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Love and the mystery of men and women

I’ve been reading bell hook’s book All About Love: New Visions. In it, she stresses the importance of defining love so that we can’t be controlled by abusive people who claim to love us. She borrows her definition of love from M. Scott Peck: “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth…Love is as love does. Love is an act of will–namely, both an intention and an action.” 

hooks later discusses our culture’s reluctance to define love:

It is particularly distressing that so many recent books on love continue to insist that definitions of love are unnecessary and meaningless. Or worse, the authors suggest love should mean something different to men than it does to women–that the sexes should respect and adapt to our inability to communicate since we do not share the same language. This type of literature is popular because it does not demand a change in fixed ways of thinking about gender roles, culture, or love. Rather than sharing strategies that would help us become more loving it actually encourages everyone to adapt to circumstances where love is lacking.

It’s funny how much this idea–that love should mean something different to men than it does to women–has caught on in Christian culture. Funny. And a bit sad.

Cover of the book “Men are Like Waffles, Women are Like Spaghetti”

I think of the books that were popular when I was a teenager and when I was attending a Christian college. The ones that flew off the bookshelf at Lifeway. The ones that the “cool” churches had Young Adult Bible studies on.

There was the For Men Only  and For Women Only series. I remember buying For Men Only with my college suitemate Carina because it made us feel rebellious. We read it in her dorm room and snickered at how dumb it was.But the premise was exactly what bell hooks described above–that men and women  are totally different and must be loved in different ways. The description on Amazon for For Men Only says it all (emphasis mine):

 Now at your fingertips is the tool that will unlock the secret to her mysterious ways. Through hundreds of interviews and the results of a scientific national survey of women, this book demonstrates that women are actually not random and that they really can be systematized and “mapped.” In fact, much to men’s delight, this book shows that women are actually quite easy to understand and please—as long as you know what it is they need. This simple map will guide you to loving your wife or girlfriend in the way she needs to be loved.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the only Christian relationship book that emphasizes extreme sex differences when it comes to love.

There’s Eggerich’s Love and Respect, a book that I stopped reading out of frustration when I was dating my last boyfriend: “Psychological studies affirm it, and the Bible has been saying it for ages. Cracking the communication code between husband and wife involves understanding one thing: that unconditional respect is as powerful for him as unconditional love is for her. It’s the secret to marriage that every couple seeks, and yet few couples ever find.”

Again, this idea that men and women need different things in a relationship.

How about the Eldredges’ books Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman’s Soul and Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul? Secret? Mystery? Or how about Men are Like Waffles, Women are Like Spaghetti? 

Or Hayley and Michael DiMarco’s Marriable: Taking the Desperate Out of Dating, a book I read in college, which had separate chapters for men and women. Most notably, there was a chapter on “Male Porn” and “Female Porn.” The male porn section was on, well, porn. The female porn section was on chick flicks. Even when it comes to sex, says Christian culture, men and women want different things. 

What happens when we insist on this dichotomy between men and women when it comes to love? What happens when we pretend that men and women are too different to understand each other? Or that all men want one thing when it comes to love and all women want another?

That men want respect and women want romance?

That men want physically pleasing sex and women just want to feel close to someone emotionally?

That men are a secret? Women are a mystery?

What happens is we cannot love each other fully. We cannot “nurture another’s spiritual growth,” according to Peck’s definition of love, because we’re only giving another  person half of what they need. Because we’re assuming we know what their needs are based on the genitalia they happen to have (or because we’re assuming we can never really know what they need). Men and women both become dehumanized. They become simply mysterious terrain to be “systematized and mapped.”

I told you I stopped reading Love and Respect. Why? Because I don’t just need love and my boyfriend at the time didn’t just need respect.  We both needed both. Equally. Unconditionally. One cannot exist without the other. I couldn’t stand the idea of being treated as simply this object called Woman–just follow the instructions to please! I couldn’t stand the idea of treating the man I was with in the same way.

The more the church settles for these split-up, scattered, partial definitions of love, the more the church pretends that all men are the same and all women are the same and all men are different from all women, the more that the church withholds holistic, fulfilling definitions of love from both men and women…

…the less the church knows love. The less the church knows God.

 

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In which I ruin the sanctity of marriage.

If it were 1958, I would be ruining the sanctity of marriage.

Look at us, breaking Deuteronomy 22:9!

See, I am white. Abe, on the other hand, is half-Chinese. And just 54 years ago, 96% percent (NINETY SIX PERCENT) of Americans would have thought that Abe and I wanted to literally crush them with our interracial steamroller.

