Vintage Saints and Sinners by Karen Wright Marsh, Free for CAPC Members
In Vintage Saints and Sinners, Karen Wright Marsh manages to emphasize the vast goodness of spiritual giants while also humanizing them.
[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 4, Issue 2 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Going Solo.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]
Speaking of married people, Jesus said, “They are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” The apostle Paul praised the “profound mystery” of this marital unity. But what happens to those whom Man does separate? What is it like to have the physical and spiritual union of marriage severed? Can the separated flesh be healed?
When I got married in 2013, neither my wife nor I were Christians. Despite being raised in a conservative Baptist church, I had a typical teenage apostasy, and so our wedding wasn’t a religious ceremony. My conversion was unexpected and long—the Holy Spirit dragging me kicking and screaming into the body of Christ throughout 2014. During the same time, my wife and I were experiencing our first marital difficulties, growing distant from each other with no real understanding of how to work on our problems. Shortly after I made peace with God and called myself a Christian again, she left me.When our “one flesh” is separated, we are left with a sort of spiritual void that is different from the mere anticipation of union found in unmarried singleness.
I was already familiar, of course, with the Christian teaching on divorce: as my pastor would later put it to me, “Don’t get one!” But I also knew that there was nothing I could do by myself to heal our separation; reconciliation would require both of us, and she was gone. For most of the previous year, I lived by myself, struggling to better understand how we had gotten to this point and thinking through how I could best follow God in the aftermath of divorce. Living alone, though, also gave me free reign of the Netflix queue, as well as a lot of space and time to think about how marriage and divorce are portrayed in pop culture.
One of the big questions my wife and I asked each other before the end was, “Why did we get married in the first place?” This seems almost too simple a question to ask, so it was a little embarrassing to be without an answer almost two years in. Somehow, though, we had never thought to ask it, or any of the related questions—What is marriage? What is it for?—before taking the plunge. We figured we knew what marriage was from observing our parents, of course, as well as through its depictions in so many of our shared cultural artifacts. How, then, could we not know what we were getting into?
Sarah Polley’s 2011 film Take This Waltz depicts a woman similarly unequipped to deal with the challenges of marriage. Played by Michelle Williams (who, despite being a three-time Oscar nominee, may still be best known for her marriage to and divorce from the late Heath Ledger), Margot is a travel-brochure writer visiting a historic village in Nova Scotia at the film’s outset. She meets Daniel (Luke Kirby) when she’s invited to participate in the reenactment of a public flogging for adultery—a portentous meet-cute if there ever was one. She and Daniel sit together on the plane back to Toronto, where playful ribbing builds into romantic interest, and then they share a flirtatious cab ride from the airport. But there’s a hitch to their budding romance: Margot is already married to a cookbook-writer named Lou (Seth Rogen)—a fact that she only reluctantly reveals outside her house. Her home itself is a symbol of her settled life with Lou, with peeling paint on its walls and a shower that occasionally spurts cold water. Daniel, it turns out, lives right across the street.
From the outside, Margot and Lou’s marriage seems healthy, filled with inside jokes and terms of endearment. Daniel, meanwhile, is a typical manic pixie dream boy: a painter living in an apartment adorned with whimsical murals who pulls a rickshaw to pay the bills. The temptation of Daniel and the life he represents—a life other than the one she’s chosen—taunts Margot during the day-to-day routine of her marriage to Lou. No, their marriage doesn’t have any obvious flaws, but it’s lost its fresh newness. Daniel, on the other hand, is not just new, but also different—and he pursues Margot, quietly but relentlessly. In one scene, Margot tries to transfer her desire for him onto Lou, attempting to seduce her husband as he tests a new chicken recipe. But he is indifferent, absorbed in his work, and her gaze turns back out the window.
