Tuesday, February 14, 2012

You (In)Complete Me, Valentine

There may or may not have really been a “Saint Valentine.” If he did exist, he was most likely a martyred bishop or priest. Early tradition has it that he lived in 3rd century Rome and was arrested for aiding persecuted Christians—this aid including presiding over the marriage of Christian couples—and that he was eventually executed by a well-rounded combination of being stoned, beaten with clubs, and finally beheaded.

And somehow we’ve wound up with this?

Alas, I don’t have time to wax eloquent on the evolution of the Valentine mythos into its current state, as an over-commercialized reason for ensemble-cast chick flicks and the obligatory purchasing of $5.00 greeting cards (I mean, c’mon. I have books that cost less. Good books).

What I do want to take time to sermonize about is this: I find it 100% frustrating that a lot of my fellow Christians would claim that the high premium they place on “getting everyone married” has something to do with their faith commitments. As far as I can tell, this impulse is in no way distinct from secular society’s values—nothing makes it as clear as does the common rhetoric on Valentine’s Day cards. Here are a couple of standard examples (you may help yourself to them at your neighborhood CVS pharmacy):

I don't have to tell you that there are a jillion cards with similar messages, and the subtext is clear—“You complete me, Valentine. Let’s find some meaning in life together.” Most every chick flick, sitcom, and soap opera sends the same message. Our secular society shouts it from rooftops that rise as high as the steeples topping the churches from which the same tidings emanate: romantic relationships, culminating in marriage = happiness.

Of course, this is a great American tragicomedy. “Marriage equals happiness” until it gets boring or demanding, at which point “a new relationship equals happiness.” Last time I checked, marriage rates are down in the United States while divorce rates are intimidating; moreover, we Christians more or less rack up the same percentages on the divorce tally. And yet, the secular and religious alike still press single people on towards the marriage finish line without stopping to think about what we may be losing in doing so.

I am all for our discerning, taking seriously, and celebrating the gifts of the marital commitment…but is it not high time we drop the “happiness” farce? Based on my brief 1.75 years of wedded bliss, I can already affirm that marriage brings a multitude of opportunities to one’s life: opportunities for the creativity and dynamism that comes with sustained commitment to someone, for deepened friendship in sharing the sacred mundane together, for an increased sense of awe at the mystery of the neighbor/partner one can never fully know, for the humbling self-awareness that accompanies the everyday realization that it is deadly difficult not to act out of conceit.

There is rich, real joy in all of this…but it is costly joy. It most certainly is not chick flick happiness. Show me a married couple who says it’s all sweetness and light, and I’ll show you a couple that’s been married for about five minutes. As my friend and burgeoning theologian Peter Kline points out, “Saying marriage vows does not magically make you competent in love. You will say them against yourself. Saying them is like taking a first step into a pitch-black room that you can only feel and stumble your way through. Which is why you must say your vows as prayer, as a calling out to God—who is love itself.”

So we want single people to be happy? We might start by recognizing that real happiness, the costly joy one discovers in the purifying flames of the love God is, belong just as much to single people as to anyone. Single people step into a different pitch-black room and stumble through it alone, guided by the trust that God’s seal on their heart has marked them with the love that is as strong as death, with a jealousy as unyielding as the grave (Song of Songs 8:6). The gifts of this journey are costly yet plentiful…and they are impossible to retain once you are married and step onto a different fumbling path.

If you aren’t convinced by my testimony, consider the fact that it is blaringly obvious that everything about Jesus Christ’s way of socializing flies in the face of the standard family model…this is not to mention all of that uncomfortable stuff he says in Matthew 10 about being willing to deny family members for the sake of the cross. And of course, the apostle Paul’s take on marital union is pretty apparent in I Corinthians 7: for Paul, marriage is for those who are too spiritually weak for the preferable state of celibacy.    

There is much more that could be said (and has been, if you’re interested) to nuance all of this anti-marriage sentiment from our single savior and the most effective Christian missionary in history. However, my immediate point here is that, of all places, the church should be a community where people are not threatened by ways of sociality that are different from their own—because, let’s be honest: perhaps we “worry” about single people because they potentially undermine our way of sociality. Especially if they are happy being single, God forbid. The church ought to be a place where diverse forms of sociality are affirmed and embraced as integral to the body of Christ, and my hunch is that if we started recognizing and listening to the spiritual wisdom our single members have gained by virtue of their singleness, then they would feel a lot more comfortable in our congregations.

Which brings me to my final point: it’s also time that we stop defining ourselves according to marital/familial status, as we clearly do in our smaller fellowship groups or classes. While I absolutely enjoy communing with people in a similar phase of life to my own and realize that there is much to gain from this, I also believe that we are profoundly impoverished when we have little consistent, close interaction with fellow believers who are in different life stages. So, not only is it time for Christians to drop the “marriage = happiness” absurdity—especially under the pretense that it’s somehow wrapped up in our Christological identity—but let’s also stop herding ourselves together according to marriage and family identifiers. It only furthers the illusion.

I don’t mean to spoil your Valentine’s Day. Goodness knows I’m not one to come down too hard on any excuse to eat more chocolate…and who, except for the snobbiest of film snobs, hasn’t at some point enjoyed the mindless fantasyland of a chick flick? Plus, if I can weasel my way into some Radiohead tickets from my husband under the auspices of a Valentine’s gift, I’ll happily dye my hair pink in honor of the day.

But I would urge you to keep both eyes on the absurd unreality of the $5-card-narratives we tell ourselves about singleness and partnership…and certainly don’t waste your energy today feeling sorry for your friends who aren’t coupled off. Your time would be better spent asking for their prayers.