Thursday, August 02, 2007

Love and marriage

When I hear those words, I immediately think of two things. The first is Frank Sinatra singing the theme song to Married with Children. I've actually been to that fountain in Chicago, incidentally. It was a math trip. The other one is a Woody Allen movie called "Love and Death", which is a parody of Scandinavian existentialist films.

Jen asked me to expand upon my funny reaction to the lines "Head of household" and "Spouse" in the nursery check-in form at the megachurch I attended two Sundays ago:

What feelings did that line ignite in you and why? Let's hear the heated theological debate.

Ok, you asked for it.

As a recap, those lines were for the names of the parents of the child. There was an unspoken premise, obvious to me, that under "head of household", one was supposed to write the father's name, and that left the mother for "spouse". Leaving aside all the alternative family arrangements this ignores (grandparents, nannies, unmarried couples, divorcees all come to mind), I didn't want to just leave that values system sitting there. Plus, I was irked at having to give my information for a one-time visit, like I said. I put myself as spouse, and Sarah as head of household.

So here we go. I've thought about this a lot, in the context of living in Utah, in the context of having evangelical friends, in the context of my own marriage and how I want to spend the next fifty years. I thought about it before I got married, and now that I'm married, I spend less time thinking about it and more time trying to live it.

Caveat lector; this is one of those religious things that divides people along lines of opinion. You can see a civil example here.

As I said once on Vince's blog, I think that one mode of reading the Bible, as a philosophical premise source-book, in order to learn what to believe, is like building elaborate sand castles. The architecture of these belief systems may be thrilling to behold, even beautiful, but they tend not to survive their tidal contacts with the ocean of life.

I say it that way because it happened to me in college. When I became a Christian, it was first as a sort of theologist, and life started washing that away almost immediately. I had a gay roommate in the spring of 1999, and my other roommate decided to become a Christian in the vein of Marcus Borg and the Jesus Seminar (bugaboos of a liberal stripe, to fundamentalists such as myself; I still don't like them and the mockery they made of criticism, but that's another digression). I was having trouble deciding how to live, struggling with how to talk to and deal with my roommate. I started from the position that I didn't agree with what he was doing, how he was living (it turned out I was actually saying, who he was), but I could live with him anyway. I told him words to that effect, and it got really chilly. My liberal roommate threatened to move out, I think, and then I took some long walks around campus trying to figure out if I should just move out. I figured out that I was the third wheel. I read my little green-plastic-covered Gideon bible as I walked, but not the verses on homosexuality... I think it was the book of John.

I went back to the dorm, and somewhere in there, my gay roommate had left me a poem he had written about being gay, about being rejected by his parents, but learning to find himself beautiful anyway. As someone who writes things that rhyme, I just couldn't ignore this. He got through to me. I think I understood what was so wrong with the way I had been acting. I pasted words on top of that man I didn't know, then got all righteous about my own labels. So I tried to explain. I said I loved him, and I meant it, and I apologized, I think, and gave him a hug. Looking back, I don't know whether he understood too, or just thought I was weird. But I might be misremembering; we might have cried and had a moment. My liberal roommate later said that I really came through there; he might have said it was strengthening his faith. We were all good for the rest of the semester. The next year, the gay guy moved to a house and my other roommate moved in with his best friend.

Appendix, none of this is in my diary and the UW deleted most of my email (although I may have saved some of it in an archive I recently recovered), but I'm pretty sure I still have the poem in my things. It's been a long-term project of mine to go through my papers, so I may find it sooner or later.

I tell this story because I am aware that the New Testament says things that turn into admonitions and strictures against homosexuality when read by the American evangelical subculture. The fact that they're almost all don't-do-it commandments suggests a certain attitude toward homosexuals as well: a spirit of righteousness and judgment. Thus, the fire-and-brimstone signage, the counter-parades, the angry Christians on your TV set, the obsession with dog-whistle political issues instead of the war in Iraq. This is playing word games with the Bible. (Another short take on this, a couple years old.)

