Generous Orthodoxy  


Christian Marriage: Part Three

It is astonishing to me that there has not been a single protest raised about the fact that Governor Cuomo of New York lives with a woman who is not his wife. (He is divorced--bitterly so, according to reports--from Robert F. Kennedy’s daughter and has two children, to whom he appears to be reasonably close.) What do Mario and Matilda Cuomo think about this? They always struck me as a couple who take their Catholic faith very seriously.

Among my own widely extended church-going acquaintances, the trend toward tolerating or approving cohabitation and even single parenthood seems almost total. There has been a fairly universal reaction of “They’re gonna do what they’re gonna do.” I gratefully remember one occasion, twenty years after our daughter’s marriage, when I said (in a group gathering) that my husband and I were thankful to her for not moving in with her fiancé before the wedding day. She replied, to general laughter, “I figured you’d write me out of your will!” Lord knows, the assets in our will are nothing to brag about, but the point was well made; we had made our strong feelings known. We were fortunate and blessed that she cared what we thought.

My husband and I had a solemn and celebratory renewal of vows for our 50th anniversary, hoping that this would make a lasting impression. It remains to be seen. Among Dick’s and my circle of college classmates and friends, no more than 5% are divorced; among their children and grandchildren, that figure seems unimaginable.

These scattered observations are almost laughably far removed from the bizarre arrangements celebrated in articles about “modern love” (the title of a popular New York Times Magazine weekly feature). These day, it is easiest to withdraw into a posture of either resignation or acquiescence. That would be unfaithful, it seems to me. I am arguing for a strong counterattack in the form of a robust theological alternative by the Christian community. The concept of marriage as an image of the divine covenant between God and Israel, between Christ and the church, is what we have been withholding (see my two earlier posts on marriage). It seems to me that this is more important than the same-sex marriage dispute, yet we hear nothing about it.

Back in 1957 when I was in college, a great many people read a best-selling end-of-the-world novel called On the Beach, by a middlebrow novelist named Nevil Shute. Last week I pulled it down off the top shelf, blew off the dust, and, for reasons that I will explain, reread it in one sitting last week. The book is dated, and certainly no literary masterwork (though it is no worse in that regard than The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo!), but I believe anyone today who can overlook its fifties style would find it haunting in the same way that many did 56 years ago. On the Beach depicts the end of human life after a brief, cataclysmic nuclear conflict in the Northern Hemisphere. Its central character, an American naval commander, finds himself and his submarine crew exiled to Australia, the last remnant of the U. S. Navy alive in the world. Melbourne will be the last major city to lose its entire population as the radiation drifts southward toward Tasmania and Antarctica. When the last person expires, it will be the end. No one will survive. The novel focuses on a group of upper-middle-class Anglo-Australians with whom the American finds friendship and support during the last months of the existence of the human race. He meets a woman, Moira, who falls in love with him and brings him solace.

There is no deus ex machina at the end. The suspense lies in how the doomed population will comport itself. The way it copes in Shute’s book can certainly be questioned or disbelieved, but it is food for thought. A young couple who dote on their new baby must face killing the infant “when the time comes” so that it will not suffer alone if they die first. It strains at credulity, perhaps, to imagine people planting gardens that they know they will not live to tend, and buying toys for children in the Northern Hemisphere who are already dead, but there is something about all this that is, as I said, haunting.

But it is the depiction of the American naval commander’s marriage that I remember more than anything else in the book, and that’s why I got it off the shelf. He is deeply in love with his wife, Sharon, back home in Mystic, Connecticut, and devoted to their two children. He accepts the love of Moira, and to some degree returns it, but as they begin to see more of each other he tells her that he has been faithful to Sharon all during the two years he has been away in the service, and he does not intend to break his vows to her. He keeps those vows, and the book ends as the radiation descends upon Melbourne and he, with his crew, departs with the submarine to die honorably at sea, the last vessel on earth…while Moira, on the shore, watches them go, knowing that her own death is very near.

The naval commander’s eschatological fidelity to his wife when the human race is about to be extinguished made a lasting impression on me in 1957 when I was 19. I never forgot it, and it strengthened my view of marriage. Like much else in Shute’s book, it seems naïve in these cynical times, and most people would find it preposterous if not comical in our age of irony. I am reminded of another movie of that era, a celebrated masterpiece—Shane. There is a scene near the end in which the gunfighter, Shane (Alan Ladd), says goodbye to the married woman whom he loves—and who loves him. They know they will not meet again, and that he may be killed. They do not even kiss, but solemnly shake hands. That, too, would be impossible in a movie today; it brings laughs from audiences now. For me in the mid-fifties, it was deeply impressive.

Is there a way to find similar cultural reinforcements for marriage today? It’s hard to imagine. Therefore we must hold out for the power of personal example. Surely we do not have to take the line of least resistance. We have talked with our family about our hopes that the younger members will not break the family tradition by cohabiting. When our grandchildren visit us with members of the opposite sex, we will be putting them in separate spaces. I have at least two friends who have joined me in this project. We are not stupid; we know that they may sneak out during the night; but we will be securely asleep in the knowledge that at least we have made our witness! Perhaps this, also, seems laughable. I don’t think so. It’s better than simply giving in.

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P.S. Only two years after On the Beach was published, later (1959), a movie was made of it by the director Stanley Kramer, starring Gregory Peck as the American and an unconvincing Ava Gardner as Moira (I hate to admit that she’s unconvincing, because for me she will always be the most perfectly beautiful movie star ever). It’s even more dated than the book, and more of the book has been changed than retained. Except for a very good performance by a non-dancing Fred Astaire as an auto-racing scientist, the acting is lackluster. The point of mentioning the movie in this context is that—leave it to Hollywood—the American naval officer goes to bed with the Australian woman, thereby nullifying the central moral conception of the book.

Although I did not like the movie at all, I must admit that the musical soundtrack still gets to me. It consists largely of mournful variations on the famous Australian song “Waltzing Matilda.” A quick click on On The Beach (black and white, 1959) will take you to the YouTube clips of the “Waltzing Matilda” sequences and I defy you not to be moved by the elegiac arrangements as the submarine makes its final and fatal way out to sea at the end. You’ll never hear that song in the same way again. And if you should by any chance read the book, the north-south geography of Australia will be permanently fixed in your mind.

I do not care to see the 2000 remake of On The Beach. I gather that it is the polar opposite of the original. Instead of portraying a stoical population determined to cling to its ingrained bourgeois habits to the end, the remake apparently shows civilization in total collapse. Human nature being what it is, the latter version may be more true to reality.


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