Terry Mattingly and Doug LeBlanc have given us all a wonderful gift in starting their blog, Get Religion. They are two of the primo Christian journalists in America today and are constantly on top of happenings in our world that relate to Christianity. This past week, Doug LeBlanc did a post called "First Comes Love . . . oh to hell with it," a review of a forum convened by "The Nation" on the subject "Can Marriage be Saved" for their July 5, issue.
I'm not quite sure how to describe the answer that the participants in the forum give to the question "Can Marriage Be Saved?" In one sense the question is a misnomer since the forum is basically a forum of advocacy of homosexual marriage. And, this advocacy is advanced largely through denigration of traditional monogamy.
JoAnn Wypijewski describes a friend of hers who has long been involved with married men who has found many of her own needs met, as well as the needs of her partners, in these trysts. Then Wypijewski sums it up by saying:
Maybe instead of asking whether marriage can be saved, we might think about how love is achieved, and not just couple-love, contract-love, but love in common too?I don't think Michael Bronski really answers the question, he thinks that marriage is being driven by the Wedding industry, and this is a bad thing. He's worried that his gay friends are falling for the consumerism of the Wedding industry just as heterosexuals are.
Nora Ephron understands the negative consequences of divorce, but she thanks God for her two divorces. She talks about the dullness of marriage compared to the excitement of divorce:
Happy marriages aren't all alike, but most happy marriages aren't particularly interesting. But divorce is. Love is bland; the end of love is riveting. Love is serious; the end of love is farce. Love is mysterious and elusive; the end of love is specific to a fault. And when love ends, in the hands of lawyers, you can often see things about marriage that sometimes make me wonder whether half of American marriages (whether headed for divorce or not) aren't, for the most part, performances.Heterosexual marriage has basically lost it's lustre in Nora Ephron's view, yet she has hopes that homosexual marriage may restore the splendor of the institution.
Laura Kipnis says that monogamy is part of a process of "luring a populace into conditions of emotional stagnation and deadened desire" which is actually quite functional for a society which seems to value "a cowed work force and a docile electorate."
Edmund White was non-committal to the gay marriage cause until he saw the great uproar of the Christian right - "Anything that Republicans and Christians hate so much can't be all bad." He has now jumped on the bandwagon that sees the gay-marriage issue as a civil rights issue.
And, Randall Kennedy sees the struggle for homosexual marriage as a "struggle for justice" equivalent to the struggle for civil rights for blacks.
Whew, this was a forum where a "range of scholars" were invited to share their opinions. All I can say is that the "range" was very narrow. Of course "The Nation" can't be accused of false advertising, they have a pretty narrow ideology, just as I do. They didn't convey that they were looking at all sides of the issue. They were clearly looking at only one side of the issue, albeit from slightly different angles.
So, how does a Christian respond to this? In his "Get Religion" post, Doug doesn't say much, except that the whole forum is "mostly lacking in joy or even romance." Also, I think he rightly observes the negative attitude that all participants in the forum have toward marriage. Doug says:
Chris Rock jokes in his latest HBO special, Never Scared, that he favors gay marriage because "gay people have a right to be as miserable as anybody else." That pretty well sums up the consensus in a forum by The Nation called "Can Marriage Be Saved?"
As to my own response I want to keep in mind G. K. Chesterton's advice to Christian journalists - we ought not to fuss or rant, we ought never to overstate our position but rather understate it, suffuse our writings with joy and hope, maintain a detached playfulness toward our subject, emphasize the "good hearted" when it becomes necessary to use some "good-hearted ridicule" and above all, reveal to the reader the face of Christ.
Such advice becomes hard to follow when reading things like this in The Nation. In fact, a good deal of the rhetoric I am hearing from our Christian leaders in relation to these issues is very ominous and foreboding. To many, the future of the republic is at stake in this whole "gay-marriage" debate. I don't know about that - America will live on, but it could be a very different America. On the other hand I'm still with Mother Theresa, I don't see how a society can descend any lower than to legalize the killing of its children. I'm of the opinion that we hit rock bottom a long time ago, sometime around 1973.
However, in the interest of responding in a jolly and Chestertonian fashion, I'll reach way back to one of the few philsophical terms that I remember from my intro to philsophy class. Actually, allow me to impress you by remembering two terms. There is the philosophy of hedonism, but more specifically I am thinking of a slight variation of hedonism known as Epicureanism. In modern times Epicureanism refers to a love and appreciation for fine food and drink, but back in the good old days, Epicureanism was a philosophy named after its founder, Epicurus and advanced by the poet Lucretius.
