The Idealization of Marriage: A Response to Joanna Moorhead


Lest the Church should become too enraptured by the way things ought to be, Joanna Moorhead calls for its leaders to remember that real life sucks.

In a recent edition of TheTablet* Ms. Moorhead criticized the, “sepia-tinted movie version,” of marriage depicted by a series of videos produced by the Vatican.  She berates the films for portraying a naive and idealistic picture of marriage.  “The truth about real-life marriage,” she insists,

is that very often marriage is far from happy.  Most unions start, like the wedding scenes within the films, on a positive, upbeat note: the participants feel connected; together, ‘two become one‘ as one of the couples getting married [in the videos] puts it.  All is well and happy and right in their world.  But then–after a few weeks in some cases, a few months or years in others–come the trials, the difficulties, the disappointments, the surprises.  No marriage is without these ructions: there are no perfect marriages outside of Hollywood, or perhaps outside of the Vatican, where marriage only exists as a concept anyway.

Ms. Moorhead’s diatribe suggests that the Vatican is out of touch with reality, and insensitive to the real life struggles of regular people.  Discussing and promulgating information about the essence of marriage–depicting how things ought to be–only reenforces how detached the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is.  In short, she thinks the Vatican is frolicking in the idealistic world of make-believe and has forgotten that we common folk struggle and toil with the realities of real life (which is messy and disappointing).

But what type of videos would Ms. Moorhead have the Vatican produce?  Should they have hired Quentin Tarantino to direct a gritty short film about an abusive husband beating his wife (complete with blood splats on the camera lens)?  Or perhaps the producers of Fifty Shades of Grey to make a sensuous film about a woman caught in adultery?  The writers of Coronation Street could have created a soap opera about a young couple, savagely arguing over a utility bill, who divorce after a drawn out and painfully mundane court battle.  Or, in true Hollywood style, they might have produced a special effects driven remake of the 90’s thriller Sleeping With the Enemy . . . 

You see, Ms. Moorhead is right.  Real life is tragic; it’s full of struggle and toil and pain and suffering and sadness and heartbreak.  We’re all painfully aware that the actual world is not the ideal world that we long for.  But where, in this mixed up, dysfunctional, relativistic, utilitarian muddle of Western culture can we look to see how things ought to be?

Of all places, we should be able to look to the Church!

In spite of Ms. Moorhead’s pessimism, the Vatican understands the unfortunate condition of real life all too well.  Which is precisely why they have produced the films she so cynically mocks.  In a society in which it is extremely difficult to find happy, healthy, long-lasting, monogamous relationships–in a world struggling to understand what marriage is–it is absolutely necessary to depict the ideal.  It is precisely because the world is detached from the Truth and wallowing in a nightmare of its own making that the Church must portray marriage as it ought to be.

In real life people lie, cheat, murder, and steal.  Yet, when rearing our children, we don’t (one would hope) fail to teach them the way things ought to be.  We don’t, on account of the facts of real life, fail to teach them it is wrong to lie, cheat, murder, and steal or fail to encourage them to live a life of virtue.  We instill in our children moral values–ideals–so that they might live successful and healthy lives. We know that living out these ideals can be quite difficult; but we instill them nonetheless.

Likewise, the Church lovingly teaches its children what marriage is and shows them how it ought to look; it idealizes marriage knowing full well that it is not, “straightforward, or easy, or cozy, or even harmonious, in its living-out.”  But, if we pay attention to the teaching of the Church on marriage and sexuality, in spite of the difficulties we face, we may find our marriages looking closer to the idealization that Ms. Moorhead holds with such contempt.

*The article in question was published in the November edition of the monthly magazine.


Who Wears the Pants? or, The Purpose of Marriage

bridegroom1It seems that American evangelicals – conservative, liberal, emerging, and otherwise – are obsessed over the roles between husband and wife within marriage. In one corner (the typically conservative corner) we have Complementarianism, the belief that the roles of husband and wife compliment each other, which is to say that the husband is the authority and the wife submits. In the other corner (the typically liberal corner) we have Egalitarianism, the belief that the roles of husband and wife are equal, which is to say that the husband and wife share authority within the home and neither has authority over the other. The problem with the debate, however, is that it’s framed incorrectly, thus both sides end up missing the point and hold erroneous conclusions.

