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Marriage for the Common Good

You're staring into your spouse's eyes and your backs are to the world. Is that going to work for anyone besides yourselves?


I

Tis the season to make weekend forays to events that will light up Facebook and swamp Instagram with a deluge of sepia photographs. Years of hopes pinned on Pinterest will become a reality as we dance long into the night.

Nope, it's not Lollapalooza or Bonnaroo.

It's your cousin's wedding.

The excitement has been building ever since that first Facebook post—the one with the video of him proposing to her against the industrial-chic backdrop of the Brooklyn Navy Yard while a band with beards and lots of banjos "surprised" them with a serenade. The video went viral, of course, so the bar was raised for the wedding itself. The invitations arrived encased in 1950s cigar tins, featured overlapping images of their tattoos on handmade paper, complete with vintage postage stamps for your RSVP. The wedding will be catered by Korean taco food trucks and that band is going to play an encore, but with more mandolins, under candle-lit canopies draped with hops as everyone enjoys the groom's craft beer. The wedding has its own tumblr and its own hashtag. And everyone goes home with their own mouth organ inscribed with the bride and groom's names.

No one will forget this day, mostly because it will be scrupulously photographed, posted, shared, tweeted, and uploaded. And as we all know: the Internet never forgets.

The wedding industry generates an estimated $49-51 billion dollars annually. Wedding shows like Say Yes to the Dress and Bridezillas constitute their own category of "reality" TV. My completely unscientific assessment of Pinterest suggests wedding-related aspirations make up about 80% of the Internet. Gone are the days when, as elderly saints in my congregation tell me, couples were married on Sunday night at church. A wedding is too important to waste: it hasn't happened until the Wes-Anderson-ish video is on Vimeo. "We're getting married! We've got a wedding to plan!"


II

Doesn't all of this prove that our society values marriage more than ever?

Not so much. In fact, estimates indicate that the revenues of the divorce industry mirror the wedding industry (spawning its own documentary). Our interest is in the spectacle of the wedding—the event in which we get to be centre stage, display our love, and invite others into our romance in a way they'll never forget. The wedding industry thrives on competition, novelty, and one-upmanship (and we haven't even yet considered the impact of the Facebook feeds on those who are single). As Charles Taylor might put it, in our "age of authenticity," weddings are caught up in the dynamics of "mutual display": what's important is being seen. It's why we spend more time fixated on the spectacular flash of the wedding event than the long slog of sustaining a marriage.

But the implicit mythology of Wedding, Inc. only reflects how we approach marriage, too. Indeed, the myths we load into weddings almost doom marriages to fail. Weddings are centred around the romantic "coupling" of two star-crossed lovers, as if marriage was an extended exercise of staring deep into one another's eyes—with benefits. But even then, my spouse is one who sees me, will meet my needs, will fulfill my wants, will "complete me." Even our romantic coupling becomes a form of self-love (hilariously captured in Saturday Night Live's "MeHarmony" spoof).

This romantic picture is already enacted in the honeymoon: to kindle your marriage, you need to "get away," retreat from the drudgery of the workaday world (which is, apparently, matrimonial poison). For your marriage to last, according to this logic, you'll have to keep planning dates and romantic escapes for just the two of you to "keep the fire alive." And by all means, don't have children too soon: they are, according to this myth, the equivalent of a marital buzzkill, because marriage is romance and romance is just the two of you.

Too many weddings are spectacles in which we celebrate your dyadic bliss. We're there more as spectators than partners. And in that sense, they are often preludes to the sorts of marriages that follow. When lovers are staring into one another's eyes, their backs are to the world.


III

This "romantic," just-the-two-of-us view of love and marriage suffuses almost all of our cultural narratives. Indeed, it is so woven into the warp-and-woof of our social imaginary that we can't imagine an alternative (perhaps not even in the church, which is equally susceptible to buying into this mythology).

