Family / Ordinary Life / Scripture / Spirituality

Marriage: Is There a Place Between Cynicism and Idolatry?

Marriage is universal. As Christians, we know why. Genesis tells us that God created it at the very beginning of his creation of humanity. God’s creation of the first man and woman is inseparable from his creation of marriage and the first societal institution —the family. Genesis tells us that marriage was created because God thought, “it was not good that the man should be alone.” [1] So God made a woman, to be a corresponding, suitable partner for the man. When Adam saw her, he was delighted, and burst forth with a spontaneous doxology. “Wow! Bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh! Finally, here is someone like me, one of my own kind!” Proverbs tells us “whoever finds a wife, finds a good thing.”

Then why is it that everywhere we look, we see evidence of the misery marriage can produce? Tolstoy described it as “hell.” [2] Even in the Bible there is plenty of evidence of marital misery, unfaithfulness, manipulation, deceit, cruelty, abuse and sorrow. If there ever was a marriage “made in heaven” or “made by God,” it was the marriage of Adam and Eve. Yet even before the birth of their first child (i.e., during the “honeymoon” period), Adam was blaming God for giving him this troublesome woman.

What gives? Marriage is a good gift of God. And like all of God’s gifts, it can function as an idol, or God substitute. Marriage can also function as a means of serving other idols like the State, or the reproduction of children, or socio-economic success, political advancement, romantic love, sexual fulfillment or individual happiness. When marriage does function as an idol or as a means of achieving other idolatrous goals, it can only fail and bring disappointment, even cynicism. As the Psalmist wrote, “Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows.” [3] But when marriage is allowed to be what God created it to be, and to serve the purposes God created it for, it can be an enormous blessing to the married couple, their children, to everyone who interacts with them and to society as a whole.

This is true, even in a fallen world. Since every marriage is a union of 2 sinners, no marriage can be perfect. Denis De Rougemont asked, “Inasmuch as when taken one by one, most human beings of both sexes are either rogues or neurotics, why should they turn into angels the moment they are paired?” [4] He is right! But the beauty of marriage as designed by God is that it was made to cope with rogues and neurotics living in an unpredictable and tragically fallen world. It was made to gradually transform and sanctify rogues and neurotics, but only if and as they make daily choices to keep their marital promises.

Despite widespread cynicism about marriage in the United States today; despite the dramatic rise in divorce, cohabitation and unwed parenthood, most Americans rank “a happy and lasting marriage” as extremely important on their list of life goals. In their book, The Case for Marriage, Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher write, “Americans are still the marrying kind. But our ideas about what marriage means have changed in subtle ways that undermine our ability—as individuals or as a society—to achieve the goals of wedlock, creating a lasting love between a man and a woman, and a firm bond of mutual support between a mother and a father. When it comes to marriage, Americans have both high hopes and debilitating fears. As two scholars put it after an exhaustive study of the attitudes of today’s college students, “They are desperate to have only one marriage, and they want it to be happy. They don’t know whether this is possible anymore.” [5]

There are subtle and not so subtle ways in which our culture’s ideas about marriage have changed, and those changes have undermined the very thing we say we want.

Historical Highlights of Love and Marriage in Western Culture

Ancient Greco-Roman World
The Ancient Greco-Roman World was the cultural, political and legal background to the New Testament, and early Christian understandings of marriage. In that world, the purpose of marriage was procreation. In Classical Greece, a father would betroth his daughter to a bridegroom with the words: “I pledge (my daughter) for the purpose of producing legitimate children.” [6]

The Orator Apollodorus expressed the pervasive Greek male ideal: the Athenian man could have three women: his wife for producing heirs and watching over his property, his concubine for daily attention to his body (meaning sexual relations), and hetaeras (educated, high class courtesans) for pleasure (intellectual and sexual). [7]

Under Roman law, marriage (and procreation) served the State. The Emperor Augustus became concerned that upper class Roman citizen families were dying out. Between 18 B.C. and 9 A.D., he enacted marriage legislation to encourage legitimate marriage and fertility in the upper classes. The Law penalized celibates and childless couples and gave positive incentives for couples to have a minimum of three or four children (depending on their class). The Augustan Marriage legislation was ineffective, as the public reacted strongly against it and found ways around it.

Since the official purpose of marriage was procreation, men were encouraged to divorce their wives for infertility, so they could remarry and bear citizen children for Rome. [8]

Slaves were not citizens, so their procreation was irrelevant to the state and they could not be legally married. This had serious consequences for the Christian Church. Within the Greco-Roman upper classes, far more women than men were converted to Christianity, so the only available Christian men for them to marry were slaves. Second and third century pagan attacks on the Christians refer to the problem of Christian women being forced to marry pagans or to cohabit with Christian slaves in a kind of common-law marriage. Roman civil law prohibited this, and it was acknowledged by the Church only by Bishop Callistus, who had himself been a slave before becoming bishop of Rome in the early third century. [9]

It is interesting that Priscilla is an upper class Roman name, and Acquila is a common slave name. It is likely that he was a freedman, and that this New Testament couple formed an inter-class marriage!

Under Roman Law, during the N.T. period, the paterfamilias (the oldest male in a Roman family) had the power to make and break his children’s marriages. This was usually done to improve the economic or political status of the family. Over time, however, the couple’s consent gained legal and social weight, and it became more difficult for a father to force his children to marry or divorce against their will. While no one expected them to be “in love” at marriage, mutual affection was seen as desirable and it was expected that love would grow after marriage.

In the Greco-Roman world, it was believed that the gods and goddesses of love, like Eros and Aphrodite, would afflict people with romantic passion, which they had no control over. For example, in Euripedes’ play Hippolytus, [10] Aphrodite punished Hippolytus for his sin of chastity by causing his stepmother to fall in love with him. Tragedy ensued, including murder and death.

Understanding this Greek view of love helps explain the common pagan response to Christian sexual morality. Many Pagans marveled at the Christian’s sexual freedom—freedom from being driven by uncontrollable romantic and sexual passion and freedom to be chaste while single and monogamous when married.

The Middle Ages (1100 to 1500)
During this time period was the birth of romantic love. The story of Heloise and Abelard, one scholar writes, “still has the shock value of a romance-cum-horror story” but it is true. Denis de Rougemont describes Abelard and Heloise as “the earliest passionate lovers whose story has reached us” through an abundance of courtly poems and letters.” [11]

Abelard met Heloise in 1118, when he was 37 years old, and a well-known master of theology. She was 15. They fell in love and she was willingly seduced. During their passionate love affair, Heloise became pregnant. Her uncle insisted that Abelard marry her, and he agreed, but wanted the marriage to be secret, since according to canon law, he would not be allowed to continue teaching philosophy and theology if it was known that he was married. But after their son was born, Heloise objected to marrying, because of the commonly held belief that family life was incompatible with the life of a scholar. As Abelard later put it, “What person, absorbed by religious or philosophic meditations, could endure the crying of newborn babies, the songs of their nurses to quiet them, the noisy crowd of servants? What disgust in having to bear the continual filth of little children!” Heloise preferred to be called Abelard’s “friend, sister and lover” rather than ruin his career by becoming his wife.

