Calling all Theater companies and performers!

Open Call to Theater companies, performers, researchers:
I would like to hear other voices besides my own on this blog. If you'd like to write about your TLP experiences here, e-mail them to me and I'll put them up.
Topics can include dramaturgy to staging to personal responses to the play. Anything goes!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Uncivil Unions: Rome is Falling

 Most of you have probably never heard of Paulus Orosius, but he's somebody I've studied extensively as a medievalist.  Orosius was a Spanish priest who played postmaster between Jerome and Augustine of Hippo in the fifth century, but he's mostly known in modern circles (when talked about at all) as the author of an enormous, bizarre history of the world starting with Adam and ending shortly after the sack of Rome.  According to Orosius, Rome was the fourth, and blessed, world kingdom, which God used to bring about the conversion of the world and subdue it for Christ.

In reality, it was a pretty untenable argument, but Orosius held onto that premise so doggedly that he eventually bent historical fact, logic, and Scripture itself to try and fit his theological bed of Procrustes.  For one, it leads him to argue a lot of silly things, like that the barbarian sack of Rome wasn't really a sack, or that Constantine (who wiped out a lot of his family) was a model of virtue.  His theology is absolutely terrible (Augustine pretty much tears it apart in City of God, Book 18), but its Christian-imperialistic vision appealed to the clerical masses-- so it stuck around as a fundamental text of the European middle ages and was even translated into Arabic.

Orosius was so convinced that God established the Roman Empire as the backbone of his new Christian order that he argued it was essential for Christian society to thrive on earth. So, if the Roman empire fell...? Hmm. Perhaps it's for the best that Orosius never lived long enough to see a barbarian king on the Roman throne and the dissolution of his beloved empire into little states run by Franks and Vandals. He'd have thought the world had gone to hell in a hand-basket.

So, I was morbidly interested to discover that the Manhattan Declaration invokes the same event, the presumed fall of Rome, in its Preamble:
After the barbarian tribes overran Europe, Christian monasteries preserved not only the Bible but also the literature and art of Western culture.
What's funny so about this is that it isn't really true.  Barbarian "tribes" didn't exactly "overrun" Europe; except for the Huns, a large part of them were already there, and the Romans pushed into them first.  And, a huge portion of the Burgundians, Franks and Goths were Roman federates, soldiers, or-- depending on whose articles you read-- Roman citizens.  The earliest copy of a non-Latin vernacular Bible is in Gothic.  And, in just a couple of generations those monasteries they mention are stocked with so-called "barbarians" copying out the Bible themselves, completely unaware they almost destroyed Western Civilization.  These barbarian invasions are mostly just a story we use to buttress our feelings of pride in our Christian heritage, and one the Manhattan Declaration invokes without question.  There are a couple of other ideas they invoke without question, too-- things that make them pull an Orosius and distort their argument to make it support a bad premise. 
Corner of Gay and Union
Specifically, Orosius made the Roman empire more important to the continuance of Christian social order than it really was.   I think that's my main problem with the Manhattan Declaration, too: they're trying to build the backbone of the social order on things never meant to bear that kind of weight-- and that thing is marriage.  They think that the continuance of a sound social order rises or falls on the definition of what a marriage actually is. 

So, that's where I'm going to spend some time today: what's the real center of society, as envisioned by the Bible?  Where's the place of marriage?  And what happens when hetero sex gets fetishized to the point of absurdity?

Since I'm a storyteller, let me spin you a yarn of my early married years.  When I lived in the Deep South, I was a Southern Baptist and went to a huge, old Southern Baptist Church in the second most historical district in the city.  While I was there, I was friends with this one woman I'll call "Maggie."  She was in her thirties, freaking brilliant, and she sincerely felt that God had called her to lead a single existence and become a teacher.  All those old Southern ladies in my church didn't know what to do with "Maggie" because she  had a masculine, assertive demeanor and had no interest in the sons and cousins they tried to set her up with constantly.  It just wasn't natural, many of them decided; a woman was supposed to get married, set up a household and home-school their perfect swarm of children who would all walk the altar call by the age of seven.  Those of us who didn't fit their definition of "natural"-- girls like "Maggie," and to some extent, even me-- often found ourselves at the wrong end of some ugly speculation about their private lives.  As a result, "Maggie" often felt marginal and discriminated against by the same church she felt called to serve. 

