It’s Time To Save Marriage – By Dethroning It From Its Place As An Idol

It’s tempting to think that we learn from history; we all like to think we’re wise and reflective and willing to learn. The truth is many of us don’t learn the lessons we need to; history repeats, as the poet Steve Turner wrote, because no one listens. It may not repeat with exactly the same words, but recognisable rhythms and cadences are there.

For example, there are Christian perspectives on sex, relationships, marriage and dating. In 1997 Christian writer and speaker Joshua Harris published the book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, a book which advocated not dating to preserve emotional purity before marriage and a variety of steps which he at the time believed would lead to good marriage and a good sex life within marriage. No one doubted his intentions – and the book sold in vast quantities, becoming hugely influential in (evangelical) Christian culture. The problem is that it didn’t work; people became paralysed be fear of making mistakes in their relationships and they found that taking the steps he prescribed didn’t always have the promised outcome. One size, it turns out, does not fit all. This has led to a two-year process of listening, thinking and reassessing from Joshua Harris, which has resulted in him apologising for hurt caused and the book being withdrawn from publication. There’s much else to say, of course; and whilst his diligence is to be applauded, it’s true that apologies don’t necessarily fix what’s broken. However it would be hoped that we – the church  – had learned something important here.

In the last week a high-profile pastor from a high-profile American church published a blog about why people ‘put off’ marriage, and what they should do about. He (of course, he’s a he; and of course, he’s married) will follow this up with “practical steps for catching your man or woman“. He promises “God’s power will deliver you from any pain” and puts masturbation in the same (no-doubt) sinful category as co-habiting. We are made for marriage he says, paying-lip service to the possibility of a ‘supernatural gift from God’ of singleness. It all boils down to this; do this, get that. Do this and you’ll get a (very good) marriage. Do this and you’ll get the partner you dream of.

Again, no one doubts the intentions here, but let’s attempt to examine where this leaves people. It leaves the single with a set of things to do in order to guarantee a good marriage; the post may be replete with Biblical references, but there’s precious little reference to the gracious gifts of grace (not in response to works) God gives. And none of how life just happens; life getting in the way. Sin, sickness, failure. None of that – even people’s ‘blemishes are beautiful’; which they may be, of course, but it’s a somewhat romanticised way of describing someone with an anger problem or who habitually spends too much money.

answer blackboard board chalk

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The fundamental problem comes, it seems to me, with describing people (apart from the ‘supernaturally gifted for singleness’) as ‘made for marriage’. It sees marriage as something we have to do unless we have a clear calling otherwise. Amongst much else, it misunderstands the order of creation in the Genesis picture; God makes people, then He institutes marriage as a gift to them. Marriage is given by God to people, made to serve them; in that sense, it’s like the Sabbath, a similar misunderstanding of which Jesus had to tidy up. Marriage, like the Sabbath, is created by God to help and serve people in all manner of ways. It’s different from Sabbath in terms of where it stands in the 10 Commandments – Sabbath observance is a requirement from God (because we have a tendency to think work is ours to keep on doing and that our work earns us something from God); marriage is to be honoured by not committing adultery – but nowhere are we told we must get married. Just that if we’re married, we’re not to undermine it (through abuse, adultery or the like).

Two or three clicks away from the marriage blog post, I find a ministry founded by the author which seeks to be ” a company of radicals helping to define healthy sexuality”. It’s all well-intentioned; some of it may even contain good advice (I haven’t read anything like all the content on the site). The problem stems, though, from setting marriage as the goal we’re made for, and that we must have a special calling to not be married. This immediately suggests that the unmarried who have not received that ‘special calling’ are broken or in error or sinful in some way. The fault must lie with them; and God forbid they masturbate, or even think about sex in the mean time. It also says to the married couple struggling to keep the flame alive in the midst of children, bills to pay, ill-health or just the pressures of life that they too are broken and wrong, somehow short of God’s plan. The whole enterprise of human relationships and sexuality reduced to a slot-machine, a formula, a puzzle where you just have to put the right pieces in the right places.

Marriage (and the perfect, nuclear family) have become, in attitudes like these, the great evangelical Christian idol. I speak as a minister, much of whose theology might be defined as evangelical. I’m also married with (foster) children. Here’s the truth from that perspective. God doesn’t free us from all pain – I’m still chronically ill; my marriage is not perfect; every need can not be met by one relationship. I adore my wife and kids. But it’s very, very hard work. God will free us from all pain – in the new creation. For now, we all struggle and fight and sometimes get healed and sometimes don’t. I know from 19 years of pastoral ministry that many wonderful Christian people do all the things they’re told are ‘right’  – ‘guard the  heart’, keep a ‘pure thought life’, trust Jesus completely, do all the right things to catch a spouse. But they find it doesn’t work; unless they’re unusually well supported, loved and cared for, cynicism grows, love for God hardens and they drift away or tune out. Of course they do – wouldn’t you, if you gradually discover that the grace gift you thought you were looking at, made for, designed for, was in fact a carefully constructed golden calf?

