It Is Better to Marry Than to Paris Is Burning

Books and Literature, Culture, Religion

Something I appreciate about The American Conservative is that at least a few of its writers appear to be actual, believing Christians, rather than the sorts of social lobby entrepreneurs whom we’re usually subjected to when NPR needs to find a dissenting voice on gay marriage or Charles Krauthammer is on vacation and the WaPo decides to have someone rattle on about Obama’s Liberation theology. Daniel Larison’s writings on Orthodoxy always strike me as particularly lovely and truly felt. Maybe this is all part of or related to my weakness for Catholic novelists. Or not. I hope this won’t sound awful and condescending, but as a writer and non-believer, faith is something that I very much want to understand; it’s a part of human experience that I find both fascinating and opaque, and my aesthetic fondness for the High Holy Days liturgies or the Seder isn’t the same thing as true belief. I’m very interested in abiding belief that’s more than either the rah-rah econo-moral hectoring of non-denominational post-Protestantism or my own nostalgic affection for the songs and rituals of my youth. And I apologize, because all of this is a caveat. I am about to read Rob Dreher the riot act.

Due credit: I think Dreher is kind and charitable when he ultimately concludes “if the faith does not recover, the historical autopsy will conclude that gay marriage was not a cause but a symptom, the sign that revealed the patient’s terminal condition.” Is there a sort of condescension there? Yes, but no more so than a gay atheist calling faith “fascinating.” Dreher’s said a lot of objectionable things over the years, but I think he’s been admirably consistent in arguing that “conservative” animus toward gays in both the moral and legal spheres is the regrettable, crippling result of their own theological inadequacies. Unable to make the affirmative case for their own moral vision, in other words, they’re stuck hurling stones at yours. I can’t entirely agree with this thesis; obviously, I don’t buy the affirmative case for their morality; actually, I don’t think that the case exists. But Dreher clearly believes that it does, and I appreciate his intolerance for his ostensible coreligionists when, instead of inspiring through the beatific majesty of their own cosmological order, they are reduced to muttering darkly that the gays are bestial creeps and the culture of PC is censoring their conscience.

But I also think Dreher’s reading of the origins and history of Christian sexual morality is completely bizarre. I haven’t read the book he cites here, but the argument, at least in his paraphrase, is, to put it charitably, tendentious:

It is nearly impossible for contemporary Americans to grasp why sex was a central concern of early Christianity. Sarah Ruden, the Yale-trained classics translator, explains the culture into which Christianity appeared in her 2010 book Paul Among The People. Ruden contends that it’s profoundly ignorant to think of the Apostle Paul as a dour proto-Puritan descending upon happy-go-lucky pagan hippies, ordering them to stop having fun.

In fact, Paul’s teachings on sexual purity and marriage were adopted as liberating in the pornographic, sexually exploitive Greco-Roman culture of the time—exploitive especially of slaves and women, whose value to pagan males lay chiefly in their ability to produce children and provide sexual pleasure. Christianity, as articulated by Paul, worked a cultural revolution, restraining and channeling male eros, elevating the status of both women and of the human body, and infusing marriage—and marital sexuality—with love.

Well, now, I can agree that it’s unfair to cast Paul as some kind of Jonathan Edwards setting fires in the commune, but who, exactly, is making that argument? I’ll let you decide, but the answer is no one. On the other hand, defining Paul’s teachings as liberating to slaves and women? Let’s just say I’m skeptical that this is borne out by the primary source material; it represents a rather more significant interpretive double pump fake than calling the guy a dour Puritan. Paul’s reputation for intolerance may be exaggerated by the habit of reading contemporary mores into the writings of a very different historical era, but whatever way you slice it, Paul told women to shut up and slaves to obey their masters.

All right—I won’t begrudge the guy one convenient straw man, but I am going to object to this completely ahistoric and frankly dishonest accounting of Paul’s take on marriage. Because you know what the pornographic, sexually exploitative Greco-Roman culture of the time had that first-century Judaism did not? (Decent cuisine? Well, yes, but…) If you guessed monogamous marriage, congratulations, you win the hutch and the Hawaiian vacation. The pre-Rabbinic Jewish tradition that gave birth to early Christianity saw no problem with polygyny, although possessing multiple wives was an affectation of the mostly very rich. (Actually, polygamy in Judaism continued, at least as a legally permissible if rarely practiced option, for another thousand years.) Like our own culture, Roman attitudes toward sex, marriage, and divorce swung between extremes of permissiveness and censure, but the idea that Rome was a louche, thousand-year hotbed of sexual license is flat wrong. Shit, Augustus came to power promising to pass laws that would punish sexual immorality and protect the sanctity of marriage. Sound familiar, America? The Romans may have had legal divorce, but they didn’t have multiple wives.

