Defending Marriage: Before the Fall

Note: This is the first part of a series on Anthony Esolen’s Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity.This series is meant to be read along with my reviews of Robert Reilly’sMaking Gay Okay,which I (try to) publish on Tuesday evenings. You can read my introduction to both series here, and a preview here.

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When Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry responded to my post “Relax, Nothing Unravels” a few weeks back, he basically disagreed with everything I wrote. But he conceded one thing: “It is in my view indefensible,” he wrote, ‘to claim that ‘Christian sexual morality’ or ‘Christian gender roles’ or whatever shake down to ‘the morality of middle class white America circa 1955’ or something.”

The prologue to Anthony Esolen’s Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanityactually starts with an image meant to represent the morality of middle class white America circa 1955. Okay, take “middle class” out and replace it with “working class.” The point remains the same. Esolen writes:

In my mind’s eye I see a photograph of my parents before I came into the world. They are relaxing on the beach at a local lake, one of those little picnic areas with a concession stand for hamburgers and fries, and an arcade with skee-ball and other games of skill and luck, and picnic tables, and plenty of ordinary people with their shouting troops of children.

In those days you didn’t have to discern which lakes were good children and which weren’t, since every place except for a few of the taverns were for children, and people comported themselves accordingly. I never got the impression from my mother and father that such modesty implied any sacrifice or exercise of self-control. It was the natural expression of an innocence they had kept whole and hearty into their young adulthood.

Though his parents weren’t able to marry right away, they refrained from having sex. Not, Esolen tells us, from prudishness or simple deference to tradition, but from a deeply-felt understanding that they were meant for each other, that this understanding was written on their very bodies, and that waiting was the only to uphold the sanctity of this understanding.

You won’t catch me disparaging Esolen’s portrait of his parents’ marriage—it’s touching, and as I’ll explain in a bit, characteristic of Esolen’s best moments as a writer. Of course, the existence of virtue in one type of family is not an argument that good can be found in no other type of family. More on that in future posts.

But I do take issue with the way Esolen is using that portrait: as a snapshot of a more virtuous time. The reason that Gobry refused to boil good sexual morals down to “the morality of  middle class white America circa 1955” is that there are certain ways in which that culture was immoral, and certain ways in which our culture—flawed as it is—is more moral. Gobry explains this in an earlier, absolutely brilliant post from this June:

I think the Sexual Revolution and its various consequences have created a confusion in the minds of many people who believe themselves to be “traditional” Christians, which is to associate the sexual morality of the pre-Sexual Revolution era with the sexual morality of the Gospel; consequently to see anything that has happened between, say, 1968, as consisting only of decline and apostasy, and to look at the pre-1968 world through rose-colored glasses; consequently to believe that the mission of the Church is to return the world to this Golden Age.

It shouldn’t need saying that this point of view is, from the standpoint of Catholic Tradition, erroneous and even idolatrous. First of all because, for the reasons I have explained, there is no Golden Age. Second of all because the sexual morality of any given society or era is going to come drastically short of the Gospel. If you doubt me, read the Magisterium of John Paul II, who clearly embraced the good of what came post-1968.

I’m sure Gobry and I differ about what, specifically, was immoral about the pre-sexual revolution world. But he gets it. There were certain things about that world (yes, even in the realm of sex and gender roles) that needed to change.

Esolen doesn’t get it. Though Defending Marriage is ostensibly a book about gay marriage, and Esolen will have plenty to say about Teh Ghey (believe me), it’s really a book about what happened to America and to Western culture at large in the 1960s, a massive confluence of cultural movements that he distills into three words that he spits onto the page with such venom that they seem acidic to the touch:

The. Sexual. Revolution.

It’s a book about a before and an after, and an unrelenting attack on what came between. Having written so lovingly about his parents in the 1950s, in the next chapter Esolen will give us this contrast:

‘If you’re not with the one you love,’ sang the rockers at the Woodstock festival, ‘love the one you’re with.’

‘I’m with you,’ said a girl to a perfect stranger.

