Marriage and Social Justice

Do you ever read statistics about marriage, divorce, cohabitation, and single parenthood and wonder where these changes are taking place? Sure, we know more and more families in our communities who part ways at some point, but it’s not like a whole third of our kids’ friends were born out of wedlock!

Let me suggest (especially if you’re white or fairly well-off) that you are looking in the wrong neighborhood. There is a ridiculous correlation between race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and other such factors and lower rates of stable marriages. Take a break from this blog and catch up with these eighteen quick and easy graphs: http://www.virginia.edu/marriageproject/pdfs/2008update.pdf. Take special note of the various ways in which race, gender, and the like affect results.

It’s clear that practices relating to marriage are changing. Can you believe the number of cohabitating couples has risen over 68% just from 2000 to 2007? That’s crazy! There are certainly larger cultural issues going on here. However, when we note, in particular, the ways in which white families and black families differ, how can we not see marriage as a social justice issue?

I’m not trying to say single parents can’t be good parents. I’m not saying all marriages are worthy of continuing. And I’m certainly not saying that families or individuals from certain ethnic backgrounds should be shamed. I do think, though, that we need to consider the sociological factors that are leading to these differences and the inequalities represented by those factors. (For example, stress about money can put a strain on any relationship.) We also need to consider the various inequalities—especially for children—that these family outcomes create.

I don’t think we often consider marriage and family issues related to social justice. For one, many would see marital status as better able to be controlled than income or neighborhood—so if you’re a single parent, we think that’s your choice (read: fault) and not our problem. Secondly, I think we who care about social justice often shy away from the topic of marriage, due to Focus on the Family connotations. An obsession with marriage seems likely just to alienate people or to connect us with the reactionary sort of conservatives we wish would stop trying to represent Christianity.

I think we’ve got to stop seeing things this way. There are some very destructive cycles going on in our culture at large, but especially within certain communities. We can’t force anyone to get married, stay married, or certainly to have a good marriage. However, we can start learning about the ways in which social inequalities and marriage and family outcomes are linked in a mutual reinforcing cycle, and we can start using our own skills and resources—individually and as churches—to remedy the situation.

I think we need to better educate and counsel on topics relating to sexuality, marriage, and parenting, especially focusing on the neighborhoods and communities hit hardest by family brokenness. There are many people with no or few models of healthy behaviors and relationships, which I think makes it difficult for them to envision possibilities. I think that with more people to walk alongside them, more information, and professional therapy, teens and young adults from all backgrounds can better heal from their own family pain and move towards happy, committed relationships in adulthood.

We absolutely must have a more pro-active stance.

Specific ideas for churches to come. :o)

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Filed under Marriage, Relationships, Social Justice, Sociology

Those Sexy Protestants

The other day in class, I was reading Wikipedia articles to refresh my memory on Katharina and Martin Luther. I’m not entirely sure how I got on the topic, besides that I wanted to make certain that Katharina had indeed been a nun prior to marrying Martin, as some of the ex-monk reformers married nuns, while others didn’t. This information is very significant, because Jeremiah and I have discussed being a monk and nun for Halloween, and to make this seem less disrespectful, I wanted to be sure we had a real historical monk-nun couple we could refer to. “See, we’re not just promoting bad behavior among monks and nuns, we’re representing a real monk and nun that had a romance going on!” Who can argue with people trying to teach church history?

This raised, in my mind, for the first time, a deep irony within the Protestant tradition. How odd it is that we are just now beginning (and I mean beginning) to more openly discuss sexuality from a Christian perspective. While sex was certainly not the most important issue for the reformers, it seems the Reformation made a point of saying, “Catholics have got this wrong.” Because they believed sex was a good thing, priests should be allowed to marry. Hence, for the first time in a long while, the theological leaders of this time had wives. While I’ve heard some negative gender-related quotes from Martin, and I’m not trying to lift up his marriage as any sort of modern-day ideal, I do feel like for his time, he and Katharina were in some sense progressive. This seems to be a part of our heritage to celebrate.