In another scene, following a water-aerobics class, Margot, her sister-in-law Geraldine, and their friend Karen hit the showers. In the locker room, they discuss marriage and the nature of commitment as they shave their legs, wondering whom they expect to impress after so many years with the same person. Karen quips, “Sometimes I just want something new, you know? New things are shiny.” The camera then pans to the other women in the shower with them. They are older and fatter, the years having taken a clear toll on their bodies. Instead of dehumanizing them, though, the film does not allow their bodies to be objects of pity. In fact, they are not depicted as objects at all, but as human beings; we see them washing, laughing together, sharing knowing looks. Their nudity is shown fully, but not sexualized, and its juxtaposition with the nudity of the younger women is striking: We are not used to seeing non-sexualized nudity onscreen. But in marriage, non-sexualized nudity becomes common, as it must when two people share a home, a bed, a bathroom. The scene is not subtle, and its point is clear: As one of the old ladies replies to Karen, “New things get old.”
So many marriages seem based on the idea of personal fulfillment: We must find our soulmate, someone with whom we’re “compatible,” Mr. Right, the One. Often, this belief leads us to value sexual fulfillment first and foremost. It’s rare to see a popular depiction of marriage that doesn’t follow this formula. But as J. R. R. Tolkien knew, “the ‘real soul-mate’ is the one you are actually married to.” In the reality of marriage, we come to realize that sex does not represent the full extent of a physical relationship with a spouse. Conversely, we also discover that nakedness isn’t just physical; a successful marriage must strive for mental, emotional, and spiritual vulnerability as well.
There are deeper forms of love than eros, or erotic desire. Eros is immediate, and one can certainly fall into it at first sight. But true fidelity to one’s spouse comes from the cultivation of agape, the unconditional love God has for each of us. In his book The Pilgrim’s Regress, C. S. Lewis describes how this deeper love grows out of sacrifice:
“Do you not know how it is with love? First comes delight: then pain: then fruit. And then there is joy of the fruit, but that is different again from the first delight. And mortal lovers must not try to remain at the first step.”
This cultivation is long and difficult, and the self-giving, day-to-day nature of the work is much harder to portray. It’s easier, then, just to portray shiny, new eros. As Margot’s defenses fall, she gives into temptation, leaving Lou for Daniel. They move to a gorgeous new loft bathed in sunlight from enormous windows and furnished only with a huge bed in the center of the room. It’s unclear how these two underemployed hipsters can afford such a place, but it’s the perfect setting for them to make some cage-free, fair trade, artisanal love. The extended sex scene that follows, set to the titular Leonard Cohen song, is graphic but evocatively shot. As the cameras whirl around their contorting bodies, the apartment slowly changes: a new chair here, a dresser there. And then, suddenly, shockingly, there is another girl in bed with the two lovers, and in the next shot, there is an additional man. The fleeting nature of eros demands new and different objects of desire. As the furniture of everyday life accumulates, though, eros’s sway begins to wane; the gorgeous loft eventually becomes what the poet Philip Larkin called “fulfillment’s desolate attic” as we see Margot and Daniel moving from the bed to their new sofa, drearily watching the news on the new TV, settling into a routine that is not quite as shiny anymore.
Of course, in the film’s world, Daniel is more than a person; he’s temptation personified. We can just as easily idolize a career or a new hobby to the detriment of our relationship. But it’s fitting that it’s sexual temptation in particular that lures Margot away, since she builds her actions on her desire. The apostle Paul tells us that what we do with our bodies is what we do with our souls. If our relationships are founded only on the basis of erotic attraction, we will fail to nurture the deeper spiritual connections found in commitment.
Before Margot’s infidelity, her husband Lou is certainly comfortable in their relationship—he doesn’t even realize it’s crumbling—but he isn’t innocent of contributing to its decline, either. He’s generally indifferent to Margot whenever she tries to seduce him; he’s oblivious and incurious at their anniversary dinner, when Margot practically begs him to inquire about her roiling inner life. When she tentatively complains about her loneliness to him, he suggests they get a dog; when she mentions children, he shuts the conversation down. “They are no longer two but one flesh”; in this case, both members of the marriage are thus implicated in its failure.
