February 14, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Tuesday, February 14, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Celebrating St. Valentine's Day: How the rise of romantic love led to the transformation of marriage
It is St. Valentine’s Day in the United States of America, now commonly reduced merely to Valentine’s Day, and the difference between St. Valentine’s Day and Valentine’s Day actually tells us a very great deal about our culture and its development over the last several centuries. In particular, it points to the massive shifts in our understanding of marriage and love and courtship over the course of this same time period. The difference between St. Valentine’s Day and Valentine’s Day is the shift from what had been a date on the liturgical calendar of the Christian church, a feast or festival day that was scheduled in the Western churches for February 14 and in the Eastern churches for February 6 in order to recognize the Easter festivals associated with the various St. Valentinus who had been included throughout the decades and centuries of church history.
But we also look at the fact that Valentine’s Day now in the United States of America is a major commercial event. It’s a very significant cultural event. It reveals a great deal about our society’s understanding of romantic love, and we need to look closely at what we now see. What we see is a significant shift. By the way, Valentine’s Day or St. Valentine’s Day became associated with romantic love back during the time of Geoffrey Chaucer. It was during that period that there arose in medieval Christendom the ideal of courtly love, the very idea of courtship in terms of so much of what we have inherited in the modern age. But of course courtship wasn’t born in the medieval era. It goes all the way back to the earliest generations of humanity where courtship took place and marriage took place.Show Full Transcript
We need to note as Christians that every single civilization has found itself to marriage that is to the unique culturally recognized joining of a man and a woman together with an exclusive right to one another and with the establishment of a family in terms of their children and extended kin. But we also need to note that most of those who been married throughout human history have not been married according to what we now understand as the ideal of romantic or expressive love, instead they were married according to arrangements that had been made by their families. Sometimes they were married simply because they were the only people available in terms of a very small village or another kind of location or identity. And when we look at that, we come to recognize that almost no one now seems to remember that not everyone before us got married or got romantically involved as we do now.
But we also need to understand what’s behind these developments, these great shifts in how marriage and love and courtship are understood. We need to understand that the rise of courtly love during the medieval period in the West pointed to an elevation of women and pointed to the fact that women were not merely passive partners in terms of marriage or courtship but were to be actively courted, that is involved as individuals. But that’s not as new as it might first appear because even if you look back in the Scriptures you come to understand that in the Old and the New Testaments, women are also elevated as significant partners in the marriage; it’s not something that is merely a passive role. But in terms of Western civilization this was a significant step, but it’s a far less significant step than what happened in terms of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries and the 19th century in particular.
Beginning, we are now told by historians, in France and then spreading throughout the West, there arose the ideal of romantic or expressive love, and we need to understand how that transformed our understanding not only of romance, but also of marriage. What’s at stake here? Well in this modern conception of romance, which is overly emotional, the romance is an expression of selfhood or of self-identity and that romance has to carry the entire freight of the marriage of the relationship. How is that to be contrasted to what came before? Well what came before was the assumption that marriage was absolutely fundamental. And that means in essence that the couple would find themselves in romance and would develop their romance and would fall in love with one another in marriage, not necessarily even before marriage.
If you look across human history, you come to understand that some of these husbands and wives did not actually even really know one another until they were married. But the society recognized that they were married and the marriage was so fundamental that they were understood to have the responsibility to develop their own expressive and emotional lives with in the marriage. And one of the great stories of marriage, one of the revelations of the goodness of marriage as the Creator gave it to us is that so many millions and millions and millions of couples did find happiness within the marriage, even when that marriage preceded the development of this kind of emotional love. But you also need to recognize that once you turn the tables and this emotional or expressive or romantic ideal is fundamental to marriage, then when there is any faltering or failure in terms of the emotional intensity, marriage is subverted and undermined.
So you can draw actually a direct line from the rise of this romantic understanding of love to the transformation of marriage that led to no-fault divorce and, of course, to the fact that so many people now describe themselves in terms of their happiness or lack of happiness, their fulfillment or lack of fulfillment in marriage. They do not assume that marriage is a covenant itself fundamental and that they are to work out and to develop and sacrificially to give themselves to the marriage such that they receive the happiness and the fulfillment that marriage does bring. Most of us fail to recognize today just how much emotional weight this romantic ideal of love has to bear for us. In other words, many Americans today measure whether or not they are married by whether or not they feel married, whether or not they love one another by whether or not they feel loving or feel loved at any particular moment.
