On a sunny afternoon in New York City last week, tortured pop sensation Justin Bieber was photographed weeping as he rode a Citi Bike in the park with his new fiancée Hailey Baldwin. Biebs popped the question to the 21-year-old model daughter of actor Stephen Baldwin in July after a mere month of dating, solidifying a new trend of quickie engagements among young and beautiful celebrities. The fiances have since embarked on a scorched-earth love tour of Brooklyn—making out at a Williamsburg café, locking lips at a Greenpoint bagel shop, getting nasty in a public park. So the weeping felt like a natural progression in the public narrative of their romance—after all, every couple has their bad days. Is it any surprise that Justin Bieber—who became a teeny-bopper legend before he went through puberty, and had a very public meltdown upon reaching adulthood that included a DUI arrest for drag racing and a pet monkey that got seized by the German government—would be the type of guy to sob into his socialite fiancée’s arms in front of a horde of paparazzi?
As Justin exited Hailey’s apartment a couple days later, a paparazzo asked: “For the fans who saw pictures of you crying, can you just reassure them everything’s OK?”
“This!” Bieber shouted, shoving a dog-eared copy of The Meaning of Marriage into the camera. “You got good days and you got bad days. It’s not real if it doesn’t have any bad days!” Then he got into a black van and drove off.
So what exactly is “this”? The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God is a Christian guide to marriage written by New York City–based evangelical pastor Timothy Keller, with a chapter on marital gender roles from his wife, Kathy. As the Daily Mail summarized, the book “tells men and women to abstain from sex before marriage, suggests that wives should submit to their husbands, and depicts the Bible's view of marriage as being monogamous and heterosexual.” But aside from the predictable and antiquated Christian preachings on marriage, the book makes a broader argument for how marriage can save you and make you a complete person.
It’s not surprising that Bieber is looking to be whole. Keller repeatedly reminds the reader that humanity is “so evil and sinful and flawed that Jesus had to die for us.” Few people are more obvious sinners than Bieber: He’s been arrested five times, for egging his neighbor’s home and assault, among other things. Keller writes that “the radical self-centeredness of the sinful human heart”—something I imagine Bieber struggles with—“is the ever-present enemy of every marriage.”
Bieber frequents Hillsong, a Pentecostal megachurch that boasts attendees like Nick Jonas, Kevin Durant, and Kendall and Kylie Jenner. Hillsong is one of a handful of churches “currently catering to pop stars looking to repent for past sins,” as Allie Jones wrote in a piece about Hollywood evangelical power players for the Cut. In 2014, Bieber was baptized in an NBA player’s bathtub by a Hillsong pastor, and his public persona has only gotten more flamboyantly Christian since then. (Baldwin also attends Hillsong).
This Easter, Biebs wrote an Instagram post informing his followers, in all caps, that “Easter is not about a bunny, it’s a reminder that Jesus died on the cross for my sins,” concluding, “I am set free from bondage and shame, I am a child of the most high God and he loves me exactly where I am, how I am, for who I am.” When Bieber announced his engagement to Baldwin on Instagram, he wrote, “I promise to lead our family with honor and integrity letting Jesus through his Holy Spirit guide us in everything we do and every decision we make.”
Unlike Justin Bieber, I am neither rich nor a celebrity nor a Christian. Rather, I’m a secular New York Jew with atheist tendencies. I am godless, and I am OK with that. But like Justin Bieber, I am often haunted by my inner demons: clinical depression, general anxiety, my past humiliations, and the brutality of the modern world. I’m the same age as Bieber, 24, and this era of my life has been marked by a nagging uncertainty about who I am and who I want to become. When Bieber canceled the end of his Purpose Tour last summer due to mental health issues, he wrote:
I’m not gonna...be ashamed of my mistakes. I wanna be a man that learns from them… Me taking this time right now is saying...I want my career to be sustainable, but I also want my mind heart and soul to be sustainable.
I feel that, even though I have never had to cancel a world tour. Still, if The Meaning of Marriage can provide him with clarity, I might as well give it a try. Who knows? Maybe it can enlighten me too.
Timothy Keller begins the book writing about the decline in marriage, how young people have more negative feelings about tying the knot than previous generations—framing the issue as if marriage is somehow under attack. All those bad things people say about marriage, that so many of them end in divorce and it makes you miserable? According to Keller, you are wrong, and you are also wrong if you think marriage is just a piece of paper. He also makes the counterintuitive argument that if you live with your partner before marriage, it’s more likely that you’ll one day get divorced.
“Marriage has unique power to redeem our past and heal our self-image through love,” Keller writes. In another passage, one that feels designed to emotionally penetrate a wildly rich and famous young celebrity, Keller tells the reader, “To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God.” Perhaps in his engagement to Baldwin, the crestfallen pop star is seeking real genuine love that you can’t get from millions of anonymous fans.
I’m sitting in Williamsburg’s Domino Park, where Bieber and Baldwin were spotted making out, when I read this passage: “If you don’t see your mate’s deep flaws and weaknesses and dependencies, you’re not even in the game.” Justin Bieber’s voice starts reverberating my head, telling the pap, “It’s not real if it doesn’t have any bad days.”
I imagine Bieber scanning Keller’s immensely readable prose, drumming his fingers across one of his many Jesus tattoos, letting the grace of the lord fill his sinful heart, his eyes growing big and hopeful when Keller asserts that getting married is “part of the process of liberating the emerging ‘new you.’” The idea of becoming someone new is appealing to any troubled person. I imagine Bieber feels especially seen as he reads, “To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial... We should therefore not be surprised to find that all the money, comforts, and pleasures in the world—our efforts to re-create a paradise for ourselves—are unable to fulfill us like love can.”
The book instructs the reader (me, Bieber): Marriage will save you. Marriage will strengthen your relationship with God. But as I’m reading this in a park that is mere blocks away from Baldwin’s swanky apartment, I worry the book will give the 24-year-old engaged to his girlfriend of one month—they’re not getting married until next year—unrealistic expectations of how this relationship can save him. Don’t take it all so literally, I want to tell sweet Justin. Heed the messages of selflessness and grace, and take the rest with a grain of salt.
I hope Bieber disregards the toxic and retrograde assertion that gay Christians can’t have the same type of godly marriage that straight Christians can. I hope he brushes aside the Biblical idea wives should “submit to [their] husbands as to the Lord,” and the part of the book that says women ought to “find a husband who will truly be a servant-leader to match her as a strong helper.” I wonder what he makes of Keller’s assertion that “if you have sex outside of marriage... sex will lose its covenant-making power for you, even if you one day do get married.” (It seems unlikely that Bieber has waited until marriage to have sex.)
As a godless Jewess, much of The Meaning of Marriage mostly didn't apply to me, but some of it resonated. Much of Keller's preachings on the merits of marriage can be applied more broadly to any sort of a committed long-term relationship, although he makes it crystal clear that in order to experience these holy sorts of bonds, you must wed. But whatever. I live with my boyfriend, and we've been together for close to two years—which isn't that long, but eons compared to Bieber and Baldwin. As our relationship progresses, every day I discover a new way to deeply love him, and it feels spectacular. When Keller writes that marriage helps a couple become their "future-glory selves," he's praising the power of personal growth in a deep loving relationship, which is something I understand despite being unwed and un-Christian. Knowing this, I feel a little closer to God, or at least Justin Bieber.
I think about Justin again, gobbling up Keller's pronouncement that marriage helps you better navigate the agony of existence, that the glory of real love makes you a better person. I hope he already feels it. I hope he finds what he's looking for.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.