Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997.
In Singles at the Crossroads, Albert Hsu attempts to create a “practical theology of singleness.” He examines the trends of singleness in the western hemisphere in general and the United States in particular before going on to sketching a history of singleness as he understands it. Following this he takes a very careful look at the key “singleness” passages in the New Testament: 1. Corinthians 7 and 12. He gives insight into what the will of God is and debunks some of the myths that have grown up in the church about it. He also severely criticizes Christian marrieds for not treating singles as equal humans. Then he attempts to sketch the opportunities, freedoms and challenges that each single must face. He offers an alternate perspective on what romance means and concludes with a section on some of the unique temptations singles face. The final part of the book is a transcript of an interview that Hsu had with John Stott, famous English theologian and life-long bachelor.
This book was not one that I was planning to read, but as required reading programs assign and don’t ask I found myself with my nose in it and trying to follow along with what Hsu wanted to say. The best way to summarize this book is that it is a great premise that is severely twisted by the negative attitude of the author. That is why I have put it in the Poison Cabinet.
Let’s take a look at what is good in the book. The basic premise of the book is admirable and the exegesis of 1. Corinthians 7 and 12 in chapter three (“The Myth of the Gift”) and the treatment of the will of God in chapter four (“The Issue of God’s Will”) are excellent. I was uplifted and positively challenged by the thoughts and principles here and completely agree with Hsu’s statements here as they are purely biblical.
I also agree with him that the marrieds in the Evangelical church generally do not know how to deal with singles, viewing them at best as potential marriageable material and at worst as failures. And so they deal with singles in ways that actually demean the remarkable gift of singleness, trying to match-make them and get them married off, rather than allowing them to come to that in God’s good time. Now, lest I sound harsh here, I know that most happily married people want to see everyone else happily married because they have a good thing. And too many singles have been swayed by that to think that singleness is a bad thing, where it is not. The opportunities and freedoms afforded by godly singleness are as valuable as the support and nurture offered by a godly marriage.
Thirdly I have to stand beside Hsu in decrying the twisted view of romance that has snuck into the Church from Disney theology and the Hollywood crowd. Getting married is not the end-all and be-all. Otherwise we wouldn’t have contented, life-long singles like John Stott or Amy Carmichael. And if you’re not happy as a single, you won’t be happy as a married person. In my own life I have discovered that once you submit to the situation God has you in now and are content with what He has for you, then you can be happy, whether you’re married or single.
However, at this point I must get critical of Hsu, because all of this goodness that he attempts to present is strongly colored by a very negative attitude, a sort of bitterness that flows forth from the pages to poison the disposition of the reader against marriage. I cannot tell if the bitterness is due to Hsu’s discontent with being single or his anger at the Church for not treating singles as he feels they should be. Be that as it may, it is there and it was apparent not just to me but to several others, both married and single, who were reading the book, too.
There were a few other things in the book that I feel need to be severely critiqued. First of all is the view that singleness as it is practiced in the western hemisphere is fundamentally good. It is not . In my observation the singleness that is found in these cultures is not based on a godly desire to serve as the Lord sees fit, but on the tri-partite foundation of fear, selfishness, and jaded individualism. Especially American singles are more interested in the feelings of infatuation and the way they themselves feel in such a relationship. They think that the other person exists to make them happy and they fear commitment because the question, “What if someone better comes along?” is always in the back of their mind. Western singleness as it is practiced today is primarily about me, me, me. Biblical singleness is primarily about God. And thus this book misses the mark before it even begins.