To better preserve the gift of marriage and family that God has given us, it’s time for the church to dethrone it. To talk openly and freely about lust not being slaked by saying ‘I do’; by admitting that many who are married are lonely; that there’s no formula to finding the right person; that any area of our life is far more complex than the blueprint formula suggests. The longer I go on in this work, the more I find broken, hurt, saddened people fearing they are somehow incomplete without a spouse, fearing they are missing God’s ‘best for their lives’; laden with shame and fear for a sexual thought or deed because they are told that these are the worst possible sins (by men who consume far more than they need, lash out in angry words and thoughts, hold to casual racism or so much else – but remain curiously unchallenged).

Sin is sin. It’s a problem for us all; but in Jesus it’s dealt with. In Him there is no shame or guilt; yet our idolising of marriage and family and the sex we claim goes with it, leaves a trail of that shame and guilt that is rarely voiced and seldom heard. Let’s step away from the slot-machine systematisation of relationships with God and people; let’s listen to the still, small voice of God in and to those broken beneath the wheels of the Golden Calves the evangelical church loves to erect in the place of cross and empty tomb.

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Jesus, Marriage and Christian Submission

It’s all about context, as it so often is. More than context, in fact. It’s about context and the well-meaning, not-the-whole-truth, section titles slipped into our sacred text.

Thus …

Rules For Christian Households.

Wives, submit to your husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife … ” (Ephesians 5:22ff)

It’s that section heading that’s the problem. It’s not what Paul wrote. It was added by someone on the way to the printer. On a horse, probably. It’s meant to help us but too often it controls how we understand the text.

Now that’s not to say that the section heading is intrinsically a bad thing. If you want to find the Parable of The Prodigal Son but can’t remember the reference then it helps to have it in italics at the head of a paragraph. Except, of course, when we come to read it properly. Jesus never gave the parable that title. He just told a story. It’s as much about the (F)father or the elder brother who’d been at home all that time, unaware of the father’s riches that had always been at his disposal. Thus in the case of the parable we don’t so much miss the point as shrink it.

So to submission in marriage, that the husband is the one who calls the shots, is the spiritual leader of the family. That’s how this understood in many Christian circles, especially evangelical ones. I believed it for a little while, because that’s what the text (and other texts) said, right?

Now’s not the time for word studies or extensive theological investigation – others on all sides of the argument have done that much better than I ever could do. Here’s the thing for me, though. The model is Jesus, right? So it says anyway, just the other side of some those pesky and artificial section divides I mentioned earlier. It’s not about marriage first; it’s about Jesus and then it’s about how our relationships can reflect Jesus to others.

The call is to submission out of reverence to Christ … then it’s applied for the original readers in three very particular ways, giving us a way of seeing how this might work in practice. What did Christ, the model and only worthy object of reverence, do? He tossed aside His rights, considered himself nothing, put His Father’s glory and my needs first despite not wanting to drink from the cup. To quote a passage my wife and I had read at our wedding, He:

made himself nothing, by taking the very nature of a servant   (Philippians 2)

It seems to me that in taking texts like this and saying, this then is how marriage should be in all places at all times – wife submitting to husband – we’re missing the point. For the Ephesians it may not have been missing the point. That was a society whose very stability was built on men in charge, women subservient. So Christ’s people needed to be seen as contributing to society, not messing  it up – but still different, still challenging it and calling society to be better. So the challenge was for husbands to actually love wives and not treat them as property; for wives to seek to bless their husband instead of silently resenting one who treated her like dirt. All sorts of change became possible if people did that.  It was a radical kind of way of blessing society but also challenging it.

Things are different now. Society, it seems to me, does not depend on submission of wife to husband; or certainly not any of the ones that I’ve lived in. So we model ourselves on Christ in a different way. We do so by thinking about Jesus in a slightly different way.

I’m going to talk about Jesus here in a way which may offend you so that you can see what I’m getting at.

We might say that Jesus submitted to us. Not that we tell Him what to do; but that if we understand submission as it should be at its best – one laying aside needs for the sake of another – then that’s what He did. He gave up His right to be honoured and worshipped in order to be whipped and mocked. He gave up His right to be understood as truth in order to be gossiped about and executed on a trumped-up charge. So that we could be with Him. At a wedding feast.

So the challenge is for men, women, all of us. To give up what we consider to be our rights for the sake of the ones we’re in relationship with. Might I think, as a husband, of having a ‘right’ to sex with my wife. I suppose I might do (in the days of social media, I feel duty bound to point out the ‘I’ is not necessarily me, and I said ‘might’ not ‘do’). But what if my wife needs an early night? What if it’s better to talk or watch a movie together? I give up my ‘right’ and do what will build the relationship; not to get sex later in the week but because it’s good for the relationship. Because that’s what Jesus did. He gave up rights for the sake of relationship with Father and us, and in doing so gained greater honour, more worship. This, in marriage, is upholding society but still challenging it – liberating men and women alike, but challenging our all to easy fall-back position of rights with something all-together deeper.

Important point, here. Do not misread this, as this text is often misused, as an injunction to those who are being abused sexually, emotionally or physically to submit to that abuse. No. If you are being abused, get help and get out. That’s not what we’re talking about here.