I forget where I read that Christians misidentify the Bible with the Word (probably because the Bible has so many words in it). I think Karl Barth said something to that effect. I don't think it makes me un-Christian to agree, or to point out in addition that we are not supposed to follow what the Bible says. The Bible does not have a little tag on it with the words "DRINK ME". Instead it tells the story of a man; he is the one who says "Drink me."

This is a lot of preamble for a pretty short thesis: I consider the argument "'Wives, submit to your husbands; husbands, love your wives' is a prescription for stratified gender roles in Christian marriages" to be based on word games with the Bible. One reads the Adam and Eve story in Genesis, and so much is implied. One reads the passage in Ephesians that the husband is head of the wife, and so much is implied. And so on. And faced with all this circumstantial evidence, the combined weight of implications, how could one not be persuaded to the roles worldview? Well, something fishy is going on here. It is not hard to find differing views on this evidence; see Vince in that discussion I linked to earlier, or the first Google hit for "husband is the head of the wife": The Husband is Head of the Wife?, which is one more fascinating take on the subject by a Greek Orthodox guy. It's hard to call fascinating ideas a dime a dozen, so let's just say it doesn't stop there.

If one reads the life of the Word, one sees a different portrait emerging. This is my take, Christians can be free to disagree. As the Greek Orthodox guy says, Jesus did not come to us in order to fall into stereotypes or prescribe them for other people. He blew them apart every chance he got. The Samaritan, the centurion, the woman with a bleeding problem, the children, the sinners, the poor, the sick, the prostitutes. He told a tax collector to come and he told farmers to stay behind. What he did come to do was not to be served, but to serve, and to offer himself. There is nothing male or female about that; that is for everyone who would follow him. Remember who will be greatest in heaven; is that person a boy or a girl?

One thought I have as I reread Ephesians 5 is that in the middle of Paul talking about how the husband is like the head and the wife is like the body, he quotes Genesis:
In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church--for we are members of his body. "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh."

Before Descartes laid his thumb on the globe and spun, we believed, among other things, in a unity of mind and body. Christians say now that we are body, mind, and spirit, or some equivalent; I just read a passage in John Michael Talbot's book that this idea is pervasive throughout all of Christianity, and in the Eastern religions he is interested in as well. Why does Paul bring up this idea in the middle of talking about the head and body? Maybe it's to point out that in marriage, man and woman are to be growing so close to each other that you cannot tell where one ends and the other one begins. Or, to put it another way, the goal of marriage is to end gender roles, not preserve them.

I don't think this is a terribly convincing argument. It's another word game about what may or may not be implied by the chance inclusion of a quotation in a letter whose main subject is obviously other things, hatched by my view of the context, which may disagree with yours. But my point is not to argue, really; I merely think that it's plausible to read these passages this way. Also, my conclusion may not be as complex as the gender-roles word game, but it uses the same hermeneutical approach with opposite results. This does not say much about who is right, but it does say something about the shortcomings of this manner of reading.

You might say Joseph Smith and the Mormons took this kind of reading to the logical extreme when they read the stories of the patriarchs taking multiple wives, and resurrected polygamy. The fact that they oops, got it wrong (they would say, followed the inscrutable, changing will of God), is one of those chapters in Mormon history that has to be read to be believed. To this day, Mormons believe that there will be polygamy in heaven, as men progress to become Father Gods and their wives progress to becoming Mother Gods, eternally giving birth, populating new worlds with their spirit children. Now those are some gender roles in marriage! In fact, there was some to-do when some feminist Mormons sought to formally worship the Mother God who had birthed them onto Earth with the approval of the LDS church... this did not go over well, to say the least.

