A Review of
Altared: The True Story of a She, a He, and How They Both Got Too Worked Up About We
Claire and Eli
Reviewed by Emma Stencil
Sometimes an entirely unique book will appear on the shelves and speak movingly and perceptively on an often-overlooked issue. Altared: The True Story of a She, a He, and How They Both Got Too Worked Up About We is this sort of book. Altared is not a book about marriage or a book about being single. It is a book about loving the people around you whether they are your friends, your coworkers, your siblings, or your spouse. As such, the book doesn’t offer much practical guidance about relationships. Those looking for a bulleted list of advice on dating and marriage or on preparation for marriage in the future should look elsewhere. This is not to say that the authors, Claire and Eli, are opposed to marriage or hostile towards married or engaged couples. Nor does the book unduly elevate singleness.
What Altared aims to do is to offer a soundly Biblical commentary on a cause for concern within the church culture. It is a specific address to our times and recognizes trends within the evangelical social climate that have developed largely in reaction to an increasingly immoral secular culture. Claire and Eli are careful to avoid sweeping generalizations; this book confronts a widespread concern within the church, but the authors readily acknowledge that it will not reflect the experiences of every reader. The book relies heavily on the words and example of Christ and His followers as recorded in the Bible. Biblical quotes are frequent, extensive, and skillfully incorporated into this exploration of Christ’s teachings on love and human relationships.
The story behind the book is curious and tends to raise a few eyebrows when mentioned in a casual conversation: a boy and girl meet, pursue a romantic relationship, break up, and then write a book together on marriage and the purposeful love of one’s neighbor. Claire and Eli are real people with a real relational history, but for the purpose of writing the book have adopted pseudonyms to maintain their privacy and to, in the words of the authors, “preserve the mystery of their own story.”
Portions of the book are alternatively penned by Eli or by Claire and sometimes by the pair in collaboration. Explications of Biblical text and church teachings are presented in turn with an endearing narrative account of Claire and Eli’s relationship. Sprinkled throughout are brilliant extracts from such diverse theologians and novelists as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A.W. Tozer, Henri Nouwen, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Marilynne Robinson. Most of the couple’s history is told from Claire’s perspective and with her engaging and illustrative voice. The segments written by Eli tend towards a more dry and factual tone.
There are many examples of successful collaboration stories among literary greats. T.S. Eliot’s masterful poem “The Waste Land” benefitted from additions by Eliot’s wife Vivienne and his friend and editor, Ezra Pound, himself an accomplished writer. As the beloved American author of many short stories, Raymond Carver also worked closely with his wife Tess Gallagher to create numerous plays and screenplays. The practice of collaboration and co-writing in literature, once widely in use, has declined in our contemporary age. More often than not, writers feel possession towards the works they create and want to take credit for their stories and ideas; modern society praises this tendency towards individualism and can sometimes ignore or punish collaborative writing. In response, it should be noted that the idea of “authorship” is a relatively recent concept. Before the industrial age, works of literature were often penned with more attention to the issues being considered than to the recognition and respect of the writer. Collaboration between writers, when done skillfully and humbly, takes the focus off of the individual and makes the work more relatable for the reader. Altared provides a beautiful example of this. Although the anecdotes delivered throughout the book are very personal, they are written in such a way that the reader imagines she could be having those experiences and navigating those same concerns. While Claire and Eli’s story is true, Altared is not so much about their story but about how it speaks to us and our culture.
Represented within the book’s pages are a variety of topics ranging from loneliness to self-sacrifice to Christian discipleship, but the unifying thread that runs through this tapestry is a focus on the correct ordering of an individual’s loves. St. Augustine called this the “ordo amoris” and revered Christian theologian and fiction writer C.S. Lewis dealt with this topic at length in his dream-fantasy The Great Divorce. Claire and Eli continue this discussion in Altared, asserting that the love of one’s spouse and the desire for marriage should not be elevated above the love of God or the love of any individual in one’s life.
The concepts of marriage and the family unit were not nearly as fundamental to Christ’s teachings as they are commonly considered to be in our evangelical society. As Eli points out, “the New Testament treatment of marriage is fairly minimal, at least in relation to how we often think about it.” Marriage does not fully satisfy a deep and vital desire to be in relationship. Only by seeking God through discipleship can men and women become content in their relationships. This was, according to Claire and Eli, the essential point of Christ’s teachings. In a passage on Christian discipleship, they write, “In our view, Christ was far more interested in forming Christians than Christian families.”
Altared probes a delicate issue within our contemporary society and it does so with a grace and sensitivity that do credit to its authors.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com