Dear New Yorker:

I am sure that every day, thousands upon thousands of would-be writer-types sit down and bang out sad little screeds in your direction that do little more than advertise their deep and doomed desire to see their names in the byline of a piece in the New Yorker. But dad burn it, would it kill you to stop treating Christianity in such head-shakingly silly ways?

I mean, yeah, I get it, you’re past the Jesus stuff. Sill, it might be worth remembering this bit from Donna Tartt’s The Secret History:

“Well, whatever one thinks of the Roman Church, it is a worthy and powerful foe.”

Maybe? Anyway, now we have this, in Ariel Levy’s takedown of Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert’s sequel to Eat, Pray, Love. What’s most frustrating is that Levy is clearly a good, smart writer. She just couldn’t be bothered to give complexity its due in the religious realm. My general point: ignore Christianity if you like, but please, if you’re gong to pay attention to it, pay attention to it.

Things start to get bumpy when Levy stops reviewing Gilbert’s book and starts in with an essay on marriage. It’s a long passage, but I’m just retro enough to go with it. What follows is Levy, with me in brackets.

Marriage is an anachronism.

[BAM.]

It is a relic from a time when we needed an arrangement to manage property and reproduction and, crucially, to establish kinships for purposes of defense: safety in numbers.

[Nice use of “relic.” One might simply say that marriage has its origins in the time when we needed such arrangements, unless one wanted to load the sentence against the possibility that we might still need them, particularly when it comes to, say, raising kids? I’m pretty sure there’s a certain amount of data out there supporting the claim that children do better in stable, two-parent homes. First school of love and all that.]

A web of families connected through marriage produced a clan of people who were less likely to kill you than everybody else was. Such was the life style in the Fertile Crescent, and, not coincidentally, the Old Testament is fixated on genealogy. Sexual reproduction within marriage was a way of creating more of God’s chosen people. Originally, Jewish holy men were required to be married.

[“And Cain slew Abel.” Sorry, couldn’t help it. But really: Joseph’s brothers conspired to kill him. David had Bathsheba’s husband killed. Saul chucked a spear at David. And don’t get me started on the prophets, to ones who cemented the Israelites into a people. Sniping? Maybe. But sweeping statements like this bug me. I mean, sure, Levy has a point. But I think she’s being a tad reductionist in her effort to make it stick.]

With the advent of Jesus Christ and the New Testament, marriage fell from grace.

[BAM.]

The early Christian ideal was a utopian human family, an earthly mirror of Heaven above, unafflicted by the rivalries and allegiances of bloodlines. Jesus was not the marrying kind. “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters,” Jesus taught, “he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).

[True enough, and that bit about the early Christian ideal is worth investigating! But if you’re going to bring Scripture into it, then I kind of think you should take this into account:

Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

“What did Moses command you?” he replied.

They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”

“It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”

When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”

Sounds to me like Jesus is not only working to shore up the institution of marriage, but also grounding it in the will of God from the very beginning. I don’t think this is a stretch. Nor is it some esoteric teaching. Yes, Christianity sought to get outside the tribe, to build a community without borders or bloodlines. But that doesn’t mean they sought to do away with marriage, does it? Wife-swapping, communal child-rearing, etc.? I mean, maybe it’s true, but the Scripture cited doesn’t show it.]

St. Paul decreed, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman,” and said he wished “that all men were even as I myself”—celibate. “If they cannot contain,” Paul conceded, “let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.” This is, as Gilbert notes, “perhaps the most begrudging endorsement of matrimony in human history.”

[Again, true enough. But Paul also said a few other things about marriage. Some of those things are also fraught with difficulty, but there is this:

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 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.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.”

I mean, the Catholic Church, which is still the largest Christian denomination going, goes so far as to call marriage a sacrament, a visible sign of God’s grace. That’s a long way from “marriage fell from grace.” Sort of the opposite, really.]

*****

You know what? That’s probably more than enough. From there, Levy notes the elasticity of the concept of marriage, and cites examples from Eskimos to Ancient Greece to Iran to 19th-century China. She does not pay any particular attention to Christian Europe. She doesn’t have to, because she’s already shown that Christianity doesn’t really have much interest in marriage. The rest is worth reading, to be sure – go check it out. But I’m gonna spill the final line, if only for the way it illuminates Levy’s general sense of the question: “Marrying for money hasn’t exactly gone out of fashion, but generally we are not engaging in strategic dynastic mergers. And in contemporary America we no longer need to get married to produce additional farmhands. So what’s the point?” Indeed. Here’s an idea: instead of finishing with that as a rhetorical question, why not start with it as a real one? There are, after all, a few married people out there who might be able to furnish a reply.

Okay, okay – to be fair, Levy asks that rhetorical after pointing to evidence that marriage does not make women happier. But to my mind, that just makes the question more interesting and less rhetorical.

Comments

  1. Matthew,

    I didn't finish this tidbit, as it had too much tid and not enough bit.

    But what I find interesting about these cultural Marxists is that they haven't really done anything new or more than dear ol' Uncle Karl had originally proposed.

    Still playing 8-tracks, in other words, in an I-Pod world.

    Recall it was Uncle Karl who used the Holy Family (sans divinity) as his model for the Communist state.

    Which is all a kind of way to say that Liberals are self-destructive, self-loathing and selfish.

    [Bam]

    JOB

  2. Matthew Lickona says

    Everyone's a critic. But when JOB hits me with a too long/didn't read, I know I'm in trouble. Guess it's too early to go retro. Back to Twitter!

  3. Matthew,

    Pshaw! No, I READ all your comments – but a body can only hear someone insulting his mother for so long, dig?

    I LIKE the long reads – and you go right ahead and keep it up or I WON'T remain Godsbody's alter-ego (Devilsoul?). …

    Peace out, man.

    JOB

  4. I took JOB's comment about too much tid and not enough bit to refer to Levy's piece — an assessment I fully agree with.

    Meghan Cox Gurdon had a good review of Gilbert's book in today's WSJ. I'm grateful for the reviews; the book itself sounds too tiresome to wade through.

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