However, they did marry secretly to honor her uncle’s wishes, but lived separately. Soon after, her uncle, Fulbert, began to beat Heloise, and Abelard abducted her and placed her in an abbey for safety. Fulbert took revenge. With the help of a friend, he overpowered Abelard in his sleep and castrated him. Abelard believed this was God’s judgment for his sexual sin, so he withdrew to a cloister as a celibate cleric and ordered that Heloise become a nun, permanently. Both of them donned the habit the same day. She was 17 and he was 39. They were legally married, and there were no outside obstacles preventing them from living together as man and wife. Yet Heloise and Abelard never saw each other again. Abelard lived another 24 years as a monk, writer, teacher and founder of the abbey of Paraclet, in which, ironically, Heloise would rise to the rank of abbess. Heloise wrote Abelard two impassioned, erotic love letters, reproaching him for abandoning her. Abelard never replied. He died in 1144, and she died twenty years later and was buried beside her husband. [12]

How can we explain this bizarre story of tortured love? There’s at least one influence that sheds some light on this couple’s story: the role of early medieval Catholicism and its embracing of Greek dualism.

During the early middle ages, the Catholic Church gradually took over the jurisdiction of marriage. Catholic teaching carried on the tradition of the most ascetic of the fourth century Church Fathers, who had been strongly influenced by Greek dualism, which denigrated the body in contrast to the spirit. They taught that there was a radical disjunction between “spiritual” vocations, like teaching theology and “secular” vocations, including marriage and family life. They also taught that the only purpose of sexual relations was procreation, and that enjoyment of sex was sinful. Lives of the saints, sung or recited, extolled those who had taken vows of chastity. For example, The Life of Saint Alexius (circa 1050) told the story of a man’s ascension to sainthood which began when he abandoned his wife on their wedding night and fled to live in poverty. [13]

Pope Leo IX condemned clerical marriage in 1049. But in the early Middle Ages, a significant number of priests lived with concubines, and some were married, even though marriage disqualified men from rising in the church hierarchy.

The Church’s teaching helps explain why Heloise and Abelard could not reconcile the mundaneness of marriage and family life with the work of a cleric and scholar. It also explains Abelard’s self-punishing masochism in refusing to live with the wife he loved (not to mention his cruelty to her). Sexual passion, even in marriage, was considered sinful. It is strangely fitting that Abelard and Heloise’s lives coincided with what scholars call the birth of romantic love. Denis de Rougemont even dates what he calls “the rebirth of eros” to 1118, the year Abelard and Heloise met for the first time, and the century in which love was first recognized as a passion worth cultivating.

Romantic love and attraction have existed in all times and places. What else could the writer of Proverbs be referring to when he marvels at the “way of a man with a maid (young woman)?” [14] He says it is a mystery “too wonderful” for him, something that he “does not understand.” Romantic love is universal, but cultural conditioning plays an enormous part in its meaning and expression. A very particular form of romantic love began in Europe in the twelfth century French aristocratic courts and has profoundly impacted Western culture ever since. It was named “courtly love,” and was made fashionable and spread by the songs and poems of the troubadours.

From its birth, this kind of romantic love was emphatically not considered a basis for marriage. As the twelfth century writer Andreas Capellanus wrote in The Art of Courtly Love, “Everybody knows that love can have no place between husband and wife.” [15]

Twelfth century European culture dictated that love could only occur between an unmarried man and another man’s wife. Its model was the perfect knight and the inaccessible idealized lady, usually the wife of a king (i.e., Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, the wife of King Arthur,). It should either go sexually unconsummated or adulterous.

Richard De Fournival, physician to the King of France in the thirteenth century described love as a “folly of the mind, an unquenchable fire, a hunger without surfeit, an agreeable illness, a sweet delight, a pleasing madness.” [16]

In his book Love in the Western World, Denis de Rougemont writes that love defined by this tradition “feeds on obstacles, short excitations, and partings.” It is “unstable” and “though it may overcome many obstacles, it almost always fails at one. That is the obstacle constituted by time.” [17] This is why it is incompatible with marriage, an institution set up to be lasting, no matter what time brings along, including all the regular unromantic chores like taking out the garbage and changing diapers, or dealing with a failed septic system that has backed up into your basement (this has happened to us four times in fifteen years!), and the challenges of aging, economic losses, accidents, serious illnesses and death.

De Rougemont argues that romantic love, as defined by this tradition, is also incompatible with happiness. It is more in love with love, with passion and with being in love, than with the beloved. It is intrinsically unfulfillable, because its fire is only kept burning by obstacles, and it often ends in death, as in the myth of Tristan and Iseult, Romeo and Juliet, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Elvira Madigan, or Dr. Zhivago.

Romantic love, or eros, so defined, differs dramatically from Christian love, agape, which is active love of your neighbor as yourself. Marriages do not survive without large daily doses of agape love. If de Rougemont is correct, the cultivation of romantic love began in Europe as a reaction against Christianity, and in particular to its doctrine of marriage, which had became an object of contempt. These ideas came from people, who though nominally Christian, were still pagan in their spirits. [18]

The Reformation Period
What was the impact of the Protestant Reformers on love and marriage? They are our spiritual forbears, whose allegiance to Scripture before Church and Tradition transformed marriage and family life in ways we now take for granted.

Few people have influenced the institution of marriage more than Martin Luther. [19] In letters and tracts, he directly challenged the Catholic Church’s insistence on the celibacy of priests. He rejected the Greek dualism that idealized virginity. He argued from Scripture that those not gifted with chastity should marry. Otherwise, they would either be tormented by desire or commit sexual sin; and marriage was a purer state than either of those alternatives. He recommended marriage to everyone, both priest and layman, and taught that mutual love between husband and wife was a God-given mandate, and couples should study to be pleasing to each other.

In 1525, at age 42, Luther decided to practice what he preached, and he married 26-year-old Katherina von Bora, a runaway nun from the Cistercian convent. Here’s the story: Convinced by the ideas of the Reformation, Katherina and eleven sister nuns decided to renounce their vows. Luther arranged for them to escape, hidden in a wagon among herring barrels. After a dangerous journey, through German countryside divided by fierce religious factions, they were delivered to the Augustinian monastery at Wittenberg, where Luther was a monk and professor of biblical theology. A Wittenberg student wrote to a friend, “a few days ago a wagonload of vestal virgins came to town, more eager for wedlock than for life. God grant them husbands before they fare worse!” [20]

Luther felt responsible to find husbands or suitable positions for the nuns. In the end, all were provided for but Katherina. Because of her poverty, the man she loved was pressured by his family to marry someone else, leaving her with a broken heart. Luther then chose a Dr. Glatz for Katherina, but she refused to accept him on any terms. She humbly sent word to Luther that she would be willing to marry his friend Dr. Amsdorf or Luther himself. Luther had no intention of marrying because he expected at any moment to be burned at the stake as a heretic. But after some thought, he decided that marriage would give a status to Katherina and a testimony to his faith. He summed up his reasons for marrying with three points: “to please his father (who wanted progeny), to spite the pope and the Devil, and to seal his witness before martyrdom.” [21]

Martin and Katherina’s marriage did not begin as a “love match” but they came to love each other deeply. Luther wrote “I am not infatuated, but I cherish my wife,” and “I would not exchange Katie for France or for Venice, because God has given her to me, and other women have worse faults.” Luther wrote that a Christian is bound to love his neighbor as himself. His wife is his nearest neighbor; therefore she should be his dearest friend. He wrote, “The first love is drunken. When the intoxication wears off, then comes the real marriage love…Union of flesh does nothing (by itself). There must also be union of manners and mind. Katie, you have a husband that loves you.” [22]

The Luthers had six children (two of whom died) and they ran a large extended household including six or seven orphaned nephews and nieces, the four children of one of Luther’s widowed friends, Katherina’s aunt, tutors for the children, servants, Luther’s student boarders, other guests and a stream of Protestant refugees.