So, if you don't have roles in marriage, what do you have? If there's one thing I've learned in my Christian journey, it's that there are things you believe because they sound correct to you, and there are things you believe because you lived them yourself. (Aside: watch the show Thirty Days.) When I had a gay roommate, there was a war in me between these two kinds of beliefs. I went through a similar struggle before I married Sarah. We talked about this stuff, and I read books about it, both sides; eventually, I decided that given two plausible ways to go on this roles stuff, to head for equality within marriage, almost on instinct. Later, I wondered if I'd really gotten it right, but I have never regretted that decision. I decided if I ever did have to explain it, I would say that you might be able to win an argument that gender roles in marriage are Christian and important, but that wouldn't be the same thing as me being ready to live that belief anyway. I have been a person willing to change who I am for what I am convinced is right, but convincing is a matter of conviction, not just A implies B, QED.

Equality in marriage is simple to me; it means knowing who we are as people, and treating each other like the gifts from God we know each other to be. Someone is good at math (me), someone is good at finances (her), someone is going to work (me), someone is raising our son (her), someone is addicted to video games (me), someone loves to take pictures and blog into the wee hours (her). What equality in marriage means to me is that it could easily have been the other way around. I don't get the final say in decisions, we just have to agree, or compromise. She is not the nurturer, I am not the leader; each of us acts in those capacities at different times. At least, we're supposed to. I see my failures in marriage not as a consequence of my failure to conform to a role, but as personal failures.

Past my bedtime.


jonathan said...

First, Happy Anniversary T, thank you for 13 years of love and companionship (our anniversary is Sunday) with all the ups, downs and bumps in the path we walk together. I Love you more today, than ever.

Second, I would argue that husbands should be the head of the house and wives should submit to his leadership in the home. That is a great ideal and wonderful notion in a perfect world with perfect people.

Now for the real world. I have gifts and talents that my wife does not have and she has ones that I do not. Much like you, Dan. She is an organizer, I am disciplined to follow the system. I can not create it, but I can keep it running. Does that mean that she is the leader in the home, or just better at organizing things. I don't know.

The hardest things I do relate to leading our family and being the final decision maker. Sometimes I get it right and sometimes I don't.

I can only guess, but I would imagine that one of the hardest things in life for T is to follow me, when I make the wrong ones.

I am getting better at listening to her advice, and at accepting it when I know it is right and my first notion was wrong.

In the end, the husband and wife relationship is really about training for the most important relationship we have. Our relationship to God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit. Every believer is the bride of Christ. He is our leader.

I guess that means for men to learn what it means to be a leader, because that is the most difficult for them to understand. And I guess for women to learn what it means to submit to another, for them the most difficult thing. Everyone needs the love of Jesus in the heart and the tact of the Holy Spirit to keep all relationships strong, none more important in this life than the one between husband and wife.

vince54 said...


Let's see. I want to comment on each paragraph separately. What a tome.

I love it ... Caveat lector. Did you study latin at that Jesuit High School you attended?

One of best insights after becoming a Christian was that Jesus is the Word and the Word of God refers to His spoken word (as in Gen 1) not scripture. The Reformation did move Scripture to the top of the authority pyramid to replace the authority of the Church, but that is an exaggerated move in reaction to Papal excess. Scripture is the witness of God's Word (action and Jesus). Somehow we have to learn to worship The Word and not scripture.

(But I have to remember to not belittle scripture also.)

I especially like your phrase ... "If one reads the life of the Word, one sees a different protrait emerging." This is exactly what the Gospels are ... testaments of the life of 'the Word'.

Anonymous said...

I think it says "Submit to one another in love" which kinda of turns the whole submission thing on its ear, no?

If I submit to my wife and she submits to me then we are partners in submission. We are trying to work out God's will as we go and loving one another as our goal in order to better serve Christ. I don't need to be the "head" and bear all the pressure nor does my wife have to just sit there and obey. We have a mutual thing going on with Christ as our model. He submitted to the will of the Father even unto death and we are to follow in his steps.