Sunday, August 21, 2011

Marriage (or just Weddings) in Mainstream Culture

My husband’s recent post, “materialism, materialism and marriage,” and my own experience shopping for a wedding dress, make me think back to our general experience in planning for the wedding. I have contemplated all of the effort and money that is too commonly put into the wedding itself, and how typically disproportionate it is to the time and preparation put into the marriage. I think many people forget that there is a distinct difference between planning a wedding and preparing to be married, and it frequently looks like too many people put too much emphasis on the former and not enough on the latter.

Sometimes the two seem to become connected in rather inappropriate ways. One example of such a connection is exhibited in the NPR article, “Why are Wedding Dresses So Expensive” (1). I showed it to Matthias who mentioned it in his previous post, before I posted it on facebook with sarcastic remarks on how our priest failed to properly assess my fittingness and disposition to marry by inquiring the amount I spent on the wedding gown. My husband should probably know about this, since the gown was on clearance and the veil bought off ebay. Joking aside now. The things that are pointed out in that article point to a societal separation between weddings and sacramental marriage, and a focus on weddings as events of great (monetary) value in their own right. Christine, in her comment on Matthias’s post, puts it pretty well. Weddings have become a ritual in “self-realization” and “adulthood,” and mark an entrance into another stage of life (but not necessarily the rest of your life together).

The term, “wedding” unfortunately, seems automatically to mean the reception in many people’s minds, not the ceremony in which you actually become married. A number of the people who asked me where the wedding was going to be, after my response indicating the particular church, indicated that what they meant by “wedding” was actually where the reception was going to be held. As if where we were actually getting married to begin with hardly mattered. As if the sacrament were only a brief prelude to the “real” wedding. Likewise, the questions about how the wedding planning was going also revolved around things related to the reception or other extra things. Did we choose the menu, the cake (we did cupcakes, actually), get a photographer, get a DJ, is the dress done? No one (except our priest and music director) in these “wedding-planning” conversations asked if we had chosen the readings for the Mass, or the music for the Mass, or anything about the Mass.

The popular ideal for a wedding seems to be about making it a perfectly designed and choreographed production that will amaze your guests. One of the biggest wow-factors of a wedding is the gown, so we end up with articles like the one mentioned above, and we observe a culture of glamour, rather than sanctity, surrounding weddings and their preparation in mainstream culture.


Sunday, August 7, 2011

Materialism, Materialism, and Marriage

When my wife was searching for a wedding dress, she spent some time shopping before finding a discontinued dress on clearance. The dress looked lovely and the saleswoman told my then fianceĆ©, "and you don't even have to tell anyone it was on clearance!" As if spending an insufficient amount on a wedding dress were a piece of moral turpitude best hidden from friend and foe alike. To some people, it is. Today wedding dresses not uncommonly cost thousands of dollars. Salespeople and friends ask if a bride is certain she has found “the” dress. Each bride a special snowflake to be matched only to the perfect dress.

What is true of the search for the modern wedding dress is true of modern weddings in general. . Flowers, bridesmaids’ dresses, photography, music, the reception all combine to make the average spectacle of a wedding today cost about $22,000. A recent article suggested various reasons for this particularly: showing of social status and, showing off how seriously a bride takes her marriage.

And yet as the costs of the wedding get higher and higher, the length of the marriages get shorter and shorter and the divorce rates ever higher. How is a society that values marriage so much more than it ever has (at least by the measure of mammon) unable to prevent marriages shorter from when they ever have been? Might the measure have gone wrong?

In the Christian tradition and the Christian ages, marriage stood as a channel of divine grace and a symbol of the union between Christ and his Church. The spouses were to mirror the self-giving, self-sacrificing, love of God. As God’s love was creative and led to the creation of the world (as well as the Incarnation and crucifixion), so a husband and wife are called to a procreative love in children. As the love of Father and Son eternally binds them together and leads to the Holy Spirit, so human love is to be open to the third in children. Fulton Sheen says that love is always triune. When the entire world can be a symbol of the divine, as it was to St. Francis, Augustine, and the entire Christian tradition, the world is a larger and richer place. When marriage can be a symbol of God, marriage is better off for it.

The modern world, however, is a material world. God is dead, or at least widely proclaimed to be so. Life, as life without God must be, is devoid of any real purpose, meaning, or objective value (2). In such a world, marriage can hardly be a symbol of the divine. It can be little more than (as it has become) a temporary contract entered into and broken at the whim of either party. NT Wright wrote, “sex used to be a sacrament, but in the modern world, it has become a toy” (3).

Still, by a basic and wild instinct, man still knows that sex and marriage ought to be something more than mere contract or animal instinct. Unable to value marriage as a sign of God’s love for His Church, however, (since God is dead), he shows his appreciation for marriage the only way a material world can, through money. A philosophically materialist world inevitably becomes materialist in another sense and so the cost of weddings goes ever higher. But so do the divorce rates.

Fulton Sheen wrote that two empty cups cannot fill each other; two sticks cannot be tied together save by something outside themselves, and the modern world has found materialism (in both senses of the word) a poor cord. The Christian Ages of the world had an answer, and to them we turn for ours. There, love could be love because it could be triune. Spouses could love each other because Love Himself was involved. Chesterton called Christianity the answer to a long riddle. If only the modern world cares to see it.


(2) For one assessment of this see, William Lane Craig’s essay, “The Absurdity of Life Without God.”

(3) from Simply Christian.