Talking with college students about marriage from a Christian perspectiveas a permanent, faithful, covenantal commitmentis like swimming against the tide. These students have grown up in a society in which nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. Not surprisingly, they are fearful that their future marriages will go down that path, and some question whether lifelong commitment canor shouldbe made at all. In addition, students are bombarded with messages about sexuality and relationshipsindeed messages about themselvesthat seem to undermine authentic relationships, in which the good of the other is sought and real, lasting intimacy is fostered. Think for a moment about the so-called reality shows on television that have steadily gained popularity. On many of these shows, partners are selected from groups of people (who have already been selected by others) who are asked to make themselves as attractive as possible so they can win a relationship. Sex is often portrayed as a tool to dominate or to manipulate others. In addition, sex is presented as being totally disconnected from emotion and intimacy; persons may be treated as things to be used for another’s pleasure. These reality shows reflect wider messages sent by our culture: persons are commodities; intimacy is something that is instant and that can be bought; and love is something that may be earned through coercion or manipulation.
In many ways, these shows reflect the fact that capitalism has become our society’s master narrative. We increasingly think of things in market categories. Anything can be a commodity, including ourselves. As the theologian Paul Wadell explains in Becoming Friends: Worship, Justice and the Practice of Christian Friendship, the market mentality has permeated even our understanding of relationships, so that we tend to think of ourselves and others as products rather than as persons. Love, then, becomes a form of salesmanship. It is simply a matter of selling ourselves. We attempt to make ourselves as attractive as possible so that others might invest in us.
While we often get these cultural messages in subtle ways, Rachel Greenwald unabashedly uses the language of the market in her bestselling book, Find a Husband After 35: Using What I Learned at Harvard Business School. Here she offers a 15-step action program that enables a woman to use marketing tactics to find a man to marry in 12 to 18 months. Greenwald writes, You, the reader, are the product,’ and The Program is a strategic plan’ to help you market’ yourself to find your future husband. Greenwald argues that finding a husband effectively is about applying business principles to the dating process and marketing yourself. It’s all about using classic marketing tactics such as packaging, branding, advertising, and niche marketing. To finance an effective campaign, Greenwald suggests setting aside a significant percentage of one’s income (she recommends 10 to 20 percentthe more you invest, of course, the more likely you will be successful). Good business sense, Greenwald argues, should prompt one to prioritize one’s investment in packaging. After all, one is competing with many other products in the marketplace and therefore must ensure that one is appealing enough to prompt a purchase. Greenwald goes as far as to say that packaging can be more important than the product itself. According to this logic, a good deal of attention must be given to appearance in order to be attractive to men. For example, being overweight is likely to lower one’s market value, as is appearing and/or acting too masculine. Not surprisingly, sex is also presented by Greenwald as something that may be used to achieve one’s ultimate goal, marriage. It is another tool of manipulation within the program. In fact, every action and relationship mentioned in the book is one of utilitywhat is done is done in the service of effectively marketing oneself.
More and more we are taught that we must live up to particular cultural expectations in order to earn the love of another and be worthy of investment. Extreme makeovers and coercive sexual relationships are just part of the marketing game, so our culture tells us. But as Christian communities, are we offering young people an alternative way to understand themselves and relationships? In People of the Truth: A Christian Challenge to Contemporary Culture, Robert Webber and Rodney Clapp argue that the Christian church ought to be a diacritical community. What does this mean? It means that the church should be a community whose way of life is countercultural; it ought to be critical of whatever is harmful and false in the wider culture in which the church dwells. At the same time, the Christian community ought to bear witness to an alternative, more hopeful and more authentic way of living in the world. Young people ought to learn within Christian communities, through word and example, an alternative way of envisioning love and relationships, a more promising way to envision themselves.
In his Letters to Marc About Jesus, Henri Nouwen writes movingly about the sad efforts we make as human beings to prove to one another that we deserve to be loved. We spend enormous amounts of energy seeking popularity and admiration from others. These efforts to make others love us, Nouwen claims, are motivated by fear, the fear that without such outside recognition we are worthless. Our worth becomes caught up in what others think about us, and so we do what we can to earn the love and approval we so desperately long for. If that means having plastic surgery, so be it; if that means using one’s body as a tool to coerce another’s affections, so be it.
And yet the Christian tradition provides an alternative vision. As Nouwen powerfully states, everything that Jesus has done, said, and undergone is meant to show us that the love that we most long for is given to us by God not because we deserved it, but because God is a God of love. This is the message that we need to hear: God profoundly loves us, just as we are! Our task is to trust in that unmerited love. And once we do, we are freed from the anxious need to seek outside recognition that stems from a lack of faith. Nouwen puts it beautifully: [W]hen Jesus talks about faith, he means first of all to trust unreservedly that you are loved, so that you can abandon every false way of obtaining love.
Are we willing to do this, to trust so absolutely that we are loved? This is extremely difficult in a culture that so closely ties our sense of worth to the perceptions of others. But faith in God’s love for each of us, a love that is true despite all of our weaknesses and frailties, can profoundly change our lives and relationships. Suddenly, we are at home in our own skin; we can rest in God’s love, altered by the knowledge that we are accepted and valued. In turn, we are freed to rightly love others, to accept those around us in the same radical way. What an alternative to the messages our culture sends! We ought to be shouting it from the rooftops, or at least loudly enough to drown out the television set. In our diacritical community, our children ought to be hearing (repeatedly) the message that God profoundly loves them, that their product (more appropriately, their character) is infinitely more important than their packaging. Moreover, we ought to be modeling authentic relationships so that they see what real love looks like.
Christian marriage is a covenantal partnership that is rooted in, modeled after, and inspired by the love of God. This love is unconditional; this love is constant; this love is faithful; this love consistently wills the good of the other. This love is not given only to those who are appealing and who come in the right packages. It is offered freely and without calculating any sort of return. And so Christian married partners ought to practice virtues like love, faith, hope, forgiveness, mutual service, fidelity, courage and sacrifice. These are not exactly the virtues espoused in our capitalistic, individualistic culture. But a marriage that exhibits these virtues is truly authentic, truly intimate and truly worthy of imitation. We should model these graced relationships for our young people.