Martin and Katherina’s attitude toward their children and domestic life could not have differed more from the attitude of Heloise and Abelard. There was nothing “unspiritual” about raising children that made it incompatible with teaching theology. Luther believed that due to the exacting nature of family life, it was a far better training ground for character (daily patience, charity, fortitude and humility) than a monastery ever could be. And he thoroughly enjoyed his home. He wrote of his first baby, “Hans is cutting his teeth and beginning to make a joyous nuisance of himself. These are the joys of marriage of which the pope is not worthy.” Martin hung out diapers, to the neighbors’ amusement. He replied, “Let them laugh. God and the angels smile in heaven.” At one point, Martin cried out to one of his children: “Child what have you done that I should love you so? What with your befouling the corners and bawling through the whole house? I would not exchange you for all the kingdoms of Europe.” [23] When their fourteen-year-old daughter, Magdalena died in Martin’s arms, he and Katherina were overcome with grief.

Here’s one other story from the Reformation period. Widbrandis Rosenblatt (1504-1564) outlived four husbands (three of them reformers), giving birth, in total to eleven children and raising more children from her husbands’ previous marriages.

While grieving over the death of her third husband, who died of the plague, Widbrandis was summoned to the deathbed of another reformer’s wife, Elisabeth Butzer, who was also stricken with the plague. The dying woman pleaded with Widbrandis to marry her soon-to-be-widowed husband. Marilyn Yalom writes, “This deathbed appeal from one woman to another says something about the kind of people they must have been: a wife concerned for the future well-being of her husband, a widow whose reputation for goodness and hard work had preceded her. Widbrandis married Butzer the following year.” [24] Butzer wrote of his appreciation for his second wife, while still grieving over the death of Elizabeth.

This story is not unusual.For most of history, marriage has been a practical necessity. Until industrialization, economic work has centered in the home and children were needed to share the work. When a husband or wife died (which happened frequently), the living spouse had to find a new spouse as soon as possible, to share the work and parenting.

The Sixteenth & Seventeenth Centuries
By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, thanks to the spread of literacy and the printing press, and to poets and playwrights, especially Shakespeare, romantic love was a familiar theme in Europe. But the advice literature, medical treatises and sermons of the time overwhelmingly rejected both romantic love and lust as appropriate reasons to marry.

“Falling in love” was considered a “mild form of insanity, in which judgment and prudence were thrown to the winds.” [25] To protect the young from impulsively marrying on the basis of love, most European countries made marriage under the age of 21 illegal and invalid unless done with the consent of parents or guardians. (In England this became law in 1753.) [26]

The Puritans [27] were children of the Reformation in England and America. Despite their reputation, they were anything but squeamish about sex.

Samuel Willard, the author of the most complete textbook of Puritan divinity in the late seventeenth century, frequently expressed horror at “the Popish conceit [28] of the Excellency of Virginity.” The New England clergy, the most Puritanical of the Puritans, believed that sexual intercourse was a human necessity and marriage the only proper context for it. They taught that sexual love is good in itself, not only for procreation, and they discouraged abstinence. William Whateley’s conduct book, written in 1623, encouraged “mutual dalliances [29] for pleasure’s sake” in bed, with wives having the same rights to initiate sex and experience sexual satisfaction as their husbands! The poet John Donne (1571-1631) wrote that lovemaking was about uninhibited mutual pleasure, a union of body and soul.

Being totally realistic about the power of sexual temptation, especially in the young, the Puritans encouraged early marriage. It was the parents’ duty to find suitable husbands and wives for their children. “Suitability” must include spiritual compatibility, mutual attraction and affection. William Perkins wisely warned, “He or she who marries where they affect not, will affect where they marry not!” In other words, you’d better marry someone you’re attracted to, otherwise, you will surely be attracted to someone you’re not married to. While economic concerns were normal in matchmaking, Puritan ministers forbade parents to arrange marriages purely for economic gain or against the will of their children.

There was only one limitation the Puritans placed on marital affection and sexual relations: they must not interfere with religion. The chief purpose of humanity is to glorify God, and all “earthly delights” and pleasures must serve that end, not compete with it. John Cotton wrote, “Husband and wife must not become so transported with affection that they look at no higher end than marriage itself.” [30] In other words, marital love is not to be treated as an idol.

The Protestant Reformation introduced two important characteristics of marriage that were continued by the Puritans.

First, the Reformation challenged the dualism between “sacred and secular” and “spirit and body” that placed theological study, the church, monasticism and celibacy above marriage, family, sexuality and childbearing. It restored the biblical vision that all of life is spiritual, except for sin; and in the process, dramatically raised the status of marriage and the wife, and helped create a new model of family relations, which is still with us. Also, love (including sexual attraction) now belonged within marriage, rather than in romanticized adulterous affairs.

Second, the Reformers and Puritans also shared a vision of marriage which serves a higher purpose—the glory of God and his Kingdom. This helps us understand the “unromantic” deathbed-arranged marriage described earlier.

These Reformation couples understood themselves as companions and partners in nurturing their children’s moral development and in creating a Christian community. Encouraged to read the Bible in Luther’s vernacular translation, they began a tradition of mixed-gender Bible study that is still with us. The wives shared their husband’s zeal for the Reformation and the many dangers and hardships that resulted from the religious strife. [31]

And their generous practice of Christian hospitality was formidable, welcoming orphans, extended family, traveling teachers, and religious refugees into their homes, often for long periods of time. These families took literally Jesus’ teaching that as we welcome the needy and the stranger in his name, we welcome Jesus Himself.

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries
By the late eighteenth century, it was almost universally assumed that young people would decide for themselves who to marry, though parental consent was still important.