That’s a snapshot from the so-called Summer of Love. It rained hard over that weekend, and the irresponsible and childish organizers of the festival hadn’t prepared for that eventuality. No surprise, since they hadn’t prepared for the crowds, either, so the concert degenerated into a vast, muddy, litter-strewn field smelling of human waste, with thousands of people wet and cold and hungry, so that the National Guard had to be brought in to nurse them.

Two asides:

1) This is a good example of Esolen’s relationship to the facts: first, he misquotes the lyrics of “Love the One You’re With,” then he says that “rockers at the Woodstock festival” sang that song when, in fact, Stephen Stills didn’t record the song until 1970, and his band, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, did not perform it at Woodstock. Also, he says that Woodstock, which took place in 1969, happened during “the so-called Summer of Love,” which was 1967. But, whatever, man. Facts are for squares.

[Germans? Forget it, he’s rolling.]

2) Reading this, don’t you get a better understanding of the exasperation gays and lesbians feel in serving as scapegoats for all of the moral problems in the world? Some chick gets high in a muddy field in 1969 while listening to Country Joe and the Fish, so now we can’t recognize a gay couple’s lifelong, loving commitment of mutual self-sacrifice?

Back to business.

Reading those two passages side by side, you see both the strengths and weaknesses of this book. Esolen writes with real warmth and sympathy at times, but only about members of traditional families. Anyone who falls outside of that category gets derision. He’s full of nostalgia for the working class of days gone by, but he alternates between contempt and condescension when he writes about today’s working class. As in Robert Reilly’s book, gays are always activist bullies, probably depraved; people who challenge his sexual mores are always unthinking hippies. Some unfortunate figures in the book are both: “I’d warn my daughter” he writes in Chapter 8, “away from any touchy-feely teacher who preaches that feminist poison that women need men as fish need bicycles. Cast your net somewhere else, Frustrata.”

You can see, too, that Esolen’s writing is lively—every sentence he writes seems to have been written while pounding on the table. That can be stirring when he’s got a good theme and a good argument; when he doesn’t, it just gives you a headache.

But the biggest flaw in the book, what undercuts Esolen’s occasionally insightful (really!) observations on marriage, is this inability to see beyond a Fall-and-Decline narrative, or what Gobry might call Esolen’s “fidelity to a ‘prelapsarian’ sexual morality.”

———-

I promised you stories, and since Esolen started with his family, I’ll start with mine.

My maternal grandfather walked out on my grandmother when she was in the hospital delivering my mother. That was in 1952. I know nothing about him except that fact and his last name. He was never mentioned in my family growing up, neither by my mom (who passed away in 2009) nor by my grandmother—who is as sweet as they come, and whom I will never trouble with bad memories long forgotten. Although life must have been hard for my mom and grandmother, as far as I can tell he didn’t cause them any bitterness, since bitterness is as far from their character as Atlanta is from Amsterdam. My mom’s childhood, in fact, was fairly idyllic—she rode horses, she went to great schools, and she spent her summer days tramping around the Georgia woods with my great-grandfather, who taught her to fish. Years later, she would teach me to fish.

Was their situation rare back then? I guess, but it happened on the other side of my family, too: my paternal grandfather walked out on my Grandma Rosie. I know his name, I bear his name, as does my dad. This grandfather waited until he had four sons; and, whereas my maternal grandmother had a supportive family and a solid career teaching elementary school, my Grandma Rosie, the child of Danish immigrants, only had a high school education and no family nearby to help her out. She worked as a secretary, but she also depended on the maturity of her sons, who got jobs at very young ages because they had to. When I was young, my dad reconciled with his father, who by then had another family, but I think he and my uncles never stopped thinking of their father as the man who loved them for a time and then left them. I remember after my granddad’s funeral, listening to my dad and his younger brother talking: “It was so strange,” said my uncle to my dad, “to hear everybody talking about what a family man he was.” For this uncle, my granddad was the guy who walked out on his mother. On him.