Okay, so what? Well, Dreher totally misinterprets the meaning and import of Pauline teachings on sex and marriage; they weren’t revolutionary to the gentiles; they were designed for the gentiles. If you’re going to proselytize to the Romans, you’d better—what is the contemporary political idiom?—you’d better distance yourself from the weird, primitive practices of backwards, ancient, tribal peoples. Looking toward Rome via the twenty-first century HBO time machine may give us a view of heaving pagan bosoms and wild orgies, but to a Roman, it was the Eastern Mediterranean that was the land of immodest wealth, exoticism, and sexual license. Paul wasn’t revolutionizing Roman traditions; he was appropriating them. Even the idea that women would have legal rights in a marriage, albeit exceedingly narrow and circumscribed rights, is Roman.

So what Dreher would probably call “traditional” marriage and sexuality is actually a completely weird, circumstantial, hybrid entity that melds the tribal attitudes of Leviticus and Deuteronomy with the practices and structure of Roman legalism. From a businessman’s point of view, I’d call it a very successful, if unlikely, joint venture. But by hauling it forward two thousand years and laying it as a bulwark against what Dreher clearly believes is a sort of neo-pagan secularism presents all sorts of historical problems, and calling it a centerpiece not just of your general morality but of your cosmology, for, you’ll pardon the expression, God’s sake, is foolishness set on a foundation of pure chauvinism. It’s willfully oblivious, and it makes the odd error of over-crediting both the uniqueness of your own worldview and the revolutionary quality of your putative opponents’ advocacy.

In fact, gay marriage advocates are mostly unsuspecting followers of Paul’s example. Far from revolutionizing anything, they’re doing their best to make themselves palatable to the new Rome.

16 thoughts on “It Is Better to Marry Than to Paris Is Burning

  1. I’ve noted the same tendency you call out in the first ‘graf: a nostalgic fondness for certain brands of early 20th-c. Catholic apologia; the Chesterton / Lewis / Percy* gentle, dry satire that admits no, faith doesn’t make a lot of sense, but what does? The three of them were just as disdainful of the inhuman machinery of modern institutions as any rabble-rouser, but they had a sense of irony and style about it, and were at least pleasantly smug rather than perpetually frothing. I take them in light, infrequent doses and find them good for the spirit, even if I can’t abide the catechism.

    All of which to say: sorry I’m late.

    * yes, I know he’s mid-20th; bear with me

    1. True. Even that asshole Waugh could be affecting; I admitted elsewhere, I actually really like the second half of Brideshead, which everyone else seems to consider inferior. And I prefer Brighton Rock and the End of the Affair to Greene’s more political novels. And I start getting bored by Portrait of the Artist right around the time Stephen becomes an insufferable agnostic diarist.

    2. Percy: word. Never could get in to his novels, but I’ll put forward Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book as the most entertaining and re-readable Christian apology ever written. The argument in his long essay The Message in the Bottle is also worth considering.

    3. Also Tolkien, in his finer passages, almost persuadeth me to be — not a Christian, but perhaps a Deist, believing in something beyond the circles of the world.

  2. What we really need is a return to male actors playing female roles, as in the Elizabethan era.

    Can you imagine “The Lion in Winter” or “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” with the right gay actor playing the Hepburn or Taylor part ?

    Now those would be meaningul “gay marriages”.

  3. Maybe this is all part of or related to my weakness for Catholic novelists.

    Just had a disturbing image of you curled up with a Tom Clancy novel.

  4. Actually, polygamy in Judaism was only outlawed (vis-a-vis the “another thousand years” that you mention) for Ashkenazim; it continued to be socially permissible, if not widely practiced, among Sephardim into the 20th c. Woot.