Mutual attraction was increasingly valued. During the late eighteenth century in New England, rural parents often encouraged young courting couples to sleep together, fully clothed, within the safety of the family home, to test their attraction! This practice was called “bundling.” and ministers often preached against it. During the heyday of “bundling,” (the 1780s), there was, not surprisingly, a surge in premarital pregnancies in New England. Nearly 30% of brides were pregnant on their wedding day. [32] In the 1830s, more than 20% of brides were pregnant. [33]

Romantic love and the romantic novel grew together after 1780. Initially novels were considered harmful, particularly for women, because they implicitly taught women to act on their feelings, and encouraged an “extravagant and false view of life.” [34] But gradually, romantic love became a respectable motive for marriage among the propertied classes. By the 1850s, the vision of romantic love elaborated in books and magazines became the only acceptable basis for marriage, more important than family connection, financial prospects or religious affiliation.

Jane Austin wrote her novels in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. All of her heroines insist on marrying for love and not economic security. They hold out against formidable family and social pressures, and—lucky for them—end up getting love and money! Austin’s novels invariably end with a wedding (or two). The way her characters develop give the readers confidence that these will be good marriages, but we are left to imagine how love sustains the couples in the daily, unromantic challenges of family life. Her stories encourage a romanticized picture of marriage for her heroines.

While young people enjoyed their increased freedom to marry for love, this new ideal brought problems of its own. Successful courtship now depended on “falling in love” which could not always be arranged. A young minister told a friend in 1797, “I now must wait to be impelled by some (irresistible) impulse.” [35] Young people struggled to recognize what the feeling of love is so they might not mistake it for other feelings. Ellen Rothman writes, “Efforts to measure love involved a series of negative calculations: it must be “more compelling than friendship, more lasting than passion, more serious than romance.” [36]

The marriage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert was a famous love match which did not start out that way. I highly recommend a BBC production (on DVD) of their story.

Where We Are Today
While some extremist groups attack marriage directly, Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher describe the contemporary war on marriage as not so much a “frontal assault from outside enemies but a sideways tug-of-war inside each of us between competing values: between rights and needs, between individualism and community, between fear and hope, between freedom and love. On the one hand, we cherish marriage as the repository of our deepest hopes and wishes to forge stable families, to find lasting love. On the other hand, we fear being ‘tied down’ or ‘trapped’ and jealously guard our right to redefine ourselves and our lives, with or without our partners’ consent.” [37]

Feelings of Cynicism
There is widespread cynicism about marriage as a lifelong commitment. In the United States today, only 56% of all adults are married, compared with 75% thirty years ago. Laura Kipnis, author of Against Love, A Polemic, writes, “for a significant percentage of the population, marriage just doesn’t turn out to be as gratifying as it promises. In other words, the institution itself isn’t living up to its vows.” [38]

For many, Christian marriage is particularly intolerable and unrealistic because it restricts sexual intimacy to monogamous, lifelong, heterosexual marriage. From all quarters, we pick up the message, directly and indirectly, that healthy people have active sex lives (whether they are married or not). [39] The fact that sex is now readily available without marriage is one significant reason for fewer and later marriages.

In earlier centuries, it was not uncommon for brides to be pregnant on their wedding day. But those couples did not generally have sexual intercourse until they were engaged. As the twentieth century progressed, it became increasingly common for couples who were dating or going steady to be sexually intimate (at some level).

But on secular college campuses today, not only is sex disconnected from marriage (present or future plans), but from dating and romance. One student writes, “College is about casual sex, hooking up and one-night stands, often when drunk.” It’s sex unburdened with meaning. Not surprisingly, STD’s are at epidemic levels on secular college campuses today.

I wish I could say that attitudes and behavior are totally different among Christians. But many professing Christians seem to experience very little dissonance between their faith and casual sex. One sixteen year old told me that she had sex because it was easier than talking. Some are sexually promiscuous, while dreaming of a future Christian marriage to a wonderful godly spouse. There seems to be no connection in their minds between the lives they are living now and the futures they envision for themselves. No question about whether the godly spouse of their dreams would want to marry someone who is living as they are now and no questions about the impact of their present choices on their future moral character and their ability to be faithful to a spouse.

Our culture still saturates us with an updated version of the medieval ideology of romantic love. Marriage and family are too banal for romance. Grand romantic passion can only happen in adulterous affairs.

For example, in The Bridges of Madison County, after a three-day affair, Robert, a divorced National Geographic photographer, tells Francesca, the wife of an Iowa farmer, “My whole life has brought me here to you…Do you think love like this happens to everyone? We’re hardly two separate people. We’re fused. This kind of certainty comes but once in a lifetime…Is it right giving it up? Don’t throw us away…Come away with me.”

In this genre of romance stories, the grand passion is fleeting, unfulfillable and ultimately a fantasy. If Francesca went off with Robert, what are the chances that he wouldn’t neglect her like he did his first wife, through his obsession with photography and travel? The everyday routines of life would inevitably change their relationship, and their romance would be tarnished with their guilt and the pain inflicted on Francesca’s husband and children. While knowing these things in our heads, these kinds of stories can still breed discontent with our marriages, and tempt us to throw away a good but imperfect marriage (there are no perfect ones!) to chase a fantasy. The book, The Bridges of Madison County, by the way, was incredibly popular—a runaway best seller for many months.

In America today, divorce is so commonplace, that it is possible to speak of “A Divorce Culture” as Barbara Defoe Whitehead does in her book by that title. According to one estimate, half of all marriages made in the mid-1970s will end in divorce. And for marriages made more recently, some demographers project that as many as 64 percent will end in divorce. [40]

Whitehead writes: “With each passing year, the culture of divorce becomes more deeply entrenched. American children are routinely schooled in divorce. Mr. Rogers (taught) toddlers about divorce. An entire children’s literature is devoted to divorce.” While well motivated, these books, movies and T.V. shows “carry an unmistakable message about the impermanence and unreliability of family bonds. Like romantic love, the children’s storybooks say, family love comes and goes. Daddies disappear. Mommies find new boyfriends. Mommies’ boyfriends leave. Grandparents go away. Even pets must be left behind.” [41] Not surprisingly, many children of divorce are extremely cynical about marriage as a relationship of permanent commitment. [42]

Tragically, divorce is sometimes necessary, and the lesser of evils, but far less frequently than is often assumed. While many Americans prefer to believe that children are infinitely resilient and divorce does no long-term damage to them, all the evidence points the other way. Longitudinal studies tracking the impact of divorce on children over a twenty-five-year period have shown on-going negative consequences, including greater difficulty in forming permanent marital commitments themselves. [43] It turns out that children are not always better off when the parents are happily divorced rather than unhappily married.

There are many movies and T.V. shows that are cynical about the possibility of healthy male/female relationships or marriage, frequently depicting men and women as mutual predators. Lee Siegel, writing for the New Republic [44] describes the popular T.V. series Sex in the City as “an assault on heterosexual romantic hope.” The four single thirty-something women who are looking for love and happiness in the city are constantly trashed by the creepy men they have sex with, and the women themselves alienate the only decent guys in the show by their own creepy behavior. I recently learned that (at least in California!) professed Christian women have Sex in the City parties, where they get together to drink martinis, watch reruns, and air their grievances about men.

