The Earthquake of the Family (Or, the Silliness of ‘Free Love’)

GK-Chesterton-006In his classic work “What’s Wrong With the World?” Chesterton gives us a nutshell explanation of the two foundational realities that lead to the family–the earthquake of sex, and its natural consequences:

Very few words will suffice for all I have to say about the family itself . I leave alone the speculations about its animal origin and the details of its social reconstruction; I am concerned only with its palpable omnipresence. It is a necessity far mankind; it is (if you like to put it so) a trap for mankind. Only by the hypocritical ignoring of a huge fact can any one contrive to talk of “free love”; as if love were an episode like lighting a cigarette, or whistling a tune. Suppose whenever a man lit a cigarette, a towering genie arose from the rings of smoke and followed him everywhere as a huge slave. Suppose whenever a man whistled a tune he “drew an angel down” and had to walk about forever with a seraph on a string. These catastrophic images are but faint parallels to the earthquake consequences that Nature has attached to sex; and it is perfectly plain at the beginning that a man cannot be a free lover; he is either a traitor or a tied man. The second element that creates the family is that its consequences, though colossal, are gradual; the cigarette produces a baby giant, the song only an infant seraph. Thence arises the necessity for some prolonged system of co– operation; and thence arises the family in its full educational sense.

–Chesterton, G. K. (2012-12-05). The G. K. Chesterton Collection [50 Books] (Kindle Locations 5729-5738). Catholic Way Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

After the Disco (Or, Some Augustinian Reflections on a Trip to Vegas)

vegas anniversaryThis last week my wife and I celebrated our 3rd anniversary. By the grace of God we’ve managed, however imperfectly, to honor our vows, love each other, point each other to Christ, share a bank account, learn to clean up beard clippings, and put the clip back on the tortilla chips after using them. While there’s plenty to say about three years of marriage learnings, I’d rather take some time to reflect on our celebration–in Vegas.

Yes, just a couple of days after taking our college students on a retreat to focus on the Holiness of God, my wife and I hopped in my parents’ minivan (which, let me say, has legit acceleration and handling) and headed out to the bright lights of Vegas for a couple of nights relaxation and celebration. And yes, for those wondering, there’s enough non-compromising stuff to do there that even a college pastor and his wife can have a good time. Though, I must confess, we lost $1 in the I Love Lucy slot machine out of principle. In any case, we stayed at the Vdara, in the City Center (thank you Hotwire.com!), which was nice because it was in the middle of everything, but as a non-gaming hotel, was still pretty clean and quiet. All in all, it was a lovely little break after a pretty crazy June.

Of course, even though it was a vacation, in the middle of the pool-sitting, eating, walking around, people-watching, and so forth, I was still me, which means that the theological gears kept churning the whole time. What follows are a few, rough thoughts that popped into my head as we Vegased about.

after the disco 2After the Disco: Visions of the Good Life. One of the lessons repeated over and over by types like James K.A. Smith and Kevin Vanhoozer, is that culture is a force that constantly responds to as well as reshapes our desires. One of the main ways it does that is by holding out a vision, or rather various visions, of the “good life”, the life which is truly life, before our eyes and our hearts. These visions are not so much propositional statements like “sex is the meaning of life”, or “money will fulfill you”, but rather they’re portraits, pictures, narratives, and songs that invite you in, and capture your imagination and the affections of your heart. Intellectually you know that statements of the sort made above are shallow and false, and yet, when presented with ads filled with laughing, beautiful, sensual people, clothed in modern finery, cavorting in exotic place, your heart stammeringly mumbles “I want to go to there.”

I go into all of this simply because if it is anything at all, Vegas is one big, high-octane, cocktail of all our culture’s most popular visions, shaken up, stirred, poured out across a city landscape and then lit on fire.

  • Vegas is Money: Cash gets you luxury, the finest suites, the best food, the nicest drinks, and the best entertainment. If you gamble, it even gets your more money!
  • Vegas is Comfort: You deserve the spas, the pools, the comfy beds, and everything that goes into being pampered and all that goes into really living.
  • Vegas is Sex: Just look on the sidewalk, the billboards, the servers, the ads, the clubs, the shows, the…
  • Vegas is Youth: Go to the pool, look at the ads, and everything tells you, to truly enjoy life, you need to be young.

I could go on and on, but, I’ll be honest, when you’re there, in the middle of the beating heart of it all, it’s easy to find your heart starting to beat in sync with the city.