Walked out. That’s a phrase that lacks currency these days, at least among the people I know. Marriage is pretty common among my friends my age; divorce is rare. That’s not just an anecdotal observation, it’s the norm for my demographic. Divorce rates peaked in 1980, and divorce is far more common among Baby Boomers than among the generations that came after them. And, as Brad Wilcox writes, people with at least a bachelor’s degree “now enjoy marriages that are as stable and happy as those four decades ago.” All of that despite the fact that people like me are more likely than average to embrace the tenets of (dum-dum-DUM) The. Sexual. Revolution.

I do know people who have gotten divorced, usually after marrying very young. But walking out on your family? My divorced friends who have children are still good parents. Imperfect, sure, like me. To compare them to the disappearing acts that both of my grandfathers pulled would be a denial of reality.

What’s my point? Well, it’s not just that bad things happened before the Sexual Revolution, too. Even Esolen would concede that.

My point is that certain elements of the culture led to those bad things, and certain elements made those bad things worse.

I don’t know what my grandparents were thinking about when they married, and I don’t know what caused my grandfathers to leave. I imagine that they felt trapped—that they looked at their lives and saw two options, one of which was to vanish forever. Today, they would have more choices. Would that make things better? I don’t know.

To be clear, I’m not trying to soil the image of the 1950s. There’s plenty I would bring back from that era if I could. But I wouldn’t bring back the stigma that attached to single mothers in those days and became a burden on their children, even when those mothers deserved no blame at all. I wouldn’t bring back the dependency that characterized women’s relationships to men. The ironclad connection of sex to marriage that Esolen praises came with higher teen pregnancy rates, lots of bad marriages and, at times, devastating consequences for women and children when those marriages failed. It came with a society where “spousal rape” was considered a contradiction in terms, where spousal abuse was probably more common, where the idea of “vocation” for a woman was horribly limited.

Esolen wants to talk about the Sexual Revolution. Great! But if we’re going to do it honestly, we need to talk about all of these things, and we need to have in mind more images than just his parents smiling at the lakeshore. If we can do that, it will be a fun conversation.

[By the way, Michael Boyle has a must-read post along these lines on the Synod and the crisis of the family. Also, I recommend this Stephanie Coontz column from last June. In general, Coontz is good reading if you want a historical perspective on marriage.]

Next Week: Defining the Sexual Revolution—and a Detour Into Shakespeare!

Stop Everything and Go Read Bilgrimage (Again)!

First, apologies for missing my planned Thursday post on Esolen’s Defending Marriage. I’ll get it out tomorrow, and then hopefully get back on track on Tuesday with my review of Reilly’s Making Gay Okay.

But I want to do a quick post on the Synod, now that it’s wrapping up until next year. I was encouraged by the midterm relatio, and I still am encouraged by what its appearance means. But I have to say that I was overwhelmed by the vehemence of the pushback against it. As Fred Clark pointed out at his slacktivist site, there is literally one answer to the central question of paragraph 50: “[A]re we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities?”

One Christian answer. One.

“Yes.”

Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

And a whole big chunk of the Christian world shouted “No!” So loudly that the American bishops struck the word “welcoming” from their version of the document. Welcome the marginalized? Absurd.

I can’t imagine a better response than the one Bill Lindsey posted today. It’s an absolute must-read: “I’m Going to Sit at the Welcome Table One of These Days. A Sunday Sermon.”

The vision of a table at which everyone sits together is one that explodes worlds. It’s one that explodes worlds in which some people count and others do not count, in which some people have a right to tables and others do not enjoy that right, in whcih some people deserve food and others do not deserve to be fed, or deserve to be fed slop as they kneel at animal troughs.
So, venerable fathers of my Roman Catholic church: you may, if you wish, continue to talk until you are blue in the face about who’s worthy to sit at your table. But no matter how long you talk, I will continue to believe that it’s God who makes the final decision about who will sit at the table that belongs to God, and not to you. I will continue to believe that all God’s children are going to sit at the welcome table one of these days.
And, yes, I’m going to tell God how you’ve treated me — though I intend to plead with Her not to deal with you as cruelly and mercilessly as you have dealt with me. Because no human being deserves such treatment, and certainly not by those who imagine they are the final judges and arbiters of who may sit at the table that belongs to God alone … .

