I adore books. I am especially appreciative of books that come recommended directly to me. For example, I spent the holidays reacquainting myself with Marilynne Robinson after a friend reminded me of the ways that her words point to a mystery and grace that calls for heartfelt reflection. Or, when Fannie recommended Amish Grace, a book on forgiveness that I continue to ponder. And of late I’ve begun reading a book sent to me several months ago by Elizabeth, a book that was published over ten years ago called The Book of Marriage authored by Dana Mack and David Blankenhorn. The book is an anthology of writings on marriage inspired by the realization of a group of scholars that the academic writing on marriage was considerably weak. In contrast to “high-minded pleasure books” and “manifold self-help books,” a gap emerged exposing the need for a “text that celebrates the diversity and essential humanity of the marital experience in a way that is accessible, entertaining, and useful.” Over the last few months as I’ve been reading it in fits and starts, I have been so thankful that as we embark on leading a new conversation on marriage I have it as a companion. I am going to share some excerpts from the preface that I find speak as succinctly now to our current endeavors to think about the personal and societal implications of marriage as they did ten years ago:
“The most vexing problems and challenges that face the marital union today are as old as the institution itself. The big questions of marriage-questions relating to the nature of marital love, to sexual fulfillment, to money management, gender roles, child rearing, mixed marriage, marital conflict, the death of a spouse, and even divorce, are questions that theologians, poets, philosophers, and playwrights have addressed from the beginning of history…
Yet, any anthology of source readings on the subject of marriage must focus on marriage not only as a set of personal challenges but also as a purposeful social institution…
While the secularization of marriage has created opportunities for higher marital satisfaction, as well as enabling easier release from unhappy unions, it has brought with it a serious problematic: the increasing absence of an important cultural support for marriage as a lifelong commitment. Indeed, in an age of secularization, individuation, and consequent shrinking social supports for marriage, how do couples meet the many challenges a marriage deals out?
We hope readers find it interesting and challenging and that they derive from it a sense of the great historical, social, and cultural import of the marital bond. We hope it instills in them a sharper appreciation of the possibilities of marriage for personal fulfillment, as well as a sense of marriage as a pro-social, organic, and indispensable cultural institution. Finally, we hope that readers come away with the feeling that in marrying, they are doing something very big; they are not only taking on the dignities of a noble institution but are assuming responsibility for another life as close to theirs as another life can be.
It is our firm belief that a successful marriage is in a real sense the finishing school of civic education. Through marriage, after all, we can learn the true meaning of community, of tolerance, of mutual understanding, of responsibility, and of spiritual cultivation—all of the things that make for the kind of society in which the good life is accessible to all.”
I know that I’ve quoted a great deal here, but as I’ve thought about the individuals who have already begun conversing and thinking about how we can strengthen the institution of marriage for all Americans these words resonated with me and encouraged me. We join thousands of years of thinkers and dreamers who have pondered what it means to be married as individuals and as a society. The voices we hear are from diverse times and diverse philosophical and faith backgrounds, but we join the throng. We are in good company.
Over the next few weeks, I will be tweeting good quotes and excerpts about marriage from this anthology through our Institute for American Values Twitter account. Feel free to follow us or follow the hashtag #NMC to find timeless inspiration for your current thoughts and conversations on marriage.