As I watched "Maggie's" plight from my outsider's perspective, I realized that it was a far bigger problem than just the occasional "old maid" or dedicated singles like "Maggie." The single men had the same constant battle.  Our (divorced) church organist had a young male roommate, and thus was the focus of some vicious gossip.  The Singles Ministry was actually just a dating service for desperate housewives-in-training.  People in church would push for disastrously bad marriages between people living together just to make it "legal," and if the resulting marriage was really bad, with adultery or neglect, heaven forbid that one should consider divorcing the other, especially if there were kids.  One pastor at a church in the same denomination actually went so far as to say that a woman has a marital obligation to sexually submit to a husband who slept around and brought home  a venereal disease.  What a jerk. 

I saw stressed, unhappy marriages between incompatible people everywhere I looked, and I saw a church system that felt that marriage was so sacred that it was better for one partner to stay in a demeaning relationship than renounce it altogether.  In my opinion, this rabid need to push everybody into marriage too fast, and with any convenient partner, drives a lot of the divorce rate in Western churches.  "Maggie" was just stubborn enough to realize that she didn't have to play that game if she didn't want to.
Church Avenue-- Stop
I would like to call this tendency to overvalue heterosexual expression in marriage the "fetishization of heterosexual normativity."  (Okay, so let's not.) In many Christian churches, it seems like the idea of the nuclear family as a critical marker of a Christian society has taken hold so strongly that they think we can't survive without it.  Sure, marriage is important-- but that assumed holiness of the family unit has taken such a strong hold over our imaginations that we've placed it on the wrong pedestal.  We want to put straight sex and procreation in the place that only God should hold.  The church community often asserts that the LGBT makes an idol out of their sexuality; but if that's true, then I'm not sure that Christians, evangelicals especially, are doing anything different. Read the language in the MD about the marital union; it's dripping with religious overtones even while denying that this concept of marital union is exclusively religious. 

But it goes much farther than just that.  It's not the nuclear family that they're fetishizing so much as straight sex.  When gay and lesbian couples start setting up the same monogamous, stable and (yes) reproductive households as straight couples currently enjoy, when they start raising otherwise normal, responsible children just like the rest of us,  that's when people really freak out.  For years, people claimed that the end of the nuclear family was going to be the end of society.  Now that gay people are setting up nuclear families and helping "shore up the demise of society," in the MD's words, now that's what's going to kill the social order. Conservative society freaked out for decades over how exotically bizarre they thought that the gay lifestyle was; now we're freaking out because we realize they're as boring and mundane as the rest of us if we'll let them be.

I have a huge problem with the fetishization of the family because it's like trying to balance the whole of society on a matchstick.   Personally, I can't find anything holy about straight sex.  Biblically speaking, all sexuality is problematic, and so it has been reined in under the more stable order of marriage.  That in of itself doesn't make marriage something incredible, blessed, or special, however;  it's a compromise.  I firmly believe (like I guess a lot of Christians don't) that the specialness, the holiness of sexuality between Adam and Eve established in the Garden before the Fall was lost. Look at the fallout from their sin in Genesis 4:  God curses every single aspect of the marital union.  Mutual labor becomes a toil; reproduction, the joy of the marital union, becomes painful and dangerous; becoming one flesh also means becoming a thorn in each other's side.  Marriage may have been instituted as a divine, sacred institution, but it has fallen drastically from what it once was.  And this institution formed to be so special in Paradise, Jesus tells us, only exists on a fallen world and doesn't even exist in Heaven.  
Gay Street-GoSo, in short: my sexuality is fallen. Your sexuality is fallen.  So is a gay person's.  Big freakin' whoop, y'all. 

