Generous Orthodoxy  

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Christian Marriage: What’s It Got to Offer?

This is the first part of a three-part Rumination on the subject of marriage. The second and third parts will appear in a few days.

A friend sent me a link to the November issue of Atlantic, which has a long (very long) cover story by Kate Bolick extolling single motherhood and the single-woman life in general. The author works hard to convince us that the institution of marriage may be on the way out (and for her it’s good riddance).

Certainly the statistics point that way. The exponential growth of unmarried live-ins and births to unmarried women has been astonishing, particularly among African-American, working-class and poor women, but it is happening among all classes and races. The Atlantic article rehearses all of this as it seeks to present the strongest possible case for following this trend all the way to its logical conclusion—the end of marriage as we’ve known it.

About half of the article is analysis, drawn in part from statistics, and the other half consists of the author’s personal reflections. That much space given to anecdotal evidence skews the article considerably, but this sort of argument-from-autobiography is common in our self-centered, individualistic culture.

The challenge is so serious, and the trends so unmistakable, that anyone who hopes to hold on to the concept and the practice of traditional marriage had better be equipped with very strong convictions and powerful arguments. Apparently it is not enough to set an example; the sexually adventurous author of the article has not been guided by her own parents’ lasting marriage, and she writes rather pityingly of her mother’s having had sex only with her father. To illustrate further: the Queen of England, so admirable in so many ways and a Christian believer, has allowed her youngest son (Edward) and all of her grandchildren to cohabit while unmarried, regularly inviting them to bring their romantic partners to Balmoral and other royal residences. Her own rock-solid marriage (undertaken when she was only 21) has apparently not been thought a model to emulate.

The Christian community is not doing a very good job of teaching about marriage. (Indeed, it can be argued that the mainline churches are not doing a very good job of teaching anything theological about anything.) It is our responsibility to come to grips with the challenges of modern life and to meet them with theo-centric exposition. A few Roman Catholic students have founded the Anscombe Society, with a presence on college campuses; their commitment to chastity is based on solid catholic teaching. I met a young Roman Catholic college student this summer, and she spoke with feeling about her commitment to chastity. Such young Catholics can count on the church to support them, but this is not the case in the mainline Protestant churches, which have largely yielded the field.

The concept of marriage as an image or reflection of the divine covenant between God and Israel, between Christ and the church, is what’s missing. Very few pew-sitters today would be able to tell the story of the covenant in its full biblical context, with the prophets’ imagery of Yahweh’s marriage to Israel in the desert and his fidelity to her despite her blatant and continuous apostasy—metaphorically described as adultery (or, more colorfully, harlotry). The fidelity of God to his covenant—“for better for worse,” so to speak—is the central feature of the story of God’s constitution of a holy people dedicated to himself.

Likewise, few church-goers today would be able to give an articulate account of the way that this imagery is taken up in the New Testament and in Christian history, with Christ as the bridegroom and the church as the bride. They may have heard the expression “the bride of Christ,” and they may sing hymns during Advent about the arrival of the bridegroom at midnight, but the ability to link all this with actual marriage today would be a stretch for most. It would be harder still to find a congregation where all this was taught on a steady, recurring basis so that every person in the congregation would know it by heart. What a difference that would make!