Thursday, February 14, 2013

Because It's Valentine's Day

One of the few blogs I read on a regular basis is the Internet Monk. In a recent post, a letter written in 1941 by J.R.R. Tolkien was quoted. Tolkien was advising his son, telling him not to have an overly idealistic view of romantic love in his search for a wife. He wrote,
[Medieval chivalry] is not wholly true, and it is not perfectly 'theocentric.' It takes, or at any rate has in the past taken, the young man's eye off women as they are, as companions in shipwreck not guiding stars. (One result is for observation of the actual to make the young man turn cynical.) To forget their desires, needs and temptations. It inculcates exaggerated notions of 'true love', as a fire from without, a permanent exaltation, unrelated to age, childbearing, and plain life, and unrelated to will and purpose. (One result of that is to make young folk look for a 'love' that will keep them always nice and warm in a cold world, without any effort of theirs; and the incurably romantic go on looking even in the squalor of the divorce courts). (emphases mine) 
When it comes to searching for a spouse, I think it is very hard to strike a proper balance between romance and pragmatism. Over the centuries, we've swung from being entirely pragmatic (when marriages were arranged and based on practicality) to expecting that our marital unions be based entirely on romantic feelings - feelings that are pretty much unsustainable.

Does God prefer one over the other? I'm sure some would argue that arranged marriages have a lot going for them. For one, they eliminate the turmoils of the courtship/dating process, helping to reduce youthful indiscretions, painful breakups, and unwed pregnancies. They also put the husband and wife in a position where they must choose from the outset to love one another rather than simply assent to euphoric feelings. In other words, arranged marriages provide a unique opportunity to practice "agape" love.

However, I wouldn't advocate for turning back the clock. In defense of romance, is there not something undeniably beautiful about choosing someone? That is, falling for someone and forsaking all others for him/her? Isn't it clear that there is something about the way we are wired that arranged marriages simply can't satisfy? And isn't there a case to be made that this wiring is a part of God's design?

It is fascinating to me that the Bible has very little to say, in terms of prescriptive directions, when it comes to the process of finding a spouse. How odd that something so significant in the human experience is addressed so little. Of course, instructions are given for those who are married - instructions that demonstrate how significant and special the marriage union is supposed to be - and there are numerous commands to flee from sexual immorality (see my post from 1/16/13 for more on this), but there is almost nothing about the process of moving from singleness to marriage.

Perhaps this is because this is an area God wants the human race to have some freedom in. Maybe there are supposed to be multiple paths by which a man and a woman can become one, and we are supposed to trust Him in the process depending on whatever culture we are in. Maybe the reason the Bible stays silent about this is because there's supposed to be some mystery surrounding how it happens, and that is part of the magic of it.

The author of Proverbs includes "the way of a man with a maiden" among the top things he does not understand (30:18). Amen.

But, I've digressed. Getting back to Tolkien: I like his metaphor. Single people who want to be married should not be looking for a guiding star. We should be looking for a companion in shipwreck. I like the metaphor, because I think it strikes a healthy balance between the two extremes of pragmatism and romance. We should not be overly idealistic, because we will never find another human being who can be our 'guiding star.' If that is what we are looking for we will inevitably become bitter and cynical, and - if we ever do get married - divorced. However, if we adjust our aim to 'finding a companion in shipwreck,' we will be less likely to end up disappointed and we might actually find someone who fits the bill. We'll know what to look for: someone we can brave the after-effects of the Fall with. But, in the midst of this pragmatic attitude there's still a place for romance. I mean, you're being shipwrecked with someone. That's romantic, no?

Happy Valentine's Day to all you shipwrecked stars.


  1. Thanks for the post. Just wanted to give you a comment that wasn't spam!
    some responses: I think choice is the most powerful and beautiful aspect of romantic love. I would offer the Song of Songs as an underused and misunderstood, and often avoided (blush, blush) text about true love and true marriage. Finally, I would add that neither is there many, if any, great examples of marriages in the Bible. Which Biblical marriage would we want to emulate today?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Phil. When you say that you think choice is the most powerful and beautiful aspect of romantic love, are you referring to the act of choosing a spouse or the choice to love a person? What I'm wondering is if the "choice" you are referring to is something that can only happen in a culture where we choose our own spouses, or if it is something that is still possible in a culture where marriages are arranged...?

      I should do a study on Song of Songs sometime. That's a book I don't know very well at all.

      And you're right - I can't think of any marriages in the Bible that are depicted as exemplars. Priscila and Aquila come to mind as a good example of a couple in ministry together (and in a seemingly egalitarian fashion), but we don't know a lot about them.

  2. Great post. I have read a book recently on the song of solomon. Perhaps you should check it out. It is called"The Book of Romance" by Nelson. I would not recommend it as a study guide for the Song of Solomon. However, the author shared some wisdom in the book.
    I often think that arrange marriage is not bad after all (I can't believe I am saying that). But if you think about it, parents have walked the road that children are anticipating to walk. Who else can better advice us or recommend a mate?
    My question for you is something that I have been thinking a lot lately. Do you think God has someone specific for another person. What I mean is, is X supposed to marry Y? Or should you use guidelines from the bible and chose a mate?

    1. Thanks for the book recommendation. As for the that question, I tend to think it is better to look for "a really good one" rather than "THE one." If you believe that God has only one right option for you in regard to anything - spouse, job, living situation, etc - then I think that is a recipe for despair because if you ever make a decision that in retrospect seems like a mistake you will have to live the rest of your life thinking that you missed God's will and can never get it back, you know? I think God presents us with good options and sometimes He might really push is in a particular direction, but I think if we miss a good opportunity He doesn't leave us without any other good opportunities.

    2. True, who can live up to His standards? I believe you are right. Be blessed