It was fitting, then, that on the way out there, we turned on Broken Bells’ latest album After the Disco, which ended up being a fun yet reflective soundtrack to much of our time there. The title track “After the Disco” in particular caught my attention, especially this one line: “After your faith has let you down / I know you’ll want to run around /And follow the crowd into the night / But after the disco /All of the shine just faded away.” This is the sordid truth behind all other visions of the good life apart from that of the Kingdom of God: eventually the glitz and the shine fades away. If you’ve given your heart over to drink deeply of these visions, eventually the hangover comes, and nothing looks quite as pretty anymore.

StAugustineUse and Enjoyment. All of which reminded me of St. Augustine. See, while I was out there, I actually did a little theological reading (it was vacation!) and was reminded of a very important distinction in Augustine’s thought between uti and frui:

Augustine distinguishes between the final goal of human life, the enjoyment (frui) of God, and the means we use (uti) in order to arrive at that goal (I, i, 1–iv, 9). All that we do or decide not to do must aim at love of God. Everything else we may use only in order to attain that goal. Augustine employs an image to explain what he means. Exiles who wander outside of their homeland are happy only once they are back in their homeland. They do everything in order to return to that land (I, iv, 8). With humankind it is the same. They wander about outside of God, and they must use everything in this world.

–Maarten Wisse, in Willem J. Van Asselt ed. Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism (Kindle Locations 973-977).

As I sat there eating a very nice breakfast one morning with my wife, it struck me that this was at the heart of what had been nagging at me all weekend as I looked around. See, although Vegas often holds out distorted versions of the various goods mentioned above, most of those goods themselves aren’t bad inherently. Money used wisely and generously can be a blessing. Sex between a husband and wife can be life-giving and joyous. Youth is a gift with particular joys given to all to be valued alongside Age. Comfort can be, well, comforting after hard work and exertion. To be very clear: my wife and I had a lot fun in Vegas. The food was good, the bed was comfy, and we had a lovely time spending time with each other out on the town.

The problem wasn’t so much with the things themselves, but with the place they’re given. In Augustine’s theology, all of these things are good gifts to be used in order to enjoy God as the giver of these gifts. Instead, if Vegas acknowledges God at all, he is the one to be used to enjoy the various gifts as ends in and of themselves. Actually, that’s the source of the distortions. When Sex is the ultimate good to be enjoyed, you eventually come to the point where its natural use reaches its limit; it was never supposed to be more than a gift pointing beyond itself. But when it becomes ultimate, well then, there are no bounds to be observed in your pursuit of it–you have to wring the juice out in every unlawful, twisted fashion you can imagine.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to sex. It’s with anything. If food, or the experience, or comfort, is the ultimate you’re chasing in Vegas, there’s buffets, show upon show upon show, and exclusive spa upon exclusive spa. Incidentally, that’s how they can charge so much–if your coffee is the beginning to your perfect experience, then you’re going to pay the two bucks extra for the exact same cup you get at home.

This is why the lights eventually fade–it never lives up to promise, and the cost eventually takes its toll.

Three shorter observations.

Marriage Changes Things. I felt like marriage changed things for me a bit this time around. Walking around with my wife, my biggest partner in the faith, helped keep the both of us grounded as we saw the beautiful shops and the beautiful people with the beautiful things. Having someone with you who can remind you of the fading and temporal character nature of the things we were enjoying (in the non-Augustinian sense), really makes a difference. I’m not saying that singles can’t go there and have fun without falling into gross sin or something. Still, having the person who most knows your heart, your struggles, your fears, and has your faith in mind can make a world of difference in the way you approach diversion and rest.

People With Stories. That kind of came out as we walked around various shops and restaurants. In one particular case, we sat down for dinner at this hip burger place at the bar (there were no tables available), and had a very lovely time chatting with our bartender. She was a sweet lady, six-months pregnant who talked to us about our marriage, anniversary, time in Vegas, and the blessings of the last few years. It’s easy to forget, everywhere you go, no matter what you’re doing, you’re going to run into people with stories and souls who want to be known, loved, and heard. What’s more, even though we didn’t get to share it then and there, opportunities for the Gospel abound–even on vacation.

Stress and True Peace in God. I don’t want to give the wrong impression here, though, like my wife and I came off scot-free, using things to enjoy God and loving random strangers for Jesus, as perfect little Christians. Our hearts had to fight off a little Vegas arrhythmia of their own, only in our case, I think we had both temporarily bought into the vision of situational peace. Though everything had been going smoothly enough, there came a moment in the middle of our trip when we realized we weren’t experiencing the peace we thought some time by the pool, maybe a purchase or two, and a nice dinner out were going to provide. Work still loomed. Bodies still ached. The bright lights hadn’t been enough to drown out the dark shadows of certain fears.