The second negative thing is Hsu’s “Brief History of Singleness”, which shows a marked disdain for the God-ordained institution of marriage. The way this chapter is structured suggests that he espouses the idea that singleness is superior to marriage in that marriage is only a mandate for pagans. He quotes Jerome, seemingly approvingly, as suggesting that Christians didn’t need to procreate, but that non-Christians would provide the offspring necessary to make Christians. He seeks to soften this point of view as the chapter goes on, but to my mind fails to do so, especially in the way that he deals with the Old Testament. The tenor that comes across in his exegesis of the Old Testament is that it is somehow inferior to the New and does not need to be regarded, especially when relating to singles or resurrection. It is a fact that the New Testament cannot exist without the Old and that the resurrection hope is just as prevalent in the Old as it is in the New. For ample proof of this, read the letter to the Hebrews.
The idea that singleness is superior to marriage is as negative as the view that marriage is superior to singleness. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. Both are used of God. Blessed is the child that has Christian parents who raise her in the fear of God. Blessed is the couple that models the mystery of Christ and His Church in their marriage. And blessed is the single person who has devoted his entire life to the serving of God, even to the point of denying himself the legitimate pleasures of the spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical unity with a spouse. In this way the “History of Singleness” sets the stage for Hsu’s anger and bitterness in the rest of the book.
This could, of course, be a misunderstanding on my part, but something that to me strongly suggests a skewed view on Hsu’s (and Stott’s) part is his contention that inborn homosexual tendencies are a reason for a person to remain single. Anyone who reads the Word, especially Romans 1, will not affirm any such thing as an “inborn homosexual tendency.” That is sin, perversion of nature, and not genetically transmitted, no matter how much the Gay and Lesbian Alliance wants you to believe it. It is a responsible choice on the part of the homosexual man or woman. In this way I feel Hsu minimizes first the sin and second the free will that God has granted to choose for or against His created order.
Later on in his book Hsu argues that marriage should not be entered before the age of 25, because anyone who is younger “is not mature enough”. This, to my mind, is again a swallowing of pop culture on Hsu’s part. I have met infantile 30-year-olds and extremely mature 16-year-olds. Age is not the only mark of maturity: surrender to the Christ and His power is. Some people need to marry before the age of 25. Some should not marry at all. Some should wait. Some of the basis for Hsu’s making this statement is that your spouse supposedly will change less after 25 than before. For one this bachelor John Stott’s view from without, but I believe this is also the voice of our age speaking out in fear: what if the change will turn the “right one” into the “wrong one”? My father put it most succinctly: “Your spouse will be different at 45 than they were at 35 and again when they’re 55!” That is why marriage is a commitment “until death do us part.”
In summary I will say this: It’s good to be single and it’s good to embrace that. Hsu should be commended for his desire to express this view. The church truly needs singles who aren’t constantly moaning about their singleness, but moving forward with Christ, without looking at every other single person as a potential mate. In line with Hsu’s view, I will affirm that every person who gets married ideally should be a whole and that there is such a thing as a bad marriage entered into for the wrong reasons. But as I age I realize that romance and procreation are not the most important reasons for marriage; effectiveness for Christ is. If marrying will make you more effective, by all means do so. If not, then don’t get married.
In all of this Christian marriage is more than just two people living together and making Christian babies. It is meant to be a mirror of what the relationship between Christ and His Church. A married Christian couple has a chance to show the world what earthly marriage is meant to be, what godly parenting is, and they give the children the gift of their godliness and their parents the wonderful gift of grandchildren. If one denies these gifts when they’re offered, because “singleness is better” then one is doing the same thing that a single person does when they focus their entire being on getting married. The point is to learn to be content with where you’re at while simultaneously being willing to change when something better (for that time) comes along. And that is something I feel this book does not say.
If this book is to be read on its own, I would suggest restricting the reading to chapters three and four and ignoring the rest. If you wish to read the whole thing, be sure to balance it out with a more positive text on singleness. I would recommend the “Foreword – For Single Men and Women (and the Rest of Us)” by John Piper in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. It is precisely because of the negative attitude in these pages that I am forced to place this book in the Poison Cabinet. And while it’s not a deadly poison per se, it is dangerous enough that unqualified acceptance of what is contained within it will lead to a serious weakening of the Body.