Published by IVP Academic on May 9, 2023
Genres: Academic, Non-Fiction, Christian Life, Theology
Is Christian singleness a burden to be endured or a God-ordained vocation? Might singleness here and now give the church a glimpse of God's heavenly promises?
Dani Treweek offers biblical, historical, cultural, and theological reflections to retrieve a theology of singleness for the church today. Drawing upon both ancient and contemporary theologians, including Augustine, Ælfric of Eynsham, John Paul II, and Stanley Hauerwas, she contends not only that singleness has served an important role throughout the church's history, but that single Christians present the church with a foretaste of the eschatological reality that awaits all of God's people.
Far from being a burden, then, Christian singleness is among the highest vocations of the faith.
This book came out months ago, and I should have already reviewed it, but it took me forever to get through it. This is partly due to personal matters, but also because the book is extremely academic and dense. Because there are comparatively few books about singleness that focus on the value and merits of this state, rather than just giving dating advice or encouragement for coping, this book will appeal to average Christian laypeople, not just to scholars and theologians, but it cannot speak to a popular audience effectively. This book is extremely high-level and dense, and I would only recommend it to academics.
I read hundreds of books every year, including many academic titles, and I found it very difficult to follow this. The author writes in a stuffy, convoluted way, making even simple, straightforward points in complicated language. This critique applies to academic writing generally, but I found it especially egregious here, with sentences like this one: “The perceived inadequacy of singleness’s defining characteristics is also explicated by an assumed dearth of fulfillment as being indigenous to that life.” That kind of tortured phrasing is completely unnecessary, even for academic contexts.
Despite that, The Meaning of Singleness starts out strong, with a careful, nuanced exploration of singleness in history and how people have viewed singleness in different eras. I was already familiar with a lot of these themes, since I had picked them up from other historical studies, but it was helpful to see it all synthesized in one place, and this material will be new to many readers. There’s a lot of depth here, as Treweek explores how social and cultural changes have altered people’s concepts of singleness over generations. She also works on defining singleness today, exploring data and cultural perceptions related to the many different ways you can define this term.
After this, Treweek explores negative sentiments surrounding singleness in the contemporary church. She quotes from mainstream, generally accepted sources and some more extreme ones, unpacking the assumptions behind teaching that denigrates singleness and focuses on marriage to an unhealthy, idolatrous degree. Much of what she says resonates with general cultural critique that I’ve been hearing for about fifteen years, but she takes a particularly in-depth approach to the topic, and her systematic, thorough exploration can enlighten some readers and be a useful jumping-off point for further research.
However, I also felt that she quoted some things unfairly and out of context, like when she takes something positive that Tim Keller wrote about marriage as a negative statement about singleness, without exploring what he actually wrote about singleness. I also wished that she had done more to acknowledge the kernel of truth in some of the critiques about singleness that she unpacked here. She sometimes did this, but she also made sweeping statements at times that I thought misrepresented average people’s positions. This book could better persuade skeptical audiences if Treweek had further acknowledged the partial validity to some of the ideas she critiqued.
Next, Treweek focuses on retrieving a better vision for singleness from church history. I ended up finding this section frustrating, because she had made all these lofty claims about reclaiming a profound vision from the past, but the past views are just from the opposite extreme, with people considering virginity to be a superior state and devaluing marriage. Treweek draws out theological ideas from this that have value and relevant application for today, but she also spends a great deal of time exploring extreme views and additional beliefs that have no basis in Scripture. On that note, only a small section of the book actually deals with biblical teaching, and this is mostly a cultural and historical survey of the beliefs Christians have ended up with, biblical or not.
I was already aware that many historic Christians idolized virginity as a spiritually superior state, devaluing the sexual union of marriage as only necessary for procreation, and only necessary for people who didn’t have the strength of character to remain celibate. Treweek doesn’t sign on with this extremely dim view of marriage, but she keeps emphasizing that we need to recover treasures from this history, and I was like, “What treasures? I just see a different unhealthy extreme, creating a different problematic hierarchy in the church.” Of course, Treweek acknowledges harmful elements of these historic beliefs, but because she knows how foreign and shocking they will be for most of her readers, her primary effort is to make them seem plausible.
The study in contrasts is helpful, and Treweek draws out some beneficial ideas from historic beliefs. For example, she highlights how the lives of single Christians signify the future state of all believers in heaven, where we will not be married or given in marriage, and she explores how the single life can testify to the adequacy of Christ and the community of the church for human fulfillment. However, the good beliefs and takeaway points that she highlights here could have been a blog post. As a whole, this book is a thorough academic treatise, with great value to the academy and very little value for ordinary churchgoers.
The Meaning of Singleness: Retrieving an Eschatological Vision for the Contemporary Church is academically rich and full of insight, and Treweek shares a lot of information here that many readers won’t be familiar with, but this is mainly for academics, not for Christians who want to enrich their lives or their church communities with practical insights or new ways of seeing singleness. Certainly, there are helpful ideas here that are relevant to all Christians, but the same fundamental concepts are available elsewhere at a popular reading level, without pages and pages of abstract, convoluted language and in-depth, academic breakdowns of esoteric concepts.