But Lou is willing to accept limits on his desires in service of long-term commitment. When Margot finally leaves him, his reactions oscillate between stupefied laughter, callous acceptance, and head-in-hands despondency—a range of emotions with which I’m very familiar. At one point, he tells Margot to go take a shower to help her feel better, and she’s once again hit by one of those recurring spurts of cold water. Lou pulls back the curtain, and he’s holding a newly emptied jar. “You?” she asks. He nods. “Every day… I thought when we’re 80, I’ll tell Margot I’ve been doing this her whole life, and it’ll make her laugh… kind of a long-term joke.” Laughing and crying simultaneously as he walks away, Margot is left alone with the magnitude of her sin.
Once the “one flesh” of marriage is severed, then what? Who are you then? In his FX sitcom Louie, comedian Louis C.K explores this question by shedding light on his life of a single, divorced man. In his standup, Louie often brags about his divorce, joking that it’s the best part of his marriage. But playing himself in Louie, he explores the depths of isolation one feels when fundamentally separated from a part of oneself.
One of the main themes in Louie is the difficulty of connecting to other people. The Season 2 episode “Niece,” for instance, shows Louie struggling to relate to his mentally ill sister’s 13-year-old daughter Amy, who is a caricature of teenage angst. Perplexed by her persistent silence, Louie spends a good portion of the episode just trying to get her to talk or eat as she draws away into herself. Finally, though, she asks him to take her to one of his comedy shows, and, at a loss, he reluctantly obliges. The comic onstage before him is Godfrey, an outgoing performer who effortlessly interacts with the audience to great effect. Amy laughs throughout, but ever-cynical Louie is dismissive; Godfrey is just doing “crowd-work,” which Louie describes as “easy.” He’s not grappling with the intellectual and introspective issues Louie tries to deal with onstage. But after the show, Godfrey talks to Amy and establishes a great connection with her. Louie, in shock, asks how he managed this, and Godfrey replies, “You’ve just got to learn how to talk to people who aren’t like you. It’s called empathy, man.”
Of course, it’s Louie, and not Amy, who’s really been the one trapped inside himself. His weighty subject matter keeps him locked in his head, and his pride becomes a prison. This is an easy path to go down when you’re living alone. It’s easy, for instance, for me to get caught up in my own thoughts and anxieties, and this preoccupation often prevents me from proactively seeking out friendships or participating in much outside of my apartment. When Louie flounders in social situations, then, we might suspect that his cultivation of a rich inner life has come at the cost of a lackluster outer life.
Richard Rodriguez, in the 1982 autobiography Hunger of Memory, discusses a similar problem. As a child of Mexican-American immigrants, his uneducated parents sacrificed everything for his education so that he might have more opportunities and a better life than they had. Ironically, though, the very education they provide ends up isolating Richard from his own family. He finds himself ashamed of their lack of education (and ashamed of his shame), unable to relate to them or share the new thoughts flurrying through his developing mind. Again, it seems that his self-improvement, the development of his inner life, has come at a great cost. How can we reconcile this and escape our isolation?
During the year of my conversion, I read one important masterpiece that was written in literal isolation: Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I was struck by its references to scripture and theologians throughout history, but one sticks out as particularly applicable when thinking about isolation: theologian Paul Tillich’s idea that “sin is separation.” Tillich (who had his own sad set of marital difficulties) described sin first and foremost as Man’s separation from God. This separation then trickles down into every other aspect of our lives: separation from our environment, from other people, and even from ourselves. We split body and soul into two; we do not do the things we believe we should. The dichotomy of inner-mental-emotional life and outer-social-relational life is a division driven by this separation, as is our fundamental distance from other people. Godfrey the comedian says we must learn to talk to people different from us—and he’s right. But what makes this call to personal connection so challenging is that everyone is different from us. This kind of love is constant and demanding.
