Showing posts with label Culture. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Culture. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Chick Flicks and Cheating

Chick flicks teach people to have affairs. Before you roll your eyes and move on, allow me to clarify. I like some "chick flicks," and romantic love is a good thing. I bring my wife flowers regularly, I take her on dates every week, and I have even watched the six-hour long BBC version of Pride and Prejudice with her. Nonetheless, my point stands: chick flicks teach people to have affairs.

How many movies can you think of that deal with life after marriage? How many of those honor marriage, rather than mocking it or glorifying infidelity? The list is short. How many movies have you seen that deal with dating and falling in love? That list never ends: it is filled with dozens of romantic comedies, dramas, sob stories, and breakup-hookup-breakup-hookup tales that never, ever go a moment past the kiss at the altar. In short, our culture is obsessed with falling in love. It knows little of staying in love, and nothing at all of the pains of committed love.

We should hardly be surprised, then, that people soon grow tired of the relative monotony of faithfulness, that they begin to long again for the thrill of the chase. Mystery and novelty are the guiding lights of our romances; they are all we have ever known. Marriage has neither in its favor, and brings with it the solemn weight of commitment. Little wonder that it is on the rocks; we have no idea how it works—much less how glorious and beautiful it is.

We are witness to a strange convergence of historical ideals about romance and marriage (from late medieval courtly love right up through 27 Dresses) and the opportunity for such ideals to be realized. Modernity affords us the luxury of choice in spouses much as it does in all other areas of life. Our culture is not unique in prizing romance. Unlike other times, though, when romantic love was often idealized but less frequently realized as a basis for marriage, it is now the decisive factor in most decisions of whom to wed. In earlier times, people generally married within their small communities and made a life together. Romance was a perk; financial stability and the ability to carry on the family name were the real necessities.

There were, without question, downsides to this. People often found themselves married to people they did not like, had little in common with, and would never have chosen for themselves. By the same token, these marriages never suffered the illusion that a spouse would somehow provide ultimate happiness and satisfaction in life, and they certainly did not entail the expectation of constant emotional highs.

Few people today are obligated to marry anyone at all. Women in particular are no longer economically shackled, and our world at large is far wealthier and far more economically mobile than that of earlier times. People thus have little or no financial incentive to marry someone they do not like. With the steady march of urban- and suburbanization, they have little geographic incentive either; for most people, an alternative romantic partner is nearly always available. Accordingly, people generally marry for romance.

Unsurprisingly, movies have continually pushed romance to the forefront of popular thought on marriage. This is nothing new; popular media has emphasized courtship and falling in love for centuries. (Read anything from Shakespeare to Jane Austen if you're unconvinced.) Movies are but the latest to take up the fashion. Like the many media before them, they portray the glories (and woes) of romance, courtship and pursuit—but never the very different glories of marriage.

Movies are hardly alone in this. Popular music (from country to hip-hop) emphasizes the same basic approach to relationships and romance. Think: how many songs mention, much less dwell on, the quiet struggles and triumphs of daily life with someone? How many, in contrast, emphasize unfulfilled longing, the insecurity of dating, and the ultimate happy ending of a proposal or wedding? Again, the examples are too numerous to mention; just turn on the radio. The same is true of novels, television shows, and even video games.

Christian nonfiction has been just as guilty of perpetuating this view. I have read numerous books instructing husbands that their wives simply need to be pursued. The art of marriage, it seems, is simply the art of the chase: make your wife feel as though you are seeking to attract her attention as though you just met, and your relationship will be perfectly healthy. Marriage will never be boring, because it will feel just like dating. Infidelity will never tempt—because the same thrills can be had in marriage itself.

The problems with this idea, wherever it is communicated, are significant.

First, this view promotes a deeply abortive understanding of relationships. Courtship itself fits the narrative perfectly, of course: it is the narrative. Boy meets girl, boy and girl like each other, boy and girl flirt, boy and girl get married. The narrative cannot fit the sequel, though: marriage is no longer the object of the relationship. A man is no longer seeking to earn a woman's trust and affections; he has earned them. A woman is no longer seeking to win a man's heart; she has won it.