This excessive emotionalism has led to a warping and to an undermining of marriage and of courtship and, of course, as we saw on The Briefing just in recent days, the millennial generation has taken this just one step further even understanding the conjugal relationship, the physical relationship of a man and a woman as being less intimate than marriage. And we ask the question why would that be so? As a matter fact that USA Today story we talked about just recently on The Briefing said that millennials consider sex less intimate even than dating. Why? It is because they have now invested so much emotional freight in every single relationship, in every single date, and every single prospect for romantic involvement. And they measure the success or even the status of their marriage or their romance or the relationship on the basis of how they or the other person feels at any particular time. The biblical worldview does indeed validate our understandings and need for that kind of emotional connection. The biblical worldview even validates romance rightly understood as what should lead to marriage and develop in marriage, but it does not present romance as the fundamental reality and marriage merely as the product. It actually points to marriage as one of the purposes for which we were created, and then it points to romance and that emotional fulfillment, the love between a husband and a wife, as not only that which would bring the marriage together, but what even more importantly would be one of the gifts and goods that comes in marriage especially over time.
As you look at Valentine’s Day as a commercial event in America here on February 14, we come to understand that it’s not just cards and it’s not just dinner reservations and it’s not just flowers and gifts and all the things that we now associate with Valentine’s Day, it is even more than that; that we should notice just how absent marriage is from so much of this cultural conversation. It’s as if romance is the great ideal, the great reality to which marriage might be added, rather than marriage as the fundamental reality to which men and women are directed with romance and love and expressive fulfillment as that which is given in marriage and developed in marriage over time. Some of the changes that have come with this new expressive emotional understanding of love, with this development of this romantic expressivist ideal, especially became universal in the West in the 19th century. This is at least one explanation for why so many young people today are delaying marriage for so long and in many ways looking at marriage as something that is a lifestyle choice or a certain achievement to be understood later in life, rather than one of the definitional issues of adulthood. It is because they do not yet feel ready for marriage. But just about anyone who’s been married any length of time will tell you that no one actually feels ready for marriage. The reality is that you get married because it is righteous and right and then you feel your way into being married so much so that most us of who have been married for any length of time will say that even after being married a very short period of time we cannot imagine ourselves and we cannot imagine our lives without our spouse.
One of the signs of our confusion is the fact that so many young adults now see cohabitation as a step to marriage, but as the statistics remind us, cohabitation doesn’t actually in most cases even lead to marriage. Why? It’s because cohabitating so many couples hope to develop the kind of romantic intensity that would somehow justify the marriage without understanding that it almost always works the other way around.
So as Christians understand Valentine’s Day we look at, at least partly, sociologically understanding this massive cultural event that the holiday has become, we look at, at least in part, commercially understanding just how central it is to the American capitalist experiment these days. You consider the billions and billions of dollars that will be spent on Valentine’s Day, but we come to understand there are far deeper issues at stake. The Christian worldview, the biblical worldview absolutely validates romantic love, but it places it within the context of marriage. Romantic love is directed to marriage and blossoms within marriage and is undergirded and protected by marriage. The lack of satisfaction and fulfillment that so many people will feel at the end of Valentine’s Day in 2017 is largely because they have simply banked too much on this emotivist, expressivist understanding of romance and because they have banked far too little on the reality and the goodness of marriage.
The persistence of spirituality in our secular age: Beyoncé and fertility goddesses at the Grammys
Next at the intersection of entertainment and popular culture, we know that behind entertainment you always find worldview issues of importance. But sometimes headlines just jump out at us, and that’s the case with some of the headlines in the aftermath of this week’s Grammys event, and of course as the headline appeared in the Washington Post in the story by Katie Mettler,
“The African, Hindu and Roman goddesses who inspired Beyoncé’s stunning Grammy performance.”
