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Till Death do us ConsumeTill Death do us Consume

Till Death do us Consume

The narcotic effects of a market society are to blame for North Americans preparing funeral rights for marriage, argues Winnipeg writer Kurt Armstrong

Kurt Armstrong
11 minute read

Im not old, but I know I am no longer young, which means I'm mostly out of touch with the latest trends. Case in point: I still believe in marriage, the "till death do us part" kind, which is a pretty unsexy, old-fashioned idea when you line it up against things like friends-with-benefits or hookups. Last year, radio host Jian Ghomeshi ran a series called "Modern Love," on CBC Radio's Q, where panelists discussed our evolving ideas about monogamy, arranged marriage, sex addiction and infidelity, and one of the conversations centred around the question: Is marriage obsolete? Author Iris Krasnow argued that marriage was relevant because most people are still drawn to the stability of a lifelong relationship, while Russell Smith, a columnist at the Globe and Mail, argued that marriage is, in fact, obsolete. He identified marriage as a religious tradition, which, if you're concerned at all with trying to be trendy, is all you need to establish that marriage is irrelevant; but then he went on to call it "barbaric" and said that marriage doesn't matter anymore because the promise to love someone else forever is unrealistic.

Smith said, "the marriage-people continuously say, ‘You must work, you must work.' There's always the language of the labour camp when people talk about this thing that's supposed to be romantic. What I think is romantic," he said, "is you wake up every day and think, I want to be in a relationship with this person. What's romantic is the idea that we want to be together."

I know for a fact Russell Smith is fashionable because he wrote a book called Men's Style: The Thinking Man's Guide to Dress. But he's certainly not the only one who thinks marriage doesn't count anymore: a 2010 Pew Research survey found that 40 per cent of Americans believe marriage is becoming obsolete. Marriage has taken a fairly savage beating over the last 50 years, thanks at least in part to the criticism drawn by a powerful huddle of outspoken, media-savvy, middle-aged American men who've tried to cajole us into focusing on our families—where pop works hard at his job and prays with, impregnates and protects his pious wife, who stays at home to mind the kids and the meals—in order to hang on to the fading remnants of what is decent and worthy and holy in society. Critics have appropriately problematized the injustices of these so-called traditional marriages, pointing out the ways in which its language of submission and service have been used to justify narrow and oppressive roles that have favoured the interests of the powerful, that is men. Pop culture then had a heyday, turning the cultural critique into resentment, manufacturing an industry of television sitcoms and rom-com films that denigrate marriage, with its deadening, tiresome routines and responsibilities, and espouse far more tantalizing, exotic, consumer-oriented romantic options.

Of course, ditching the cultural gravitas and religious significance of marriage has taken place in the context of a much broader disparagement of Christianity and all the other old-fashioned meta-narratives of Western civilization. We've identified these metanarratives as the prime culprits in our social ills and have done our best to cobble together enlightened, nontraditional, progressive practices and beliefs. The generally agreed-upon cultural narrative these days is that, having jettisoned the metanarratives that kept our thoughts narrow and our lives oppressed, we've now outsmarted our ancestors, outgrown the past and launched ourselves into a new era of liberation and human flourishing. I am not convinced. I have yet to come across any compelling evidence that our newfound non-religious freedom has made us more just or compassionate or merciful or loving, because for every devil we've chased out of the house, a dozen more have rushed in to take its place. In the words of essayist Edward Hoagland, "The glue is gone."

Unmoored from the stabilizing power and guidance of history, wisdom and religion, culture has been seduced by a whole range of fatuous options: obsessive consumption, hyper-individualism, social dislocation, entertainment addiction and psychic fragmentation. And at the centre of it all, the keystone of contemporary ideology is a newfound anthropology that takes every one of its significant cues from economics. The marketers and advertisers, culture's most persuasive figures, the chortling chorus of slave toads of the corporations, have decided that the economy is the measure of all things and have enticed us to do our part by convincing us that we establish our sense of identity by buying stuff. Where once we thought of ourselves as fundamentally miraculous beings, we have been trained to think of ourselves as consumers.