This is obvious to us in all our other relationships. The beginnings of a friendship are far more exciting than its steady continuation—but most of us enjoy having friends more than we enjoy trying to make friends. We value the commitment inherent in long-term relationships with each other. We appreciate the security in knowing that someone will continue to stand by us as they have in the past. We enjoy having someone who understands us well and values us as we are. Generally speaking, we do not spend our days longing for the rush of finding new friends; we simply enjoy the time we have with our existing friends.

Only in romance do we think that the emotional rush of uncertainty and the thrill of the new are normal. But they are not normal. No one can perpetually sustain the sort of emotion that characterizes the early stages of romantic involvement. Marriage entails a commitment that, at its best, is inviolable, and much of the emotional rush of dating is the insecurity inherent in the absence of that commitment.

However carefully one treads, there is always the chance that one's significant other will break off the relationship and move on to someone else. This may not be a particularly pleasant thought, but it serves to heighten all the emotional aspects of the relationship. Even as low moments are crushing, happy moments cause the heart to soar with hope and expectation.

Further, hope and expectation are two of the primary positive emotions of courtship. They are not primary characteristics of marriage, however. Courtship's hope and expectation are toward marriage itself. Marriage, by definition, has already fulfilled those hopes and and expectations. Various desires remain, of course: dreams of what the future holds, of children and family, and of a happy life together. These are not the point of the relationship in the same way that the hope of marriage is the point of dating, though. The defining characteristic of marriage is not longing but commitment.

Finally, at a purely practical level, sustaining the level of emotion experienced in courtship is impossible. Gestures that once stirred the heart to rapturous happiness now produce contented smiles and tender hugs. We grow accustomed to each other's ways of communicating love. Holding hands may remain delightful and a helpful way to demonstrate togetherness, but it never thrills quite the same way as it did the first time. Much as a woman loves being gently kissed, she will never feel the same rush she did on being kissed the first time. It is well worth the effort to keep these gestures fresh and appreciated. Nonetheless, no amount of effort can maintain the emotional heights of courtship.

These media model for us an entire set of relational expectations which are ultimately unrealistic. Pursuit cannot continue forever. Moreover, it should not: marriage is not a continuous pursuit, but a steady commitment to remain. Marriage cannot thrill as dating (or infidelity) does; obedience to God's word is never as exciting in the moment as sin. The antidote to infidelity is faithfulness, plain and simple and boring though that answer may seem.

If indeed the thrill of novelty is not normative for marriage, what is? Are we to throw away romance entirely and content ourselves with dull and dreary days and lackluster love? Not at all. We must, however, begin to reorient our conception of love.

As has often been emphasized, love is not an emotion; it is a choice. However helpful affection is, love shows itself most powerfully when affection is at its lowest ebb. Loving someone when your heart overflows with warm emotion toward them is easy. Loving someone when you are both tired, your days are frustrating, nothing exciting is happening, and then something goes wrong—that is hard. Such moments expose us. They reveal whether we really love each other, or whether we simply enjoy the benefits we have from each other's company. Men and women who love each other will show it a little more all the time, in the worst of circumstances as well as the best.

In large part, the advice offered by the Christian nonfiction I decried above is good advice. The problem is one of terms and the expectations they engender. When the wedding ends, the pursuit ends; what remains is the far less exciting but far more meaningful and important project of remaining. This by no means indicates that the time for romantic gestures has likewise ended—such gestures are a part of remaining well. Wherever we continually set our wills, our affections usually follow. People who start running to exercise often end up as runners. People who pick up a hobby stave off boredom often find themselves outright hobbyists. And people who choose to offer and gratefully receive romantic gestures as demonstrations of love for each other often find that they continue to grow in affection for each other.

