Marriage and monogamy in the Christian Century

August 13, 2011

A while back, I was deeply critical of the New York Times’s feature-length story on Dan Savage and “nonmonogamy” (Apple’s new autocorrect feature insists on trying to correct the word, but this is how the Times spelled it). In Savage’s defense, I conceded that “everything Savage says isn’t terrible.” I’m still unwilling to go much further than that faint praise.

By contrast, this week’s Christian Century article on the same subject (I guess they read my blog?) goes a bit further. I realize now that I overlooked another positive aspect of Savage’s advice on sex and marriage, which this article points out: his emphasis on forgiveness.

To a correspondent whose spouse lapsed in a way that fell far short of adultery, Savage offers this: “A successful marriage is basically an endless cycle of wrongs committed, apologies offered, and forgiveness granted, all leavened by the occasional orgasm.”

In this pithy sentence, one can easily see that a large part of Savage’s appeal is a candor that’s missing from so much public discourse, especially in the church: “The frankness and realism with which he handles such questions provide a sharp contrast to the tepid affirmations and bashful silences that characterize much mainline preaching and thinking on sex.”

“Mainline preaching and thinking” on sex? I wasn’t aware such a thing existed, as cozy as we mainliners tend to be with whatever Glee has to say on the subject. We outsource preaching and thinking on sex. Nevertheless, I preached a two-parter last year on love and marriage in which I talked as candidly as a “family-friendly” sermon allows, and not a single person in the congregation got the vapors. But many people expressed relief that I was talking about it. Unless or until the church talks about it more, is Dan Savage the best we can get?

Fittingly, the Christian Century article ends with this affirmation of actual monogamy, which I couldn’t have said better:

In this sense, monogamy does not consist of refraining from sex outside marriage any more than true worship consists of avoiding idols. Instead, undivided sexual intimacy is a sign or sacrament of a full and altruistic unity that touches every aspect of domestic life. This unity may be adulterated in countless ways short of sexual intercourse, from casual neglect to the dreaded Facebook affair. Most marriages experience such diminishment. Yet most marriages also offer opportunities for sanctification—for a heroic ethic of life together that not only manages the human disaster and perceives its true depths but also calls us to transcend it in the name of hope.

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