I’m letting my Netflix account peter out, because I really don’t have time to watch movies while working full time and taking three grad classes (and I haven’t even begun teaching any flute lessons yet–partly because I’m too busy to remember to advertise). But I still have a few movies left in the cue and I can’t quite bring myself to delete them and shut the whole thing down yet, so over the weekend I watched a film called Arranged.
I liked it a lot (apart from the henna tattoos part; I love henna tattoos and have been known to wear them myself, but why do they have this whole scene about henna-ing Rochel’s hands and another of her aunt objecting to it, and then make it obvious that her hands have not been hennaed for the film at all? It’s one of those film errors that’s more glaring than most). But it got me thinking about something that I occasionally get thinking about anyway, and that is arranged marriages.
Yeah, I know, that’s probably not normal for WASP’s like me, but I never claimed normalcy really, now, did I? (The Matchmaker coined the term “sweet weirdness” the other day and we decided that I am “all about” sweet weirdness. To the extent that I may just have to change the subtitle of my blog . . . )
When I was a junior in college (a time which simultaneously seems like last year and the Dark Ages), I went to India (during the summer, which is probably not really recommended, although I still like being able to say I spent my 21st birthday stranded in a bungalow in central India during a monsoon–which is why I just said it again even though you may have heard it a million times already). I went with a team of 8 other people, two of whom were an Indian brother and sister just slightly younger than I was. They had been born in India but relocated to the United States when they were pretty young, so they could have “westernized,” I guess, and they were Christians, but they were part of a traditionalist Indian Christian community and both of them, though especially the sister, anticipated having their marriages arranged for them.
I don’t remember specific conversations about arranged marriage on that trip, but I do remember that when I came home, considering Mini and Aby’s prospects and the fact that I was a 21-year-old WASP who hadn’t even dated yet, never mind had a boyfriend, I told my parents I would like them to arrange a marriage for me. I said I trusted their judgment, they knew me pretty well, and I thought arranging marriages was a good idea.
Their basic response was, “Um . . . no thank you.” Which I guess makes sense, because it’s a lot of responsibility to take on–someone else’s marital bliss or agony.
But occasionally I still think this method might have worked for me. Better than the alternative anyway. For one thing, Mini and Aby each did have their marriages arranged, and from all appearances and reports, they are very happy.
Let me make this clear: I understand that there are tremendous downsides to arranged marriages. I know that historically there have been miserable couples forged by this method. I’m not in favour of the abuse of women that has been fostered on occasion by this practice. I’m just wondering if statistically this method of spouse-finding is any less successful or potentially abusive than the practice of serial dating that is enjoined by postmodern Western culture.
What I started thinking after watching this movie was, “I wonder if conservative religious cultures almost have an imperative to arrange marriages for their adherents,” and “I wonder if the Western church abdicated it’s authority in marriage and family when it abdicated a prayerful and godly practice of arranged marriage.” I can imagine an outcry from all over the place about these ideals, and I hope you know me well enough to know that although I can be pretty staunch and stubborn about certain beliefs and principles, I’m not really a fan of having my life circumscribed by shoulds and shouldn’ts, and my staunchness and stubbornness has more to do with relationship than rule-following. I even cringe, myself, at thinking these things, because then I think about class-based societies and people marrying for money and all kinds of other shallow reasons. I also think of books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which I confess I have never read, but which, in spite of never having read it, I have never truly approved of (although I imagine I have lived my life according to the main principle!) and which I suspect doesn’t really address the problem of establishing Christian marriages in this culture.
But still. Hear me out.
Evangelical Christians today are in an uproar because, from our perspective, the sanctity of marriage and family is being totally undermined by fornication, adultery, pornography, homosexuality and abortion. (Yeah, I said it. Argue/discuss with me later if you want. I’m not as much of a jerk as it might sound.) Then-Church is sustaining a spate of divorces lately for some reason, and Now-Church doesn’t really blink at cohabitation, and it seems like you either just have to sigh and resign yourself to current trends, or wring your hands and try frantically to dam up a waterfall. We start yelling about marriage being a union of one man and one woman, and about true love waiting, and about abortion stopping a beating heart, and all those things may be true. But yelling and hyperventilating about it isn’t really endearing us to anybody, and meanwhile, all the slogans are not really helping Christian young people or not-so-young people make good decisions once they get out into the world of “dating = sex,” and “marriage = whatever makes you happy.” It’s like we have all these noble ideals, but the ideals somehow became porous and absorbed this liquid of “surrounding cultural mores” which are actually idealistically incompatible with what the church, when orthodox, asserts about marriage and family. People have to put these two polar opposites together, and one is definitely easier than the other, so eventually one gets tossed out or just kind of dissolves gradually.
I thought that the thing about Arranged was that both the Muslim and the Orthodox Jewish cultures had their presuppositions about what marriage was for (family) and what family was for (community), and in order to uphold these presuppositions or values, they also had a structure in place by which young people were helped to find someone with whom to embark on this kind of life. This movie depicts the protagonists from each culture as having a fair amount of choice, and as also having a little bit of internal conflict when their own personal desires don’t match up with their parents’ desire for expediency in the process. So, naturally there are drawbacks. But both women also were intentional about remaining in their communities and observing the traditions, and when they find some men who are, but who are also attractive to each of them respectively, they have a good chance at making a go of successful, lifelong marriages.
I don’t really think one blog-post of an almost middle-aged Christian spinster is going to change the entire evangelical substructure of how we meet and mate. (Which I realise sounds really impersonal, but I think you know what I mean.) Maybe I can blame the early Church Fathers for taking such a low view of marriage and sex, and assuming celibacy was a higher spiritual state. (It might be, but I’m not convinced, and the fact is that very few people excel at it so it might have been wiser to be a little more even-handed about the whole thing, and allow people in vocation ministry to marry, for example.)
I’m just saying, the Western evangelical community is kind of an anomaly, in that it tries both to be up-to-date and culturally-savvy and yet religiously conservative, and maybe the ways in which it tries to be these things are not always the right ones. Maybe, given Jesus as our “founder” and Lord, we could have a more traditional method of creating conjugal unions, while at the same time, a kind of out of the box approach. No need to pressure people to marry if they don’t wish to or if they can’t “settle” on one of their presented options. No need for the woman’s will to be railroaded in deference to the man’s or her family’s. No need for single people to feel like second-class citizens (while simultaneously spiritually superior? huh?). But a framework that says, “This is what a marriage is–a partnership under God to serve Him in the world while delighting in Him and each other; and this is what family is–kind of the same thing, actually, to bring His truth and love and glory to the world. And we know it’s kind of tough to tell who that is in singles’ groups and dating websites because people say what you want to hear and at the same time try to pretend they’re only interested in a friendship first, so there’s simultaneously an intentionality and an artifice that are hard to break through. So here, we’re going to help you find someone who thinks the same way about marriage and family, and with whom you can find mutual enjoyment and service. And when you have trouble, because you will, we’ll help you to get through it.”
I’m sure it still wouldn’t work for everybody. But I’m also pretty certain it would work a lot more of the time than this hash of dysfunction and confusion and selfishness and loneliness and damage-control the church has got going on right now.