Chick flicks can only (and barely) teach us how to begin loving each other. They cannot show us how to continue loving each other. At best, they give us false expectations of marriage as an endless pursuit; at worst, they lead us to hunger for that chase elsewhere. We learn the joys of contentment from watching those who have gone before us, and by practicing it every day. Romantic love is good, but it cannot sustain us. It can only be sustained by real love—the kind that is willing to sacrifice, to stay when it hurts, to endure anything for the good of someone else at great cost to self.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Technology, Distraction, and Pascal

Justin Taylor just posted a helpful reminder that there is indeed nothing new under the sun. The last few years have seen a flurry of articles proclaiming the myriad ways that Google Is Making Us Stupid. While there is probably some truth to that, as I have written myself, the ultimate source of those problems is not new, but age-old and an unchanging fixture of fallen human nature. We distract ourselves because we fear what we would see if we did not. From Taylor's post:

Pascal, to my mind, has written the most profound reflections on God, man, and “diversion.” I’d recommend getting Peter Kreeft’s edition, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal's Pensees , where the relevant thoughts are all gathered in one section (pp. 167-187). Kreeft writes that when he teaches this material, his “students are always stunned and shamed to silence as Pascal shows them in these pensees their own lives in all their shallowness, cowardice and dishonesty.”

Here is one line from Pascal (from #136) that it worthy of a lot of meditation:

I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.

Taylor also quotes Douglas Groothius at length, and the full post is well worth your time. It left me thinking: how often do I distract myself, and how often do I allow myself to sit in the quiet and ponder reality?

Monday, June 21, 2010

How Facebook is Losing Me

I was an early adopter. I joined The Facebook, as it was then called, shortly after I got to OU, around a year after the popular networking site launched. I enjoyed it, a lot. In the last several months, though, I’ve noticed a pretty striking change: when I want to connect with others socially online, Facebook may still be my default, but it’s no longer fun.

When I joined Facebook, it was limited to college students, and served exactly one purpose: connecting with other college students. Slowly but surely, Facebook has transformed from that simple concept to a behemoth that now hosts more social profiles than any other single site in the world. “Friend” is now a verb as surely as “Google” is. There has been a lot of good along the way; I have never been one of the naysayers who joined yet another “Million Strong Against Facebook Update X” groups. To be frank, I always found the hysteria a bit silly.

Today, I finally understood why Facebook has stopped being fun, though, and I understand a little more what those people were always on about (even if the changes did not, ultimately, drive away the masses or bring about the predicted end of the [social networking] world). Facebook changed its premise.

Somewhere over the last three or four years, Facebook stopping being primarily a place to talk to other people and started being a place to share content. There is nothing inherently wrong with that shift, but it explains a lot, I think. For example, if you look at the history of my wall conversations, they’ve dropped radically over the course of the last two years. There are a few other factors influencing that (getting married and joining the “real world” being prime movers here), but I don’t think it a coincidence that those two years have also been the years in which Facebook has expanded or introduced a wide array of ways to share information. (I have noticed the same trend on other friends’ walls in the same period of time.)

Pictures, videos, blog posts (in the form of “notes”) and an endless list of applications now dominate the scene on Facebook. I find myself far more likely to “like” someone’s insightful note or even a comment on someone’s wall than I am to comment myself, much less just drop a note on someone’s wall. Most of the conversations I have are not social but centered on ideas or media. This is a fairly radical change from the Facebook I joined. I used to have huge conversations back and forth with people via our walls; messages were second-level conversations for things that could only be said in private. Now, if I want to actually let people know anything important, I immediately jump to a message—the wall is so cluttered with other things that it’s useless.

Though it is only today that this broader picture came into focus, it has been increasingly clear for quite some time. I recently chose to start using Facebook primarily as a place of sharing media—not least because its utility for social connections was dropping so much. It is now essentially a bigger, bulkier, less-pleasant version of Twitter for me: a source of not-so-brief snippets of people’s lives, mingled with a flood of reports about games, quizzes, and media. The deluge obscures the very people I want to connect with.

