A BOOK REPORT
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SINGLENESS
(Baker Academic, 2018)
CHRISTINA S. HITCHCOCK
A review by Brett Best
THE BOTTOM LINE
According to the subtitle, Hitchcock’s book promises to be “A Theological Vision for the Future of the Church.” It does not deliver on that promise. Instead, it is an overreaction to the “marriage mandate movement” in evangelical Christianity. The author is not content to set singleness and marriage on a level playing field but seeks to tip the balance to the assumption that singleness is an inherently more spiritual situation. (Full disclosure: she is married with children.)
IN THE AUTHOR’S OWN WORDS – STATEMENTS OF THESIS
Characterizing the usual evangelical position she wrote, “Thus marriage presents both an appealing lifestyle and a powerful picture of who God is and what he is doing while singleness does neither.” (p. 7)
“Singleness is a sign not of loneliness but of perfected community.” (p. 33)
“Although Protestants do not consider marriage to be a sacrament, many still treat it as if it were one.” (p. 78)
“The true ground of authority in the church is always God and the gifting of the Holy Spirit. This direct link to Christ through the Holy Spirit is made clearer in single people than in married people because single people have fewer natural relations to whom we might attribute their authority. The church needs single people to remind us that our own commissioner is God.” (p. 124)
BY THE BOOK – MY REACTIONS TO CHAPTERS
The introduction oversells the purpose of the book, devoting too much attention to the author’s personal life. It’s better skipped, unless the reader has an interest in the author’s situation or curiosity about why the author feels this book “had to be written.” As will be characteristic throughout the book, the author resorts to assertions of opinion as fact, stereotyping Evangelicalism, and unsubstantiated assertions of how the Church has “punted” on the subject of singleness.
1 = “WHY SINGLENESS?”
Attempting to cure what the author identifies as a widespread, deep and long-standing bias against singleness, Hitchcock wields an uncritically assumed generalization as fact: that the Church (especially the Evangelical branch) has adopted the culture’s view of sexuality as a means of achieving maturity, even personhood. This charge will be levied often in the book. It’s ironic that liberal Christians consume and even champion our culture’s permissive view of sexuality but in these pages conservative Christians are accused of doing the same thing.
Hitchcock asserts that an exaltation of singleness as inherently more spiritual will open all kinds of doors, helping the Church better deal with all sexuality issues. To Hitchcock this is apparently self-evident as nothing resembling proof or explaining the points of such a process is offered.
What she calls the Marriage Mandate is the bogeyman. It serves the author as a handy straw dog that she knocks over repeatedly instead of substantiating exactly how sanctifying singleness is going put the Church in a better state.
I wonder if the author is not guilty of over-correcting. If she sought balance instead of making the same error on the side of singleness as she alleges the Church has made on the side of marriage, the whole would be more palatable. As it is, the author offers hand-wringing and complaint in excess and little vision or practicable action.
2 = “MACRINA (SINGLENESS AND COMMUNITY)”
The life of St. Macrina serves the author as an excellent example of the principles she wants to will in to existence, but I wonder at the historicity of the accounts she cites. Macrina’s story may be exemplary, but are the sources reliable enough to cite as proofs?
Hitchcock’s thinking is binary; either singleness or marriage must be exalted as “the” spiritual condition? The more logical assumption would be that neither state is inherently more spiritual, they are simply different. Each status carries advantages and disadvantages. Why rely on “either…or” thinking to prop up pedagogy exalting singleness?
The idea of “updating” the Creation Mandate to reflect all of biblical revelation is good, but it is only explored as it supports Hitchcock’s thesis. That notion should be treated with the same skepticism that is needed when the Left talks about the US Constitution as a “living document,” which serves as an excuse for putting modern words in the mouths of the Founders.
3 = “PERPETUA (SINGLENESS AND IDENTITY)”
This chapter starts with the bare facts of Perpetua as a first century martyr who had an infant child at the time of her death. To that the author adds speculation that suits her thesis. It becomes a tangential discourse on the practice of baptism in the early church. The relevance of the baptism study is Hitchcock’s assertion that baptism establishes a new Christian identity. Because the father of Perpetua’s child is unnamed, Perpetua’s assumed baptism cements her identity as a single person. This is an example of the forced, tortured “logic” that pervades the book. Repeatedly asserting things as true does not make them true.
The chapter has so little to do with the topic of singleness I wonder why the author worked so hard to shoehorn it in. It is the most obvious example of bending evidence and rhetoric to prop up her thesis. In each of the three “historical” chapters I see the usual postmodern assumption that narrative trumps rhetoric. In this case, the narrative has been tweaked to make it better suit the thesis.
4 = “LOTTIE MOON (SINGLENESS AND AUTHORITY)”
Hitchcock offers Lottie Moon and the success of her Chinese mission as proof that singleness is the preferred qualification for ministry. Had Hitchcock ever offered her assertions with some qualification such as “in some situations,” one might find more agreement. As it is, anecdotes are not evidence, narrative does not trump rhetoric (it merely illustrates it), and one does not achieve correction by offering the opposite in exactly the same position/proportion as the problem.
In this chapter, the author’s point about Miss Moon’s career is held until the last page. This is a suspect practice, deferring scrutiny.
Lottie Moon is the most verifiable of the three narratives and Hitchcock does a good job of demonstrating that she was an exceptional person. However, that cuts both ways; her exceptionality logically argues against making her experience the basis of the generalities Hitchcock endorses in this book. Clearly, not every single person is going to duplicate Lottie Moon’s influence and success.
5 = “HOW SINGLENESS CAN SHAPE US INTO BETTER THEOLOGIANS”
The final chapter is the weakest. Hitchcock’s hand-wringing over Evangelical “idolizing” of marriage is offered as reason enough to swap the two-person idol for the single person idol the author proposes. The empty promise that singleness is inherently more spiritual is not logical or biblical. Hitchcock has not provided us with a vision – theological or otherwise.
Apart from the shoehorned section on first century baptism practices, there is little of value here. The book is a journal article that has been inflated to fill 100+ pages. While there is much to criticize about the American Church’s treatment of the subject of marriage, there is nothing practical and little theological value in Hitchcock’s treatment of the subject. A more nuanced view seeing marriage and singleness as both having potential and pitfalls would be more logical and more biblical, and therefore, more helpful. We ought to seek ways to honor and support persons who seek God within their marital status, whatever it may be. For what it’s worth, my advice is to avoid spending any time on The Significance of Singleness.