This is about the give and take at the heart of all healthy relationships. Recast that as submission, and yes – husbands should submit to wives because Jesus submitted His right to honour for the sake of relationships with us  – and in the end gained great honour. In that context, wives submit to husbands – it’s the mutual give and take that makes relationships. It’s not about positional leadership; it’s about making a relationship between two unique creations work.

Apply it to marriage, to parenting, churches, to politics, to workplaces, to sports, to paying taxes, to how you treat shop-workers or waiters or people who sleep outside. How might it look to submit to one another in those relationships out of reverence for the one who made Himself nothing?

Exactly.

That’s why I spell Him with a capital H.

Away We Go

Award ceremonies tend to favour the serious over the light-hearted, angst over humour, the weighty over the breezy. There may be many reasons for this, not least perhaps being a caution at being seen as intellectually inferior by honouring that which is lighter in tone.  If, however, the theory is correct that comedy and tragedy are but a heartbeat apart, then any biased by various awards bodies is all the more ignorant. Consider Shakespeare, for instance: Much Ado About Nothing and Romeo And Juliet have more or less identical plots, with marriage ceremonies conducted in secret, the underhand assistance of a member of the clergy and a faked death. The former’s only a more-or-less literal heartbeat away from the latter. Reading or viewing the two together inevitably deepens the experience, casting fresh light on characters and turnings of plot in both.

Sam Mendes isn’t Shakespeare, but it seems to me that he’s up to something of a similar nature. Revolutionary Road is the domestic chamber piece recast as an  All-American tragedy, where the death of dreams is equally as tragic as loss of a loved one. His latest, Away We Go is another close-up portrait of another All-American relationship, but of a sweeter, apple-pie, flavour. Others come into the couple’s orbit: in this one on the point of the birth of their first child as against the previous film’s house purchase. They are both couples let down  – the one by the suburban dream, the other by people. One couple spins helplessly and inevitably towards tragedy; while the couple at the centre of Away We Go bumble agreeably along, discovering that they’re the only really sane ones in a world that’s gone mad since they moved out to the sticks to be near the in-laws.

As always with a Mendes-helmed film there’s much to like – the cinematography, the performances, the script (especially as this one’s from married couple Dave Eggars and Vendela Vida, a kind of post-modern literary celeb-couple). Among the supporting cast there are some great moments as a variety of fine actors ply their trade – most memorably for me, Allison Janney. Taken separately these characters are fine; all together and there’s a danger of weirdness-indigestion, they’re existence and purpose being to highlight the  sane-ness of the central couple.

It is, though, the central couple who save it. I’ve heard it said that this film is for those with children, who will recognise various staging posts in that life transition; many without children have found this smug or alienating, Maybe. My wife and I, though, don’t have children and are fine with that. My overriding impression (my wife hasn’t seen it yet) was not of smugness but rather the cool refreshment of a central couple who are relationally healthy and emotionally balanced. We need more like them. In the context of the film,  that may have required some over-egging of the profile of the supporting cast, but no matter. Thinking now of the all too real relationships I recognised in Revolutionary Road, it makes me both cry and laugh all the more. The more I think, the more I wonder if Sam Mendes really is the poet our times need.

Revolutionary Road – Faded Dreams

An old story goes that if you throw a frog (I’ve never worked out why you would, but bear with me) into a pan of boiling water, then it will jump straight back out. By contrast, if you place said unfortunate in a pan of cold water that’s slowly heated up from below, it won’t notice, and it will slowly die. I have no idea if this is true, as I have both a shortage of frogs and shortage of inclination to test the theory. It’s meant to illustrate the way problems born of the environment we are in day by day can slowly creep up on us, and ultimately dominate us without us ever realising.

In this analogy, Revolutionary Road gives us Kate and Leo as Frank & April – their marriage is the frog, the comfort of suburban life is the slowly bubbling pan. The film has the same outsider’s penetrating eye for what’s really going on as did the same director’s American Beauty. This isn’t quite in the same league – thanks mainly to an unnecessary and poorly written ‘wise-fool’ character in the form of the son of their neighbours. He’s on day release from the local psychiatric hospital, ad predictably he’s the only one who really sees what’s going on. That aside, this is an all too telling and painfully real tale. Couples who settle into safety as soon as they have children, who dream of doing something different but who end up slowly suffocated by the expectations of everyone they know. It would be easy to dismiss this as simply depressing, but it’s more than that. This is, for some, the price of having children – using duty to them to paper over the cracks, to pretend this really is what they wanted. All the while that disappointment and disillusion has to go somewhere – and it goes on sly comments, witholding of affection and settling for calm co-existence at the price of doing the hard work that will lead to genuine break-through.

The film, then, takes this principle and spins it out to its logical (dramatised) conclusion.  It’s not perfect  – I’d like to have seen more on how this effects the children, who turn up so  rarely that I kept forgetting about them. It is, though, to be roundly praised for it’s bravery in taking on the suburban dream so dear to this film’s target audience. I’ve heard many people say the film looks depressing and predictable – that it’s a turn off. That may be – but maybe because it’s so real. It should be required viewing for couples planning their future.