A Contrarian History of Marriage

The New York Times did a review of Susan Squire’s new book, I Don’t: A Contrarian History of Marriage, which seems to be an aptly timed book for recent controversies in both the secular world and in the Anglican Communion:

Various state supreme courts have been grappling with this conundrum as they try to determine whether to expand the definition of marriage to include gay couples, a question California voters are poised to answer in November. This has forced groups on both sides of the issue to struggle to define the essential purpose of marriage. Is it a religious sacrament or merely a civil allocation of property rights? Is marriage a way of optimizing the rearing of children or an ancient way of enforcing female chastity? In legalizing gay marriage in 2003, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts insisted that marriage encourages “stable relationships over transient ones,” “provides for the orderly distribution of property” and promotes “a stable setting for child rearing.” The Washington Supreme Court, in refusing to strike down that state’s ban on gay marriage in 2006, rooted its logic in a view of marriage as an institution that exists to “promote procreation and to encourage stable families.”

It’s a testament to our national confusion about the purpose of marriage that the courts can toggle this way between four or five rationales for such a union in a single judicial opinion, with little regard for any one coherent principle. In “I Don’t: A Contrarian History of Marriage,” Susan Squire explains that this is because there is no single coherent principle behind modern marriage. As currently practiced, the institution is a hodgepodge of biblical, classical, courtly and Christian rules and mores. What we know as “marriage” is rooted in warring historical efforts at regulating procreation; tamping down sexual lust (especially female lust); and — only relatively recently — celebrating companionship and romantic love. Those of us who speak reverently about the sanctity of marriage must also acknowledge that modern matrimony is less a sacred vessel than a crazy quilt.

. . .

It’s not always easy to follow the hops and skips of Squire’s logical structure, and at times her penchant for one-linery gets in the way of her argument as opposed to helping it along. But “I Don’t” is a charming book and a wonderful resource for those who think they have a bead on why the church and everyone purporting to speak for the church got themselves so firmly entrenched in the marriage business in the first place. As we head into the presidential election, you may find yourself channeling Squire as you puzzle out your feelings about the Obama marriage (two parts Martin Luther, one part ancient Rome?) as well as that of the McCains (one part Eleanor of Aquitaine, two parts ancient Greece?).

Marriage is one of the last manifestations of human optimism. And whether we aspire to perfect holiness or romance, the reality is almost certain to disappoint. As Oscar Wilde put it, “The only charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception necessary for both parties.” “I Don’t” reminds us we’ve been aspiring to such deceptions for thousands of years. That alone is reason to hope.

Read it all here.

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