Now that’s a very long headline, but the headline writer had to get a lot in there. Let’s go back to it again,
“The African, Hindu and Roman goddesses who inspired Beyoncé’s stunning Grammy performance.”
Now that gets our attention because there aren’t too many headlines that include African, Hindu, and Roman goddesses and the Grammys, at least not until now evidently. All that changed this week. As Mettler writes,
“She emerged onstage at the Grammys on Sunday wearing little more than her pregnant belly, a statement in itself, even for Beyoncé, as society continues to grapple with what maternity looks like for working women.”
Well let me just point out that maternity looks pretty much alike for any woman. It’s interesting that all of a sudden here you have society, we are told, is grappling with what maternity looks like on working women. We also need to point out that very few working women end up at the Grammy awards looking anything like Beyoncé, but nonetheless we continue with the story. Mettler writes of Beyoncé,
“The whole lady lovefest lasted nearly 10 minutes and featured a fully flanked female cast, Beyoncé portrayed as the Virgin Mary (and possibly Jesus?) and some creatively precarious chair choreography. It was described as ‘ethereal,’ a ‘sci-fi fertility ritual’ and just plain ‘weird.’”
But writes Mettler,
“But what those unfamiliar with her Grammy-nominated album Lemonade may have missed was that the gold and glitz on display were serving a greater purpose.”
And then this one sentence paragraph of just three words,
“Beyoncé,” we are told “was teaching.”
Hold that for just a moment. Mettler writes,
“As in Lemonade and her pregnancy announcement photos released earlier this month, the singer’s Grammy performance was packed with artistic nods to African, Hindu and Roman goddesses who signify the womanhood Beyoncé has been reflecting in her most recent work.”
Now we’ve been watching a certain syncretism taking place in this society. The argument comes down to this from a Christian worldview perspective: nature abhors a vacuum, and where you have the secularization of a society the spiritual does not disappear. It just reappears in all kinds of contorted forms, and one of these is the commercialization of ancient goddesses and ancient fertility rituals that showed up in the entertainment at the Grammy awards ceremony on Sunday night. And here comes the Washington Post to explain to a watching America what they were watching when they actually were observing the performance. Mettler writes,
“It was a projection image of Beyoncé that first appeared Sunday night, the singer barefoot and dressed in a gold string bikini, a long yellow-gold silk drape behind her — as if she were in water, like in the early scenes of her visual album and in her maternity photos. This,” we are told “is a nod to the African water spirit Mami Wata, or Mother Water, who is often portrayed as half-human and half-fish with long, flowing hair, according to Smithsonian magazine.”
There’s an unusual authority to bring into this headline story. Joseph Caputo writes in the Smithsonian, Washington,
“Mami Wata is known for her beauty. But she is as seductive as she is dangerous. Those who pay tribute to her know her as a ‘capitalist’ deity because she can bring good (or bad) fortune in the form of money. This relationship between currency and water makes sense. Her persona developed between the 15th and 20th centuries, as Africa became more present in global trade. The fact that the name Mami Wata is in pidgen English, the language used to facilitate this trade, shows the influence on foreign cultures on the spirit’s image and identity.”
The Post continues to explain the ancient goddesses in the fertility rituals that Americans were watching by the millions on Sunday night when Mettler writes,
“Perhaps more obvious, though, is her embodiment of Oshun, a Yoruba water goddess of ‘female sensuality, love and fertility.’”
That was reported by PBS, by the way, when her album “Lemonade” dropped last year.
“Oshun, also spelled Osun, is the love goddess of the Yoruba people, who inhabit the southwestern region of what is now modern day Nigeria and the southern part of Benin, according to Ancient Origins, and is often depicted wearing yellow and surrounded by fresh water.”
Well check that off in terms of Sunday night’s entertainment. As you continue the story you get down to the quotation from Amy Yeboah, who’s an associate professor of Africana studies at Howard University, who told PBS that what was going on in terms of Beyoncé is important in terms of the visuals as the lyrics.
“Beyoncé,” she said “is reflecting the power of women spiritually. She takes it deeper into African spirituality. We see this in the first of two baptisms and her emergence as an orisha.”