Marriage is Still Popular
Despite rampant cynicism, marriage is still very popular, and for good reason. Contrary to commonly held anti-marriage myths, research consistently shows that married people live longer, are healthier, wealthier, happier, and have more satisfying sex lives than single people. [45]

There is a decline in the proportion of Americans marrying, and especially, marrying successfully, yet marriage remains an extremely important goal to most Americans. Ninety-three percent of Americans rate “having a happy marriage” as either one of the most important or very important objectives. [46] Yet, they fear this may be impossible to achieve.

Several years ago, I audited a class on Feminist Theory at Clarke University. A number of women in the class expressed a longing for a reliable, faithful husband who would enable them to raise children at home. But their mothers had stayed home with children and their dads had walked out, leaving them poor and with no job skills. They realized that they had to be financially independent, whether they married or not. Similar fears motivate many people to begin marriage with pre-nuptial contracts as insurance, just in case the marriage fails.

Even when the word “marriage” is not spoken, there is a longing for what marriage represents—a permanent relationship of love and commitment. Think of the popularity of romantic comedies (especially among single women). All romantic comedies are about finding Mr. (or Ms.) Right, or finding your soul mate. The implication is that this is the person you will spend your life with.

But intrinsic to these movies, is the assumption that a certain chemistry—reciprocal romantic love—is the ONLY basis for a lasting relationship. For example, here’s a letter sent to Dear Abby’s advice column in 1998:

I have been engaged to a wonderful man for more than two years and cannot seem to set a wedding date. He loves me and my 9-year-old daughter. He does all of the laundry, the dishes and the cleaning, and he accepts my daughter as his own. He works two jobs so we don’t go without anything.
Sounds perfect, right?
The problem is, I don’t think I love him. I say that I do, but I don’t feel it. He is all a woman could ask for in a husband, but is that enough to replace love? Or have I read too many romance novels?
He wants to get married as soon as possible. I am 29, have never been married and I feel my daughter needs a father. I am also afraid I won’t find a man who will ever love me as much as he does.
Can I find a man whom I love, who accepts my daughter as his own—or should I marry a man I don’t love but who would be a wonderful husband and father?

Abby’s response:
If you marry this man, knowing in your heart that you do not love him, you will be doing yourself and him a great disservice. Marriage is supposed to last forever. And forever is a long time to live with yourself, feeling that you sold out because you were afraid you wouldn’t find a man you can love. Let him go. [47]

Think about the assumptions behind this correspondence. With the exception of a wedding ceremony, all of the elements which anthropologists recognize as universal to marriage and family are already present in this relationship: They are living together, raising a daughter together, working together for the family’s well-being, and (presumably) having a sexual relationship. On top of that, the man’s feelings and actions prove that he loves the woman and her daughter very much. The only thing missing is a feeling of romantic love on the part of the woman. (She wonders herself whether her doubts comes from too many romance novels!) Yet to Abby, since the woman’s romantic feelings do not match the man’s, all those universal elements of marriage/family that already exist should be thrown away.

Though she promised to marry him over two years ago, this woman has no obligations to the man who has sacrificed so much for her and her daughter; nor does she have any duty to her daughter, who has come to know him “like a father.”

This is the ethic of expressive individualism at work. When your highest obligation is to yourself, it becomes your moral obligation to leave a marriage or (or virtual marriage), when you experience any personal dissatisfaction with it. It is your moral obligation to break promises and solemn vows.

Finding Your Partner Today
There is widespread anxiety today about how to find a spouse. Dick and I have heard the same complaint, over and over again by single thirty-something friends. The men say “there are no good women left” while the women complain “there are no good men left.” [48]

Since Americans are marrying later, they are less likely to meet their spouses in school or college. The pattern at Christian colleges is different, and more students are engaged by graduation. This is not necessarily good; for example, when Christians interpret romantic/sexual attraction as the Holy Spirit’s clear guidance. Divorce statistics for Christian college graduates are not that different from divorce statistics for the general population.

Single men and women spend most of their time at work, but fears of sexual harassment suits have made dating co-workers risky. Some companies even forbid it. The bar scene is horribly depressing. If you do not meet people at church (or L’Abri) or some kind of voluntary club, where can you meet potential spouses?

It should not be surprising that matchmaking has become a huge on-line business, catering to the generation that already surfs the web for everything else. There are websites for every group, including busy professionals, Christians, and those who want to hook up just for sex.

In the first half of 2003, Americans spent $214.3 million on personals and dating sites. Forty million Americans visited at least one online dating site in the month of August 2003. [49]

The web opens up a vast pool of potential mates, unlimited by contexts of time, history or space. Clearly there are negatives to this. There is the shopping metaphor: with your profile and photo, you sell yourself—or different versions of yourself—to different websites.

The absence of any real life context makes it much easier for people to deceive, use, cheat on and dump each other and then disappear into thin air, without a trace.

There is also the temptation to never commit to a good relationship, because of over-choice. If I just put one more new, improved profile on a few more websites, and give it another six months, I may find the perfect man or woman of my dreams! You can now check and find out whether the person you are seriously dating really has removed his or her profiles from dating sites.

But I don’t think on-line dating is all negative. I heard an Indian woman on public radio who said she wouldn’t mind an arranged marriage, but the traditional Hindu marriage broker was too expensive and knew too few men who fit her and her parents’ specifications for a husband. She considered on-line Indian courtship as a kind of arranged marriage, enabling her to show her parents a dozen profiles of men who fit both her and their requirements for a husband.

The web is the route for those who want to be pro-active and there are many happy stories of couples that have found each other on-line.

Others, however, are resisting what the N.Y. Times calls the “Dating Industrial Complex,” the barrage of websites, matchmaking services and books. [50] The obsessive search for a partner requires a lot of time and energy and more are deciding to “let romance happen by chance not commerce.” [51]

Trusting to chance, fate or serendipity is reinforced by huge numbers of romantic comedies, which tell stories of a secularized Providence bringing people together. [52] Often their trust in serendipity leads them to break existing engagements and to other questionable behavior (as in the John Cusack movie Serendipity). I spoke with a woman recently who told me that her sister (a Christian) breaks up with her boyfriend every time she watches a romantic comedy. Now there may be good reasons for her to break up with him, but that is a very poor one! One Christian seminary professor and counselor says that romantic comedies often function for women as pornography does for men—as addictions to fantasies.

There is certainly a need for Christians to come up with healthy alternatives to our culture’s dating chaos. Some Christian families are adopting one or another so-called courtship model. [53] Historically, arranged marriages have been successful, and in some cultures, they still are today. But cultural context is enormously important, and where marriages have been arranged, the practice has been common and supported by the entire culture. Also, young people ordinarily have had veto power (except among the upper classes and royalty). It is particularly important in a culture like ours, which puts such a high premium on romantic attraction, to remember the wise admonition of the Puritan preacher: “Those who marry where they affect not, will affect where they marry not.” Mutual attraction should never be the only consideration, but it is an important one.

Marriage in the Bible
Beware of Idols
God’s greatest gifts are those things we are most likely to treat as God substitutes, or idols. Throughout history, marriage and family have served as some of the most powerful idols.