We, as Protestants, at once point in time, intentionally embraced sex as something good, the source of differences in Protestant requirements for ministers (marriage is allowed), as well as our openness to birth control today. How ironic that we don’t proudly own that, and how sad that we have made so little progress in developing serious theological reflection on gender and sexuality over the past few centuries.

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Filed under Marriage, Theology & Ministry

How’s married life?

I’ve been getting that question a lot lately. “How’s married life?” I’ve gotten it multiple times even today.

Sometimes it’s from a closer friend with genuine excitement for our marriage—typically someone who has watched our relationship grow from the beginning, whether here in California or long-distance. In this case, it’s less about the question, really, and more a continuing celebration of the fact that Jeremiah and I are together. They like us, they like us together, and thus our marriage is generally a fun topic to bring up, especially for our married friends.

Other times, “How’s married life?” is a substitute for “How’s it going?” I usually say “good” or “fine,” as I know they have little interest in details, though this probably makes me appear rather unenthusiastic to some. I often wonder how else they expect someone to respond. What would they actually do with honest answers like “We had a fight last night”? Or “We’re having tons of sex!”? Hence, the question brings me amusement, despite my slight annoyance that my individual well-being seems to have decreased in relevance to the world, at least for a few more months.

Lastly, there are those who are genuinely curious. “How is married life (really)?” This is a mixed group, including everyone from near strangers to bridesmaids, but it is almost exclusively single friends who ask. I like to talk about marriage, so I don’t really mind the question—but it’s not the easiest to answer meaningfully.

From my perspective, early “married life” is going to be quite similar to two things:

First, it is like the engagement period and dating relationship and ordinary friendship that came first. We married each other; we have a history together. Marriage is just a continuation of that past. It doesn’t feel sectioned off in a profound way. We are us, the us we always have been. Married life feels remarkably like the entirety of our relationship, perhaps especially because we tried to make fewer artificial distinctions before our wedding. For example, we started pooling financial resources and making financial decisions together at least three months “early” and established our joint bank accounts about a month or two in advance. While many people wait for months after the wedding to do this—or question whether they want to at all—I would recommend that everyone try to transition into marriage with similar practices.

Secondly, the first few months of married life feel quite similar to having a new roommate—though one you’ve already been friends with for a while. You already know something of each other’s habits. You’ve experienced conflict. You already often cook together, study together, run errands together, etc. When you’re living together full-time there are always new things you must negotiate. How do we do chores? (Er, do we do chores?) What about bedtime routines? Do we need to ask the other person before having someone over? In my experience, learning to live with Jeremiah is remarkably similar to learning to live with my college roommate Kate. There is nothing very interesting to describe, as much of what single people seem to be asking about are things they can already answer simply from living with another person.

With these two items taken care of, there are really only a few questions that seem to lurk below the surface:

“Is it what you expected?”
Yes, actually, it’s almost exactly what I expected. Is that weird?

“Is it what I as a single person expect?”
This obvious depends on the person, so I answer accordingly. While some people do have overly fluffy visions of marriage, on the whole I find that many people are too negative about marriage. Many see marriage as something risky to be put off. Others, trying to inject something positive into a culture of serial relationships, emphasize that marriage is hard—almost to the point that you wonder if marriage is any fun. If your expectation is that marriage sucks the life out of you, then no, it’s not what you expect, or at least it doesn’t need to be.

“Are you happy?”
Yes!

While sometimes I’ve been frustrated to answer the same question so often, the repetition—and especially the additional questions I’m sometimes asked by people in Group 3—has forced me to reflect on marriage in our society. We are certainly in an interesting place, when it comes to how we talk about marriage, how that differs based on context, etc. It leaves me with the sense that even among those with better preparation for marriage itself, few have the knowledge of real-life marriages (and engagements!) that might be a useful point of reference, even for those who never marry.

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5 Ways Facebook Has Improved Dating

A couple of days ago, another blogger discussed the many negatives that come with the intersection of Facebook and the dating scene: overanalyzing your crush’s posts, staying updated on your ex’s dating life, public beginnings and break-ups, having a digital record of relationship blunders, and the possibility of a significant other becoming jealous over posts to your wall from other people. I thought this was a really interesting take on Facebook/dating, as I might not be married right now if it weren’t for Facebook. Given my more positive slant (and also the irrelevance some of these items seem to have for adults—you’re jealous of your girlfriend’s other guy friends because of wall posts? Wow…), I have decided to dedicate a post to the positive impact Facebook had on my dating experience.

