Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Review of "Committed": Elizabeth Gilbert on family values

Elizabeth Gilbert's 2006 mega-best-seller Eat, Pray, Love is a rambling memoir-travelogue in which Gilbert leaves her husband, is dumped by her lover, travels to Italy, India, and Indonesia studying food and spirituality, and ends up in bed with a Brazilian she calls Felipe. In her current book, Committed, Elizabeth marries Felipe. This is not a spoiler: the cover gives away the ending. The interest lies in how she gets there--kicking and screaming, apparently, but also interviewing everyone she meets as she travels in Southeast Asia; reading up on the history, sociology, and maintenance of marriage; and interweaving her studies with her own adventures and roller-coaster emotions.

If you're looking for a linear account of marriage through the ages, you'd do better with Stephanie Coontz's Marriage, A History (I reviewed it here). For straight memoir about a marriage that not only began, but lasted, try the late Madeleine L'Engle's Two-Part Invention. Still, there are good reasons to read Committed, even if you haven't read--or didn't much like--Eat, Pray, Love. Though both books are memoirs, the newer one is a lot less self-absorbed. Gilbert, who is now 40, seems finally to have emerged from adolescence and can now look outward, beyond her navel. Fortunately for her fans, she has retained her slightly wacky writing style.

In Committed, Gilbert offers interesting information that could lead to wisdom, such as:
  • Why it is inadvisable to be infatuated with one's beloved
  • How best to guard against adultery
  • What characteristics make a good marriage more likely
  • Why friends and family should come to your wedding
  • Why self-sacrifice is not necessarily a bad thing
  • Why aunties are important
  • How to improve a relationship by doing things independently
  • Why marriage is ultimately a subversive act

It ain't necessarily so
She also challenges a lot of commonly held beliefs. None of the following statements, for example, is necessarily true:
  • America welcomes immigrants
  • The most enduring marriages are based on love
  • High expectations bring success
  • Happiness is increased by having lots of choices
  • Historically, marriage has always been a bond between one man and one woman
  • Marriage is a religious institution
  • Marriage is better for women than for men
  • Traditional Christianity is pro-family
Hold the horses! Isn't Christianity practically defined by family values? Au contraire, says Gilbert:
For approximately ten centuries, Christianity itself did not see marriage as being either holy or sanctified. Marriage was certainly not modeled as the ideal state of moral being. On the contrary, the early Christian fathers regarded the habit of marriage as a somewhat repugnant worldly affair that had everything to do with sex and females and taxes and property, and nothing whatsoever to do with higher concerns of divinity.... For the first thousand or so years of Christian history, the church regarded monogamous marriage as marginally less wicked than flat-out whoring--but only very marginally.
She exaggerates, of course. Quoting Jesus on the need to reject family (Luke 14.26) and Paul on avoiding marriage if possible (1 Corinthians 7.8-9), she neglects to mention Jesus' provision of fine wine for the wedding at Cana (John 2.1-11) or the apostolic church's condemnation of ascetics who forbade, among other things, marriage (1 Timothy 4:1-3). Nor does she mention that the church required its leaders to be not only monogamously married but also parents (1 Timothy 3, Titus 1). And she completely ignores Ephesians 5.21-33, where the love of husband and wife is likened to the love of Christ for the church.

Still, she's closer to the truth than a lot of present-day Christians realize. For a scholarly presentation of the early church's sorry attitudes about the body, sex, women, and procreation, read Peter Brown's The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (my Books and Culture review of Brown and two other books is here). The sad fact is, the early church quickly abandoned its sensible Jewish heritage with its strong sense of family. Instead, it adopted views owing more to Gnostic influences than to the Hebrew scriptures. As Gilbert points out, most early and medieval Christians (including priests, by the way) went ahead and married anyway, but celibacy became the ideal--and the requirement for high churchly office.

However, I disagree with her when she characterizes Paul's advice to the unmarried--"it is better to marry than to burn"--as "perhaps the most begrudging endorsement of matrimony in human history." My favorite begrudging endorsement is from Jerome, a fourth-century saint, Bible translator, and doctor of the church. In a letter to one of his female friends, he wrote: "I praise wedlock, I praise marriage, but it is because they give me virgins. I gather the rose from the thorns, the gold from the earth, the pearl from the shell."

The verdict
Committed is enjoyable, informational, thought-provoking, and occasionally wise. To learn more about it, read one of these fine reviews:

1 comment:

Virginia said...

Thanks for your blog and review of Gilbert's book. As a Presby minister, I found Gilbert both annoying and refreshing at the same time. I loved to hate her by the time she got to Bali. I may give her another try...You are right on in your critique of what Gilbert has to say about Christianity and marriage. Thank God we women are no longer chattel,
but have the freedom to choose to love.