When forming an argument if you begin with a false premise then your conclusion will also be false and the argument invalid. In the debate between complementarians and egalitarians, both sides tend to begin with a faulty premise, namely that there is to be authority within a marriage. From the idea, “there must be authority within a marriage” both then seek to find where that authority ought to be placed. Both sides begin with the question, “Where does the authority lay?” yet neither side begins with the proper question, “What is the purpose of marriage?”

Marriage is a sacrament, at least for those who still follow the sacraments. Even for denominations that have done away with the sacraments marriage is still a very important event and taken very seriously. Even in the most country Southern Baptist Church, where the congregants would sooner drink unsweet tea and sing the praises of Lincoln and the Union than give any credence to “them Catholics,” marriage is treated as a sacrament in all but the name. In such churches, if you are over the age of 20 and not married the old women will begin to worry for you and the men will question you. No matter what strand of Christianity you run into, marriage seems to be an important aspect for that strand.

Yet, in all its importance we often fail to answer the question, “What is the purpose of marriage?” Sure, there are very practical purposes of marriage, such as having sex, having children, having a companion, and so on. Yet, one can imagine a world where such things can still occur, but marriages not exist. The Bible is clear that all of these things are to happen solely within the realm of marriage. Thus, the practical elements that come to mind, while representative of marriage, do not address the purpose of marriage. Why does God deem that these things ought to happen within marriage? Perhaps one could point to Genesis where we see that husband and wife are to “become one.” Perhaps the purpose of marriage is to become one, but what does this look like?

Of course, becoming one flesh is still just an aspect of marriage. While everyone agrees that the most successful marriages are the most self-sacrificial ones, not everyone agrees on how much self-sacrifice should be given. Seth Adam Smith (what a name) argues for total self-sacrifice, that marriage isn’t for the individual, but for the other. While popular (and mostly correct), there have been detractors. They argue (mostly correct) that marriage is about us, about a partnership. Yet, in both instances the purpose of marriage is focused on the “one flesh” and what that means. The purpose of marriage is focused on the participants in the marriage, not in the One who instituted the marriage.


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Feminism is the New Patriarchy or, Marriage Isn’t for the Weak

IMG_0235A few disclaimers before getting into what I want to say:

1) I am not actually accusing feminist ideology as being akin to patriarchy, at least not “feminism” in its proper sense. Wanting women to be equal to men is hardly patriarchal; what we make them equal in, however, is another matter.

2) The article I’m drawing from is, in all fairness, from the Daily Mail, who is one bad day away from declaring the Loch Ness Monster real (and subsequently declaring that they hate the Loch Ness Monster as it is an illegal immigrant). I would not be surprised if the article is a fake or just written to sound controversial in order to drive viewership, so perhaps I’m a sucker.

That being said…

It seems that we have lost both the picture and purpose of marriage in our so-called modern society. Apparently, Kate Thompson has decided that in her own life, she comes first while everyone else comes second. Now, certainly this article is pure hyperbole – possibly parody – as there are many contradictions within the article (after all, how does one have two children of different ages who are but a few years apart, yet claim to only have sex once a decade). Regardless, Thompson’s essay does point to a problem within our modern society, namely that the family has disappeared.

While it is in vogue within some Christian circles to blame homosexuality, rampant sexual perversion, and liberals as the reason the family has slowly disintegrated within our society, these things would serve more as symptoms of a broken family, not the cause. Were I to put the blame anywhere, if I were forced to point to just one cause of why the family unit is broken down today, I would point my finger to the Industrial Revolution. In this revolution, society revolted against its very foundation thinking it would gain prosperity, and it did, at least for a while. It required men to leave their homes and work long hours in factories and later in office buildings. Though patriarchy has always reigned supreme in almost all civilizations, in the West there was still a partnership between the husband and the wife. The husband and sons worked the field while the wife managed the household and sold the goods. Both were involved with the family.