1) Solidifying a new friendship.
When Jeremiah and I first met at a Christmas party in 2009, we both were in need of more friends at Fuller. Thus, we friended each other within a couple days. This facilitated no fewer than three important things:

First, when I needed a ride from campus to my apartment complex one evening the next week and had already asked everyone in my phone/online that I actually knew, I (pathetically) used my Facebook status to try to recruit a ride. Jeremiah felt sorry for me and volunteered, which helped me decide he was a halfway decent guy rather than the arrogant pre-academic he appeared to be at the party.

Secondly, as we went on Christmas break, instead of a month of no contact, we continued to communicate through wall posts, article comments, and even chat. What one might learn during the first couple times hanging out with a new friend, I was able to do during our month off, through Facebook. I’m not sure if we had had a month-long gap in communication that we would have actually become friends during the next quarter.

Lastly, when I needed help moving to a new apartment in January and again, pathetically, had to ask for help on Facebook, Jeremiah again volunteered. He ended up being my primary moving buddy, and we ended up hanging out almost every day the next week, cementing him as my new best friend at Fuller.

2) Initiating conversation.
Jeremiah and I both post tons of articles on Facebook, along with our commentaries. When I was first getting to know him, I learned a lot about him just from reading articles he posted on Facebook, as well as looking through photos of his life pre-Fuller. When we hung out in person, sometimes the conversations sparked by Facebook would continue, usually on a deeper level. Also, even as we started hanging out all the time, we continued to chat on Facebook daily–during class, as well as most evenings (sometimes well past our bedtimes–but we won’t disclose any more embarrassingly gushy details!). Thus, while Facebook can’t be a substitute for real-life interaction, it was a positive addition to our growing friendship.

3) Introducing friends & family.
When we first started dating, my friends and family started friending Jeremiah and vice versa. Because we were both living thousands of miles away from home, everyone appreciated being able to get to know each other a bit. Between what we said about each other to our friends and their getting to interact online, see each other’s profiles, etc., a few closer friends actually ended up feeling like they knew us before we met in person. It was really neat to have them involved in our relationship from the beginning like this.

4) Sharing our story.
It was also cool to get to continue to invite people into our story as we moved toward marriage. Through pictures and status updates, people got to watch our relationship grow and even be present at our wedding from a distance. Clearly, it’s not the same as actually being there, but this was still really nice for us, given that we had many friends in California, friends in North Carolina, and family members who couldn’t travel to a Texas wedding.

5) Preserving memories.
Lastly, while I know it’s cheesy, I’ve really enjoyed having a record of our story. Since many of our first interactions were on Facebook, it’s been fun to look back and see posts from before we liked each other or before I had successfully convinced Jeremiah to like me back. Our relationship moved quickly, so it’s sometimes hard to remember the details of the process. For me, this makes it especially nice to have memories preserved through Facebook.

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Absolutely FREE!!!

The other day, Jeremiah’s (and my—though first Jeremiah’s ;o) friend Geoff shared with him some disappointing news: One of Corpus Christi’s local churches has a great plan to bring people to the Easter service next Sunday. Illustrating the reckless abandon with which our generous God loves us, they are giving things away. It sounds good enough at first—Christians should be generous, right? But rather than, say, hosting a community brunch and inviting the poor and homeless or giving away possessions to the local Salvation Army or giving away money to help rebuild Haiti, Bay Area Fellowship had a different idea.

The church is giving away almost $1 million…

…in laptops, flat screen TVs, cars, and of course, many smaller items, as well, since everyone is a winner.