So, right there in the middle of the vacation we found ourselves giving it to God and reminding ourselves that He Himself is our peace. Funny enough, it was a little after that we started to enjoy ourselves more freely. Once the expectations of existential peace had been lifted off our vacation, we were to able to receive it for what it was: a good gift pointing to a much greater God. It sounds too picture perfect, but honestly, we enjoyed cheaper food more, laughed easier, stayed out later, and slept deeper that night as Augustine’s exiles, knowing these things were but the tiniest little foretaste of rest to come.

Soli Deo Gloria

“23 Things To Do Instead of Getting Engaged Before You’re 23″, And Other Myths

So, I’ve seen this article on “23 Things To Do Instead of Getting Engaged Before You’re 23” get posted a bit lately. I read it. I get the appeal. I did want to offer a few quick thoughts from a dude who got engaged at well, 24, but was apparently so dumb he knew whom he was going to marry at 20.

Before I do that, though, a couple of quick caveats: I just watched two of my best friends get married last year right at about 30. Many of my other friends will. This is not a judgment on them, and there is certainly nothing inherently immoral or wrong about it. I am not saying that if you’re 23 and single, there’s something wrong with you. In fact, as a Christian, I think you can live a whole, healthy life without ever getting married. Singleness (and celibacy) were first elevated to an honorable lifestyle in Western culture through the spread of Christianity.

What I want to do is just push back on a few mistakes I’m seeing here that are easy to make:

1. Not everybody that gets engaged or married at a young age is doing it because they’re vulnerable, desperate, scared, or pathetically lonely. It’s condescending and arrogant of this young woman to suggest that. It’s turning the contingencies of her own situation into the virtue that we should all aspire to. In other words, “I’m young, single, lonely but not ready for a marriage so I’m going to tell myself that you must not be either, and you’re pretty much dumb for getting married young, which makes me super wise and self-knowing.” Honestly, I get that a lot of people our age feel the unfair pressure of people imposing the values of another age and time, the example of our parents, and so forth, on their shoulders. The problem is, this article is essentially making the same mistake in reverse.

2. “The divorce rate among young couples is high.” Yes, that’s true. But if you look at the sociology on it, this is not mostly talking about a couple of kids out of college who’ve decided to start a life together. A lot of that rate is affected by low-income, low-education couples, with unplanned pregnancies, marrying out of pressure. Actually, according to some of the latest sociological research, 22-27 is actually about the perfect age for getting engaged and married in terms of happiness and marital longevity. I would just say, beware of misleading sociology, or quickly assigning explanations to complex phenomena.

3. “I need to find out who I am before I can build a life with someone.” Yes, and no. One of the reasons that young couples divorce is due to the misleading, romantic, idealistic expectations they have about marriage. I would also point out there are similarly misleading myths about singleness and identity held by these very same people. See, there is this romantic myth that at some point in the future we reach this stable self, this pinnacle of self-knowledge and self-awareness that might be expanded on, but will essentially stay the same for the foreseeable future. The reality is that you will change, grow, and develop over the whole of your life. While the person you are at 23 is not the person you will be at 27, what’s also true is that the person you will be at 27 is not the person you will be at 35, and so forth. You will always be changing and growing. As theologian Lewis Smedes has said, “My wife has been married to 4 different men in her life–and they’ve all been me.”

Yes, many 23-year olds are immature and in transition. Yes, a number of them need to develop a bit before covenanting themselves in the bond of marriage. I shudder at the thought of some 23-year olds I know getting married in a rush. At the same time, I just performed a marriage for a couple of 22-year olds this summer that I am absolutely ecstatic for. They are sane, solid, stable, and have embarked on a wonderful adventure: they get to find out who they are together. They can still do the vast majority of the 23 things on that list, and, honestly, the rest of them aren’t worth engaging.

Let me put it this way: I didn’t marry my wife because I knew exactly who I was, or entirely knew who she was. I married my wife because I knew enough about her that I wanted to see the woman she is going to become, and want to be there for it. What’s more, I want her to be there as I grow and develop. I know that I’m a better man because I have been “finding myself” alongside of her for the last few years instead of apart from her. Now, the catch is, in our case one of the reasons I wanted to be with McKenna is because I knew she wouldn’t want me to find myself in her, but would always point me to Jesus. Still, my marriage hasn’t gotten in the way, but it has helped me keep on the way.

Actually, to follow up, one of the big issues that can plague later marriages between two people who have been single during this crucial developmental period is that you get so settled in your ways, so calcified in “being yourself” apart from the person you’re looking to marry that you don’t have the emotional elasticity it takes to make a marriage work. When I married my wife, I didn’t have 30 years of single guy habits build up around the way I did things, or thought of myself that I had to kill in order for a marriage to a sane woman to put up with me (although, McKenna is still a saint for putting up with me.)