Under modernism, men were removed from the home. The idea of a “housewife” is relatively new, though the term is not new. In the 11th and 12th centuries the ancestral English referred to married men as wer and married women as wif. Such terms worked under feudalistic societies. In England, from about the 8th to 14th century, feudalism reigned. However, around the mid-12th century to 13th century, the middle-class began to rise up. Men owned their homes and worked from them while their wives would manage the household. One way to think of it is that men were the owners of the business and their wives were the general managers. The English began to use the word husbonda for “husband” and husewif for “housewife.” The husbonda refers to someone who is a freeholder – property owner – of a house or real property. Thus, husewif refers to someone in charge of the house. 

Such terms adequately describe the middle-class living arrangements in England (and most of the west) up until the Industrial Revolution. Men were taken from the home and put into a factory, forced to work long hours. Capitalism, ironically enough, removed freedom and placed man back into a privatized feudalism. Men, removed from the home, were allowed to skirt around certain moral requirements. Men could take mistresses, could stay away from the family, could ignore their fatherly duties, and not worry about public ridicule. Women, however, were expected to maintain the close moral grounds. Feminism arose to correct this ethical inequality, but I would argue failed.

This brief history lesson brings us to the point: What we see in Thompson’s article is nothing more than patriarchy wrapped in the guise of feminism. Again, while much of it is hyperbole, it does point to a trend that is on the rise in the West. That trend is where rather than correcting men’s bad behavior, women feel obligated to cry out to act equally as bad. It would seem that feminism is not so much about correcting social norms so long as those social norms allow both sexes to be equal in their depravity. Why is it fair that men can go have sex without consequences? Rather than say that men should tame their desires, our supposedly progressive society says, “Let women have sex without consequences as well!” A man puts his career in front of his family and he’s considered a distant father. A mother does it and she’s considered a trailblazer for women’s rights.

The point isn’t to speak against feminism, but to speak against the modern system that has eradicated the family and turned us into individuals. Though each of us is an individual and unique, we are nothing apart from those closest to us. Contrary to the Randian spirit popular in today’s libertarians, no one is truly autonomous. We all exist within nations. Those nations exist because there were societies that preceded them. Those societies exist because there were cities, those cities because there were towns, and those towns because there were families. Thus, society and government exist for the family and because of the family. Lose the family and you lose the society. Yet, our modern system has begun to focus on individuals outside of the context of the family; in short, in the name of progress we are destroying ourselves.

Contrary to Thompson and what others might say, marriage is not about being happy. In fact, I would go so far as to say that marriage is not a partnership of equals (certainly men and women are equal ontologically, but in our day where metaphysics is taboo the word “equal” hardly refers to ontological situations). Marriage is when two individuals look at each other and say, “I want to remain in constant servanthood to you.” To say that marriage is about being happy means that marriage is based on an emotional status, but emotions change. To say it is about a partnership of equals is to say that marriage is no more than a merger of two companies. In both cases, self-centeredness is very much present. Self-centeredness is to a marriage what a cavity is to a tooth; something that will only invite pain, misery, and decay until addressed. Marriage is the ultimate challenge, a “duel to the death that no man of honor should decline” (as G.K. Chesterton put it), it is the putting aside of the self to acknowledge the needs of another. It is not the total abandonment of the self, but it is putting another in front of yourself, which is why marriage is sometimes not fun or “happy.”

Taken from Jacksons’ Orthodox Mission to Guatemala

I think of a picture I came across on the “Jacksons’ Orthodox Mission to Guatemala.” On their Facebook page. Their son and his wife’s wedding picture was up there. In Orthodox marriage services, it is customary for the bride and groom to walk around the table three times as a “celebratory dance” from Isaiah. Likewise, the three revolutions also represent the Trinity and how the married couple is to be unified just as the Trinity is unified. Sadly, their daughter-in-law fractured her ankle prior to the wedding. The priest instructed the son to walk around the table as a representative for him and his new bride. The son, instead, picked up his new wife and carried her around the table.

Such an act is beautiful in and of itself, but it also serves as an icon of what a marriage should be. Rather than a “partnership of equals” or a constant struggle to find happiness, marriage is a slow and difficult climb up a mountain. At times, one person must carry the other. Sometimes the clouds will clear and the view will be beautiful, while at other times the storms will threaten to toss them off the mountain. The most faithful, however, will weather the storms and, God-willing, live to reach the top. This young man, by picking up his wife, represented the reality of marriage; at times he will have to pick her up emotionally, other times she will have to pick him up.

