By Maxie Dunnam
Rev. Dr. Maxie Dunnam is a longtime, prominent leader of evangelical renewal efforts in United Methodism who we have been privileged to know as a brother and a friend. Later parts of his career included serving as president of Asbury Theological Seminary, world editor of “The Upper Room” devotionals, president of the World Methodist Council, and one of the most widely recognized leaders in the Confessing Movement within the United Methodist Church. He currently serves as Senior Pastor Emeritus and Executive Director of CCGlobal at Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee.
H. L. Mencken, was a twentieth-century journalist, satirist, social critic, cynic, and freethinker. He is often regarded as one of the most influential American writers of the early 20th century.
I had read him so little, and found him referred to so much in my reading through the years that I couldn’t resist The Impossible H.L. Mencken at a side walk sale a few weeks ago. It is a collection of his best newspaper stories, with a forward by Gore Vidal who, in reading through the essays in the volume, commented, “No page bored me.”
My reading habits and what I read is not as disciplined and defined as it was when I was preparing sermons for every Sunday and preparing for regular teaching responsibilities. So, my curiosity was kindled by my very limited exposure to Mencken, and the volume was only $3. I didn’t get around to reading any of it “til the Saturday afternoon before Mother’s Day. After reading a good part of Vidal’s long introduction which gave me a good “feel” for the man, I turned to the index. Thinking about Mother’s Day, I decided I would see if he had written anything about marriage. There it was, “The Holy Estate”, p. 175. The first paragraph was intriguing.
As a bachelor (Had I known that about him, I may not have been interested in what he had to say about marriage.) and hence neutral, I find myself completely convinced after thirty years of laborious observation and incessant meditation, that the happiest marriages are those which are most conventional. Thus the shocking theorizing of my eminent friend, Judge Ben B. Lindsey, leaves me unmoved. All his companionate marriage scheme would accomplish, accepting it at its best, would be to provide an easy means of dissolving mrriages that were already wrecked. But what the world needs is something that will save marriages that are merely wobbling.
Companionate marriage was a strange term to me. A little research revealed that “by the 1920s, as sex radicals were silenced by the Red Scare, more conventional reformers—social scientists and ex‐radicals—developed the concept of companionate marriage, to adapt marriage to a growing youth culture, women’s independence and civil equality, and a more consumer‐oriented middle class. Judge Ben Lindsey (Mencken’s friend) had written Companionate Marriage, which portrayed sexual intimacy as the cement of marriage and birth control as a necessary support. He and the “movement” demanded sexual and psychological equality for women. Companionate marriage was a part of the answer. It reflected a more individualistic society and a vision of marriage as the union of two individuals bonded through sexual love, rather than the traditional institution of childbearing, kin, and property relations.
In this understanding, legalized birth control would be practiced, and childless couples could divorce with mutual consent and neither party would have any financial or economic claim on the other.
Mencken thinks such notions are more than foolish, and argues that marriage is a “status” more than a “contract,” and that the essence of a marriage relation lies in its merging of interests, hopes, fears, sorrows, triumphs and glories. “Once there is division in that direction the whole thing falls to pieces,” and ceases to be a marriage.
My interest in Mencken on marriage may have been triggered by two articles I had recently read. The first was by Gene Robinson, the first openly gay man to be elected a bishop in the Episcopal Church. He was publicly announcing his “divorce” from his partner of 25 years. The second was about actress Gwyneth Paltrow and Coldplay singer Chris Martin splitting up. Paltrow will not talk about divorce; she calls it “conscious uncoupling.”
I think it all just tumbled in on me emotionally because it was Mother’s Day Weekend. I was not only thinking of my marriage of 57 years, but of my mother and father who were married for 65 years. They would not understand “companionate marriage.” Marriage was too sacred to be reduced just to sex, though children out of the relationship of marriage were God’s plan. The demands of marriage and family made trust and commitment so absolutely essential that casual, easy separation was not even to be considered. They would also have laughed, as I do, about trying to soften the process and tearing-apart-pain of divorce by labeling it “conscious uncoupling.”
And for a man to be sexually partnered with another man would be foreign to their Biblical understanding of God’s creation of man and woman to become “one flesh” in marriage. Because of God’s creative design of complementarity of male and female, not only for procreation, but for the emotional/spiritual wholeness that relationship provides, they would be baffled by the idea that the partnership Bishop Robinson and his partner was a marriage and that the cessation of the relationship was being called “divorce.”
Attached to the Paltrow/Martin announcement of “conscious uncoupling” was an essay by two doctors explaining that divorce is natural in an era of longer life spans, since human beings aren’t built to stay in love for 50 years. “Hogwash,” I say with Robin Abcarian who wrote in the L.A Times: “What hogwash. Most divorces occur in the first 10 years of marriage When two rich, coddled stars can’t stay together because they’re so used to having everything they want, it’s easier to rely on some ‘fake sociobiology’ than to admit, ‘Hey, we screwed it up.’”
So, I’m writing this late at night on Mother’s Day with a heavy heart. I’m anguishing over the state of marriage in our country, the confusion in our culture, but also, painfully, in the Church. When will we begin to accept Jesus’ definition of marriage, rooted and grounded in God’s order of creation? “…the Creator made them male and female, and said, For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. So they are not longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” (Matt. 19:4-60)