Making Gay Okay: Overview and Reilly’s Introduction

Note: This is the first part of a series on Robert Reilly’s Making Gay Okay. Reilly is a former official in the Reagan and George W. Bush  administrations. He has also worked at the Heritage Foundation. Matthew J. Franck calls Making Gay Okay a “very important book,” Fr. Dwight Longenecker says it is “excellent,” and Brad Miner writes that the book is “an education: in philosophy, psychology, history, law, politics, and science.” This series is meant to be read along with my reviews of Anthony Esolen’s Defending Marriage,which I publish on Thursday evenings. You can read my introduction to both series here, and a preview here.

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Robert Reilly starts his book Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior is Changing Everything, with a story:

In my last year of college many years ago, I was discussing with a classmate the status of objective morality. He was strongly inclined toward moral relativism, and soon we got down to the bedrock principle of noncontradiction (i.e., that a thing cannot both be and not be in the same way, at the same time, in the same place). To my amazement, my classmate was willing to dispute this, stating that we do not know if this is true and speculating that at some point it might be shown not to be so. The conversation had to end there because there was no longer any basis upon which it could proceed.

Okay, we’ve all been there. College is a great place for dumb philosophical late night conversations, and one participant in those conversations is always that guy. He may not be a strict moral relativist: maybe he’s an Ayn Rand devotee, or a conspiracy theorist, or communist wearing a Che t-shirt. You get your ideas challenged in college, and you try on different viewpoints, and some of those viewpoints can be pretty extreme. And while those positions we temporarily hold as a young adult might shape our thinking for years, we also usually come to see their limitations and flaws pretty quickly. That’s part of college, it’s part of growing up, and it’s aided by those late-night conversations.

Then Reilly’s story takes a tragic turn: “At the time,” Reilly writes, “I did not know that he was a homosexual. Later, while still a young man, he died of AIDS.”

He continues:

Put bluntly he denied the principle of noncontradiction, and the principle of noncontradiction denied him. Ideas have consequences, and so do actions based upon them. This is what is going to happen to us as a society if we put the capstone of same-sex marriage into place. We will be living a lie.

That, readers, is as good as an introduction as any to the problems I see in Making Gay Okay.

I mean, sheesh.

First, it has to be said, there’s a real tone-deafness in that passage. If a man—a priest or an atheist, it doesn’t matter—who happened to be a lifelong smoker were to die of lung cancer, would we tie that death to a moral position he once advocated in college? Probably not. That would be an inhumane thing to do.

On top of that, there’s a sense of panic in there that borders on the absurd. This is what will happen to all of us if we accept gay marriage? Really? Is that what’s happening in Massachusetts now?

Inhumanity towards people, especially gay people, and histrionic paranoia: these notes are there at the start of Making Gay Okay and, unfortunately, they ring through the whole book. I say “unfortunately” because those notes make me want to write with either outrage or mockery, and that’s not where I intended to take this series. I wanted to explore the best of the best of the anti-gay arguments, and I wanted to do it fairly, and I was told that this book was where I could find those arguments. I’d rather emphasize the logical flaws in Making Gay Okay than its surface defects, even though sometimes I’m not going to be able to avoid pointing out the latter.

So what I’ll try to do in this series is focus on the other big problem we already see in Reilly’s opening anecdote: his insistence that acceptance of gay marriage is necessarily tied to the moral relativism his friend expresses. Is there really no way to recognize the possibility of goodness in homosexual acts, gay relationships and marriages while simultaneously believing in an absolute good?

Here’s how Reilly lays out his project:

My thesis is very simple. There are two fundamental views of reality. One is that things have a Nature that is teleologically ordered to ends that inhere in their essence and make them what they are. In other words, things have inbuilt purposes. The other is that things do not have a Nature with ends: things are nothing in themselves, but are only what we make them to be according to our wills and desires. The first view leads to the primacy of reason in human affairs; the second leads to the primacy of the will. The first does not allow for sodomitical marriage, while the second does.

