About the book


Judge Z:  Irretrievably Broken is a fictional account about the death of marriage in the American culture. 

The death of marriage has tragic consequences. On a cultural level, it is well proven that families and their children thrive best in a married two parent home. On a deeper spiritual level, marriage is God’s greatest metaphor for our intended relationship with Him. Our ability to understand the love of God is diminished as we lose the concept of sacred marriage.

This book focuses on the tragedy of fatherlessness, the dangers of co-habitation, the loss of child centeredness, the ease of divorce and, most importantly, the sadness that God’s greatest metaphor for our intended love relationship with God (marriage) is disappearing from the earth.

In the middle of this project, marriage was redefined legally by the Supreme Court on June 26, 2015.  This book is not about that redefinition. (Same sex marriage may be a sequel someday).

Instead, it is about the slow death of marriage itself that has led to this moment. 

On the front end, fewer people now marry. And when they do, it has lost much of its meaning. On the back end of the marriage, divorce is easier than ever, even expected for many people. Divorce is an almost unspoken tragedy. 

The book is pedagogical, intended to teach. 

First, “irretrievably broken” is a common legal term in all divorce cases. It is the sole grounds now for a divorce in virtually every court in the USA. A marriage must be “irretrievably broken” to be legally dissolved. Yet no one knows what that means. Hearings that are supposed to happen, by law, do not. Divorce procedures are now akin to a high-speed express train, instead of the old local train that made stops along the way. 

The term “irretrievably broken” takes a surprise turn in the book as the judge himself is transformed. The chaos of ten years in family court, combined with personal tragedy, has broken him. But, he discovers God in his brokenness. And comes to see that God is pleased with a “broken and contrite heart”.

Second, the name ‘Beulah’ (the judge’s mother) has deep spiritual meaning and symbolism. ‘Beulah’ is a word found only once in the Bible (Isaiah 62). It means “married,” all in the context of God’s desire to be married to His people. 

Beulah Land is a common term of traditional Christian faith, often associated with heaven itself, and recognized in songs of faith. Pilgrim’s Progress, the 17th century classic by John Bunyan, first mentioned Beulah Land as a place just preceding heaven itself, leaving the metaphor that marriage itself is a place which should lead us to heaven. Marriage is a great spiritual symbol, not just a current day legal issue.

This story is told through key characters.

  • Primary Characters
    • Atticus Zenas is a judge in family court. Age 50. This is his story of personal metamorphosis from a lawyer/judge, who routinely divorces people with little or no thought, into a person of faith whose life is radically transformed by a new love relationship with God. This new perspective causes him to become a proponent for marriage and an advocate for a slower process of divorce.
    • Beulah Zenas is the judge’s mother. Age 80. She is the primary voice of wisdom for her son. Her Sunday afternoon dinners provide an avenue for conversations about family and marriage. Her death provides an emotional ending to the book.
    • Billy Hughes, age 27, is the student pastor of a small Methodist church.  He offers a series of simple sermons on the meaning of marriage which create new thinking in the judge’s mind about why marriage might be more important than he thought.
    • Brad Bertram, age 35, is a law professor who teaches family law at the UK College of Law. He teaches a five-week seminar, “Marriage: What Is It?” The course attempts to provide a history and definition of marriage from a legal viewpoint. Judge Zenas pulls the professor into a divorce case, to represent a wife who is fighting to save her marriage and family.
    • Jack and Mary Stirling, age 45, have filed a simple uncontested divorce in family court without lawyers. Their case becomes the focal point for a battle over whether the marriage is “irretrievably broken,” a finding that the judge must make to grant a divorce in every case. Their three children, Jack Jr., Sarah and Noah are part of the story as well, especially 5-year-old Noah.
    • Harry Wolff, age 50, is a divorce attorney who represents Jack Stirling in the divorce. He also files ethics charges against the judge, which result in the judge’s own trial before the Judicial Conduct Commission. He is the defender of the right to an easy, fast, simple divorce.
    • Jeremiah “JJ” Jackson, age 19, is a black kid mentored by Judge Zenas. His death ignites the judge’s activism about fatherhood issues.