In the parable of the great dinner (Luke 14:15-24), a dinner guest exclaimed to Jesus, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” Jesus responded with a surprising story about the different excuses people will make to avoid “eating bread in the kingdom of God.” The first couldn’t come to the banquet because he had to inspect his new field; the second had to try out his new oxen; and the third just got married. The master was furious and sent the servant out to bring in the poor, blind, lame and anyone else who would come. Jesus ended with the words, “For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.”

Think about this. The invited guests turned down an invitation to feast with God the Father and Son at their Kingdom banquet! They turned down salvation! The three excuses given represent three universal idol systems, which in every age have served as God substitutes. They are property or wealth, work and marriage/family.

Some of Jesus’ most disturbing statements are direct challenges to the idolatry of marriage and family. [54] For example, “unless you hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even life itself, you cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27).

Jesus relativized marriage and blood family, making them subservient to the Kingdom of God. To Jesus, the “first family” is the family of God’s adopted children, which we enter by being born again. The biological family is the “second family.” [55]

When his family came looking for him, Jesus asked, “Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:31-35, Mt. 12:46-50, Luke 8:19-21).

Paul consistently used family language to describe the Church. He too saw the biological family as secondary to the Church, the “first family.”

For Romans and Jews, marriage and childbearing were mandatory duties. Probably the most radical challenge to the idolatry of marriage was Jesus and Paul’s teaching that singleness was a high call for the sake of the Kingdom of God (Mt 19:12). Paul wrote that marriage brings distress and anxieties, especially at times of crisis. He recommended the single life because unmarried men and women have a vocational freedom to serve Christ with “unhindered, undivided devotion” that is impossible for married people (1 Cor 7:28-38). The immediate context of Paul’s advice was probably the imminent destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D.

I recently reread the amazing story of Gladys Aylward, a London parlormaid who went to China in 1930. Her missionary work in war-ravaged China made her a legend in her own life-time. [56] During her time in China, Gladys fell in love with a Nationalist Chinese officer, Colonel Linnan. “Few love affairs can have flourished in circumstances stranger than that of Gladys and Linnan. They met at odd moments in the mountains, in shattered villages, in bombed towns. They talked at odd moments between battles and births and baptisms. They exchanged scraps of news, had a meal together, talked of the future they would build in the new China. His concern, his gentleness, his tenderness toward her never wavered. They discussed marriage; he was eager that they should marry at once, live together as man and wife as best they could, war or no war. It was Gladys who said, ‘No.’ The war had to be won first. Marriage, their personal happiness, must wait.” [57]

By this time, Gladys was an adoptive mother to five Chinese orphans and several adults and she was spying on the Japanese invaders. They found out and put a price on her head. A fugitive, ill, and without money or food, she led 100 homeless children in an epic journey across the wild Chinese mountains to safety. Soon after, she collapsed in delirium and was not expected to live. Colonel Linnan found her, as she was recovering, and implored her to marry him. But now, “Instead of that inner exultation, the rounded delight of knowing that she loved and was loved in return, there was this nagging anxiety to do the right thing by her God, her children, and the man she loved…There was so much work to be done for the Lord, and she, the small woman, the small disciple, had her part to play in that work.”

(Weeping, she) “said good-bye to him at the station outside Sian, and walked back through the narrow streets with an overwhelming ache of loneliness in her heart, aware that she would never know completely if she had acted wisely or not—only that through all her waking days she would remember Linnan as the one man she had loved. The war swept him away and she never saw him again.” [58]

How do you react to this story? If Gladys Aylward’s painful decision to refuse marriage to the man she loved seems totally unthinkable to you, I would suggest that marriage may be an idol in your life. Her situation was an exact illustration of Paul’s teaching in 1 Cor 7 and of Jesus’ call to take up the cross and follow him. Personal happiness is not our highest calling. The Kingdom of God is.

Marriage can be an idol in itself, but it can also serve other idols, like the State, as in ancient Rome. It can serve materialistic idols of upward mobility, the love of money, the American dream. [59] The recent Cohen brother’s film, Intolerable Cruelty is a very funny and canny depiction of those who use marriage and divorce as a means of getting richer (repeatedly marrying and divorcing “up”). [60]

Marriage can also serve the idol of motherhood and procreation. Jesus challenged this idol when a woman cried out to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” Without denigrating motherhood, Jesus expanded her view of womanhood, saying, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” The blessing of discipleship is accessible to anyone—man or woman, young or old, married or single, parent or not. Jesus rejected the common view that a woman without children was by definition “barren,” “cursed” and outside of God’s blessing (Luke 11:27-28).

Marriage can serve the idol of individual personal happiness, as in the Dear Abby letter.

If you have a list of qualifications for the spouse you want to marry, check that list carefully for idols. Does your mate have to be a beauty queen (or king)? I have met a surprising number of Christians (mostly men) who have a list of physical qualifications, like “she must be at least 5’8” tall, blond, have a good figure,” etc. Perhaps Christian women have similar lists, but are less honest about admitting it, I don’t know.

Remember the words of Proverbs 31:30: “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman (or man) who fears the Lord is to be praised.” Even the most gorgeous grow old, wrinkle, change shape, and are vulnerable to defacing accidents and illnesses. If a particular definition of beauty is too important to you, you will be attracted to other people, especially as your spouse ages.

It is good to be romantically and sexually attracted to your spouse. But if a fantasy version of romance and sexual fulfillment are number one on your list of specifications, you will start looking outside your marriage for more exciting romance and hotter sex.

All idols kill love and therefore undermine or destroy marriage. When we treat marriage as an idol, we put impossible demands on our spouses to fill the place of God for us. When the state, work, money, power, happiness, children or sex are idols, anyone who gets in the way of those goals is crushed.

What is Marriage?
Some Pharisees tried to test Jesus by drawing him into a contemporary Jewish debate about divorce. The asked him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” [61]

Rather than choosing sides in the debate, Jesus referred them to the central issue, the created nature and purpose of marriage. “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

What do we learn here about the nature and purpose of marriage? It is a heterosexual union between a man and a woman. It means leaving the parent/child relationship and establishing a new social unit. While Scripture commands us to respect and care for birth family members, the center of commitment, submission, loyalty, and decision-making is now with the new couple.

Marriage is “cleaving,” or “adhering to” your partner, exhibiting the strong commitment to the new relationship. The Hebrew word means “loyal affection.”

“Becoming one flesh” is the purpose and goal of the leaving-cleaving complex. Jesus says they are no longer two, but one, having been joined together by God.

The sexual union is an expression of the whole person union of marriage. It accomplishes many good purposes; for example, procreation, unity and pleasure. [62] And the Bible never ranks these purposes or justifies marital sex by them.

Paul commanded married couples not to deprive each other of their conjugal rights. He assumed the woman’s sexual desires and needs as much as the man’s, as well as their equal rights to initiate sexual intimacy and experience sexual pleasure (1 Cor 7).