Much of this was based on religious beliefs. In fact, in 1959, when Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple, were arrested and charged with a felony, a judge ruled:

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents…The fact that he separated the races show that he did not intend for the races to mix.

Interracial marriage was illegal in many states (the number was as high as 41 in 1960) in the U.S. until 1967, when such laws were finally deemed unconstitutional. And you know what? 75% of Americans still disapproved of interracial marriage.

But that didn’t matter. The majority didn’t get to decide on the rights of the minority. Because, as the supreme court stated:

Marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man,”

Many churches didn’t like this. Some churches still don’t like this (the Christian school that I grew up in “highly discouraged” interracial marriage). But that didn’t matter either. The churches didn’t get to decide on the rights of people either.

So, I get to marry my partner once we have the money and the means to do so, and that’s awesome.

Even if the majority of people still disagreed with interracial marriage, they don’t get to interfere because that is my right.

Even if the majority of churches still disagreed with interracial marriage, they don’t get to interfere because that is my right.

Now, come on, America. It’s not 1967 anymore. Let’s get with the program.

Marriage Equality for all!


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“Unwilling Desperado:” A guest post!

Today’s guest post is from my good friend, Abe Kobylanski. I hope you’ll enjoy his thoughts about singleness and the church’s view of marriage! And be sure to check out his blog at Images and Words. 

So, being a 27-year-old Christian male is pretty weird. The average marriage age for an American male is 28, so I still have a few months to go before I break that social norm.
But if I had to guess, I would guess the average age for a first marriage for Christians would be around 22. In other words, halfway through your senior year of college, you buy a ring you can’t afford, propose and start preparing for a wedding and marriage you won’t be able to afford.

So, in churches, I’m a bit of an anomaly. I am single. I never really dated anyone until I was 26, and didn’t get into my first serious relationship (the one I’m currently in, with the author of this blog), until this year. It’s kind of strange that I’m still a young adult by most people’s standards, but by Christian standards, I am an oddity. So strange, there should be a new entry in the Guinness Book of World Records just for me.

I’ve spent most of my experience as an adult in two churches, both of which seemed to treat marriage as if it was a foregone conclusion. When I was 20, my closest friend got engaged, and there was at least one other young adult marriage while I was at that church.

Many of the sermons were focused on marriage. With the divorce rate being so high in America now, I could see why they might emphasize actually trying to make the marriage work. But for me, it was about as helpful as drinking milk on a 100-degree day in San Diego (“It’s so damn hot, milk was a bad choice”). Maybe not that bad, but the best I could take out of it is, “oh I suppose it could help my future marriage.”

In both churches, the second of which was a non-denominational church, which of course means Southern Baptist and trying to get away from the stigma of that denomination (let’s be honest, just call it what it is, unless you’re actually going to change your doctrine), people would always joke with me about getting married. They would do things like pray for me to find a “smokin’ wife” or ask if there’s a lady in my life and when I’m getting married, to which my response was, “it’s not exactly a solo activity, you kinda need a partner for that.”

There’s nothing wrong with doing those things, as it shows people cared about me. But it is frustrating because it shows how much emphasis the church places on marriage. But (I can say this, because I’m actually in a relationship now) it also shows the underlying attitude that marriage is not just important, it’s a rite of passage, which simply isn’t true.

It’s not as if I didn’t want to get married then. The importance of marriage had been drilled into me by both the church and pop culture. It was a necessary step to becoming a normal adult and living a fulfilled life, like a Chinese male who has to climb to the top of the Great Wall to become a man, though I’m personally still working on that one. But if I’m honest, I probably wasn’t ready for marriage yet anyway (having the wisdom of God generally means an understanding that I have no idea what I’m doing).

Other church people may have and probably did judge me for being a single man. It wasn’t exactly something normal to them. I did notice a new barrier growing between myself and some of my newly married friends, like we suddenly had no understanding of each other anymore. I was probably seen as either immature or a playboy, neither of which seems to describe me very well.

But one day, living by myself in a town where I knew nobody, I decided to go see a movie by myself (by embarrassing admission, that movie was “Walk Hard”). And suddenly, I felt free. Lonely maybe, but free. I was my own person, and I didn’t have to wait until marriage to live my life, like churches and college ministry seemed to make life out to be.

I didn’t exactly just not want to be married anymore. On the contrary, I was still lonely and sick of being alone, but I at least became aware of the fact that it’s ok to be alone. It might be difficult sometimes, but it’s not the end of the world. I was able to do so many things married people can’t do. I could do things like spending a summer going to all the concerts I wanted to, going on a mission trip to Peru and planning a vacation to Ireland. Like I said, not exactly the end of the world.

