Archive for the ‘marriage’ Category

Double Standard

December 16, 2014

In this op-ed Ross Douthat continues his occasional reflections on the sexual revolution and its impact on class divisions. I think he puts his finger on something fundamental.

America historically has been a highly mobile society, in which the poor, hard-working immigrant could by pluck and luck rise to the top. In the words of Carousel’s Billy Bigelow, musing about the future of his unborn son:

“He might be a champ of the heavyweights,
Or a feller that sells you glue,
Or president of the united states,
That’d be all right, too
His mother would like that
But he wouldn’t be president if he didn’t wanna be!”

That’s the old romance of freedom. My son could be a champion athlete, or a successful businessman, or president. But only if he wants to be!

As I understand it, studies show that such possibilities are considerably more remote than they used to be. The top and the bottom are more than ever permanently divided, with three factors pre-eminent: income, education, and marriage. They tend to go together. If you are well-off and well-educated, the chances are good that you will marry and not divorce. The reverse is also true: if you are poor and poorly educated, the chances are good that you will not marry or stay married, and that you will raise children alone.

The double standard in American sexuality has gone beyond male and female. Now it is between rich and poor. Those who are well off can afford sexual liberty, because there are forces in their lives that limit destruction, not least of which is the power of cash. (The movie Chef offers excellent storytelling of how this works on the ground.) Those who are poor may be destroyed by liberty, as they lose their most valuable asset, family.

The mores of the well-off dominate the cultural scene: think movie stars, TV producers, magazine editors, public intellectuals. They celebrate freedom. The background insinuation is that if only everybody could be as flexible and non-judgmental and open-minded as we are, problems would quickly dissipate.

Douthat suggests that the poor have adopted that philosophy, much to their detriment. And that its adoption by the rich is  more tempered by conservatism than is obvious. “We may have a culture in which the working class is encouraged to imitate what are sold as key upper-class values — sexual permissiveness and self-fashioning, spirituality and emotivism — when really the upper class is also held together by a kind of secret traditionalism, without whose binding power family life ends up coming apart even faster…. If so, it needs to be more widely acknowledged, and even preached, that what’s worth imitating in upper-class family life isn’t purely modern or progressive, but a complex synthesis of new and old.”

Of three fundamental factors—income (jobs), education, and marriage—that correlate and interact closely, I believe marriage has the longest and most tenacious hold on people’s welfare. Clearly there’s no returning to the “happy days” of the Greatest Generation. Birth control has changed everything. So have “softer” factors: the (partial) undoing of the gendered double standard; the rise of two-earner families; the end of blame and shame for children born without benefit of marriage; no-fault divorce; a more positive valuation of sexual desire; pornography. Many of these changes are good, some bad, some worth arguing about. Put it all together and the situation is very complicated. It’s not easy to say how on earth you could change it.

But as we think about it, we would do well to bear in mind this two-class reality: what works for the rich may devastate the poor.

The Community of Marriage

August 5, 2014

Weddings come in waves. At one time I went to my friends’ weddings. Now I go to the weddings of my friends’ kids, or my kids’ friends. This summer I’ve been to three, feeling very lucky to be invited. I am pretty sure that when young people imagine the most fabulous of weddings, they do not think of populating it with people of my age.

I had a really good time at all three weddings. They were happy and reverent occasions, with good food and drink. What’s not to enjoy? It’s meaningful to reflect on marriage, to contemplate the distance Popie and I have traveled together, and to take joy in another young pair showing the faith to embark on such a journey. When I went to my friends’ weddings, years back, I felt intense excitement, as of a crucial contest. Now I look on as though from a high mountain. I know all about the risks, the uncertainties, the thrills. But I am far from playing the game myself. I have become more a philosopher.

In my community, people hardly ever marry in church nowadays. They use wineries or parks or “event facilities.” My own church sanctuary, which once booked space months in advance, hardly ever has a wedding any more.

Furthermore, lots of weddings aren’t performed by pastors or priests; the couple get a friend or a relative to lead the service.

Furthermore, I think it is pretty unusual for the marrying couple to be anxious to get into bed that night. They have generally been doing that for a while.

All the same, my impression is that weddings have not really changed foundationally. They represent the same hope that they did when I was young–the hope of loving and ecstatic partnership, of home, children, permanence. The trappings have become more elaborate (and considerably more expensive), but they aim at the same kind of ritual celebration.