The purpose of life, according to Epicurus, is personal happiness; and by happiness he means not that state of well-being and perfection of which the consciousness is accompanied by pleasure, but pleasure itself. Moreover, this pleasure is sensuous, for it is such only as is attainable in this life. This pleasure is the immediate purpose of every action. "Habituate yourself", he says,Now, I understand that advocates of abortion and homosexual marriage are more likely to quote Lauper than Lucretius - you know Lauper, as in Cindy, as in girls (or boys or persons of indeterminate gender) just wanna have fun. Nonetheless, the worldview is the same.to think that death is nothing to us; for all good and evil is in feeling; now death is the privation of feeling. Hence, the right knowledge that death is nothing to us makes us enjoy what there is in this life, not adding to it an indefinite duration, but eradicating the desire of immortality.
I would not for a minute begin to think that I can convince my Epicurean or Lauperian friends that they are wrong and that they really aren't having any fun. To attempt to do so would be like the slaves in an old comic who were observing Cleopatra. Cleopatra was reclining on a couch, being fanned, being fed grapes and generally enjoying the life of luxury. The slaves, evidently trying to convince themselves that their lives weren't so bad said "she's not having any fun." They said that to cheer themselves, not because it was true. Cleopatra was having loads of fun and I don't deny that many of our gay friends are having a gay old time in the true Flintstonian sense of the word.
I will allow myself to express a little suspicion about something though. I could be wrong on this and won't fight it if pushed. However, it seems to me that, right now, at this moment in history, in the midst of this particular cultural crisis, it's necessary for the advocates of homosexual marriage to put their best foot forward. Thus, we see the pictures of happy couples getting married in Massachussetts and San Francisco and we read people who write for The Nation who prophecy that the legalization of homosexual marriage will help restore the splendor of the institution of marriage. As a concomitant to this projected restoration of marital splendor, it is necessary to roll out a bunch of "experts" who can paint an abysmal picture of traditional marriage and/or monogamy. My suspicion is that things may not be as splendiferous within the homosexual community as it is being portrayed. It's just that, to admit as much could weaken their arguments at this crucial juncture in the "culture war."
Even if the advocates of homosexual marriage admit that things aren't as splendiferous as they seem, the admission would be irrelevant to their case - they can still argue that they have a right to be as miserable as those in traditional monogamous marriages.
It's at this point that I want to argue that they aren't painting an accurate picture of traditional, monogamous marriage. On the one hand, for the sake of argument, I am willing to concede some portions of their argument. They argue that, despite the rosy picture the culture warriors for traditional marriage paint, things aren't so rosy. They would say that something's rotten in Denmark (or Rome, or Colorado Springs, or Nashville). In some respects they would be right about this. Christian traditionalists have their own demographers who can testify that Christian traditionalists aren't living up to their traditional Christian standards, what with all the divorcing going on in churches, and those embarassing little things like adultery and clergy pedophilia. The antagonists of Christian traditionalists might borrow a phrase from the Christian traditionalist playbook and say we aren't walking the talk. Those things are truly embarassing and there is no defense for such things.
That's why a little bit of humility wouldn't kill those of us Christians who defend tradtional monogamy. It wouldn't hurt us to follow the advice of the apostle Peter and let judgment begin with the house of God, before we speak to the rest of the world. I don't know if this idea would work on the larger culture-wide scale, but I have often found that when one person in a conflict acts humbly and admits their own sin, it opens the door for the other person to admit their own sin. It may be naive for me to even think this, but I wonder what would happen if gay advocates heard a little more humility from our side. Would some walls come down and some communication ensue? Maybe, maybe not, but its a thought. Its a nice fantasy anyway to envision us talking to one another rather than at one another or past one another. We Christian traditionalists can't and won't change our biblical convictions, but maybe a change of tone wouldn't hurt.
But lets get back to my contention that opponents of traditional monogamy aren't painting an accurate picture of us. Contrary to popular opinion, adultery, divorce, and clergy pedophilia aren't the whole story of what happens in traditional monogamous circles. Yes they make the news headlines but they make the news by virtue of their very abnormality. The vast majority of traditional monogamists aren't perfect, but they are pretty happy. Plenty of roses are blooming in Denmark, Rome, Colorado Springs and Nashville.