Thing is you never marry someone who is a “perfect fit.” You’re always going to have to make compromises, sacrifices, and grow in order to make this thing work. I am not saying that you can’t develop the character traits you need to make this work if you’re single in your twenties. What I am saying is that it’s not at all obvious that you ought to stay single longer in order to be ready for marriage. For some people it might be a good idea. For some of us, getting married is what has to happen.

Soli Deo Gloria

Addendum: I wrote this in a bit of a rush, but here are two resources to check out:

1. The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy Keller – This is my go-to book for understanding the purpose and practice of marriage. It’s simply beautiful.

2. Premarital Sex In America by Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker – This study published by Oxford University press is where I’m getting my sociology. It’s exhaustive and well-sourced.

How Much Theology Should Couples Agree on Before They Get Married? (TGC)

cake-marriage-300x225I’ll admit, this isn’t a typical question most Christian singles, or even couples, are asking. Most are still stuck on, “Wait, I’m supposed to date Christians?” That said, once you’ve established the importance of marrying someone who will be your partner in the faith and has the mutual goal of encouraging you in your relationship with Christ, you may start to wonder, “Well, does it really matter what kind of Christian they are? How will our theology affect the way we point each other to Christ? I mean, does it affect things if I’m a Protestant and he’s a Catholic? Or what if we have different views on the end times? What about speaking in tongues? Can I date someone who ‘quenches the Spirit’ and thinks I worship with ‘strange fire’?”
As I’ve thought about the issue while talking with friends, considering my own marriage, and searching through the Scriptures, I’ve concluded there isn’t any quick, easy answer. Instead, I want to simply put forward three questions, and a couple of caveats, to help singles and couples navigate the dating and marriage decision.
You can read the rest of the article at The Gospel Coalition.
Soli Deo Gloria

Who Are You Sleeping With? My Conversation with Tim Keller (CaPC)

Me and KellerSo, I was talking to Tim Keller this week when the topic of sex came up…no, wait, that’s not right.

Let’s re-frame that without me lying.  I managed to snag a ticket to the Gospel Coalition’s National Conference this week and sit in on a breakout session on the subject of revival by Dr. Keller.

I think that’s enough of a teaser. You can go read the rest over at Christ and Pop Culture HERE.

Ben Affleck is Human! And Married! (CaPC Piece)

affleckLike a lot of Americans, I sat down the other night to watch the Oscars for the first time in years with some friends. When I witnessed Seth MacFarlane’s talented-but-crude, sexist, I-love-myself-so-much performance, I was reminded why. At the end of the night though, when my hope for humanity was at its lowest, Ben Affleck injected this wonderful, impromptu moment of redemptive decency. In the middle of his breathless acceptance speech he thanked his wife, Jennifer Garner, but it wasn’t the typical air-brushed gratitude we’re used to:

I want to thank you for working on our marriage for 10 Christmases. It’s good, it is work, but it’s the best kind of work, and there’s no one I’d rather work with.

You can go read the rest of my piece over at Christ and Pop Culture. Thanks.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Promise of Covenant Love: Pt. 2

Meaning of Marriage

Seriously, I cannot recommend this book enough whether you’re single, dating, married, newly-married, divorced, or an infant. Read it.

I ended the last post asking “What does love have to be if it’s something I can promise?” How is it different than the poetic love that Kierkegaard is speaking of? In this post I’ll lay out three differences between poetic and covenantal love, largely drawn from Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage.

1. More Action than Emotion - If poetic love is primarily an affair of the emotions that just sweeps you up in a passion, covenantal love is primarily an action. Paul assumes this when commands husbands to love their wives. (Eph 5:25) You can’t command feelings, but you can command activities. Saying “I love you” or “I do” with a covenantal love in view, is committing yourself to “BE” and “DO” certain things for a person. It is a decision to sacrificially commit yourself fully and wholly in loyalty to another person, putting their welfare, joy, and life above your own. When I promised to love my wife, I didn’t promise “I will always feel warm fuzzies towards you.” I promised, “I will be a husband to you–I will care, pray, show affection, be there when you need me, support you, cling to you, and will your good.”