Similarly, the writer of Proverbs exhorted husbands to “rejoice in the wife of your youth” for the rest of your lives (i.e., as she ages!). May her breasts satisfy you at all times; may you be intoxicated always by her love” (Prov 5:15-23).

Recently, two large national sex surveys concluded that married couples experience the most satisfying sex, physically and emotionally, than any other group. Another national poll found that married men and women (many of them church goers) with “traditional” ideas about the meaning of sex as a sacred union, exclusive to marriage, and a sign and symbol of their conjugal commitment, experience the best sex of all! [63] Given our culture’s myths about “hot sex,” these statistics may seem surprising. But if we believe God made sex for marriage, we shouldn’t be surprised.

The problem with non-marital sexual intercourse is that it performs a life-uniting act without a life-uniting intent, and thereby violates its intrinsic meaning. What God hates about it is not the sex act itself, but the walking away afterward, the exploitation and abandonment of the person you have been “one flesh” with. It is also sin against our own bodies, which are united with Christ and temples of the Holy Spirit.

We also learn from Jesus’ teaching that marriage is a covenant, a solemn oath or pledge of a man and woman to each other unreservedly. Marriage was created to be a life-long union. But because of the brokenness of a fallen world, the New Testament allows divorce in cases of radical covenant breaking, like adultery or desertion, where in effect, one partner has already abandoned the marriage. But this is a far cry from divorce for reasons of “incompatibility” or because one is “no longer in love.”

In Malachi 2:14, the Lord presents himself as witness against the husband who breaks faith with his wife, the wife of his youth, “though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.” Malachi calls divorce for reasons of incompatibility hatred or dislike “violence,” a treacherous breach of the marriage covenant. [64]

Weddings and Public Vows
David Blankenhorn writes, “To understand why the United States has the highest divorce rate in the world, go to some weddings and listen to what the brides and grooms say. In particular, listen to the vows…(because) it is the content and the integrity of the dedicating promise itself—what we say and mean when we say ‘I do’—that shapes the nature and destiny of the marriage.” [65]

If a man and woman promise to stay together “as long as love lasts,” their only hope is that the feelings of love they have on their wedding day will endure, and they will be some of the lucky ones who beat the divorce statistics.

The power in the traditional Christian marriage vows is that they force a man and woman, at the beginning of their marriage, to anticipate the worst-case scenarios for their future together. In the presence of God, family and friends, they vow to each other: “In the Name of God, I take you to be my wedded husband/wife, to have and hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer; with all my worldly goods I do thee endow; in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, and forsaking all others, keep myself only to you, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.”

With such grim vows, why are weddings usually times of joy and celebration, dressing up and flowers, feasting, drinking and dancing? Because a man and a woman are making such an amazing, unqualified promise of love and fidelity, with their eyes open, having faced the grim possibilities of what may go wrong in the future. There is no romanticism here. My husband Dick calls these vows a “pre-emptive strike against cynicism.” “Am I really willing to love and support him/her in chronic disease, accident, bankruptcy, betrayal, disappointment, suffering and loss, all the while knowing that we will both change in unpredictable ways? Am I willing to face my own sin, vanity, jealousy, selfishness in the confidence of God’s forgiveness, but also in my own willingness to apologize, forgive and be forgiven by my spouse? The realism and humility that makes a relationship to God possible starts a couple in the direction of honest love for each other.” [66] This is the only sure way to experience marriage as “good news.”

The traditional marriage vows, made soberly and in the fear of God, provide a solid foundation for facing the inevitable uncertainties of life, with a partner who is committed to standing with you to the end. It is fitting to make these vows in a public ceremony, because marriage is not just a private decision, but also a public act, with profound legal and social meaning. This is something worth celebrating with friends and family who are committed to supporting your marriage into the future.

Is Laura Kipnis right that the institution of marriage itself “isn’t living up to its vows?” I don’t think so. We have either redefined the vows (and marriage) so that there is very little to live up to, or we have made solemn marriage vows and broken them ourselves.

The Courtship Model
Is there a particular model of “courtship” in the Bible? No! As in history, there is great variety of ways biblical couples met and married, and a similar variety of motives.

Isaac and Rebekah’s marriage was arranged by Abraham, who sent his servant to kin, in order to find a wife for Isaac among believers. It is a story of God’s providence and answered prayer which included the girl’s choice. She willingly agreed to leave her family and marry a man she had never laid eyes on. Their meeting is one of the more romantic stories in the Bible: the servant told Isaac all that had happened, “then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death”(Gen. 24:66-67).

Moses met his wife Zipporah at a well, just as Abraham’s servant met Rebekah at a well. The men met the women at work, not in some romantic setting. They were in the midst of their daily chores, drawing water for the family’s needs. Caleb offered his daughter as a prize to whatever man defeated an enemy city.

Joseph was given Pharaoh’s daughter in marriage. Surely there were political motives in that match.

Bloodline and inheritance was very important in ancient Israel. Levirate marriage was established in the law as a way to assure the continued name and inheritance of a husband who died before having a son. It was the duty of the dead husband’s brother or next-of-kin to marry the widow. Their firstborn would carry on the name of the deceased brother, so that his name would not be blotted out of Israel.

The book of Ruth tells the story of a woman in this situation, who, under the guidance of her mother-in-law, approached her dead husband’s relative, an older man named Boaz. She lay down next to him in the night, and asked him to perform the duty of the next-of-kin and marry her. He agreed and praised her for putting family loyalty before her desire for a younger husband, whether poor (presumably for love) or rich (presumably for money). Ruth and Boaz married and had a son named Obed, who became the father of Jesse, the father of David, the forefather of Jesus.

In Proverbs 31:1 the King’s mother gives her son advice about the kind of woman he should choose to marry. So this was not to be an arranged match.

The Song of Songs is an extraordinary love poem, most of it voiced by an anonymous black woman. She is in love, and is assertive and uninhibited about sexual desire, as is her lover. There is reference to a wedding, but it is difficult to discern a clear story line. Bruce Walke believes there is a love triangle with a King and a shepherd in love with the same woman, whose heart is with the shepherd. I don’t know. What is clear is a lot of erotic language and sexual initiation on the part of the woman as well as the man she loves, and there is a wedding, so this is mutual married love.

I Cor. 7 is clear that from God’s point of view, men and women are equally free to choose marriage or singleness. (First century Roman and Jewish parents would not have agreed.) Paul says if a widow decides to remarry, “she is free to marry anyone she wishes” (and there were many young widows in the early church). Paul’s only stipulation was that believers marry believers. He also exhorted the Thessalonians to “learn how to take a spouse for yourself honorably, rather than to wrong or exploit a sister or brother lustfully.” [67] Marital choice again seems to be assumed.

A Different View
The alternative to a cynical rejection of marriage on the one hand and an idolatrous inflation of marriage on the other is not achieving some golden mean of “medium sized hope” in the middle. It is building our marriages on a different foundation altogether—on the biblical worldview, and the Christian Story.

