Sunday, May 23, 2010

Country Wedding

A couple of weeks back, the wife and I attended a neighbor’s wedding at a rural bed and breakfast complex about 35 miles away. The ceremony itself took place in an outdoor pavilion, nestled amongst the rental cabins. The weather was perfect, the wildflowers in bloom, and the grounds awash in yellow snapdragons. I am acquainted with the Baptist preacher who performed the ceremony—a decent guy who played it straight. For these times, I would have to say that this is what passes for a traditional wedding (regular vows and no previous marriages, children or shacking-up involved.) The only kitschy element during the ceremony was the “unity sand.” Earlier, both mothers poured sand into a fluted glass. Then while a young man was singing something and strumming a guitar, the bride and groom each poured their sand into the glass. I get the symbolism and all, but it is was still silly. All in all, however, the whole affair was very nicely done, and the couple--she in her late 20s and he in his early 30s--make a handsome pair. I think they will do just fine.

The back roads drive down there and back was pleasant and gave my wife and I time to catch up on some things. We talked of a number of people who are close to us and whose current situations give cause for concern. (There’s the old joke: Southerners are not gossiping, they are just concerned.) But seriously, my wife and I were in complete agreement as to the particulars of the several problem situations. Of interest to me, however, was that we each arrived there following completely different paths.

The fact that I am Orthodox and she is Protestant is certainly part of it, but it really goes beyond that. I would say that my wife is perhaps too quick to resort to moralizing, just as she would likely say I am too quick to assert that morality has little or nothing to do with it. The older I get, the more I am convinced that morality, as currently defined, is only incidentally, or at most tangentially, connected to the Faith--and is certainly not the way one approaches Christianity. But I am equally guilty of overstating the case on most anything. My wife is the daughter of an old-time Church of Christ preacher, so the moralizing comes naturally to her. Our differing approaches came to the forefront in the discussion over one particular man whom we both regard as something of a creep. My wife starts with his alcoholism and his accompanying vulgarity, and then builds the case against him from there. I agree that the guy is a cad, but I begin with this and conclude that this makes him a sloppy, rather than happy, drunk. My wife contends that he needs to stop drinking. This is probably true, but I conclude that were he to join AA and never touch another drop of demon alcohol, it would still not address his basic jerkitude.

I remember having these same frustrating conversations with my mother. Unlike my wife, she was not at all religious, but could still engage in some heavy-duty moralizing. In her country way, she would often say that she just wished someone would learn to “do right.” For my mother, this involved working hard, frugality, minding your own business, and abstinence from alcohol. Not a bad To-Do List, apart from the last item. More often than not, her concern centered on a close family member; in later years, a granddaughter in particular. If there was ever a more forlorn hope, it was this. I would wager that the GOP will sweep Vermont before this girl ever learns to "do right.”

Personally, I never wasted much time with this approach, with no expectations that people will learn to “do right.” Given enough rein and unlimited options, most everyone will choose wrong. And I know this because I would be leading the pack. So, my expectations are pretty low, to begin with. But with my wife, the rules of living which always gave meaning to her world are quickly falling away. I do sympathize with her, for this must be heart-rending at times.

We talked on, speculating about when everything changed and why. But here again, we were coming at it from different directions. First, I doubt that the past she misses was ever really all that grand, for I have never entertained any idealized image of my own childhood world. But beyond that, (and here is where the Orthodox view enters in) I find that things are only playing out much as one would expect them to, given the particulars of our society--our rampant materialism/consumerism, our notions of progress and technology, the inherent flaws within our Americanized Protestant/evangelical culture, and the adaptation of Americanism as a near religion itself. Why would we think that things would be any different? Events are taking their natural course. I am neither surprised nor alarmed at it—“situation hopeless, but not serious.” Between the two of us, I feel I got the better deal—she gets the angst, I settle for a "love among the ruins" resignation.

During the conversation, I brought in the review I recently read of George Barna's The Seven Faith Tribes: Who They Are, What They Believe, and Why They Matter. I don't plan on reading the book, as there doesn't seem to be any new ground broken here. His analysis, however, does strip away some of the remaining veneer on our popular self-delusions. Barna, a noted evangelical writer/pollster breaks the country up into 7 tribes: Casual Christians (67%), Captive Christians (16%), Skeptics (11%), Jews (2%), Mormons-who Barna identifies as the "Rodney Dangerfield of the Christian world" (just under 2%), pantheists (1.5%) and Muslims (less than 1%.) According to the review I read, Barna described "Captive Christians" as those who see their faith as making a demand on them, a demand they touches every aspect of their lives, every moment of their living. The category of "Casual Christians" needs little explanation. Barna found that this group believed tolerance, liberty, and happiness are the defining touchstones for them...comfortable picking and choosing the principles from the Bible that they believe are literally accurate. Scripture is seen as something to provide "encouragement," and Christianity is a place of comfort in their lives. Well, yes. My only observation is that maybe the 16% figure for the Captive Christians may in fact be wildly overstated.

I'm sure my wife was wondering what in the world I was babbling on about. But the point, to me at least, was obvious. None of the people we were talking about seemed to fall in Barna's "Captive" camp. Indeed, all were feel-good Christians. Returning home on the darkened country lane, I had to swerve to miss a herd of wild hogs crossing the road. This brought the conversation back to a more immediate, if no less remediable, form of ruination on our land.


Moo! said...

I've never seen the "sand ritual"... has that replaced the "unity candle" as the new wedding cliche? Thanks for letting us be a fly on the wall in your conversations, you bring up a lot of food for thought regarding moralism and transformation.

Kirk said...

Interesting thoughts, John, about the differences between "Casual Christians" and "Captive Christians," and the implications that follow. I was thinking yesterday that twenty-first century American church is at a different level on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs than the first century church we read about in the New Testament. Post-modern Americans feel the need for self-actualization rather than food and clothing. Accordingly, it should not surprise us when we observe a lack of compassion on the hungry, for instance. "I've got plenty of food. If you don't have plenty of food, you must be doing something wrong. Therefore, you don't deserve my help."

Milton T. Burton said...

Good post. I often tell those on the so-called "Christian Right" who try to say that the constitution was inspired by the Bible that the scriptures contain nothing about rights and freedoms but a great deal about obligations and duties. My words fall on deaf ears. The whole question reminds me of the title of a book back in the 60s that dealt with essentially the same sort of thing: "The Comfortable Pew."

Milton T. Burton said...

I also dislike the author's use of the word "tribes" in this context.

Reader John said...

I, like you, find increasingly find that morality is not the core issue. The Pharisee was pretty moral, but the Publican came away justified.
Sociologist Christian Smith characterized much of American religion as "moralistic therapeutic deism," and I think that label applies to many evangelicals and conservatives in mainline Churches. MTD is one of those memes that seems to "explain" a lot.