Reilly ties the first view to Aristotle, and (surprise!) the “natural law” tradition that follows him; he attributes the second view to the influence of Rousseau. Smart readers will see the problem already: there are plenty of writers who make Aristotelian arguments and challenge Reilly’s anti-contraception and anti-gay arguments. I’ve cited several on this blog over the years. There are theologians like Tina Beattie and Christine Gudorf. There’s Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler. Theologian Bill Lindsey does it on his blog. So does Terence Weldon. There’s über-blogger Andrew Sullivan, one of the dozen or so people most responsible for bringing gay marriage to America, who as early as 1995 wrote a book that takes on “natural law” conclusions using “natural law” logic. John Corvino has argued for gay marriage in books and in a bunch of entertaining videos without ever rejecting teleology. Then there’s Jonathan Rauch, who might not call himself a natural lawyer but certainly offers (mind-numbingly obvious, IMO) answers to Reilly’s questions about how an idea of “purpose” fits with support for gay marriage.

Wanna know how impoverished Reilly’s reading of the field is? Making Gay Okay quotes none of those authors. Nor does it address any of their arguments. It only cites one of those names, Sullivan’s, and that comes in a dismissive quote from someone else (ex-gay Ronald J. Lee). That is a HUGE imbalance in this debate, since Rauch, Sullivan, and Corvino could all quote Reilly’s argument down to its smallest details. Heck, they could probably write his book better than he did.

Now, Reilly does quote gay authors and gay rights activists: Frank Kameny, for example, and Masha Gessen, and Eric Pollard, the founder of ACT-UP/DC, who have all said some inflammatory things about marriage and sex. Gessen, for example, said she wants destroy the institution of marriage; Kameny at one point seemed to endorse bestiality, and Pollard compared his organization to a fascist group. But none of them are theorists about marriage; their respect in the gay community comes from other sources, mostly for bringing visibility to gay rights issues when no one else was doing it. Kameny, of course, was one of the earliest gay rights activists, who fought against employment discrimination and coined the phrase “Gay is good.” Gessen, who is Russian, has been working to publicize civil rights abuses of gays in Russia. And of ACT-UP, Sullivan writes, “[I]t achieved some brilliant tactical victories in the very practical area of accelerating AIDS research, reducing prices for certain drugs, and putting pressure on local and federal governments to take the epidemic more seriously… But with the more general issue of homosexuality in the country at large, its tactics were far less successful.” Sullivan goes on to write that on the central issues of marriage and gays in the military, ACT-UP “had nothing to contribute.” Using Kameny, Gessen, and Pollard the way Reilly does is a little like cherry-picking a few incendiary comments from black nationalists in the late 1960s, and pretending that they represent the whole of the Civil Rights Movement.

Reilly would have gotten a better understanding of the modern gay rights movement if he had thought more about someone like Evan Wolfson, who Sullivan credits with crafting the legal strategy for marriage that’s now winning the day, and who helped in pioneering a cultural strategy that involved “shifting public opinion slowly from the ground up, tapping into the deepest longings of gay people to become fully part of their own families and their own country for the first time, talking to so many heterosexual men and women about ourselves for the first time.” Wolfson, Sullivan says, represents “so many unknown private individuals – from Thanksgiving tables to church meetings to office cubicles to locker rooms –[who] simply told the truth about who we really are.”

Wolfson, by the way, married in 2011.

But that’s not the story Reilly wants to tell, and Wolfson isn’t the villain Reilly wants for his book. Instead, Reilly wants readers to think of gays as depraved, as bullying activists with no real interest in family or community or the things that “normal” people find true and good and beautiful. Most of all, he wants us to see them as motivated not by truth, but by a vicious desire to rationalize sodomy, the sex act to which he is constantly reducing them.