In our confusing culture, it is a temptation to romanticize the past, and think that finding a mate used to be easy. I don’t think it’s ever been easy. I’ve only given a few highlights, but the history of courtship reveals different kinds of struggles for men and for women in every culture and era. There is no one sanctified model of courtship, no foolproof paradigm that will guarantee a successful, happy marriage. Whether to marry, when to marry, who to marry, how to find him or her…are all part of the life of faith, of trusting God to hold our hands, and walk with us into a future that we are blind to but He is not. The priorities of the Christian life in general, apply here. “Seek first His Kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well”(Mt. 6:33).

As J.R.R. Tolkien wisely said, “Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes, in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might be found more suitable mates. But the real soul-mate is the one you are actually married to.”


Further Reflection:
To those who are addicted to romantic comedies, and are incapable of breaking the habit cold turkey, start by being selective about the ones you watch.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Monsoon Wedding are antidotes to the extreme individualism of most romantic comedies. They show marriage as embedded in large, extended families, with many stakeholders.

Monsoon Wedding tells the story of an arranged Indian marriage. The couple marries very soon after meeting for the first time. This movie deals realistically with the sense of anger and betrayal the fiancé feels when his soon-to-be-bride tells him, the day before the wedding, that she has been having an affair with a married former boyfriend. But it also shows the power of grace, as he forgives her, and thanks her for her honesty They put past sins behind them and commit themselves to a faithful marriage.

High Fidelity has a lot of bad language and some sexually explicit scenes, but it is a very brilliant and funny story of a thirty-something man whose only accomplishment in life has been to “keep his options open” because of his terror of commitment. In the course of the story, he starts to recognize the self-deceptive pattern in all his romantic crushes and their inability to deliver happiness. He gradually moves toward wanting what he calls the “steady low-watt-glow” of marriage.

Movies that depict real marriages, like A Beautiful Mind. Read biographies of single and married people who have served God fruitfully, like Shadow Lands.

And spend time with married couples and families whom you respect and can learn from.


Endnotes: Genesis 2:18 back to article Denis de Rougemont, Love in the Western World (Princeton New Jersey: Princeton University Press,1983), p. 300 back to article Psalm 16:4 back to article Ibid back to article Ibid, p. 3 back to article Marilyn Yalom, The History of the Wife (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), p. xiii, p. 22 back to article Yalom, p. 22. Pseudo-Demosthenes expressed the pervasive Classical Greek male ideal (in the 4th century B.C.E.): “We have mistresses for our enjoyment, concubines to serve our person, and wives for the bearing of legitimate offspring.” See Sarah B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (New York: Schocken Books, 1975), pp. 2-3 back to article Pomeroy, p. 159 back to article Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her (New York: Crossroad, 1987) p. 262 back to article Euripides, Hippolytus back to article de Rougemont, p. 74, 110 back to article Yalom, pp.60-65. In the movie Being John Malcovich, the puppeteer portrays the story of Abelard and Heloise. back to article Yalom, p. 58 back to article Proverbs 30:18 back to article “The Emergence of the Modern American Family,” Carl Degler, p. 70 back to article Yalom, p. 68 back to article de Rougemont, p. 292 back to article Ibid, pp. 73-74 back to article Yalom, pp. 98-105 back to article Yalom, pp. 101-102 back to article Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (A Mentor Book, Abington Press, 1955), pp. 223-225 back to article Ibid, p. 236 back to article Ibid back to article Yalom, p. 102 back to article Stone in Wing to Wing back to article Ibid back to article Ibid, pp. 108-145 back to article “too high or favorable opinion of” back to article playful flirtation back to article Edmund S. Morgan, “The Puritans and Sex” in The American Family in Social Historical Perspective, p. 312 back to article Yalom back to article “Martyrs to Venus” in The New Republic, October 28, 2002, p. 36a review of the book Sexual Revolution in Early America by Richard Godbeer back to article Ellen K. Rothman, Hands and Hearts: A History of Courtship in America (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), pp. 45-46 back to article Rothman, p. 31 back to article Ibid, p. 31 back to article Ibid, p. 36 back to article Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially (New York: Broadway Books, 2000) p. 2 back to article Laura Kipnis, “The State of the Unions: Should This Marriage Be Saved?” in the New York Times OP-ED (Review of the Week), Sunday, January 25, 2004, p. 15 back to article See Time magazine on the health benefits of an active sex-life, January 19, 2004 back to article Barbara Defoe Whitehead, The Divorce Culture: Rethinking Our Commitments to Marriage and Family (New York: Vintage Books of Random House, 1998), p. 44 back to article Ibid, p. 11 back to article Whitehead, pp. 188, 128 back to article Judith S. Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis, Sandra Blakeslee, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25-Year Landmark Study (New York: Hyperion, 2001). back to article “Who is Carrie Bradshaw really dating? Relationshipism” by Lee Siegel in New Republic, November 18, 2002, p. 30-33 back to article Waite and Gallagher back to article Ibid, p. 3 back to article Yalom, p. xi back to article Barbara Defoe Whitehead, Why There Are No Good Men Left: The Romantic Plight of the New Single Woman (New York: Broadway Books, 2003) back to article For instance,,, Dream-Mates, The Right Stuff, eHarmony and eCrush, TurboDate, HurryDate, 8minute Dating and It’s Just Lunch back to article Books like Surrendered Single, Find a Husband After 35 Using What I learned at Harvard Business School, and Make Every Girl Want You back to article New York Times, Sunday Styles, Section 9, November 30, 2003, pp. 1, 12 back to article For instance, Love Actually, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve got Mail, Happenstance Serendipity, Notting Hill, Ever After, It Could Happen to You. back to article For one model, see Mars Hill Audio (Ken Meyers), “Wandering Toward the Alter” tape 3, end of side 1 back to article Luke 9:59-62, Mt. 8:21, Mt. 10:34, Mark 10:28-31, Luke 18:28 back to article Rodney Clapp, Families at the Crossroads (Downers Grove, Ill: Intervarsity Press, 1993), chapter 4 back to article Alan Burgess, The Small Woman (New York: Dutton & Co., 1957) back to article Ibid, pp. 189-190 back to article Ibid, pp. 251-252 back to article The early 20th century novelist Edith Wharton shrewdly chronicled and critiqued the practice of marriage and divorce as vehicles of social ambition and economic advancement. (see The Custom of the Country and The Glimpses of the Moon). In these novels, marriage and divorce are the “domestic equivalent of acquisitive capitalism, motivated by the same principles of self-interest, power and competitive advantage. See The Divorce Culture, p. 24 back to article On this theme, see Edith Wharton’s novels, referenced in The Divorce Culture back to article D.A. Carson, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Matthew 13-18 (Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 1995), p. 411 back to article C.T., Philip Yancy article pointing out that humans are wired to be able to have sex far more frequently than is necessary for reproduction, and far more than any other species in the animal kingdom. back to article Waite and Gallagher, chapter 6 back to article David Clyde Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), p. 191 back to article David Blankenhorn, “I Do” in Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying, p. 77 back to article Dick Keyes, manuscript of book on Cynicism, chapter 19 back to article 1 Thess. 4:3-6 back to article