American evangelical leaders are pretty clear about their opinion that the traditional view of marriage is in near-perfect alignment with what they regard as the Christian ideal. Considering monogamy is a central tenet of that view, it’s understandable if hackles might have been raised by a recent New York Times Magazine account of Dan Savage's crusade to knock monogamy off its pedestal.
Savage, a nationally syndicated sex columnist, contends that an obsessive focus on monogamy can be as damaging to a marriage as infidelity. Not only does it lead to unrealistic and often unattainable expectations for a spouse, says Savage, it can also lead to “boredom, despair, lack of variety, sexual death and being taken for granted.”
In “Mere Christianity,” C.S. Lewis rightly and succinctly points to marital monogamy or celibacy as the only two options for God-ordained human sexual activity, period. The fact that monogamy, even more than marriage, has been embraced by our culture over the last 100 years is an achievement pessimistic culture warriors ought to ponder.
Even so, Savage's observation on this fact is devastating and cuts across the battlefield in so many unexpected ways.
Savage says in the Times piece that the feminist revolution failed to extend to women “the same latitude and license and pressure-release valve that men had always enjoyed.” Instead, we extended to men the confines women had always endured. “And it’s been a disaster for marriage,” he claims.
The culture-warrior script demands that Savage be identified as "the enemy" and therefore subject to denunciation and rejection. But his argument has made me wonder: What is the difference between an idol and an ideal?
The traditional view of marriage and monogamy is a foundational element of evangelical culture. Yet the evangelical church's obvious inability to uphold its own standard in this case makes it appear hypocritical. In short, the evangelical church has erected an idol whose standards it cannot meet.
Another approach to engaging Savage's critique of monogamy would be to view it through an understanding of the role of the law in the Christian life, as asserted by John Calvin. Savage's observation that "we can't do monogamy" is very much in parallel with Calvin’s assertion that we can't keep the law. You don't throw out the law because you can't keep it, however. The law gets transformed into something else by its fulfillment in Christ. We obey as expression of our gratitude to him.
How would evangelicals and their witness be changed by pursuing monogamy as an ideal rather than an idol? Failure to keep the moral law within a gospel context forces a realignment of values away from a system of righteousness by compliance towards righteousness through grace. What Savage reveals monogamy to be for evangelicals and our culture is an idol, something that cannot by its own power actually yield shalom. What a gospel approach affords is that the benefits of monogamy can be received if pursued as an expression of gratitude. When the crucified and resurrected Lord is focus, monogamy may be received as a cruciform gift (the cruciformity being something Savage struggles to understand).
Even though there is much in Savage's agenda that many Christians will rightly reject, I think his argument exposes the evangelical and cultural idol of monogamy. This exposure affords space for a gospel invitation that should not be overlooked.
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