The oh-so-clever pastor claims, “They’re coming for the loot and they’re going to leave with Jesus.” Well, God redeems some pretty poor efforts on our part, but we’ll still have to wait and see for this one…

Check out the news story, including thoughts from Michael Emerson—no, not the actor who plays Ben Linus but the sociologist from Rice University. (I happen to be a fan of both. :o)

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Marrying Young

About six months ago I read a fabulous book, which helped to confirm for me my love of sociology of religion. The book, by Mark Regnerus, was called Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers and one of its themes included the discrepancies between adults’ teaching/teenagers’ belief/teenagers’ practice when it comes to evangelical sexual ethics. This, among other things, has led Regnerus himself–who is evangelical–to advocate for younger marriage.

The stereotype, of course, is already that conservative Christians tend to marry younger. Still, along with the many non-evangelicals, there are plenty of evangelicals who also would question Regnerus’s recommendation.

I used to be one of them.

It’s not so much that I thought everyone that got married young did so just for sex or that all young marriages were bound to fail. It was much more of a feminist thing for me–it seemed the younger the marriage the more traditional the gender role expectations tended to be. (I’m not certain that there is any social scientific evidence for this, but this was my probably unfair stereotype.) I’ve changed my mind, however, and I feel like sharing some of the reasons with the world. So here is my brief treatise on the benefits of marrying young:

Some Christians criticize others for their lack of a “consistent ethic of human life”–i.e. supporting the death penalty while opposing abortion. I think we Christians need to do some reflection on a consistent ethic of marriage. We have so emphasized not committing adultery and not divorcing that we neglect to discuss many other important things. These items range from how to best support those who have divorced for legitimate or illegitimate reasons to better supporting dual-earner families, from acknowledging female sexuality to recognizing the significance of emotional abuse. I also believe that among these issues is the need to thoughtfully consider and teach the beauty of the very countercultural aspects of marriage.

While marriage is something that has existed throughout history and in many different cultural contexts, it has undoubtedly been done differently depending on the particulars of those contexts. Our context today introduces many interesting elements into the equation, ultimately leading to later marriages. First, the high divorce rate of my generation’s parents has left many anxious about commitment and a few quite jaded. Secondly, casual sex is not always as common as portrayed in movies but is still a part of the cultural landscape (facilitated, of course, by modern methods of birth control). Thirdly, our current economic situation and the direction of our society more generally is encouraging more education, postponing careers. Fourthly, American culture is extremely individualistic. To me, these seem to be some of the most significant factors in delaying marriage today. Together they make marrying young look unnecessary at best, foolish at worst.

Taking even the most positive approach, younger marriage is just likely to cause problems. When you’re in your 20s, you really don’t know what you’re doing with your life. “Emerging Adults” have a lot of growing up to do and are still waist-deep in questions about their future educations and careers. What if you marry someone, only to find out that they work in New York, while you’ve accepted a great job in California? What if you can’t both get accepted into the same or nearby grad schools? What if in your continuing to grow up, one or both of you changes significantly? When you’re not planning on having kids yet anyway, why get married? You can still live together with some degree of commitment, and yet be able to get out if things don’t go as you hope. Additionally, weddings are expensive, and it makes more sense to wait until you have enough money to pay for the accoutrements you’ve always dreamed of, right? Anyway, it seems wiser to wait until you have stable careers with stable incomes.

In this culture with these attitudes, marrying young is weird. And clearly it’s not for everyone–some people haven’t met the right person or aren’t at the right place in their relationship or personal growth to make that kind of a step. And yet, I wonder what it’d look like for Christian communities to encourage a different attitude toward marriage–not so much marrying “young” vs. marrying older as much as Christian marriage as an intentionally countercultural act. You’re deciding you don’t want to leave your options open, you’re not going to try to guarantee the stability of every aspect of your life, you’re going to take some risk as far as your education and careers work out, and you’re willing to commit yourself to one person when you don’t necessarily have to yet and even though you’ve seen a lot of marriages die. To me, that sounds pretty radical in our society.

I’m not trying to say that non-Christians can’t have good and purposeful marriages, of course, just that as Christians we should especially be thinking about how the gospel applies to every aspect of life, including marriage. I know not everyone should actually marry young but going into marriage with a different set of attitudes toward partnership and commitment can be really significant, I think. For example, many Christians emphasize that commitments are important to keep, yet many also still promote some sort of hesitancy (whether in serious conversation or innocent jokes) about commitment. I would argue that an actually more Christian view of commitment maturely measures the risk, yet in the end embraces that uncertainty with excitement and hope.