The idea of waking up every morning and wanting to be with that person next to you sounds dreamy, but implied in that dream is that when you wake up one morning and realize you don't want to be with the person next to you anymore, you can simply go and get yourself another one. What bothers me so much about "wanting" as the criteria for staying is not that this romantic idea runs about as smoothly as a train wreck, or that it shatters people's hearts, or that it undermines the communities where these relationships find their context and meaning, or that it champions the fleeting sensations of "falling in love" over things like commitment and responsibility, or that it fosters sexual obsession, or even that it treats children as accidental, burdensome and mostly unfortunate consequences of romantic, satisfying sex, although all of these things are true. What bothers me most is how precisely it reveals that we have now subjected everything, even love, to the demands of the marketplace. The six o'clock news is dominated by reports on the latest global economic crises and austerity measures, financial updates, quarterly earnings reports, which direction the Dow might have jiggled between lunchtime and afternoon coffee break; and in a culture so utterly saturated with the metaphors of the marketplace, everything, including love, is considered a commodity. If you doubt the dominance and pervasiveness of the economic metaphors, listen closely to your radio the next time there's a natural disaster—superstorm Sandy in October 2012 was a good example. Before the dead were counted and the injured rushed to the hospitals, number crunchers were already slinging around estimates of how many billions of dollars the storm was going to cost the economy. In a culture where the dollar is god, human life in all its glory and suffering plays a sorry second fiddle.

We've been trained to get what we want until we don't want it anymore, and then we're trained to throw it out and get something new, whether it's a toothbrush or a car or a push-button coffee maker or a lover. We can choose from 50 different kinds of toothpaste, and we can watch any one of 500 television channels; we buy a billion dollars worth of dollar-store junk and follow four seasons worth of annual fashion trends; and we stand in line for the "revolutionary" iPhone 5 to replace our obsolete iPhone 4 because we are duped. Likewise, we follow the impulses of our libido or that ephemeral sensation of "being in love" from one bed to the next because we are duped. All the while, the marketers who have promised us satisfaction wear out their favourite parking spot at the bank because they know they can never deliver true satisfaction, which means as long as we stay hungry, they will always be in business. Maybe the dreamy, trendy romantics are right: marriage is becoming "obsolete," just like analog television and CDs, because the ones who are calling the shots are making a killing off our consumer freedom. And who doesn't want something new when buying stuff feels so good. In the blurry waters of our consumer feeding frenzy, marriage gets a bum rap because we've no longer got a hot clue about genuine love.

We love sushi and we love Arcade Fire and we love to get our nails done; and in the middle of all that, we love our boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse or "partner," and our consumer-oriented sense of love offers no meaningful way to differentiate between loving last night's supper and loving the person who shares our bed. So in those rare moments when your love of food, fashion and life partner are aligned and functioning smoothly within the intoxicating haze of romance, it all feels pretty rosy; but when the bottom falls out and the doe-eyed bliss turns into bleary-eyed boredom—and I don't care how heartbreakingly romantic your story of falling love is, at some point, you will find that you are bored with your lover—all of the holdouts for romance are forced to ditch the hard edges of reality for a Hollywood-style romantic-comedy-fantasy with consequences that are benign and forgivable if you're 15, but utterly catastrophic when you're 35.

I say that romantic holdouts and all the rest of us are duped, not because we're unintelligent or incapable of genuine thought. We're duped simply because we're incessantly barraged by the rhetoric and narrative of the marketplace, which makes it very difficult for anyone, even those of us who identify as Christian, to hear anything else. Christianity is the most thorough, coherent explanation I've encountered for what creation is, what we humans are, and what we're doing here, but an hour-long dose at a Sunday morning service is hardly enough to inoculate any of us against the throbbing consumerist waves that howl ad nauseam throughout the other 167-odd hours every week when our butts are not parked in a church pew.

Most of us in North America live with a level of prosperity and convenience and luxury that our great grandparents never would have had the audacity to dream of. But how much does all of this cost, not in terms of the bottom line but for our souls? In a culture where everything is for sale, the implicit understanding is that love is just another commodity and that you need to try to get as much of it for yourself as you can, which, to borrow from the late David Foster Wallace, turns what is supposed to be a revelation into a transaction. Authentic love is not about self-actualization or refined tastes or being on the cutting edge or satisfying your own whims and desires. Love—I mean love of someone else, not love of your favourite dish or favourite new band—is always directed away from the self, reaching out for the well-being of the other. When you love, you give; you fundamentally bind your life to the well-being of someone else. Love will always be a poor investment because it defies measurement, technique and all guarantees of ease and comfort. Love is nonrational, impractical and anticapitalist because it thrives in inefficiency, and in no way does it guarantee positive returns. Let me rain cold, bracing reality all over that dreamy romantic walk on the beach at sunset and give you my one-word summary for why love will always be a poor investment: death.