For me, what has changed is more substantial. Not being in the game, I approach weddings with a quiet mind. I enjoy the service, the food, and the happiness, but what I feast on are the conversations–with old friends, and occasionally with someone I meet. In my current stage of life weddings are not just about marriage, they are about community. We come together for the wedding and we affirm, not just the ecstatic dreams of the couple, but the gentle, sustaining community that surrounds them. We are the background. We are the binding threads. I am not invited to the day because I am so terribly important to the celebrating couple, but because it is fitting to have the wider community present. I see old friends, I establish who is related to whom, I have a stray encounter with someone I have never met and may never meet again but who is also significant to this community of which, however partially, I am a part.

It has become common in weddings I attend for the congregation to join in vow-making, stating their commitment to support the couple. In my day this was a novel and striking development. From my view now, it is merely a symbolic utterance of a bodily truth: we are here, we represent the warp and woof of your lives, and we know that what you the couple do in marrying is the sharp exclamation point jutting out of a common reality. We belong to each other.

N.T. Wright on Paul

December 3, 2013

Reading N.T. Wright’s scholarly work is like drinking from the proverbial fire hose. As far as I am concerned, it is a fire hose spouting good wine. I am a few hundred pages into his massive two-volume Paul and the Faithfulness of God, a book he has been pointing toward for decades. It’s a pleasure.

I won’t try to describe his argument, but I thought I would pass on a few memorable quotes.

p. 12 “For Paul, much as he valued freedom, the mutual reconciliation of those who belonged to the Messiah mattered more than anything else. For Philemon to have responded angrily to Paul’s letter by giving Onesimus his freedom but declaring that he never wanted to set eyes on him again would have meant defeat for Paul. Reconciliation was what mattered. That is why Paul wrote this letter [Philemon].”

p. 20. “Paul is not only urging and requesting but actually embodying what he elsewhere calls ‘the ministry of reconciliation.’ God was in the Messiah, reconciling the world to himself, he says in 2 Corinthians 5:19; now, we dare to say, God was in Paul reconciling Onesimus and Philemon.”

p. 32 “Slavery was, for both Philemon and Paul, simply part of the worldview. It was how things got done. It was the electricity of the ancient world; try imagining your home or your town without the ability to plug things in and switch them on, and you will realize how unthinkable it was to them that there should be no slaves.”

p. 42 “The distinction between ‘faith’ in the Reformers’ sense and ‘theology’ or ‘doctrine’ has by no means always been clear, producing as we saw the problem whereby ‘justification by faith’ has come to mean ‘justification by believing in the proper doctrine of justification,’ a position which, in attempting to swallow its own tail, produces a certain type of theological and perhaps cultural indigestion.”

p. 50 “The reason history is fascinating is because people in other times and places are so like us. The reason history is difficult is because people in other times and places are so different from us. History is, to that extent, like marriage….”

pp. 96-7 “The Temple, and before it the wilderness tabernacle, were thus heirs, within the biblical narrative, to moments like Jacob’s vision, the discovery that a particular spot on earth could intersect with, and be the gateway into, heaven itself…. The Temple was not simply a convenient place to meet for worship. It was not even just the ‘single sanctuary,’ the one and only place where sacrifice was to be offered in worship to the one God. It was the place above all where the twin halves of the good creation intersected. When you went up to the Temple, it was not as though you were ‘in heaven.’ You were actually there. That was the point. Israel’s God did not have to leave heaven in order to come down and dwell in the wilderness tabernacle or the Jerusalem Temple. However surprising it may be for modern westerners to hear it, within the worldview formed by the ancient scriptures heaven and earth were always made to work together, to interlock and overlap. There might in principle be many places and ways in which this could happen, but the Jewish people had believed, throughout the millennium prior to Jesus, that the Jerusalem Temple was the place and the means par excellence for this strange and powerful mystery.”

p. 181 “Like Marx, ancient Jews seem to have thought that the point was not to explain the world but to change it.”

p. 203 “In the western world for the last two hundred years the categories of ‘politics’ and ‘religion’ have been carefully separated, each being defined negatively in relation to the other. ‘Politics,’ for the modern west, is about the running of countries and cities as though there were no god; ‘religion’ is about engaging in present piety and seeking future salvation as though there were no polis, no civic reality.”

Gay Marriage is Conservative Victory?

April 3, 2013

A very interesting column from David Brooks. He salutes gay marriage as a lone modern indicator of people voluntarily seeking to bind their freedom in commitments.

“Once, gay culture was erroneously associated with bathhouses and nightclubs. Now, the gay and lesbian rights movement is associated with marriage and military service. Once the movement was associated with self-sacrifice, it was bound to become popular.”

Gay marriage is thus a conservative victory, in his telling, and he wonders whether it will lead to a trend. ” Maybe we’ll see other spheres in life where restraints are placed on maximum personal choice.”