Josh Ritter's song, "The Temptation of Adam," enacts this myth at the same time that it hints at its unsustainability. Give it a listen:


The Temptation of Adam by Josh Ritter on Grooveshark

In this cold war scenario, Ritter distills the ultimate version of dyadic, just-you-and-me romance. It's a love that depends upon separation; the apocalyptic threat that drives them underground is the "gift" that makes their love possible. The world "out there" would only ruin it. Indeed, Adam senses the threat: "Oh Marie, there's something tells me things just won't work out above / That our love would live a half-life on the surface." Sequestered in the missile silo, he is tempted to press the button, to launch the strike that would destroy world—because while everyone else would be lost, they would still have each other. Indeed, they would only have each other. For this relationship, hell is other people.

Of course, the apocalyptic doom that hangs over this song feels a long way from the Instragrammed bliss you're going to see this summer. But I suggest that the underlying narrative might not be so different. The wedding industry's romantic vision is not so different from Adam's sequestered love—there are just more people to watch.

The mythology embedded in the Ritter song didn't really stand out for me until I heard a simple little song by Rick Beerhorst, a Grand Rapids artist (and former neighbour). You likely won't have heard Beerhorst's "Seamless Life," but its power lies in its ability to paint a very different picture of marriage. Listen and see if you can hear the difference:



The vision here is not of a sequestered couple but of an open household. Others are not a threat; they are gifts. Indeed, they are needed, and the narrator isn't afraid to admit his dependence. As he croons,

I'm gonna live in a house full of kids
and drive an old car.
I am to stay true to just one girl.

I ain't afraid to ask for help,
I can't get there on my own.
There ain't no shame in reaching out for a friend.

What Beerhorst describes is not a self-involved couple but a porous household. They don't have their backs to the world while staring into one another's eyes; they are shoulder-to-shoulder alongside others engaged in a task and answering a call.

This is not a sequestered me-and-you trying to keep the world at bay in order to keep romance alive; it is a partnership embedded in a wider web of relationships, opening out onto networks of friends on which they depend. The home is a not a "private" space into which they retreat; it is one that is open because they are leaning out of any "privacy" because they need to lean on others for help. The family is not autonomous and self-sufficient, even though it has its own job to do. But as open, it's also open to others to come in. It's precisely because they "can't get there on [their] own" that their home is a site of hospitality and welcome. Others are not threats; they are gifts.


IV

In his excellent book, Sex and Love in the Home, David Matzko McCarthy observes that "the typical concept of family functions as an ideal of intimacy, love, and affection. Whether a family is conceived as 'nuclear' or 'extended,' the very idea of family has become nuclear insofar as it is defined by an inward orientation towards its husband-and-wife center." The "union of two," he goes on to note, "is considered a whole community, closed and complete in itself." This conception is, again, like imagining the "ideal" marriage as an extended honeymoon.

McCarthy contrasts this with the "household" as "a socially reproductive and economically productive place." In contrast to the closed home, the household is open both in terms of dependence and hospitality. The family is embedded in wider networks of friendship, and ultimately located in the "first family" which is the household of God, the body of Christ. Such households take "the risk of interdependence." Such households make room for others—including the "singles" among us who are equal members of the household of God. Such households are incubators of concern for the common good because they welcome the community into their midst. It is such households that we testify to when, at their baptism, the congregation pledges to help the parents raise their child.

What would society look like if all of our homes were just privatized enclaves for romance? What sort of society would we get if all of our marriages reflected the mythology of Weddings, Inc?

Well, we might get a society a lot like our own. It would be a society where "private" interests are pursued to the exclusion of the common good, as if the two are in competition and the wider community is a threat. A society where marriage is romanticized, which is why they so often fail. When we expect marriages to be extensions of idealistic weddings, we're not only setting ourselves up to fail, we are abandoning the call to "household," to curate open homes where others are welcome and from which we lean out to serve the good of our neighbours.

"Householding" is crucial for social architecture, for it is in such families that we incubate not just love for one another, but love of God and neighbour, pushing out the door in pursuit of the common good. If we want to raise up a generation passionate about the common good, perhaps we should say "No" to the dress—and all of the spectacular trappings of Wedding, Inc.—and instead plan for a marriage with open doors, honest in its vulnerability, even eagerly dependent. "There ain't no shame in reaching out for a friend."

Help us spread the word:
James K.A. Smith James K.A. Smith
James K.A. Smith is a Senior Fellow with Cardus, and the editor of Comment Magazine. ... read more »

Posted in Culture, Loves, Parenting.

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