In the coming weeks, we’ll see this ugly caricature play out countless times in Reilly’s book and in Anthony Esolen’s Defending Marriage, which I’ll pick up on Thursday. We’ll also look at what sodomy means to Reilly, and challenge some egregious misuses of social science. But most of all I’m going to keep my focus on the big hole in his thinking, and I’m going to keep pointing to the arguments that, unbelievably, Reilly can’t be bothered to address.

On Thursday: Starting Anthony Esolen’s Defending Marriage

Next Tuesday: Chapter 1: The Culture War (Oh! And We’ve Gotta Talk About Sodomy)

The Relatio: So This is How It Works?

Wow.

Okay, so, as an Episcopalian, I’ve obviously got a complicated relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. But I wouldn’t spend so much time on this site if I didn’t have faith in its ultimate goodness. And that faith is all about days like yesterday.

I was already reeling from this (from Patricia Miller):

Among the examples of “harsh” rhetoric that bishops discussed as doing more harm than good in terms of “invit[ing] people to draw closer to the church” were “living in sin” for cohabitating couples, as well as calling homosexuality “intrinsically disordered” and references to a “contraceptive mentality.”

The rejection of this last phrase is especially significant because it’s not merely an outdated expression like “living in sin”—it was Pope John Paul II’s seminal contribution to the church’s theology of women and reproduction over the last 35 years.

Then came this:

50. Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?

     51. The question of homosexuality leads to a serious reflection on how to elaborate realistic paths of affective growth and human and evangelical maturity integrating the sexual dimension: it appears therefore as an important educative challenge. The Church furthermore affirms that unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman. Nor is it acceptable that pressure be brought to bear on pastors or that international bodies make financial aid dependent on the introduction of regulations inspired by gender ideology.

     52. Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners. Furthermore, the Church pays special attention to the children who live with couples of the same sex, emphasizing that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority.

I’m aware that some bloggers and columnists are trying to downplay the significance of theRelatio post disceptationem and the Synod discussions, that people who just yesterday were slinging around the phrases “contraceptive mentality” and “intrinsically disordered” are now saying that nothing has changed. People who just yesterday would have nodded at the idea that gay marriage comes from the father of lies are now saying of course they recognize the good in gay relationships. And you know what? I don’t care. How does the phrase go? Hypocrisy is vice’s tribute to virtue?

I’m also aware that the Relatio is just a midterm document, that it’s just meant to provoke discussion, that it could all be taken back this week or next year. And I’m aware that some folks within the Synod, like Cardinal Burke, are already calling for it to be taken back.

But I’ve got patience, and days like yesterday nurture my faith. This is how it works.

Defending Marriage & Making Gay Okay: A Series Introduction

I’m trying something ambitious here over the next few weeks: a double serial review of the two current “it” books of the Catholic Right’s smart set: Robert Reilly’s Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior is Changing Everything and Anthony Esolen’s Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity. Here’s the plan: on Tuesdays, I’m going to review a segment (a chapter, a mini-argument) from Making Gay Okay; on Thursdays, one from Defending Marriage.

Do I have time for this? No. So I hope you’ll be patient when I miss a day or even a week. And I hope you’ll understand that when I say “Tuesday” or “Thursday” I mean sometime before midnight on those days. But I’m going to try to stick to the schedule. Tuesdays, Reilly; Thursdays, Esolen.

The arguments behind the two books are so similar, the assumptions they share so critical, that reading the books together makes sense. Both books are, explicitly, arguments against gay marriage, but both books also connect the gay marriage to a larger struggle against “the Sexual Revolution”. Dwight Longenecker has called the two books “complementary,” and more than one reviewer has evoked one book when considering the other.

At the same time, the books are very different, with very different tones and approaches. So my responses to each book will vary, too. Making Gay Okay is more of a conventional argument: Reilly makes a straightforward case and tries to muster evidence—statistics, studies, quotes, etc.—to his side. My reviews of his chapters, then, will be pretty straightforward stuff: “No, you can’t use Regnerus to argue that gay couples make bad parents, no you can’t use skewed data taken from non-representative populations during the height of ‘swinging 70s’ to argue that homosexuality is inherently unhealthy, yada yada yada.”

