The Country of Marriage is Shared Ground

On Thursday, I’m starting my series on Anthony Esolen’s Defending Marriage and Robert Reilly’s Making Gay Okay. It’s a lot of work, and I’ve been trying to put together a quick post for the meantime, either a “Three Things” post or something about the Synod or yesterday’s amazing news out of the Supreme Court.

Then I read this: “The Beauty of the Country of Marriage,” a review of Defending Marriage by Matthew J. Franck at The Public Discourse. When I saw that review with that title, I had to pipe up.

“The Country of Marriage,” as Franck writes, is part of the title of Esolen’s last chapter, the capstone of his book which is, entirely, an argument against gay marriage.

Of course, “The Country of Marriage” is also the title of a book of poems by the deeply Christian Wendell Berry. And Berry, of course, made waves last year by vehemently standing up for gay marriage. As Fred Clark observed at the time, no one should have been surprised by that—Berry’s support of gay marriage is “wholly of a piece with everything else the man has written and argued and defended.” Catholic writer Jerry Salyer argued something similar a few weeks ago.

For the record, I love the image, the idea of marriage as a country or a landscape. But if you’re going to use that idea, you need to put it into Berry’s much larger understanding of what a landscape is. You need to look at the way Berry understands nature, which is very different from what the way Esolen sees it. Take these lines, from the poem “Breaking”:

Did I believe I had a clear mind?

It was like the water of a river

flowing shallow over the ice. And now

that the rising water has broken

the ice, I see that what I thought

was the light is part of the dark.

There’s a humility there that’s wholly lacking from many Catholic Right “natural law” approaches—a willingness to learn the actual lessons of nature, and not just insist that you already know them. A willingness to be surprised. Notice that Berry even extends that willingness to questions of morality: what I thought was the light is part of the dark. A phrase like that is unimaginable from someone like Esolen.

Esolen contributed a chapter to a recent book on Berry, so I suspect he’s consciously alluding to Berry’s poems with his title. That takes gall: taking a title from a man who has just rejected your views and pasting it onto yet another restatement of those views.

Anyhow, I’d say Berry makes a better guide to the Country of Marriage than Esolen. Be sure to check back on Thursday. I can’t wait to get into Esolen’s book.

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