A valentine from Tolkien

Everyone needs a little Tolkien on Valentine’s Day.

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On days devoted to love and romance and all that stuff we could use some wisdom from Tolkien.

In the marriage debate, we are not like King Canute

“We are not engaged in a desperate attempt, like King Canute, to turn back the tides of social affairs.”

I was prepping for some premarital counseling when I came across this gem from Christopher Ash in 2003. With boundary lines constantly changing, this is good counsel:

…marriage (as a part of the created order) exists as a significant institution in the world whether or not societies conform to its free constraints. So when as Christians we seek to persuade society about this moral order, we are not defending the institution of marriage, as though the God-given institution of marriage were under ontological threat . . . it is not within the power of humankind finally to destroy created order. It was given to humankind in creation, it stands above human history and the human will, and finally it will be restored and transformed in the new heavens and earth. No institution that is part of the created order can be destroyed by human disobedience. Human nonconformity leads not to the destruction of the order, but to judgment on human beings. No Christian movement needs to defend marriage: rather we seek to protect human beings against the damage done to them by cutting across the grain of the order of marriage. That knowledge takes a burden off our shoulders . . . we are not engaged in a desperate attempt, like King Canute, to turn back the tides of social affairs.

-Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God, 81-82

Nearly all marriages are mistakes

Gob_Huge_MistakeIn this final excerpt (pt 1, pt 2, pt 3) Tolkien presents his son with wisdom sorely needed today: you almost certainly made a mistake when you married your partner who is, in fact, your real soul-mate. This is my favorite part of the letter and I suspect it will soon find its way into my pre-marital counseling.

Have  a great V-Day weekend!


. . . Only a very wise man at the end of his life could make a sound judgment concerning whom, amongst the total possible chances, he ought most profitably to have married! Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might have found more suitable mates. But the ‘real soul-mate’ is the one you are actually married to. You really do very little choosing: life and circumstance do most of it (though if there is a God these must be His instruments, or His appearances). It is notorious that in fact happy marriages are more common where the ‘choosing’ by the young persons is even more limited, by parental or family authority, as long as there is a social ethic of plain unromantic responsibility and conjugal fidelity.

But even in countries where the romantic tradition has so far affected social arrangements as to make people believe that the choosing of a mate is solely the concern of the young, only the rarest good fortune brings together the man and woman who are really as it were ‘destined’ for one another, and capable of a very great and splendid love. The idea still dazzles us, catches us by the throat: poems and stories in multitudes have been written on the theme, more, probably, than the total of such loves in real life (yet the greatest of these tales do not tell of the happy marriage of such great lovers, but of their tragic separation; as if even in this sphere the truly great and splendid in this fallen world is more nearly achieved by ‘failure’ and suffering). In such great inevitable love, often love at first sight, we catch a vision, I suppose, of marriage as it should have been in an unfallen world. In this fallen world we have as our only guides, prudence, wisdom (rare in youth, too late in age), a clean heart, and fidelity of will. . . .

-The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 43 ‘From a letter to Michael Tolkien 6-8 March 1941’

Men, monogamy, and the ‘if only’ soul-mate

Monogamy
Women are instinctively monogamous. Men are not. . . No good pretending.

In this third excerpt (see pt 1 and pt 2) Tolkien explains why monogamy entails suffering for a Christian husband and begins to address the popular notion of finding a “soul-mate.”


 

[Women] have, of course, still to be more careful in sexual relations, for all the contraceptives. Mistakes are damaging physically and socially (and matrimonially). But they are instinctively, when uncorrupt, monogamous. Men are not. . . . . No good pretending. Men just ain’t, not by their animal nature. Monogamy (although it has long been fundamental to our inherited ideas) is for us men a piece of ‘revealed’ ethic, according to faith and not to the flesh. Each of us could healthily beget, in our 30 odd years of full manhood, a few hundred children, and enjoy the process. Brigham Young (I believe) was a healthy and happy man. It is a fallen world, and there is no consonance between our bodies, minds, and souls.

However, the essence of a fallen world is that the best cannot be attained by free enjoyment, or by what is called ‘self-realization’ (usually a nice name for self-indulgence, wholly inimical to the realization of other selves); but by denial, by suffering. Faithfulness in Christian marriage entails that: great mortification. For a Christian man there is no escape. Marriage may help to sanctify & direct to its proper object his sexual desires; its grace may help him in the struggle; but the   struggle remains. It will not satisfy him — as hunger may be kept off by regular meals. It will offer as many difficulties to the purity proper to that state, as it provides easements. No man, however truly he loved his betrothed and bride as a young man, has lived faithful to her as a wife in mind and body without deliberate conscious exercise of the will, without self-denial.