Gay Marriage Is a Done Deal

March 28, 2013

Gay marriage is a done deal. It will soon be legally sanctioned nearly everywhere in America, regardless of what the courts say. Public opinion has swung decisively.

It’s certainly surprised me. I remember reading Andrew Sullivan advocating gay marriage (in 1995?) and thinking he was far out on the edge.

How could America change its mind so quickly? Here are some reasons:

–Gays comprise a very small percentage of the population, indivisible from the rest of us (i.e. not identified with any ethnicity or income level or gender). It’s hard to imagine such a tiny minority making much difference in society. Thus it’s not that threatening. And it’s hard to stigmatize gays as belonging to “them” once you know a few. The brave homosexuals who came out of the closet and demonstrated that they were ordinary folks have driven a lot of this change.

–As David Brooks wrote yesterday, gay marriage is socially conservative. It values family stability and lasting love. In contemporary America gays seem to be virtually the only people thoroughly excited about marriage. How can you be horrified? Plus they make their appeal on the basis of fairness, a hard claim for any American to deny.

The really odd thing is that while gays rush toward marriage, marriage is in trouble among non-elite Americans. If you didn’t finish college your chances of getting married and staying married are small. The odds are good that a child in non-elite America will grow up without two parents.

The acceptance of gay marriage is closely related to a deeper, longer-running trend toward defining marriage by love alone. Through most of history marriage was also an economic partnership and an arrangement for producing offspring. (Reading Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now impressed this on me once again.) Many also saw marriage as religiously holy, a window into God’s relationship to his people. Such factors operate on a longer timeline than merely human love, which is famously volatile. (Consider Shakespeare’s sonnets.)

What will marriage look like a generation from now? Gay marriage will certainly be part of the mix. But marriage may be a temporary, shifting affinity significant to only a minority of people. Because what is the point, if all you need is love? You don’t need marriage to love. And when love dies, is anything left?

While gay marriage is here to stay, it’s not clear how great a prize it will prove to be.

The Sexual Revolution: A Brief Report in Progress

January 17, 2013

I grew up in an era when sexual freedom first intoxicated a generation. It made a perfect match between individualism and technology, loosening the communal ties that bound us.

Thanks to technology we had learned how to have sex without making babies, and we had learned to cure diseases passed on through sex. Liberated from nasty side-effects, people could pursue pleasure without fear. And, many did.

These developments attracted a lot of media fascination, and many denunciations from pulpits. It was a dramatic time, but in the end less confrontational than you might think. The culture mainly groaned and made room for the new ways. Unsupervised coed dorms became the norm. Playboy became the winking bad boy of mainstream culture.

I don’t think it occurred to many people that marriage would really change–only the double standards and hypocrisy of relations leading up to marriage. There had always been hanky panky. Now it was normalized.

So the second wave of the sexual revolution came as a surprise: a dramatic increase in divorce. That wasn’t planned. Again, though, society groaned and rolled over. Experts opined that it was probably good for the children not to be raised in unhappy circumstances; and certainly good for the unhappy partners to leave each other behind.

Simultaneously a revolution was occurring in homosexual behavior: out of the closet, defiantly out of the closet, for a time engulfed in extraordinary displays of promiscuity, eventually settling down, almost, into happy domesticity.

Abortion also became mainstream: often grieved in private, but widely practiced and accepted in public.

We had, by the end of the eighties, generally accepted premarital sexual activity and an unprecedented divorce rate. But in most people’s minds, the fundamental structure still hadn’t changed. Eventually most people got married. Children were produced by married couples.

However, the revolution kept rolling, and it is rolling still. Divorces continued, and the children of divorce were even more prone to divorce, or never to marry in the first place. The scandal of out-of-wedlock babies gradually disappeared. First those young mothers were treated with sympathy; then with admiration. Today, fathers are optional and babies come through many avenues. Test-tube babies, surrogate mothers, lesbian couples producing babies with the help of artificial insemination–once the province of science fiction these choices are all absolutely mainstream today. Young couples not only have sex without a thought of marriage, they live together not as a prelude to marriage but simply as a state of preference or convenience. Weddings are a possible event in the life of a couple, but marriage and partnership are now only loosely connected.

It goes further. The very nature of male and female has come under question. People can and do change gender.

Since my college days alarmists have been predicting that the dominos will continue to fall. They have been consistently proved right. What seemed impossible a generation back–gay marriage? gender transformation?–has come true.

And Christians, while still serving as alarmists, really don’t have much to say. For one thing, by most measures Christians behave much like everybody else. More importantly, nobody much cares what Christians think. We can perhaps scare and shock the believers, but we can’t even get a faint rise in the pulse rate of anybody else. The culture has moved on.