But that's what seems to freak a lot of us Christians out-- that maybe our straight, Christian sexuality isn't all that special, that it's no more special than anyone else's.  If that's true, that hetero sex itself isn't sacrosanct, then what's the difference between a straight couple and a gay couple in, um...  well, you know...  (Be very careful with that line of logic, dear Christian.  It'll make your head explode when you read Colossians.) 

The Bible makes it pretty clear (to me at least) that the fundamental institution crucial for the preservation of society is not the family-- hetero, gay, nuclear or otherwise. It's Christ.  Take a look at Acts 2: 42-2:47, the passage everybody goes to when they want to identify the ideal Christian society of church potlucks and nuclear families:
They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.   Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.   All the believers were together and had everything in common.  Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.  Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. 
Back in my days as a Southern Baptist, my church read these lines as an affirmation of the "fellowship hall" mentality: the church family that meets together eats together. But you have to look at the definite articles in the Greek to realize what this really says:*

ἦσαν δὲ προσκαρτεροῦντες τῇ διδαχῇ τῶν ἀποστόλων καὶ τῇ κοινωνίᾳ καὶ τῇ τοῦ ἄρτου καὶ ταῖς προσευχ κλάσει αῖς
[They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers (pl).]
Church Avenue-- Go
Now that I've wowed you with a Greek character set, let me tell you what that means: the specificity of the definite articles in the Greek (in blue) points to biblical study, church assembly, communion and the daily round of prayers practiced by believers in early Christianity.  That's not a social order like marriage or family-- that's a church. The fundamental social institution of the earliest church orbited around the body of Christ, and normal familial distinctions broke down around it

Secondly, New Testament makes it clear that marriage-- and families-- aren't where we should focus our lives.  You know, like Matthew 10:
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn 
'a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law -
a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.'
Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 
Or, even better, there's Luke 14:26:
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.
Obviously, Jesus isn't asking anyone to spit in their wife's face and walk out-- but He is asking us to build our lives around a different social center.  After all, what did Christ Himself do in Matthew 12?
While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, "Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you."
He replied to him, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" Pointing to his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers.  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother."
As for sex and marriage, we find that marriage is not the highest ideal a Christian can attain.  Paul believes that it's celibacy, although not everybody has the knack for it:
Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry... I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Cor. 8:1-9).
Okay, so somebody is going to get all bent out of shape that I'm saying that the family isn't Biblically important, and that's not true.  Paul spends a lot of time in his letters telling us that we can't just split up a family for reasons of faith-- and he also doesn't like to make waves in his own social climate more than necessary.   Thus, he charges husbands, wives, children and slaves (yes, they were an integral part of the Classical familia.  Families have changed!) how to behave like Christians within that structure.  He also has lovely, mystical things to say about marriage and the marital union and what it can aspire to; but those are mostly in comparison to the relationship between Christ and the Church.  If heterosexual marriage is at all holy, it's because it mirrors a different, more crucial relationship.  We should love and honor marriage,  I would argue, because of what it resembles, not because of anything essential to itself. 

So, that's how I view marriage: sure it's important, especially in a Christian context, but it's not the defining institution of  a healthy civilization like it's been treated.  That's a position that, for Christians, only Christ can take.  Membership in the body of Christ is the Christian's social center, and all other relationships (marriage included) are expected to reflect that.  The Manhattan Declaration, however, puts all its heterosexual eggs in one marriage basket: if we let gay people marry, then I guess they think Armageddon happens or something: 
Gay Street-StopVast human experience confirms that marriage is the original and most important institution for sustaining the health, education, and welfare of all persons in a society. Where marriage is honored, and where there is a flourishing marriage culture, everyone benefits—the spouses themselves, their children, the communities and societies in which they live. Where the marriage culture begins to erode, social pathologies of every sort quickly manifest themselves.

