what is marriage?

Last week I explained to my daughter that she was no longer allowed to watch the Disney television show, “Good Luck Charlie.” She understood that we love gay people and appreciate the many good things that they may contribute to society, but we don’t like how Disney is openly trying to force children to accept homosexual marriage as a normal, lifestyle choice.

Another thing I never thought I’d have to do is assign a term paper on the topic of marriage. Happily there is a perfect text for the paper, What Is Marriage?, by Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, and Robert George. The book is a terrific starting point for the debate we should be having about marriage. I say “should be” because one side tellingly does not want to discuss the definition and ground of marriage, but thinks it can bypass the hard work of reflection by simply calling the other side names. And they seem to be winning, which tells you all you need to know about our culture.

On the odd chance that you meet a gay marriage proponent that is willing to discuss the definition and ground of marriage, you’ll find many conversation starters in What Is Marriage? This book exclusively uses natural law (rather than Scripture), so its arguments are tailor made for the public square. The authors claim we are debating two different notions of marriage:  the traditional, conjugal view (that requires sexual union) and a recent, revisionist view, which claims marriage is nothing more than a heightened form of emotional intimacy (this view seems to be held by many heterosexual couples as well, as evidenced by how quickly they divorce when the romance fades). So rather than extending marriage to more people, gay marriage is changing marriage into something it’s never been. Even ancient Greek culture, which often indulged in homoeroticism, still preserved marriage as a conjugal union between one man and one woman.

Here are two other takeaways for me:

1. Revisionist marriage damages all marriages (p. 55). It changes the meaning of marriage for everyone. And since we now only have a vague sense of what marriage is (merely a heightened form of romantic, emotional intimacy), we have an even more vague sense of how to reach it. Just as it would be difficult to be a friend without knowing what friendship is, so it is difficult to achieve a common good such as marriage without knowing what that is. How can you hit a target you can’t see?

2. Revisionist marriage damages friendship (p. 65-66). If marriage is simply a passionate commitment to one’s closest friend, then friends must be careful lest their friendship be mistaken for something more. This is why our culture scoffs at passionate friends from the past, such as David and Jonathan or Augustine and his friends. They don’t have a category for passionate, same sex friendship, so they assume they must be gay. The authors persuasively argue that reclaiming the conjugal view of marriage will liberate us to have passionate, intimate friendships with people of the same sex. The fact that that sentence bothers us is a sign that the revisionists are already winning.

I’ll stop before I say too much and write my students’ papers for them, but I encourage you to read this book. It is full of erudite common sense, answering objections such as, “why can infertile couples marry and not two people of the same gender?” It will give you lots to talk about, should you find someone who is willing to have the conversation.


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  1. Good stuff, Mike, as usual. Re point number 2, I couldn’t agree more. You may be interested in a piece I wrote for MarriageGeneration.org called “Men Without Friends: Eros is Killing Phileo” http://marriagegeneration.org/weblog/2013/06/19/men-without-friends-eros-killing-phileo/

  2. Thanks Mike. This is such a heated and needed topic these days. I’ve read quite a bit of Robert George’s work, but not this one. It sounds typical of his writing. You are right about victorious name calling being a very telling sign of our culture. There is widespread assumption that things have been proved about the oppression of “traditional morality” that no one can seem to provide the actual proof for. I’m preaching through Genesis 2 this month and will be dealing with the topic of “What is Marriage” soon, so thanks for the book tip.

    I noticed the prejudicial judgment about male friendship when dialoguing with people about Abraham Lincoln a couple of years ago. Lincoln, like many men of his generation, had very close relationships with other men and often slept in the same room and bed (with 3-6 others in the same room). For our generation this is seen as proof positive of homosexuality.

  3. Yes, I appreciate point 2. I love the Anne of Green Gables books (early 20th Century) and the mini-series (mid 1980’s). Anne and Diana had a passionate and intimate relationship – and this can be seen in the mini-series from the mid 1980’s. So much has changed even since the 1980’s! I recently introduced a 16 yr to the the mini-series – sadly, the closeness of Anne and Diana is now seen as having lesbian overtones.

  4. I read your column, Josh–very powerful. I don’t think our culture has taken the time to think about the consequences of changing such a foundational structure like marriage. Brace yourself for their surprise when there are some.

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