I’m skimming through Stephanie Coontz’s book Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage. I never intended to read the whole thing, because I mostly wanted to know how marriage was among pre-modern Christians, and Coontz is much more comprehensive, providing a broad anthropological survey in the beginning, and spending the last half covering the transformation of marriage that has occured over the past two hundred years. But even skimming through the parts that didn’t interest me has taught me several things.
Coontz emphasizes that although romantic love has always existed, before 1800 or so it was unusual, and had nothing at all to do with people’s reasons for marrying. Up until then people married for economic reasons, broadly conceived; some scholars have argued that the best way to describe marriage universally is as a process of acquiring in-laws, i.e. joining families together. Falling in love was not essential; it was something that happened after the wedding, if at all. People married primarily to create a sustainable family economy; individuals were unable to do the work needed to survive without the help of a spouse and children.
Various historical forces combined to prepare the ground for a shift to modern day love-centered marriage. The Protestant Reformation promoted the family over the community as a source of fulfillment, sometimes to the point of idolatry. The rise of wage labor turned couples from equal partners in labor to breadwinner and homekeeper, with the labor of homekeeping being severely devalued (since no one paid for it). Increasing affluence led to a declining birth rate, since the extra hands were no longer needed. All this set the stage for the Victorian shift to the nuclear family as a “haven in a heartless world,” with husband as the brains and brawn and wife as the heart.
Coontz’s most interesting point is that this shift was actually a radical transformation, from a pattern that had stood the test of time since the beginning to one that was completely untried—and that the new pattern does not work. One aspect of the change she highlights is that originally marriage was of a limited duration; late marriage and early death led to an average length of fifteen years. Today a marriage has the potential to last fifty years or more. Combine this tripling in length with the removal of most of the old pressures to stay married—social disapproval, economic need, family ties—and the addition of one novel reason to be married—romantic love—and perhaps it isn’t surprising that the modern version of marriage is unable to endure.
What struck me as I read the book is how much the pattern of marriage has responded to whatever social and economic forces were present at a given time in a given place. Coontz’s anthropological survey shows that, beyond the core purpose of extending the family for economic reasons, marriage has taken on many different forms—yet each one makes sense in context. And her historical survey of European marriage from Roman times up to today demonstrates that things we take for granted as bedrock (e.g. church and civil involvement, grounds for divorce) are in fact recent innovations, just some of many things on the list that have come and gone as historical circumstances changed.
This seems to me to be completely at odds with the eternally popular pastime of divining a biblical standard for marriage. I don’t deny that the Bible has things to say about marriage, but I do think that most people aren’t satisfied with how little it has to say about that blessed estate, and so many things are added to the biblical standard which sound good and healthy and pious, but are in fact biblically indifferent and often of dubious earthly value.
I don’t think it’s a bad thing to add to the biblical standard—as long as we recognize that those things are not themselves mandated by God. Having an established, tested pattern for marriage saves individuals from having to reinvent the institution for themselves. But those parts of the pattern which are not divinely dictated need to be tested, and re-tested as historical circumstances change. And Christians need the freedom to deviate from them as they see fit. Likewise, we need to ponder the inability or unwillingness of individual Christians to adhere to those parts of the pattern, seeking to understand if it might be the pattern that falls short.
The pitfall here is what might be called golden age thinking. We like to think that for any given aspect of life there is a golden age, perhaps somewhere in the past or perhaps yet to come, where everyone adhered to a particular standard and life was good as a result. But when we start poking around to find out whether there ever was such a golden age, or whether adherence to the standard ever brought us any closer to such an age, the answer is generally no, not really—but the reason is not that the standard failed us, but that we failed to live up to the standard. When the mechanism of the free market is criticized, the defense is not to point to a time where the free market was successful, or to show that society benefits to the extent that a free market exists, but instead that we’ve never really had a free market, and if only ….
Similarly with biblical marriage. Different teachers have drawn very different pictures of what a truly biblical marriage looks like, each one exhorting their flocks to adhere to the standards they have divined from scripture. Two patterns are especially popular. One draws from the ancient Jewish pattern of marriage—but not comprehensively, of course, because modern-day life is so different that much of the pattern is impossible to recreate (e.g. betrothals that are as binding as a marriage). Another draws heavily from the Victorian pattern—but, again, not comprehensively, because much of the pattern is connected closely to the deep flaws in Victorian culture (e.g. promiscuity of husbands, lack of passion in wives).
So I think it’s fair to say that anyone promoting a biblical pattern of marriage today is promoting something that has never been tried, much less proven successful. And there’s no problem with that—to the extent that the pattern being promoted adheres strictly to scripture. But in those areas where the pattern goes beyond scripture, we need to recognize that these may be valid ways to live, but it is equally valid—imperative, I’d say—to question them, and to look for historical evidence which may tell us whether those ways will bless us or curse us. And, again, we need to accept that Christians are allowed to differ in their approaches to these areas.
My main concern about golden age thinking is that we tend to use it as a substitute for wisdom—the standard is the given, and any failure to be blessed by it is not a problem with the standard but with our inability to live up to it. This leaves us totally unequipped to say anything wise to someone who doesn’t accept some part of our standard, since we really have no idea how the rules fit together or why they were formulated as they were in the first place. A shame, because Christians are exactly the people who should be able to bring wisdom to bear in any and all circumstances, whether or not they deviate from our own pattern of living.