Why marriage?

One of the more peculiar aspects of living in today’s digital democracy is the broadcasting of our lives to the world.  Social media sites overflow with “status updates,” news articles, and photo albums.  Among the more ubiquitous electronic posts are albums of engagement photos—where happy couples hire professional photographers to document their love in a series of tasteful-though-mildly-cliché poses and settings.

Like anything else, somebody always finds a way to take a culture trend and use it ironically.

  • Exhibit “A:” David Sikorski, a writer from San Francisco, had an engagement shoot featuring himself and his favorite burrito. No; seriously—this actually happened.  In an interview with The Huffington Post, Sikorski said: “I’ve reached the age where my Facebook is now filled with engagement and baby photos; [once] it was filled with incriminating photos of my friends’ weekend escapades…I already had a strong burrito love so I called one of my music photographer friends and naturally she jumped at the idea.”[1]
  • Exhibit “B:” In October of this year, 19-year-old Nicole Larsen had her own food-based engagement shoot—only not with a burrito but with pizza. She told The Huffington Post: “I wanted to do a spoof of other couples pictures because I am single and in my opinion pizza never lets you down…Everyone seems to be caught up in trying to find a partner but I would just encourage others to find/do anything that might brighten their day!…If that is a boyfriend, great! If it’s eating a full box of pizza to yourself, that is also great!”[2]
  • Exhibit “C:” Yasmin Eleby didn’t waste time with an engagement at all. She invited her family and friends to the Houston Center for African American Culture.  Once they got there, they discovered that she’d planned an elaborate wedding ceremony—complete with a wedding party, a minister, and a lovely white dress—only there was no groom. Ms. Eleby had decided that she’d had enough dating: she was going to marry herself.  John Guess Jr., CEO of the Houston complex, said that “Once she hit 40 she figured if she didn’t find someone who loved her as much as she did, she would marry herself.”[3]

There’s no need to throw rocks.  I, for one, choose to take these things in the spirit they’re intended.  There’s worse things, after all, then to celebrate one’s passion for food—and certainly worse things than to celebrate the positive aspects of oneself. Yet at the same time, these “exhibits” reveal at least two things about modern conceptions of marriage.

MARRIAGE AND THE AGE OF INDIVIDUALISM

To share one’s life with one’s friends is truly a gift from God himself.  But sharing one’s life with near-strangers—well, that’s the curse of the digital world.  Social analysts describe this as “expressive individualism,”[4] the need for constant self-expression.  Technology fuels this cancer: it creates a vehicle—actually, multiple vehicles—through which we are able to constantly shout “look at me, look at me, look at me.”  This strange form of digital pride can be seen every time someone posts a “selfie” (a slang term for a cell-phone self-portrait), or a picture of their latest meal or—yes, even their engagement photo shoot.  Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to preserve such memories—but there runs an equal danger of romantic intimacy becoming co-opted by expressive individualism.

But that’s actually not the real problem.  The real problem is deeper than that—and darker.  The real problem is self-interest, the assumption that marriage is ultimately a means toward self-fulfillment.  What did our “exhibits” all have in common?  They (jokingly?) asserted that a burrito or a pizza would bring the same kind of happiness as a long-term relationship.  So is that what marriage is ultimately about?  In his book Marriage Go Round, Andrew Cherlin puts forth two reasons why divorce rates are so high in America.  First, marriage remains a high value—and the more people are married, the more people might also get divorced.  But secondly, Cherlin says that most people enter marriage seeing it as a means to ultimate fulfillment.[5]  When this fails, they get out and get out fast.

If marriage can’t bring you lasting happiness, what can marriage be for?

MARRIAGE AS A SOCIAL CONSTRUCT

In recent years, discussion over the “definition” of marriage have led many to conclude that marriage is merely a social construct.  And like all human inventions, its definition is subject to reinvention by social custom.  So while marriage had historically been defined as existing between a man and a woman, now we’re free to re-define marriage as existing between two consenting adults.

Even if we agree that such a re-definition is justified, surely we must see the slippery slope.  After all, why stop there?  If all truth is at the discretion of a culture, than why limit marriage to only two adults?  And many cultures define “adults” very differently—could we extend this to young, teenage girls?  If not, why not?

During the recent Supreme Court discussions, Justice Alito raised a crucial question: if marriage is merely a social invention, why haven’t more cultures historically permitted same-sex unions?

“How do you account for the fact that, as far as I’m aware, until the end of the twentieth century, there never was a nation or a culture that recognized marriage between two people of the same sex?  Now, can we infer from that that those nations and those cultures all thought that there was some rational, practical purpose for defining marriage in that way, or is it your argument that they were all operating independently based solely on irrational stereotypes and prejudices?”[6]

Granted, some of these same cultures have endorsed such practices as polygamy (or worse)—but even that begs a similar question: whose cultural standards should we appeal to for our definition of marriage?

Put differently, if marriage is defined by culture, then why could culture not define marriage any way it wants to?  Why not broaden a definition to include marrying yourself—or your favorite fast-food indulgence?

Let’s not be insensitive.  Let’s take these questions very seriously. After all, these questions speak to the deep feelings and emotions of real people.  So let’s explore what Christianity has to say about the creation and meaning of marriage—and discover an answer to the question of “Why marriage?”

[1] Brittany Wong, “This Man Took Engagement Photos with a Burrito—And it was Burrito-ful,” The Huffington Post, July 13, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/this-man-took-engagement-photos-with-a-burrito-and-it-was-burrito-ful_55a4268ae4b0a47ac15d27d1

[2] Alanna Vagianos, “This Woman Who Took Engagement Photos With Pizza is All of Us,” The Huffington Post, October 29, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/this-woman-who-took-engagement-photos-with-pizza-is-all-of-us_56325c12e4b00aa54a4d3414

[3] Craig Hlvaty, “Houston woman marries herself in elaborate ceremony,” The Houston Chronicle, January 29, 2015, http://www.chron.com/life/weddings-and-celebrations/article/Houston-woman-marries-herself-in-elaborate-6040944.php

[4] See Robert Bellah et. al, Habits of the Heart.

[5] Andrew Cherlin, Marriage Go Round. 

[6] Quoted in Ryan T. Anderson, Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom, Kindle ed., loc. 438-45.

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