Esolen, on the other hand, doesn’t worry about “evidence” or “facts.” He seems to think that evidence and facts are for fops and frou-frous. Instead, he illustrates his argument with stories. For example, in his first two chapters, he uses Spenser’s Epithalamion and a scene from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale to illustrate the public significance of marriage and the innocent goodness of timeless definitions of marriage.

So when I respond to Esolen, I’m going to rely on stories, too. Which means that over the next few Thursdays, we’ll look at marriage, love, and what it means to be a man or a woman through writers (like Walt Whitman, Wendell Berry, and Lucinda Williams), and through history. I might even throw in a few stories from my own family.

I decided on this tactic for a couple of reasons. First, I agree with Esolen that “I cannot be cruel to someone whose full humanity is present to me, whom I see not as a thing, but as a person of mysterious possibilities, someone in a web of real relationships, a brother or a husband or a son. The prerequisite for cruelty is reduction.” And stories, whether they come from literature, from history, or from our own lives, work against reduction and open us up to the “mysterious possibilities” of the human experience. At the same time, it’s reductive to pretend, as Esolen does, that there is only one human story. “They have lost the story,” he writes about the people of “Divisia,” his name for the post-Sexual-Revolution world. Chimamanda Ngozi Adicihie points out some of the problems with Esolen’s perspective in her marvelous talk “The Danger of the Single Story” (h/t Bill Lindsey).

Then, while reading Defending MarriageI finished Rachel Held Cleves’ book Charity & Sylvia. And that was about the same time that Rob Tisinai announced his marriage to his longtime partner, Will. Neither Cleves’ book nor Tisinai’s announcement are arguments, per se. They’re stories, but they’re stories against which Esolen’s argument cannot stand. Esolen says, for example, that gay marriage is based on a “fundamentally antisocial” notion of sexual autonomy. “It not only retreats from social responsibility,” he says, “it breeds social irresponsibility.” That statement becomes absurd when you read the story of Charity and Sylvia, who found a surprising measure of support for their nineteenth-century marriage precisely because their coupling was so integral to the life of their small town.

And it’s absurd if you consider Tisinai’s story, which starts in the same place and in the same way as a lot of great love stories: with a nervous question on a dance floor. Tisinai writes:

I was 46 when I met Will, and resigned to being single forever. But on On April 3, 2008, Will saw me at a country-western bar called Oil Can Harry’s and asked me to two-step. At the end of the night, I gave him my number. Will promised to call the next day, and in a complete break from standard L.A. protocol, did exactly that. We had civil, slightly stilted first date until the subject of Battlestar Galactica came up, which was about to begin a new season. My memory can be a sieve, but Will remembers every damn thing, so we geeked out in excitement as he reminded me where the last season left off, and our chemistry erupted.

I was jaded, though. I had unconsciously decided first dates never go anywhere, so I didn’t follow up. In another gutsy break from protocol, Will called me on Thursday:We had a great time, why didn’t you call? I could have decided he was crazy (and I would have been a little bit right). but instead I asked him out. We spent every weekend together after that.

You really ought to read the whole thing, not just for its sweetness (and it is sweet!), but also for the vision of marriage that Tisinai articulates in the post. That vision is one of complementarity (“My memory can be a sieve, but Will remembers every damn thing”) and mutual self-sacrifice. And an understanding that self-sacrifice makes both partners better members of the community. It’s a vision of marriage that has been evident for a long time in Tisinai’s writing.

Put another way, Tisinai’s vision of marriage is exactly the opposite of what Esolen and Reilly say that gay marriage stands for. More and more, people are realizing that Esolen and Reilly’s characterizations of gay people and their relationships don’t hold up to reality, and that’s because stories like Tisinai’s are getting out. Somehow, though, not everyone is hearing them—there are still groups of people with their fingers stuck in their ears.

So this series will be one more attempt to reach those folks who are refusing to hear.