Monday, February 14, 2011

The Art of Marriage, Part I

Last month, I posted on a Christian marriage workshop to be held in central Pennsylvania called "The Art of Marriage." Created by FamilyLife and sponsored by the Pennsylvania Family Institute, "The Art of Marriage" became a source of controversy because Chik-Fil-A was reportedly sponsoring the event as well. Members of the LGBT and progressive blogosphere were unhappy that Chik-Fil-A was reportedly co-sponsoring an event with Pennsylvania Family Institute, a right-wing group that promotes the "traditional family." In an article at the Christian Post, Pennsylvania Family Institute president Michael Geer insisted that Chik-Fil-A was merely donating food for the event.

"The Art of Marriage" debuted this weekend at churches in Camp Hill and Reading, PA, and I attended the first night of the event (February 11th) at Christian Life Assembly in Camp Hill, PA. I attended the workshop not because of Chik-Fil-A (which was not mentioned at all while I was there), but because I wanted to hear what messages about marriage, gender, and religion would be promoted.

FamilyLife, a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ, offers relationship guidance to Christian couples. I have already written on some of the disconcerting messages about gender and homosexuality found at the FamilyLife website, some of which were reflected in "The Art of Marriage" workshop videos. After watching two of the six video modules and perusing "The Art of Marriage" workbook, I found that the program contained both healthy and unhealthy advice. While the program does promote positive relationship elements such as good communication and intimacy, it does so within a heteronormative, patriarchal framework that expects religious faith to do a lot of heavy lifting.

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When I walked into Christian Life Assembly, I was struck by how large, sleek, and modern it was, reminiscent of an upscale conference center. About 75 participants gathered in the church's spacious auditorium, where two large overhead screens sat above and in front of the audience.

The video for "Session One: Love Happens" started with a skit representing marriage as a couple preparing for a car ride. A woman sits in the passenger seat of a car, applying mascara. Her husband, clad in a bulky football uniform, enters the car and sits down in the driver's seat, announcing that he's focused and ready to take a few hits. After helping her husband hook up his helmet, the wife shows that she brought her own supplies for the journey, including stationary and seat cushions. After asking him how she looked, the wife asked if he'd brought directions, to which the husband replied, "Don't need 'em." The gender stereotypes, as well as the husband in the driver's seat, gave me some idea about what I was in for.

Next, the video showed an on-the-street montage of images and quotes from heterosexual couples of many ages and races, as well as children. The adults and kids on the screen talked about marriage, why people marry, and why they would choose to marry someone. Afterwards, "Why did you get married?" appeared on the screens, and couples had a two-minute break write down their answers in their workbooks.

Various speakers in the video provided input on marriage. Voddie Baucham Jr. of Grace Family Baptist Church (Spring, TX) claimed that romanticism and finding "the one" is a myth, when the reality is that we can't know if someone is "the one" until we've married them. Crawford Lorrits of Fellowship Bible Church (Roswell, GA) argued that couples should not enter marriage with an "open door" policy allowing them to exit. Marriage is for life, he claimed, comparing it to a car with no reverse. The purpose of marriage, Lorrits insisted, was to reflect and express the truth about God. Dave Harvey of Sovereign Grace Ministries stated that marriage is about more than "me" and is not an apparatus to serve one's needs. Rather, marriage is akin to a testimony that reveals something about God, he said, claiming that marriage reflects Christ's love of the church, a la Ephesians 5. Jeff Schulte of Sage Hill Institute likened marriage to his football experiences as a wide receiver. During football games, once he'd caught the ball, he needed to safely tuck it in his arm lest the opposing players dislodge it. Likewise, Schulte compared being a wide receiver to being a "wife receiver" in that he must receive his wife well, amidst forces in the world trying to keep them apart. This could be challenging when his wife seemed more like a porcupine than a pigskin, he admitted.

Comparing your wife to a pigskin. Really. How sensitive, I thought.

Additional male commentators talked about the Genesis creation story, in which Adam named pairs of animals but initially had no partner for himself. When God created Eve for Adam, the first man found wholeness. Just as Eve was a gift to Adam, so too is one's spouse a gift from God, the speakers claimed.

Sometimes yes, sometimes no, I thought. An abusive, adulterous, or unloving partner is not a gift, but a burden.

Another commentator said that receiving one's spouse meant embracing that partner's God-given differences. Whether he was referring to individual differences or gender differences was unclear. In context of video content that came later, I'm inclined to think he was referring to supposedly innate gender differences.