If only we could be more honest in what marriage really is. Marriage, in its most basic and ideal form, is servanthood. Marriage is the act of willingly becoming a servant to someone else. It is not about finding happiness, it is not about “balancing” career goals with family goals. In such a contest, there is no balance because the family must come first. Perhaps I am speaking idealistically, but in a world of cynical pragmatist someone needs to be an idealist, if for no other reason that we might attempt the ideal.

The problem in our society, aside from the fact that our society exists now to bolster an anti-family economic system, is that some people don’t realize that marriage requires strength and bravery. Though many are obsessed with the idea of being married, few possess the virtue to be married. Were I to ever write a story about a couple in love, the climax would not be the moment they finally kiss, nor would it be their wedding; if I truly wished to show a love story then I would show them in the twilight of their years, having endured the struggle.

Marriage is about self-sacrifice, not self-fulfillment. Marriage is about giving and not taking. Marriage is about “you” and not “me.” It is the abandonment of the self in the pursuit of the whole. In short, marriage is about love, and love is a dangerous thing, but worthy of pursuit.

Random Thoughts (on marriage and family) for July 15

* Love is not something that is found, fallen into, or discovered. Love is something worked at, toiled over, and must be brought to fruition. Love is not an oasis we discover, but an artisan’s masterpiece, something that has much work put into it, but the rewards are more than the artisan could ever imagine.

* Marriages fail because we do not understand the essence of love, which is self-sacrifice. Such sacrifice is anathema in today’s world and yet we can’t figure out why divorce is so common.

* There is nothing more destructive to a man than to have a sensitive ego. The only thing more destructive is to have an ego to begin with.

* Our society rarely produces art or things of worth. Everything in our modern world is merely a fad and nothing is lasting because nothing is worth holding onto.

* The rich man hordes up his treasures, condemning the poor man and making his profit off his worker’s backs, but he will die just like them. It is in death that all men are truly equal.

* The family is the cornerstone of a society. When we normalize the unnormal, when we make conventional the unconventional, then we hasten our society’s destruction. If the traditional nuclear family (one that is structured properly and acts properly, for both are needed) remains normal for a society, then the society shall never fall. If the family structure breaks down, then the society will not last for more than a century.

* What is it that destroys a family? Individualism, the idea of “his” and “hers.” What is it that heals a family and protects it against all storms? Self-sacrifice.

* Sex is not “love making” because sex is not love. Sex is an expression of love, but not love itself. Love making occurs when the husband loves his wife when she’s being unlovable or the wife gives up her needs for those of her husband even when he’s been an ass.

* Couples today don’t want kids because kids are seen as inhibitors to a career and autonomy. Alas! We no longer have need of Zeus or Jupiter, for in our own narcissism we have become our own gods! We are our own idols and we sacrifice to ourselves. Even the ancient pagans weren’t bold enough to attempt such arrogance.

Hedonistic America and Marriage

In reading this article on CNN, I was struck by how our culture has completely forgotten what marriage and love are. In the article, one couple is interviewed where, though married, they live in separate homes. The reason is the father claims the kids don’t need a new mother and the wife claims that living separately helps the marriage and allows each partner to maintain their respective space. In reading the comments by CNN readers, most focus on the happiness of individuals within marriages, some going so far to say that if it makes you happy, then do it.

The idea of placing one’s happiness, so long as it brings no harm to others (but even here, we see a gray area), as the central theme to one’s morality has become quite popular in America. The above example is perfect; the obligation of husband to wife and of wife to husband, the obligation to be self-sacrificial, to be selfless, and to become one is viewed as immoral by the masses because such obligations supposedly prevent happiness. When happiness is prevented and said happiness wouldn’t necessarily bring harm to any other individual, our culture looks at the prevention and views it as wrong.

When this is applied to marriage, what we have are two individuals who come together in a legal sense, but who remain two individual. Though minimal sacrifices are made, each individual seeks to continue on in his or her independence and individuality. The idea that one can have a successful marriage that ends centers on the idea that happiness is humanity’s ultimate ethical end. Under the view that happiness is central, a marriage can be successful as long as both parties are happy. Once both parties have decided that the marriage makes them unhappy, they can peacefully obtain their divorce and be on their ways. Thus, the marriage was “successful” because both were happy for a time and amicably divorced.

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