Louie frequently uses language itself to illustrate the difficulty of connecting with other people. By Season 4, Louie has spent time in China, Afghanistan, and a Latino neighborhood in Miami, trying in each to come out of himself by connecting to others, even despite language barriers. Season 4 brings this difficulty to the forefront in a six-part series of episodes called “Elevator,” which is more of a feature-length art film masquerading as a sitcom. Two parallel storylines run through this arc: one follows Louie’s new relationship with Amia, the Hungarian-speaking niece of his downstairs neighbor, and the other examines the growing rift in parenting styles between Louie and his ex-wife, Janet. In both situations, Louie is confronted by failures in human communication. The aftermath of the Tower of Babel is no less troublesome for Louie and Janet simply because they both happen to speak English; indeed, their communication is even more severely strained and incoherent than that between Louie and Amia.
The “Elevator” episodes explore human connection from a number of angles. In one telling monologue, for instance, Louie’s repulsive comedian friend Todd Barry describes his single-and-no-kids life, his smug revelry in his unrestrained liberty revealing how unfulfilling his solitary life must be. Louie and Amia’s relationship, meanwhile, is initiated by gestures of neighborliness; Louie helps her aunt when she’s trapped in their building’s elevator, and the two households exchange gifts of food back and forth in a form of neighborly communion. At the same time, Janet and Louie talk past each other regarding their kids, neither willing nor able to give in to the other. Their one flesh has become two. While the one flesh of their marriage was made manifest in their shared children, their divorce makes manifest the reality of sin’s separation.
My wife and I had no children in our short marriage, but I think Louie’s exploration of communication in divorced families has still shown me something about life after divorce: When our “one flesh” is separated, we are left with a sort of spiritual void that is different from the mere anticipation of union found in unmarried singleness. Losing a connection we once enjoyed highlights the isolation inherent in our sinful natures, mirroring the Fall just as marriage mirrors the Kingdom. Louie reaches constantly for the human connection that he’s lost, whether it’s with a Chinese family or a Latino lifeguard, whether he’s rescuing Janet and his kids from a surging hurricane or reaching across the table to hold Amia’s hand as they express their regretful goodbyes. In such moments of reaching out, he illustrates beautifully the need to come out of ourselves in order to transcend our isolation. But Louie also seems consistently mystified by the difficulty of these connections, and his attempts at relating to others are short-lived or stymied. His struggles raise a final, pressing question: How can a separated soul be healed?
The week my wife left, I threw myself into my friendships. The distance between my wife and me had been growing for months, and I had realized by that point that there was nothing productive I could accomplish by rehashing arguments alone in my head. Our separation happened so soon after I became a Christian that I hadn’t yet found a church to join; however, the friends I reached out to offered their ears, arms, and hearts to me. Their support was like an empathetic barroom backslap, evoking the general sentiment of Tom Waits’s bachelor anthem “Better Off Without a Wife.” I am indebted to these friends for catching me as I fell through the floorboards of my crumbling household.
But still, I was lonely walking into an empty apartment night after night. During the winter, darkness always greeted me, because no one else was there to turn on the light. That loneliness formed a fortress of solitude in which I could give in to the temptations of isolation, shutting out the external world and ruminating on the pains of the past. I found myself living out the Beatles’ poignant words: “There will be times when all those things she said will fill your head.” There was no escape. Even as time passed and distance helped the pain to recede into wistful remembrance, I still felt separated from the world.
Single living makes clear the dangers of being alone. God knew that community, not solitude, was the state most conducive to human flourishing. That Eve is granted to Adam as a helper is not an instruction that the woman is merely a servant to the man’s whims, but that as a full image-bearer themselves, men and women should each help each other in living according to their true natures, reflecting God’s love to each other and back to Him. As Alissa Wilkinson recently wrote:
“[We] commonly assume, alongside mainstream culture, that the process of knowing our true selves is an individual one, something we necessarily undertake on our own. In reality, though, we don’t first find ourselves, then participate in relationships. Instead, we were made to know our true selves in relationships.” (emphasis mine)
But if one’s spouse is gone, if that one flesh is broken, what then? My identity was fully transformed by my separation. Who was I now?
