’s making you have second thoughts about marrying her? “I shudder to think that I may have given up such a significantly blessed experience (being married to my wife) because of a decision based on a patriarchal tradition of viewing women—consciously or unconsciously—as personal property,” Willie writes (pg. 57).

Less helpful tidbits:
Women in this book nag. Husbands don’t nag. Wives nag.

Men in this book cheat. Wives don’t cheat. Husbands cheat.

Don’t date around. It’s intimacy without commitment, which is bad.

Teen sexuality = the idea that one can have oral sex and still be a virgin. Trusted adults should talk to teens about this so teens don’t get warped ideas about sex as adults. The Bible says get married before having sex. Other sex is bad.

My kids are making crappy choices. Are my prayers even doing anything? Answer? Prayer changes circumstances and changes us. So pray without ceasing, mmkay?

Somewhere in Between:
As an African-American parent, how should I address issues of race with my kids in racist America? Answer? Raise kids within the parameters of loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. The way we talk about people in private shapes public behaviour. Also, trust God, and we’ll pray for you.

Most of this book inhabits the known universe in which marriages are tough, teenagers do teenagery things, and communication is difficult but necessary to healthy relationships. And most of the advice is solid, if a little dry. It’s the kind of sensible, middle of the road, Bible-based counsel James Dobson used to give before he got all political.

But another portion of the book inhabits an alternate universe created by Adventists, which runs contrary to the real universe. In the real universe (the one that Adventists would rather not inhabit), teenagers sometimes have sex and it doesn’t screw them up for life. In this universe, kids, parents, siblings, friends turn out to be gay. Or transgender. Or even intersex. In the universe that Adventists avoid, divorce sometimes is as important as marital counseling. Sometimes people drink alcohol, and their lives are not ruined. Sometimes, prayer doesn’t work. And sometimes, cohabitation works out great.

I’ve been Adventist long enough to know why a publication from a GC department can’t acknowledge some of these realities of this universe. I get it. The problem is that when our advice ignores reality, and people are able to see for themselves that reality is being ignored, it undercuts the church’s message. It makes the church less relevant. And the under-30 crowd in the church, more than anyone else, doesn’t have time for a version of reality that ignores any part of reality. That is real family talk.


Jared Wright is Managing Editor of

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