To truly apply this to our ideas about commitment would go beyond our natural enthusiasm for those who are already planning to marry. I think it would change the way to consider things like, “What if we get stuck accepted to two different schools?” or “Shouldn’t we wait until we’re financially stable?” When you’re already acknowledging the risk inherent in commitment (no matter what the circumstances!) and daring to believe that good can come from it, these questions fade in importance. After all, marriage is about more than cleverly engineering your life circumstances to support a relationship. You can grow it in a greenhouse, if you prefer, but the unexpected is likely to make you feel like you’re in the wild, anyway. Why not just start there? Yes, some times might be harder–you can’t really know–but if the whole point of this is commitment, what does school or money or whatever else have to do with it? If you don’t think you want to be committed if some things don’t go as planned, why do you think you might ever want to get married at all?

Personally, I’m enjoying the fact that things don’t always go the way we thought, as it shows me just how good my decision to get married has been. While Jeremiah and I are both waitlisted for PhD programs, we have an uncommon advantage: each other. I’m surprisingly calm about the fact that I don’t know what I’m doing yet or what will happen if one of us gets in and the other doesn’t. I’m remarkably happy about it all and just excited to see how it turns out. Our life together in and of itself seems much more important than our particular plans. What good would it have been for us to wait to get married, apply to various programs, and end up at opposite ends of the country? If you don’t know you want to get married, that’s ok. But if you want to, don’t wait. It doesn’t accomplish anything. And actually going through with something that seems crazy can end up being a really wonderful thing.

And about gender roles: Despite my hang-ups, marrying young says nothing about gender roles. Though this was hard for me to get over (so few of my female friends are married that I was sure there must be something awful about feminists marrying young and that I must be crazy!), I’m learning that we can wait as long as we want to have kids. We can divide chores however we want. We can get as much education as we feel like. We can split time with kids more evenly than most parents. We can be flexible. People can think whatever they want about women and men who marry young–but for us, it’s an opportunity to enjoy each other’s company longer before we have more intense responsibilities, as well as even more time to figure out how we can best make two careers work. And I don’t know what isn’t feminist about that. ;o)

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Filed under Marriage, Sociology of Religion

Liberty vs. Baylor

If you aren’t in the loop on issues in the Christian academic world, you may be interested to learn that earlier this week Ken Starr–yes, the Ken Starr of the Clinton era–was selected as the 14th president of Baylor University. This is interesting on a couple of notes:

1) I’m applying to Baylor–going there for PhD interviews, actually.
2) Many Baylor alums that I’ve seen online and/or know personally have been frustrated with this decision simply because he’s a polarizing figure. Especially because Baylor shows the potential to be a more academic, moderate Baptist university and because Starr isn’t event Baptist.
3) Part of why he was probably chosen is that he’s been great for fundraising during his stint as director of Pepperdine’s law school. Baylor’s trying to grow their endowment from 1-something billion to 2 billion by 2012, and Starr may help… but he also increase the % of more conservative cash coming in, which could threaten Baylor’s integrity as a more moderate evangelical school.

The direction Baylor seems to have taken have scared some alums (on one forum I was reading) to the point of wondering if Baylor could become a new Liberty! Which struck me as going rather too far. Even if Starr makes Baylor a bit more conservative, I find this notion entirely unrealistic, and therefore, even slightly amusing.

So in honor of Liberty University (Lord bless them…), I thought I’d share with you one deliciously appalling piece of their list of their distinctive qualities, for your amusement:

An uncompromising doctrinal statement, based upon an inerrant Bible, a Christian worldview beginning with belief in biblical Creationism, an eschatological belief in the pre-millennial, pre-tribulational coming of Christ for all of His Church, dedication to world evangelization, an absolute repudiation of “political correctness,” a strong commitment to political conservatism, total rejection of socialism, and firm support for America’s economic system of free enterprise.

I hope to goodness there will never be another Liberty–and I definitely don’t think Baylor could ever go that far. ;o)

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