To escape from separateness would mean making my broken self whole; just as Tillich’s concept of sin is holistic, flowing downward from our broken relationship to God, so too a holistic solution is needed. Another writer who greatly influenced both my understanding of marriage and my Christian walk during my divorce was Wendell Berry. I was initially drawn to Berry’s writing by his environmentalism, but in it I soon discovered an interconnected perspective in which our individual actions are fundamentally inseparable from the way in which we relate to our families, communities, and environment. Jake Meador has written about how Berry’s conception of marriage is one of the keys to understanding his work: Just as we must respect environmental limits in order to responsibly steward God’s Creation, so too must we accept limits in our relationships in order for them to thrive. In part, this means limiting our longings so that we might reform our desires in service of our spouses and give to them wholly from ourselves. But marriage is not the ultimate foundation of Berry’s values. Rather, Berry echoes the Augustinian call to rightly order our affections; the holistic healing our souls and relationships need comes first from repairing our relationship with God.
Because of this realization, the song that affected me most over the past year was not a sad love song, but Sandra McCracken’s “We Will Feast in the House of Zion.” In a sense, the song is about what C. S. Lewis called “The Great Divorce”—the separation of our redeemed bodies from our sinful natures. Paradoxically, though, this divorce is accompanied by a new marriage—one of Heaven and Earth, of Christ with his bride, the Church. The Kingdom inaugurated by Christ’s incarnation and resurrection inverts the separation of the Fall, wedding us to Him more permanently than any earthly marriage.
But though our hearts are restored, it is still on Earth that we must live out our days. In the essay linked above, Wilkinson continues: “God designed church to be the place where our most important identity formation occurs, among other people.” Thankfully, when my identity was being transformed by divorce, I fell into a loving community of Christians working to advance the Kingdom of God and bear one another’s burdens. Church gave me more than just a Sunday service to attend; it gave me new friends, as well as families dedicated to creating space for single people in their homes and lives. Whether we are Margots or Louies—whether we are dissatisfied more by the insufficiency of our relationships or by our isolation—we all long to be fully known and loved. And whether these friends listened to me talk about my problems late into the night or simply sat with me listening to music, they were the helpers God gave me to no longer be alone. Breaking bread with my brothers and sisters in Christ gave me a vision of what that future feast will be like.
The healing is gradual and bittersweet, though. My single life is sometimes marked by guilt, as the burden of memory reveals to me the ways I unknowingly pushed my wife away. There is also fear, the apprehension of telling people my situation. My congregation is loving and accepting, and I’ve never met with disdain from anyone when they learned of our separation. Still, there is a stigma associated with divorce in the Church, stemming from the Bible’s strict teachings on it; while these teachings are true and good, it’s difficult to eliminate the fear of potential judgment. Moreover, the teachings themselves loom large in my mind. I feel uncertain about my future; as a new Christian, what kind of life am I called to? The Church’s teachings on marriage have been at the forefront of the cultural conversation over the past year, and there is much talk of burnishing the image of Christian marriage in the wake of the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision. Of course, our public definition of marriage changed long ago, when it ceased to be both a portrait and enactment of Christ’s love for us; this is made clear when Christians ask me without any apparent hesitation about my plans for remarriage. To my erstwhile-secular eyes, the Christian case for marriage was rarely made effectively in the public sphere. How, then, can I best live as a witness of Christ’s love? Am I called like Paul to a life of celibacy? I am not yet sure, but the questions still weigh heavily on my mind.
Of course, not all of these issues are resolved; though I am restored, I am still broken. But it is in such brokenness that we all receive God’s grace, and it is only by His grace that we are able to flourish in Him. As I reflect on this, I remember a final scene from Take This Waltz in which the tempter Daniel makes his final plea to Margot. Recalling their initial conversation about her fear of commitment, he appeals to her brokenness with a promise to distract her from it: “I know it’s kind of the nature of being alive, but I’d like to avoid it whenever possible.” But it isn’t avoidance of our brokenness that begins our healing; it’s acknowledgement. We should take our cues, then, from a different Leonard Cohen song: “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the Light gets in.”
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