The rest of the video commentary focused on Genesis 2:24, in which a man leaves his parent and cleaves to his wife, becoming one flesh. Several of the male commentators interpreted this passage as applicable to all of humanity, insisting that all married people leave the parental home, declare economic and emotion independence from parents, and shift loyalties to the spouse. Some marriages fail, one commentator argued, because this separation from the natal family fails to fully take place.

I saw several flaws with this argument. First, while setting up an independent household after marriage is considered normal in modern Western cultures, it is not necessarily the norm across the globe. In patrilocal cultures, a man remains with his natal family after marriage, while a woman relocates to the home of her husband's kin after she marries. (The arrangements are reversed in matrilocal cultures.) Second, economic difficulties do not always allow couples to set up independent households immediately after marriage. For instance, some couples have been forced to move back in with parents due to unemployment, overwhelming debt, etc. In short, "The Art of Marriage" was justifying a modern, Western cultural practice with a Biblical passage, reflecting the distinctly Western flavor of the program.

The first session ended with couples being directed to a page in their workbooks on receiving one's spouse as a gift from God. Couples were instructed to list qualities that first attracted them to their spouses. After a short talk from the facilitators and a restroom break, the audience sat down for "Session Two: Love Fades."

The second session described the process by which couples drift apart into isolation. Dave Harvey claimed that couples drift apart because they have other priorities, such as their careers, and haven't made marriage a priority. Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, KY) argued that a big challenge to marriage is that most people want their own happiness out of it, being mired in a culture of "me" and "mine." Additional commentators insisted that all people are selfish and that this selfishness impacts relationships.

Next, the video used a performance art piece to segue into a discussion of sin and alienation from God through. In an old warehouse, a young African-American woman sat in front of vintage radio station equipment, soulfully reciting the poem "Free Fall" by Greg Ferguson. The poem recounted the serpent's temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden and the first couple's subsequent fall into sin. As she spoke, a nearby white man painted the Tree of Knowledge, then painted a bright red fruit in the foreground. When the woman came to the part of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit, the artist added dark, ominous tones to the painting, followed by black squiggles. The squiggles were repainted as a crowd of human faces, with a serpent winding through the center of the multitude, representing the presence of sin among the human race.

Next, video commentators reflected on sin, arguing that it infected every aspect of human life, shattered the human bond with God, and created a schism between Adam and Eve. One commentator argued that God's punishment for Adam and Eve's transgression took three forms: (1) the ground was cursed, (2) pain was introduced into childhood, and (3) pain was introduced into the marital relationship, specifically through a wife's desire being against her husband, leading her to usurp his authority.

In a bizarre turn, the commentators started discussing "spiritual warfare" against marriage by evil forces. Crawford Loritts claimed that the devil is not harmless or passive, but is a spiritual enemy who can damage marriages. This, he insisted, is why couples need Jesus' help. Instead of spouses turning on each other as enemies, they must turn to God, he said. A quote filled the screen: "There is an enemy, and it is not your mate."

This content struck me as odd. Problems erupt in marriages because of disagreements, stressors, and the characteristics of the two people involved, and to blame the devil struck me as absurd. Warnings of Satan threatening marriage seemed to be a fear-inducing element, meant to emphasize the need for fervent piety.

Commentators then talked about how men and women are supposedly different. A skit followed, showing a man zoning out as his wife talks about her new shoes, a woman zoning out as her husband talked about a gory movie, a woman looking annoyed as her male partner begged for sex, etc., etc., etc. As the skit went on and on, the film maker's stereotypical assumptions about the sexes became very clear. The problem as I see it is, if we try to shoehorn others into stereotypical roles, we stop seeing them as individuals, which is disastrous for relationships.

Commentators then talked about the need for selflessness in marriage and the need for a relationship with Jesus. Crawford Loritts stressed that couples with problems must come to Jesus first, then seek counseling and address problematic behaviors. Another commentator asserted that the idea of "irreconcilable differences" between believers is an affront to the Gospel.

Painful personal stories were interwoven throughout the two video sessions. The audience learned about the real-life struggles of couples who had lost a child, endured trauma, or simply grown apart. When their marriages were on the brink of divorce, faith in God supposedly healed their rifts and brought them together again.

The video also showed ongoing skits of a couple preparing for their wedding despite sharp personality differences, or seeking counseling because of growing tensions. In the former skit, the conductor for the couple's wedding compared marriage to an orchestra, in which it was not enough that all musicians played from the same sheet music -- they needed a conductor to organize them into a harmonious performance. "Always look to the conductor," he advised them, implying that couples need God to guide their relationships, just as orchestras need conductors to guide their performances. I can't say I agree with the symbolism -- after all, bands have no conductor, and yet band mates cooperate and play beautiful music together.

Click here to go to Part II.

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