  • Secondary Characters
    • Ghuna Raja. Indian lawyer and friend of Judge Zenas. When Raja’s son gets married, the judge goes to the wedding in India, where he learns about arranged marriages and experiences a deeply personal and spiritual transformation.
    • Johnny Zenas. The judge’s father is deceased but his story of Greek heritage is a backdrop for the story. His solid marriage to Beulah is a factor in the judge’s views on family.
    • Angelina Zenas. The judge’s wife has died two years ago. Her story is also interwoven throughout as the judge experiences the loneliness of being single. The Zenas’ had no children so the issue of childless marriage is also addressed.
    • Anna Ollie is Harry Wolff’s young law associate who is pulled into the controversy.
    • Clay Henderson is the judge’s staff attorney who is involved in the legal battles and research.
    • Karen Martin is the judge’s secretary who is ever present at all court proceedings.
    • Clarence Palmer is the judge’s court-appointed deputy sheriff and bailiff for all court proceedings.
    • Nicole Mason is Professor Bertram’s law student who becomes his primary assistant for the trial.
    • Florence Bonnard is the Guardian Ad Litem, appointed as a lawyer to represent the “best interests of the children” in the Stirling case
    • Jake Tolliver is a reporter for the local newspaper, which makes the Stirling divorce a front-page story. Editorials and news stories punctuate the story for months.
    • Dean Beck is Chairman of the Judicial Conduct Commission which hears charges against Judge Zenas for his refusal to grant the simple divorce.
    • Adam Kelly is the prosecutor of the judge before the JCC.
    • Other secondary characters are people who come before the judge with family cases, ranging from the rich Fernando family to poor pregnant teenagers such as Ivory Smith. Their hearings and stories set the stage for the Family Court drama of the Stirling case, as a steady accumulation of cases shows the brokenness of American family life.


  • Trial witnesses/characters
    • Legal experts:
      • Robert Roche, Yale professor, testifies about the history and definitions of marriage.
      • Ben Marker, a lawyer with the Kentucky Legislative Research Council for 40 years, testifies to the change in statutes on marriage and divorce since “no-fault” divorce became law in 1972.
    • Cultural experts:
      • Barbara Rose, PhD from Chicago, testifies on the research concerning co-habitation, child neglect, and the status of marriage in America.
      • Don Lathem is the counselor who is brought into the Stirling case and testifies that the marriage is not “irretrievably broken.”
    • Religious experts:
      • Thomas Weir, a Catholic priest and PhD from Georgetown University, testifies on the views of Pope John Paul and the Theology of the Body.
      • Pastor Joe Mason, young black pastor, testifies on the impact of fatherlessness in the black culture;
      • Rabbi Levi Koffler, professor and author of numerous books and articles, testifies on the meaning of love in the Old Testament.


Major “aha” moments in the book: 

  • A Chinese wife (Zhiu vs Yang) asks the judge in broken English what it means for a marriage to be “irretrievably broken,” causing him to discover that he doesn’t really know.
  • JJ’s death shocks the judge.
  • Initial hearing of Stirling vs Stirling comes on the heels of the Chinese couple, forcing the judge to ask what it means to have “no reasonable prospect of reconciliation.”
  • Beulah’s confession of her youthful secret sin which has haunted her for 60 years.
  • The judge experiences God’s love through poor and disabled ladies in India.
  • Rabbi Koffler’s testimony at trial.
  • Noah’s video at trial.
  • Surprise ending to trial.
  • Beulah’s secret prayer closet.
  • Beulah’s death after the trial and the judge’s eulogy.
  • Surprise ending at JCC hearing.
  • Judge finds peace at last in his small hometown, finally broken himself, irretrievably.


All seventeen chapters include a Scripture verse to press the point that the Bible is one big family story.