That’s another ancient pagan deity who’s also involved very commonly with fertility. But there’s more than birth and fertility goddesses who are referenced here. The Washington Post also tells us,
“The gold headpiece Beyoncé wears with the bikini appeared during the live segments of her Grammy performance as well, and at one point her dancers draped the reappearing long silk cloth over the crown and extended the ends away from the singer’s body, a tribute to the many-armed Hindu goddess Kali, who is associated with death, sexuality and motherly love.”
Looking at this from a Christian biblical worldview, from a theological perspective, we see not only the persistence of the spiritual in this kind of revival of pagan cults and ancient goddesses, we not only see the idealization of sexuality in terms of this pagan vision, we not only see the visuals added to the lyrics of her songs, we also come to understand that Americans sat there by the millions and watched this is a spectacle without understanding what just about anyone who would have any knowledge of these ancient religions would understand. Here you have fertility rites that were exhibited by someone who is performing as a fertility goddess. And there was the deliberate invoking of so many these goddesses from various religions and religious traditions, all commercialized. That’s the other lesson in this. Americans will commercialize just about anything, and Americans who wouldn’t have anything to do with goddesses and fertility rites found themselves absolutely glued to the tube watching Beyoncé performing what they were later told were exactly those, that is the stories of goddesses and ancient fertility rites.
This is why the critics in the immediate aftermath of Beyoncé’s performance described it as ethereal, a sci-fi fertility ritual, and just plain weird. All of those by the way are just plain right. But all this came in a commodified commercialized form of entertainment that was of course of great interest to millions of Americans who were watching without actually realizing what they were watching. And that is an absolute underlining an affirmation of the impact of entertainment on all of us. We eventually do become what we watch. We eventually become or at least become influenced by what entertains us.
What delights the eyes, the Scripture makes very clear, eventually also has an effect upon the heart and upon the soul. The interesting thing here in conclusion on this topic is that it’s clear that Beyoncé understands that even if her viewers and those who watch her products and listen to her music do not. You would think that perhaps middle America wouldn’t tune in if they were told that the entertainment was going to be a sci-fi fertility ritual. But then again, maybe this is the people we’re becoming. Many Americans, even if they were told in advance, actually would have tuned in.
Inundated with bad news: How the 24-hour news cycle affects our psyche
Finally when it comes to the influence of what we see and what we hear, really interesting scientific research that was summarized in the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal having to do with teenagers, trauma, and the World Wide Web. Here’s the bottom line, it turns out that teenagers are increasingly traumatized by the barrage of news, that is to say bad news, including very alarming and disturbing images that used to be seen by very few at some point in the future long distanced from the event, but are now delivered to the smart phone of your local teenager. And it turns out that it’s coming with a significant amount of trauma. One of the measurements that’s made very clear in the story by Susan Pinker is the fact that teenagers and adolescents now commonly believe the world to be far more dangerous including dangerous to them than it actually is. Why? It’s because so many of these dramatic images are now being delivered so much news is now inundating Americans and that includes America’s children and teenagers that it becomes largely overwhelming.
Jonathan Comer, a professor of psychology at Florida International University who’s behind the research says that it used to be that teenagers and adolescents closest to a traumatic event such as an earthquake, or a tsunami, or some kind of other moral event such as a great crime were far more traumatized than teenagers and adolescents in other parts of the world, but it turns out that’s not true these days. It turns out that teenagers in our homes, teenagers in our communities, thousands and thousands of miles from these events are also showing up as traumatized by the knowledge because they are inundated by so much news. The conclusion of this research, which is also summarized at the conclusion of this article in the Wall Street Journal should make sense to all of us.
“That’s one reason why ‘watching around-the-clock breaking news is not in our best interest—either for adults or children.’”
That again from Professor Comer at Florida International University. The Wall Street Journal says,
“Because it’s not how much danger we’re in that matters. It’s how much threat we perceive in others.”
So this tells us that the worldview implications of entertainment in the previous story also have to be set alongside the worldview implication of the news, and as this story makes clear staying tuned to 24 hour breaking news probably really isn’t healthy for anyone. It’s not that we want to be uninformed, it is simply that we have to protect ourselves and our children from being absolutely inundated. Being inundated, it turns out, does not lead to being better informed, it often leads to being far more traumatized.