I have another single friend who is 38 now, and he’s told me he went through all the same struggles I did when he was younger, but he eventually got to the point where he didn’t put marriage on a pedestal anymore. I wish I could get to that point

It’s not easy being a single adult in church. You really do feel like you’re totally alone sometimes. I’m not sure I have a pick-me-up ending to this, but if you’re one of the few single Christians out there who’s having a rough go of it, I would recommend “Singles at the Crossroads” by Albert Tsu. It helped put things in perspective for me. It’s difficult living in a culture that thinks you should be one way, but you don’t quite fit into that mold. This book made life a bit more bearable and offered me some freedom.

Are there any other 27-year-old single Christians out there? If not, I’d be interested to hear others’ experiences being single in church. Or for those who are married, maybe remembering the push by culture and church to get married. Or if you’re also secretly a fan of “Walk Hard,” it’d be nice to know I’m not alone.


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When the desire to marry becomes a god

A few days ago I talked about the “god of marriage” that lurks in the dorm halls of Christian colleges (you can read that post here). I talked about how marriage became an idol for me when I attended a Christian school, and I spoke of how I almost got married to a man that wasn’t right for me just to appease my new god.

If I would have married my last boyfriend, I probably would have been miserable. Please note that I don’t say that because I believe in “soul mates” or in finding “The One.” Marriage is ultimately about being the right person, and I believe that whoever you married becomes The One once you marry him/her. And I definitely don’t say that to knock my last boyfriend. He’s one of the nicest guys I know and he has a good heart.

But I had dreams and plans before the god of marriage came along, and because my last boyfriend and I were so different, I would have had to give up those dreams to be with him. I was ready to sacrifice those dreams to the god of marriage, and if I had done so, I believe I would have been miserable.

Now that we have broken up and moved on, I face a totally different scenario.

I have a different boyfriend now.

Ain't he cute?

It wasn’t too long into our relationship when things clicked in my brain, like when you suddenly understand a difficult math problem. So this is what it’s like to be a healthy relationship, to have a partner, to be going the same direction in life. It all makes sense now.

We both have similar goals in life: we want to do great things, we want to travel the world, and have adventures, and make differences.

But neither of us are too keen on doing it alone.

So there’s tension.

On one hand, we love each other. We want to get married, not because of sex or society or peer pressure. We want to get married because we’re partners.

But…

Sometimes I allow this normal, natural, and healthy desire to marry turn into the god that I used to worship.

I believe that marrying my boyfriend eventually would be a logical move on my part. However, we’re not ready to get married now. There are things that I need to accomplish while I’m single (college, learning to take care of myself like an adult, etc.) so that after marriage, I can continue working toward my goals. Marriage is neither the beginning nor the end of the plans that I have for my life.

Yet, sometimes that sneaky false god tries to convince me that it is. It’s always trying to convince me that marriage is THE goal. The “happy ever after.”

Sometimes I have to knock the idea of marriage off the pedestal and remind myself that there is more to life.

Also, I still have a tendency to believe marriage’s false promise to fix all of my problems. I have problems. You don’t survive sexual abuse and an abusive relationship without some baggage. I’m glad life isn’t an airport and I don’t have to pay fees for every extra bag because I’d be broke.

I’m constantly trying to lessen that load, though. I go to counseling. I work on stress management. I try to control my cognitive processes and I try to find healthy ways to deal with the pain.

But it’s hard. It’s really damn hard.

I want a quick fix. I want something that will make everything better.

And the god of marriage wants me to believe that marriage is that quick fix.

It says,

“When you’re married, sex won’t leave you feeling as confused and afraid.”

“When you’re married, your depression won’t be as crippling.”

“When you’re married, you’ll make good memories that will take the place of all the terrible ones.”

These are lies.

This is marriage trying to elevate itself above the true God. This is marriage saying, “cast your burdens on ME. MY yoke is easy and MY burden is light.”

Marriage worship is dangerous because it makes us feel like we are incomplete. It makes us forget that we are complete in Christ and convinces us that we need more. It makes us promises that it cannot keep.

And yet, marriage itself is still a wonderful thing. A beautiful thing and a picture (though certainly not the only, or even the greatest picture) of the love that Christ has for his church.

So there’s tension.

Have you ever experienced the tension between the natural desire to marry, and the temptation to “cast all your cares” upon the god of marriage? Share your story!