Now, of course it does involve emotion, but often-times what I find is that these emotions can actually flow from the actions. For example, it might be a date night with my wife bit I’m tired and just want to stay home and watch TV to decompress after a long week. Making the decision to go through the trouble of getting ready, getting dressed, shaving (my neck–because neck beards are unnacceptable), and getting in the car when I don’t really feel like it, surprisingly can lead towards actually feeling like it. The loving action stirs up my loving emotion so by the time we’re on the road, I’m actually excited for the night out with my wife. That’s a microcosm of what can happen in marriage as a whole, when the decision to act in loving ways is made independent of a current emotional basis, the emotion often follows.

2. Other-centered not Self-centered -  The next difference is what love is centered on. Aside from the fact that it’s unstable, our culture’s understanding of love is essentially self-centered. It’s consumeristic in that it basically says, “As long as you fulfill me, please me, tickle my fancy, then I’m here. As soon as the buzz fades, I leave.” If love is primarily about an emotion felt, then you only ‘love’ the person when they are producing feelings in you. Actually, that’s why you’re loving them.  The point is, in this view, love is a potent emotion that the other person inspires in you because of what they do for you, who they are–it’s primarily a selfish experience about you, your wants, your desires.

By contrast, in the Bible love is not primarily about what I get out of the person or what I feel about the person, but about what I am willing to give to the person. Am I willing to give them time, faithfulness, exclusivity? I know how much I love someone by how much I am willing to put their needs ahead of my own, not necessarily how much I “feel” about  them. In consumer love, the self is placed before the relationship: the point is you’re in it to get something out of it. In covenant love, the relationship is placed before the self. In fact, the point is, covenant love is a union where I so identify myself with you, that your needs become my needs, your wants are my wants even when they’re not what I personally want. I am so bound to you that I desire to serve you just like I serve me. Covenant love doesn’t tally. It doesn’t keep records because when I give to you, in love I have identified your needs as my own. Now, how beautiful is this? Two people who have so placed the needstrying to sacrifice, two people trying to out-serve each other, two people out for each other’s joy instead of two people out for their own joy.

3. Vertical v. Horizontal- This brings us to the final difference. If love is primarily an emotional thing, if the reason I go to the other, serve, the other, etc. give emotion to the other is because of the way we make each other feel, then this is essentially a consumer transaction. We are paying each other in warm fuzzies. If that’s the case, then it makes sense to think about marriage as basically something that’s just happening between you and your spouse and to be honest, I don’t know if that’s going to work out for very long. Unfortunately, in most marriages there comes a time when I just can’t say, “I love you” because I don’t feel it. In the hardness of my heart, I’m going to be tempted to say, “You’re not worth it” or “I just don’t have the strength.”

This is where Kierkegaard’s “love transformed by the eternal” comes into play–what if love was not just between two people, but between two people and God? See, when we promise, when we say “I do”,  we’re promising God not our spouse. So, when I’m serving my wife, I’m serving my God. When I’m loving my wife, I’m loving God. I can’t separate the two. Of course, the inverse means that to break faith with spouse is to break faith with God at the same time. This is at the core of why God has something to say about divorce and marriage–as a covenant partner it is His business.

At first this sounds threatening, but in reality, it should be encouraging. If it’s not just me and the sinner I married, then I have a shot. When that day comes when you look at your spouse and you, in the hardness of your heart, might say, “You’re not worth this”–putting my relationship in the context of my relationship with God gives me the strength to love when it’s hard, stick it out when it’s painful, and be faithful anyways. When it’s not just me and another sinner trying to tell each other we’re worth it, it’s a lot easier: Why? Because God is always worth it. Even more than that, it’s not just me and another sinner trying to pull this off on our own strength. If you understand that love has a vertical dimension to it, it means that you can call on God to sustain your love. He has a vested interest in this because ultimately, at the core of who God is and what God has done is the reality covenantal love.

Good News, There is Love
This is something we cannot let our hearts forget: the Gospel is a story about covenantal love. Since we live our lives, and even our marriages, out of the stories we tell ourselves, we need to remind ourselves daily that there is story above all stories–a true story about one, Jesus Christ, who saw his bride and said, “It’s not about me.” He was not drawn to her because she was so awesome that she created all kinds of warm feelings in him out of her own worthiness. Instead, He decided to love her despite her unworthiness. He decided to bind himself and make a covenant with her; to put her needs ahead of His own; to serve her and not himself; to give rather than receive; to be trustworthy and faithful when she was untrustworthy and faithless;  to unite himself with her so much that her needs became his needs, and her sins became his sins, and in order to keep the covenant, her death became his death, so that His life could be her life. It is this story that needs to set the framework within which we understand love and marriage. Once again, as in all things, the Gospel of a God who proves his own covenantal love for us in the death of Christ for sinners changes everything. (Rom 5:8)

Soli Deo Gloria