Really, Manhattan Declaration?    I'm afraid that I'm a little dubious.  I would absolutely agree that marriage has a restraining effect on sin and that nuclear families are the most stable, emotionally, socially and economically, and thus make it easier to raise well-rounded, healthy and stable kids; but to argue that "health, education and welfare of all persons" would fall apart if that household were run by two men or two women doesn't seem justified.  In fact, that last sentence has a logical fallacy-- post hoc, ergo propter hoc.  You can't argue that something which follows an event-- like social pathologies following a bad marriage culture-- was necessarily caused by it without some kind of proof.  Isn't it just as likely, or more likely, in fact, that both are caused by the same underlying problem, something systemic to sexual culture as a whole?  And then there's the first sentence, which is just begging the question, but anyhow...

Next, take a look at this next statement (which is long-- sorry...) 
We understand that many of our fellow citizens, including some Christians, believe that the historic definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman is a denial of equality or civil rights...  It would not, after all, affect their own marriages, would it? On inspection, however, the argument that laws governing one kind of marriage will not affect another cannot stand. Were it to prove anything, it would prove far too much: the assumption that the legal status of one set of marriage relationships affects no other would not only argue for same sex partnerships; it could be asserted with equal validity for polyamorous partnerships, polygamous households, even adult brothers, sisters, or brothers and sisters living in incestuous relationships. Should these, as a matter of equality or civil rights, be recognized as lawful marriages, and would they have no effects on other relationships? No. The truth is that marriage is not something abstract or neutral that the law may legitimately define and re-define to please those who are powerful and influential.
 Okay, now all they have going for themselves on this one is the  slippery-slope analogy, which even my freshman can tell you is really bad logic.  People are perfectly capable of maintaining and proving fine-grained distinctions between levels of an argument without plunging into the absurdity of claiming that gay marriage will lead to incest.  That's necessitated by their assumption that the hetero marriage unit is the backbone of society and its removal causes social ills, a tenet which is assumed but never really proven.  They continue with the bad logic in the next paragraph: 
No one has a civil right to have a non-marital relationship treated as a marriage. Marriage is an objective reality—a covenantal union of husband and wife—that it is the duty of the law to recognize and support for the sake of justice and the common good. If it fails to do so, genuine social harms follow. First, the religious liberty of those for whom this is a matter of conscience is jeopardized. Second, the rights of parents are abused as family life and sex education programs in schools are used to teach children that an enlightened understanding recognizes as "marriages" sexual partnerships that many parents believe are intrinsically non-marital and immoral. Third, the common good of civil society is damaged when the law itself, in its critical pedagogical function, becomes a tool for eroding a sound understanding of marriage on which the flourishing of the marriage culture in any society vitally depends.
Um, okay.  I have problems with all of this, but let's just look at that third point for the moment before I scream.  If a law changes the definition of marriage, they're claiming, then the society will lose the social glue that holds everything together.  Okay, but why will this happen?  Because everybody knows that marriage is an objective reality and therefore the social glue of a healthy society.  They assume that point without ever proving it's true, and in a weird sort of way, if you follow all this from beginning to end, it's tautological.  We have to protect the importance of marriage because the need to protect it proves its very importance?!   How do we know that marriage is an objective reality if changing its definition can do it irreparable harm?   If you can't do any better than that kind of reasoning... then usually that points to a larger problem with your argument.   You know, just maybe you need to rework your foundational premise because you can't come up with a sound, logical argument to defend it.  But let's finish off with this last phrase: 
Sadly, we are today far from having a thriving marriage culture. But if we are to begin the critically important process of reforming our laws and mores to rebuild such a culture, the last thing we can afford to do is to re-define marriage in such a way as to embody in our laws a false proclamation about what marriage is.
I would agree with at least part of that statement: we do indeed have a sick marriage culture in the US.  It's not thriving by any stretch.  But instead of putting blame on something that hasn't happened yet like a national gay marriage law, why shouldn't we look inside ourselves for the causes of that erosion instead of outside for a bogeyman?  Why not look to a culture of romanticizing desire, of confusing the choice that is love and the instinct that is desire driving people's choice of life-partners?  Why not look to our cultural self-centeredness and need for material worth that makes it difficult for either spouse to submit control of their lives to the other? Why not look at the Church's tendency to force a conservative, Leave-It-To-Beaver marriage culture on people who might actually be happier alone, and celibate, too, if we'd just let them?  Why not look to a culture that preaches that a person can't have a full, happy life and true sense of their own identity without sex, straight or otherwise?  Why do we teach that the ultimate end of a marriage is sex and kids when, really, it's much more complicated, and wonderful, than that?  Why don't we realize that the only reason God allows marriage as an acceptable outlet for sexual desire in the first place is because we're supposed to make that relationship between husband and wife reflect Christ and Church?  Why, then, do we treat secular and sacred marriages as the same thing, and why don't we teach how incredibly serious of an obligation to your partner that is?