Too few are told that — even those brought up ‘in the Church’. Those outside seem seldom to have heard it. When the glamor wears off, or merely works a bit thin, they think they have made a mistake, and that the real soul-mate is still to find. The real soul-mate too often proves to be the next sexually attractive person that comes along. Someone whom they might indeed very profitably have married, if only –. Hence divorce, to provide the ‘if only’. And of course they are as a rule quite right: they did make a mistake. . .

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 43 ‘From a letter to Michael Tolkien 6-8 March 1941’

[read pt 4]

Romance, chivalry, and exaggerated notions of ‘true love’

LancelotandGuinevere_Draper
Lancelot and Guinevere by Herbert James Draper (c.1890)

This is the second excerpt of a letter from J.R.R. Tolkien to his son, Michael, on the subject of marriage and relations between the sexes (see pt 1). In this portion Tolkien comments on the pros and cons of a cultural tradition of romantic chivalry.


 

There is in our Western culture the romantic chivalric tradition still strong, though as a product of Christendom (yet by no means the same as Christian ethics) the times are inimical to it. It idealizes ‘love’ — and as far as it goes can be very good, since it takes in far more than physical pleasure, and enjoins if not purity, at least fidelity, and so self-denial, ‘service’, courtesy, honor, and courage. Its weakness is, of course, that it began as an artificial courtly game, a way of enjoying love for its own sake without reference to (and indeed contrary to) matrimony. Its center was not God, but imaginary Deities, Love and the Lady. It still tends to make the Lady a kind of guiding star or divinity . . . the object or reason of noble conduct. This is, of course, false and at best make-believe. The woman is another fallen human-being with a soul in peril. But combined and harmonized with religion . . . it can be very noble. Then it produces what I suppose is still felt, among those who retain even vestigiary Christianity, to be the highest ideal of love between man and woman.

Yet I still think it has dangers. It is not wholly true, and it is not perfectly ‘theocentric’. It takes, or at any rate has in the past taken, the young man’s eye off women as they are, as companions in shipwreck not guiding stars . . .  It inculcates exaggerated notions of ‘true love’, as a fire from without, a permanent exaltation, unrelated to age, childbearing, and plain life, and unrelated to will and purpose. (One result of that is to make young folk look for a ‘love’ that will keep them always nice and warm in a cold world, without any effort of theirs; and the incurably romantic go on looking even in the squalor of the divorce courts).

-The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 43 ‘From a letter to Michael Tolkien 6-8 March 1941’

‘A young man does not really want friendship’

When Harry Met SallyIn honor of Valentine’s week here is the first in a series of excerpts from a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien to his son. The paternal counsel is a rarity: decidedly counter-cultural but not, I suspect, counter-intuitive. Tolkien’s depiction of the innate differences between the sexes rings true to me but I’d be interested in hearing what the rest of you think.


 

A man’s dealings with women can be purely physical (they cannot really, of course: but I mean he can refuse to take other things into account, to the great damage of his soul (and body) and theirs); or ‘friendly’; or he can be a ‘lover’ (engaging and blending all his affections and powers of mind and body in a complex emotion powerfully coloured and energized by ‘sex’).

This is a fallen world. The dislocation of sex-instinct is one of the chief symptoms of the Fall. The world has been ‘going to the bad’ all down the ages. The various social forms shift, and each new mode has its special dangers: but the ‘hard spirit of concupiscence’ has walked down every street, and sat leering in every house, since Adam fell.

We will leave aside the ‘immoral’ results. These you desire not to be dragged into. To renunciation you have no call. ‘Friendship’ then? In this fallen world the ‘friendship’ that should be possible between all human beings, is virtually impossible between man and woman. The devil is endlessly ingenious, and sex is his favourite subject. He is as good every bit at catching you through generous romantic or tender motives, as through baser or more animal ones.

This ‘friendship’ has often been tried: one side or the other nearly always fails. Later in life when sex cools down, it may be possible. It may happen between saints. To ordinary folk it can only rarely occur: two minds that have really a primarily mental and spiritual affinity may by accident reside in a male and a female body, and yet may desire and achieve a ‘friendship’ quite independent of sex. But no one can count on it. The other partner will let him (or her) down, almost certainly, by falling in love.

But a young man does not really (as a rule) want ‘friendship’, even if he says he does. There are plenty of young men (as a rule). He wants love: innocent, and yet irresponsible perhaps. Allas! Allas! that ever love was sinne! as Chaucer says. Then if he is a Christian and is aware that there is such a thing as sin, he wants to know what to do about it.

