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.