Am I going to leave Facebook? Probably not, at least anytime soon. Am I using it less and less as a means to connect to others? Absolutely, and I cannot see that trajectory changing anytime soon. Facebook is fine for what it is—but unfortunately, it is no longer what I enjoyed so much when I joined. It is a smorgasbord with everything anyone could ever want... except a simple place to connect with friends.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Sacrificing God on the Altar of Culture

I just stumbled across a particularly graphic example of one of the worse trends that came out of the emergent movement in a post from about a year and a half ago. I'll let the blogger speak for himself, then offer some comments. The author is writing on the topic of homosexuality and our response as Christians. I'm not even touching that one here; there is a much bigger issue at stake. I recommend you read the whole thing; the parts that caught my attention follow:

But presenting a coherent biblical argument for why homosexuality is not a sin and why our gay brothers and sisters should be fully welcomed into all areas of the church and ministry is not my point here. I think many people have done just that (Jack Rogers and Stacy Johnson come to mind), but they are easily dismissed by many because they apparently don’t have a “high enough view of scripture.”

Well – if that’s the problem – then I say, “Enough with the Bible already!”

...

If it is truly the Bible that is causing some to hold these discriminatory beliefs, then perhaps we need to set the Bible aside for awhile. Perhaps we need to not construct a belief system about LGBT folk built on the foundation of a couple verses in scripture. Perhaps that isn’t healthy, fair, just or Christian.

For some, I believe the Bible has become an idol. Some place the Bible above Jesus’ compassion and love, Jesus’ radical inclusivity, and hold steadfast onto what they believe to be the correct interpretation of a small amount of verses that speak about same-sex relations. To those who repeatedly start quoting Leviticus and Romans verses as soon as anyone brings up the topic of homosexuality, I’d suggest perhaps you stick your Bible back up on the shelf for awhile. Perhaps it should collect a little bit of dust. And maybe, just maybe, you need to go out and grab coffee with someone who’s gay. Maybe you need to hear their story, learn about what they’ve been through, how they’ve experienced Christians and the church.

That sounds really nice, in some ways. Let's ignore a couple of verses that are somewhat controversial these days, and just live out Jesus' example of radical love, right down to inviting people into the kingdom who are rejected by society, religious and otherwise. He has a point, too: there are a lot of people who love their theology, their knowledge, their rightness over Christ. They've made an idol out of the Bible. Many Christians should just go hang out with some gay people and remember that they're people, just like you. There's just one huge problem with the whole argument, though.

If you do what he says—if you put your Bible up on the shelf and let it collect some dust, say "Enough with the Bible already!"—then who is this Jesus you're professing to follow? He's a mystery. Jesus is the point, of course, not simply knowledge. Eternal life is not the recitation of a few rote facts; it is not being straight; it is not paying your taxes or fulfilling the law of God as well as you can. Eternal life is knowing God the Father and Jesus Christ whom he sent, and we know them through the Holy Spirit they sent (John 17:3). But we do not have any knowledge of Christ apart from that Bible that we just put up on a shelf to collect some dust.

God has chosen to reveal himself through Scripture—not through our mystical experiences, our beliefs, our culture, or our circumstances. We do not get to pick and choose what it means to walk with God. This is how we know that we love God: we keep his commandments (1 John 5:3). If we say we know him and do not keep his commandments, we are liars (1 John 2:4). But how do we know his commandments apart from his telling us? We can't! Where has he told us what he requires of us? Scripture!

Setting aside for the whole issue of homosexuality, we must recognize that we have no ground to stand on at all apart from Scripture. We do not, cannot, know Christ if we put his word on our shelf, to be ignored until we feel comfortable in our culture. The idea is ludicrous: if I suggested that the best way to show that I really understand my wife and want to demonstrate my love for her is to stop listening to her until I have it figured out for myself, everyone would rightly call me a fool. Is that not the suggestion being offered, though?

We know God because he has revealed himself to us. Let us be humble enough to recognize that we have no wisdom of our own, and thus to never dare to set aside his word. And yes, let us go build relationships with nonChristians of every kind, including gay people. Let us love them with the love of Christ—but let us let God tell us who he is and how he would have us live, not the changing winds of culture.