When I read all the charges that the folks in the forum for The Nation make about the lack of love, the dullness and "uninterestingness" of traditional monogamy, I'm thinking that these people aren't talking to people I know. Most of us don't live lives of high drama, as Nora Ephron advocates, but we do live lives of relative peace, security and happiness. And, if the research is correct, it seems that we traditional monogamists are beating the exciting Epicureans at their own game. David Popenoe sums up the findings of Linda J. Waite and Kara Joyner this way:
According to a large-scale national study, married people have both more and better sex than do their unmarried counterparts. Not only do they have sex more often but they enjoy it more, both physically and emotionally.While us traditional monogamists, and especially us evangelical Christian types, are often accused of being "anti-sex" it looks like our sex lives are doing just fine, thank you ma'am. In fact, it looks like all of us "sexual prudes" are happier with our sex lives than our counterpart sexual gluttons.
I realize that the sexual gluttons could simply accuse us of only pretending to be happier - we've lowered our expectations of sexual fulfillment so far that we've trained ourselves to be happy in our misery. The sexual gluttons may not be as satisfied, at least in some surveys, but we're hiding our misery and at least they get to enjoy the drama, as Nora Ephron portrays it. So, really we're jealous, and are putting on a happy facade.
If I may appopriate an illustration from Doug Wilson, I would say that us "sexual prudes" envy the freedom of the "sexual gluttons" in about the same way we envy the 400 pound man's freedom to eat all the ice cream he wants.
When Dallas Willard wrote his book The Spirit of the Disciplines, he took issue, a bit, with a couple of pieces of conventional Christian wisdom and he took issue with a couple of big names within Christendom. He reminded us of G. K. Chesterton's famous quote: "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried." He also addressed Dietrich Bonhoeffer's idea of "The Cost of Discipleship." Willard proposed that though Christianity may be hard, non-Christianity may be harder. And though there is a significant cost to being a disciple, there is a greater cost to non-discipleship.
Similarly, I would say to the forum members that they are right in some respects - traditional monogamy is hard, it is difficult. We just think the alternatives are harder. It's hard to resist ice cream, but in the long term it's harder to continually indulge.
I doubt that Nora Ephron and others are giving us the whole picture of the splendors of non-monogamy. I only have anecdotal evidence to go on, but hey, if "the forum" folks can use their anecdotes, why can't I use mine. An old professor of mine had a conversation with some Hollywood type who lived the jet-setting life. Said jet-setter got to sleep in a different bed every night, often with different people and had all the high drama that Nora Ephron could ever want. Yet, the jet setter told the prof "this isn't living, its dying." He said that there's a reason so many in Hollywood can't sustain a long-term relationship, there's a reason so many keep having to check into rehab and there's a reason for the suicides. This kind of life kills. The only people who love drama are actors and academics. OK, I love drama also, and so do many of us - we love it when we see it in a movie or a book, but most of us are able to distinguish between reality and Hollywood. Drama's great as a diversion, but its lousy as a lifestyle.
The difficulty of this whole debate about homosexual marriage is that it is a conflict of worldviews. It goes much deeper than an individual issue. I realize that there are traditional monogamists who don't share my conservative evangelical presuppositions, so I will not presume to speak for them when I say that we conservative evangelicals have sworn allegiance and submission to a Biblical worldview that only allows for lifelong, heterosexual marriage. This worldview does not allow for hatred toward our opponents and I share our opponents dismay and outrage at the hatred that has been expressed by some who claim to speak for God. On the other hand we have the right to vote our consciences and express our views publicly, and we will do so.
I would also say to my Christian friends, and even to non-Christian advocates of traditional marriage, that you don't have to apologize for the joys you experience in your traditional monogamous marriages, nor do you have to apologize for your struggles and lack of drama.
If enough people tell you that you aren't having any fun, day after day, week after week, year after year, you may eventually come to believe it. I would just ask you to step back and consider that you may have more joy in your so-called "boring, mundane lives," than the lovers of drama want to admit. Your life may not be dramatic enough to warrant a Hollywood movie, but you've got a lot to smile about if you get to come home every night to the same house, get a kiss from the same spouse, sleep in the same bed, get hugs from the same kids, and get to have a little sex now and then. There is a reason we all smile when we see a stooped over little old man and a little old lady holding hands or sharing their teeth in McDonalds (ok, that's not true - its an old joke). There is a joy in knowing they hung in there long enough to grow old together. In fact, that used to be one of the attractions of love and marriage, the chance to grow old together. I sometimes wonder if some of the bluster of our critics doesn't mask a wistful longing for the loss of the chance to grow old together with someone.
Similarly, we don't have to apologize for our struggles. In the immortal words of Westley to Buttercup in "The Princess Bride," - "Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something." You get to pick your pains in life. I happen to think our pains are worth it.
Contrary to the writers in "the forum," traditional monogamy ain't so bad, and submission to the Biblical worldview ain't so bad, for we're only submitting to the One in whose right hand are pleasures forever (Psalm 16:11).