  5. Gah; Chesterton is worth 12 of Lewis. Lewis figured out how to rig the Bernard Shaw show as a Christian apologia & that’s pretty much his whole show. You can even find the central premise of The Problem of Pain inside The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism, no kidding. And Chesterton pwned Shaw rather conspicuously and consistently.

    I guess I would put it to you like this> Sure, St Paul was a prick, and sure, he endorsed slavery and domestic tyranny, but when he says “slaves obey your masters “etc, he was contradicted by … WHICH ancient writer, please? I mean, who, at the time, was inveighing slaves to rebel, or wives to demand equality? Please correct me if I’m wrong; I say in all seriousness and humility that I may very well be wrong; but I don’t think there was ever any corrective for St Paul’s attitude until the 19th century.

    Meanwhile St Paul was urging masters to be humane to their slaves. He was urging husbands to be humane to their wives. That’s the “radicalism” to which Dreher refers. If you know of any ancient writers who were more radical, please tell me who they were; correct me if I’m wrong but I ve seen Fellini Satyricon and the times the were quite debauched.

    1. yeah, IOZ what other ancient authority figures, who could read and write, had a more radical stance on slavery and domestic relations than Paul? huh?

      maybe they couldn’t write it down for posterity, but there have always been people doing slave rebellions and murdering husbands who were demonstrating their sense that not all was right with the situation.

    2. I’m not sure that Fellini’s Satyricon is entirely a model of verisimilitude. Meanwhile, Even The Old Testament instructs on a master’s duties to his man- and maidservants . . . as well as his beasts. The point of the post isn’t really to argue about Paul’s protohumanism, or whatever, but to make the point that Paul mark’s the transition of Christianity from a Judaic sect to a syncretic faith that combines Judaism with Roman religious and legal traditions. I mean, the admonition in Ephesians (and elsewhere) for the wife to submit to her husband blah blah blah is much more a recapitulation of the legal relationship of a Roman wife to her husband and a family unit to its paterfamilias than it is a “radical” reinvention of the chattel wives of Biblical Judaism.

      1. “I mean, the admonition in Ephesians (and elsewhere) for the wife to submit to her husband blah blah blah is much more a recapitulation of the legal relationship of a Roman wife to her husband and a family unit to its paterfamilias than it is a ‘radical’ reinvention of the chattel wives of Biblical Judaism.”

        Sounds right. Not sure it contradicts Dreher, though. Maybe Old Testament morality would have been similarly radical to the Romans if anybody had preached it to them.

        I feel like the point Dreher is trying to make is something Christians often imply but never just state outright (which makes me suspect it’s bullshit): that the Roman empire was an endless orgy of aristocrats raping & torturing slaves, a big Marquis de Sade novel, until Paul started writing letters to them. Then they realized they needed Jesus and that their consciences had been bothering them all along.

    3. Honestly, and I know this is somewhat tangential to the argument here, this is one of the main things that has led me to atheism.

      Judged as men of their times, Paul and Jesus as depicted in the Christian canon are not bad, and even superior to many of their fellows. But, as I understand it, isn’t the Christian assertion that Jesus and Paul were not simply men of their times, but were communicating some kind of eternal, divine wisdom?

      Actually, now that I think about it, this issue is relevant to what Dreher’s saying: If you say, “Yes, Paul endorsed slavery, but times have changed and we now understand that it’s wrong to keep slaves no matter how nice you are to them” doesn’t it leave you just as open to the argument “Yes, Paul would’ve hated gay marriage, but times have changed and we understand now that he was as wrong about that as he was about slavery.”?

      Dreher never quite gets around to explaining why he thinks his version of Christian sexuality is a necessary keystone of the religion.

      And actually, the more I think about it, the more that really destroys his argument. As Mr. Bacharach says, Paul said some whack shit. I’m assuming Dreher doesn’t believe slavery is okay, which means he needs to make a case for his version of Christian marriage more coherent than “Well, it’s better than the Romans had it.”

      1. I don’t even buy the liberal Christian argument that JESUS was all that. I mean, he could be a total dick. And, Christianity really ramps up the Hell/Eternal Punishment thing (far beyond Judaism) which, to me, really makes its fundamental premises suspect. Who can worship such an entity even is He is all powerful? The only proper response to such a being is revolt, no matter how futile.

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