Those are all questions I'd like to ask of the writers of the Manhattan Declaration, but I cynically think I know the answer: it's easier to focus on changing laws-- and others-- than it is on changing our own hearts.  We want to change the outer culture to reflect ours rather than reforming our own to reflect Christ.  Instead of worrying about how marriage is going to be redefining our cultural center, I personally think we should focus on the real center-- the body of Christ--  and making sure that it's healthy and safe from hypocrisy, idolatry, hatred and self-centeredness.  It doesn't need to be rendered "safe" from gay people.  
The Corner of Gay and Church
Instead, there are so many other, better arguments out there why the Christian body should support a traditional view of marriage should one want to argue that (and I'm not sure that I do) which are far more biblical.  One could argue that the definition of marriage is an arbitrary command of God, like His command not to eat of the fruit of the tree in Genesis, which we are obey out of love for Him; one could argue that Paul's injunctions on this issue arise from the holiness of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in a believer's body, requiring that these our "temples of the Holy Spirit" not be put to ordinary, fleshly use.  But those arguments apply specifically to Christians, not the society at large-- and they make it increasingly difficult for one to argue that a Christian definition of marriage should be applied to everyone, regardless of religious conviction, and that others should be denied the right to marry in a secular society based on a Christian definition of marriage. 

And I think that's the fundamental fear that really drives the marriage definition portion of the Manhattan Declaration: the fear that our society at large and the Christian social order won't be one and the same thing anymore.   But is that necessarily a horrendous thing?  The first three centuries of Christian life were shaped by Christians living as peregrini, foreigners, in a culture that didn't reflect theirs.  Most western Christians, I think, might be a little terrified of trying to figure out how to operate in two societies and have their identities divided in ways they're not used to, with one foot firmly planted in a secular world and the other in a Christian order wholly apart from it.  But in reality, to think that these two words can be one is an illusion.   The society at large and the heavenly Jerusalem don't share the same space; they never did in this fallen world.  (I know this is very Augustinian-- I can't help it).  To wish for anything else is to fall into Orosius' fallacy about the relationship between God and culture. 

If so, then this need to elevate hetero sexuality beyond its sphere of importance might be a way to try and bridge that gap, to make ordinary, earthly sex somehow a part of the Christian order that perhaps it's just not suited for. 

In contrast, imagine what would have happened if Orosius lived to be a very old man and opened his eyes one morning to realize that a barbarian was on the Roman throne.  What would he have done?  Would he have thrown in his priestly towel and called it quits, believing that God had failed, or would he have been forced to realize that just maybe God didn't need Rome to keep the world moving?

As for me, as I stand on this intersection between two different movements and caught up in both, I'm trying hard to come up with a workable answer for both of them.


*To give full disclosure, I'm a Latinist, not a Graecist.  I have, however, taken a  little Greek and can work out grammatical relationships.  This concept was originally pointed out to me my somebody much smarter and holier than I am-- my pastor.


A hand and book on a bishop's statue, from takomabibelot's Flickr photostream:

All other pictures taken by me, in the downtown area of my college town, and are available for use under a Creative Commons license.  Oh, and do you know what's at the corner of Church and Gay?  A flower shop...

No comments:

Post a Comment