I sometimes used to think the pendulum would swing back, but we’ve lived with some pretty horrendous consequences of the sexual revolution– millions dead of AIDS, a fatherless generation–and there’s not the slightest sign of retreat. What I foresee is more. Whatever structures remain are on shaky ground.

The chief remaining taboos–rape, sexual harassment, child sex abuse, child pornography, man-boy relations–have in common that there is a youthful or non-consenting victim. Maybe that reservation will hold. We’ll see.

I’m not trying to scare anybody. I’m past the alarmist stage. I am just waking up and asking myself: how does one live as a Christian in a truly post-Christian society? In some areas–human rights for example–there is reason for encouragement that post-Christian society has continued to advance Christian values. But sex is pretty basic stuff. Fidelity has some appreciation. Chastity has very little.

My question isn’t finally about sex. It’s more about identity. Do we abandon traditional mores and adapt our expectations to a new situation? Do we become “anonymous Christians,” as I understand is common in Sweden? Do we form strict, isolated counter-cultural colonies, as the Amish do? Do we preach an unrelentingly unpleasant message on the streets, as Jeremiah did?

I’m asking myself, “What would Jesus do?”

For This One Day

December 11, 2012

A few days ago our friend John came to see us–John whose wife Nancy died a year ago. They were a lovely pair and very close. John wanted very much to talk about Nancy and her death, showing us photos of her last days and letting us inhabit the grief he is going through. It was a great honor, and very touching, to share with him. It reminded me what marriage is meant to be.

I asked John how he managed. He said sometimes he was not sure that he could. It just seemed to be too much. But when he reflected on Nancy as a gift given him for 33 years, an extraordinary gift greater than he could ever deserve, he found that he could manage. He wasn’t sure that he could live without Nancy for the rest of his life, but he could live for this one day.

Where Is Mrs. Jesus?

September 27, 2012

I liked Ross Douthat’s commentary on the recent “Mrs. Jesus” media frisson caused by an obscure, late, possibly forged document mentioning Jesus’ wife. The only reason this made the news is because it suits us to reimagine Jesus in our image, and “our image” is certainly not celibate.

Douthat points out the classic “scholarly” move (scholarly only because it is made by scholars) in puzzling over why none of the original sources mention Jesus’ marriage. He cites the Smithsonian piece quoting the document’s discoverer, Harvard’s Karen King:

The question the discovery raises, King told me, is, “Why is it that only the literature that said he was celibate survived? And all of the texts that showed he had an intimate relationship with Magdalene or is married didn’t survive? Is that 100 percent happenstance? Or is it because of the fact that celibacy becomes the ideal for Christianity?”

Two options: either random accidents of history have misplaced those documents, or else there was an early church conspiracy to erase them. The possibility that no documents mention Jesus’ marriage because he wasn’t, in fact, married, is too simplistic, too unsophisticated, to consider.

A Separation

September 26, 2012

I’d like to recommend “A Separation,” an Academy Award 2011 movie made in Iran. The film is not violent but it is extremely intense. It’s about a quarreling husband and wife, living an urban, car-driving, apartment-dwelling life. Children’s school examinations and the care of an Alzheimer’s-afflicted parent are the crucial issues–not Israel or, in fact, any kind of political or religious ideology.

On one level, this is a movie about how the dissolution of a marriage affects people–regular, fundamentally decent people. At a deeper level it’s about willfulness and stubbornness, which means it speaks to all of us, whatever our circumstances. I won’t give away the ending, which is a surprise that sticks in your mind.

While the movie is not particularly religious, it’s interesting in depicting an Islamic society. Just as is the case in America, religion touches people in many very ordinary ways. The devout and the non-devout act quite differently in some ways, and in others are just the same. It’s not a pro-Islamic movie. I would say, however, that it reflects a fundamentally Islamic view of family and marriage, perhaps because of the makers’ convictions, and perhaps simply because that is what the artists had to work with in making an Iranian picture.

From what I can tell, Islam is a religion profoundly in crisis, trapped in a dead-end. Nevertheless, the Islam behind this film is deeply humane, and its convictions about humanity are both strongly felt and relevant to all people. It spoke to me.

Learning comes from many sources, including some that we find surprising. That is one more reason to take care not to demonize others.

Why Marriage

June 8, 2012

My friend David Andersen sent me this quote, from G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday:

Through all this ordeal his root horror had been isolation, and there are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally.  It may be conceded to the mathematicians that four is twice two.  But two is not twice one;  two is two thousand times one.  That is why, in spite of a hundred disadvantages, the world will always return to monogamy.

With all my heart, two is two thousand times one. And I embrace, “his root horror … isolation.”