Example: I went to grad school with these two students, Steve and Maureen. Steve was a soft-spoken Irish businessman who had come to Canada to study and then return to Ireland to pastor at a small rural parish. Maureen was from Virginia, and took a year's break from her professional career to study theology. They met near the beginning of the term and, before Christmas, they started dating, fell in love and then got engaged, only to discover that the cancer Maureen had battled a decade earlier was back. The oncologist told her it was Stage 4 bone and lymph node cancer, informed her as gently as possible that there is no Stage 5, and laid out a spectrum of treatment options ranging from intensive chemotherapy and ongoing radiation treatments to basic maintenance through more natural means, all with the understanding that none of these options would actually cure her, only prolong her life with varying degrees of discomfort and damage to her body. The prognosis was that she had no more than three years to live.

Now, anyone with even a half-baked sense of what makes for a good investment would weigh the costs and benefits, do the math and call off the wedding; but Steve and Maureen opted for a very poor investment. Knowing that time was short, they plunged headlong into the insecurity and guaranteed suffering of genuine love, bumped up the wedding date and got married two months earlier than they had originally planned. And the two of them never had the chance to get too far beyond the honeymoon stage because, in the end, Steve and Maureen had less than three years together before she died.

A tragic story, indeed, but it's a microcosm for all genuine lifelong love because whether you end up in a heartbreaking love tale such as Steve and Maureen's or ramble your way through the decades and tough it out until your 65th wedding anniversary, chances are that one of you will outlive the other, and then what? The longer you stay with your husband or wife, pouring love into each other day after day, year after year, the more closely bound you become to that person—and the greater the sorrow when one of you dies. What reasonable, calculable promise can you offer the grieving lover? The promise to love "till death do us part" is the wide-eyed commitment to love another in the face of inevitable grief and loss; and to make good on that vow puts you in direct opposition with what consumer culture says you deserve.

Christians have the audacity to tell the world the truth about itself—about where all of this has come from, why it's here and how it all went off the rails. Despite what some of Christianity's yappiest and most attention-seeking public voices are fond of saying, Christianity is actually not all that obsessed with morality. Christianity is about telling the truth of what is. Jesus tells Pilate, "For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice" [italics added]. The Christian view of the universe and all that it contains sets our day-to-day relationships in the grand, cosmic context of a great miracle of being. Christianity is far more concerned with the miracle of being, the reality of who God is, who we are, what Creation is, and what all of that has to do with one another. And the Good News of Christianity is that the entire universe is created in love and for love. For all the ways that the consumer view of love is sexy and appealing, it will never actually work because it doesn't tell the truth. Consumer-oriented, marketplace-style love is based on scarcity, greed and self-interest, all of which is anathema to authentic love. To trust the consumerist account of love is like trying to take deep, refreshing breaths with your head under water: Whatever your intentions and hopes, it's simply not going to get you what you need. There are no sneaky ways into love, no secret formulae, nothing that we can shell out for it. The means and the end are love. This is the truth.

Cheating on your spouse burns down the house of your shared history and runs your spouse's life through a meat grinder, and that cannot simply be accounted for by attributing all of our feelings to socially constructed values and a culturally relative sense of meaning. Adultery rips your heart out because it cuts across the grain of the universe. It is a lie. But it's not the end of the story. The Good News is that God has remarkably poor taste and a questionable sense of character judgment because he declares his love for us all, bastards though we may be.

Here's Christian Economics 101: you cannot serve God and money; you cannot serve two masters. Jesus says, "You must love one and hate the other." Whenever the metaphors of economics and investment and commodities creep into territory properly governed only by self-giving love, we serve a master that is a tyrant. Tell the truth about love and you dispel the silly, adolescent fantasies inspired by Taylor Swift or Cameron Crowe or perfume and diamond ring advertisements, and defy the narrative of a supposedly secular culture that would rather have us all bow at the altar of the god of Mammon than worship at the throne of the Creator.

Love calls me to be better than myself. "Who are we?" sings the lovely Montreal songwriter Patrick Watson in "Blackwind." "Who are we without the ones we love? All alone." Love is the home where I become myself, the drawn-out healing that summons me out of the shadows of shame and the familiar but deadend habits I know. In the end, all genuine love is religious work, a rebinding of that which has been broken.

Kurt Armstrong

Kurt Armstrong works in Adult Spiritual Formation at St. Margaret's Anglican in Winnipeg. He is also a handyman, an editor at Geez magazine, and the author of Why Love Will Always Be a Poor Investment (Wipf & Stock).

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