-The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No. 43 ‘From a letter to Michael Tolkien, 6-8 Mar 1941’

Sex as sabbath

The restorative effect of sexual delight on husband and wife may perhaps be considered by analogy with the blessing of the Sabbath. Just as rhythms of Sabbath rest are instituted by the Creator for the sake of man (cf. Mark 2:27) to refresh him so that his work may be a joy, so sexual delight within marriage may refresh and restore husband and wife for the work to which the Creator has called them….Just as God gives rest in order that man may joyfully work (and not work for the sake of rest), so he gives husband and wife joy in sex that they may more joyfully serve, and not the reverse. When reversed, sexual delight and relational intimacy become ends in themselves. The paradox and tragedy is that, having been made into idols, they inevitably disappoint, frustrate and fade. So often in a healthy marriage sexual delight creeps up on the couple at unexpected moments, in the midst of lives of active service and outward-looking work. –Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God, 188.

Looking to save some money on Valentine’s Day?

Men, if you can win your wife to this spiritual perspective you stand to save thousands of dollars over the lifetime of your marriage.

It is easy to condemn those who marry for money or status, but a more insidious wrong motive has insinuated its way into our culture: romance. Romance has attached to itself a raft of benefits focused on self-fulfillment and the realization of dreams (notably the dream of ‘the right one for me’), but because this is not God’s purpose for marriage, it is a self-defeating goal. Besides, as Hauerwas nicely observes, even if we seek to marry ‘the right person’, in practice ‘we always marry the wrong person. We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change.’ Paradoxically, it is when we jointly embark on the endeavor of serving God in his world that romantic pleasure sometimes takes us by surprise. As a goal it evaporates, but as an unsought blessing it may be greeted with delight and thanksgiving.

-Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God, p 219.

How the trinity speaks to marriage

Husbands take note:

… “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you,” the Son says (Jn 15:9). And therein lies the very goodness of the gospel: as the Father is the lover and the Son the beloved, so Christ becomes the lover and the church the beloved. That means that Christ loves the church first and foremost: his love is not a response, given only when the church loves him; his love comes first, and we only love him because he first loved us (1 Jn 4:19).

     That dynamic is also to be replicated in marriages, husbands being the heads of their wives, loving them as Christ the Head loves his bride, the church. He is the lover, she is the beloved. Like the church, then, wives are not left to earn the love of their husbands; they can enjoy it as something lavished on them freely, unconditionally, and maximally. For eternity, the Father so loves the Son that he excites the Son’s eternal love in response; Christ so loves the church that he excites our love in response; the husband so loves his wife that he excites her love to love him back. Such is the spreading goodness that rolls out of the very being of this God.

Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith

Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to get married(?)

1 Corinthians 7:7, 27, 38 {ESV} I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another… 27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife… 38 So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better.

Marriage is frequently projected as “the norm” in today’s church (at least in Protestant circles). The assumption is that all good Christian men and women have been ordained to find their complementary other half, the resulting implication being that to remain without a spouse signals some lack or deficiency in the single person. Marriage books, studies, and seminars are prodigiously produced but finding some decent material on singleness or celibacy is like finding a few Arminians at a Piper conference–you’re pretty sure they’re out there but it ain’t gonna be easy to find them.

Where is the church that would take seriously Paul’s preference for celibacy in 1Corinthians 7?  I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a pastor or teacher challenge young, single Christians to examine themselves to see if they might be gifted for celibacy or to consider the advantages of living single. Certainly we should be careful not to let the pendulum swing too far in the other direction. Paul may have preferred singleness for the sake of the gospel but he stopped short of discouraging marriage. Even so, I think there are a few things we might consider to better reflect the biblical perspective on singleness and marriage.

Churches might:

  1. Determine not to exclude single men when searching for a new pastor — if Jesus & Paul could be single why can’t our pastor(s)?
  2. Intentionally disciple single members in such a way that we communicate their equality as members and their unique opportunity for ministry. 
  3. Preach/teach that the ability to remain celibate is a gracious gift for some men and women. [The gift is the ability and/or desire for celibacy, not celibacy itself. The single whose desire for marriage remains unfulfilled probably shouldn’t be told that their singleness is a gift.]

Christian parents might:

  1. Pray that God would raise up their child(ren) to be happy in holiness more than happy in marriage.
  2. Consider that their child(ren) may be destined to produce spiritual children (rather than grandchildren) for God’s greater glory and their greater joy (1Cor 4:15; 3Jn1:4).
  3. Nurture their child(ren) to seek His kingdom before they consider searching for their counterpart. 
  4. Remind themselves that marriage is temporary but glorified singleness is for eternity (Mat 22:29-30).