The following is an excerpt from Singleness and Marriage after Christendom by Lina Toth. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.
Cultural Reflections: Happiness in Christianeze
If “happiness” is a complicated concept, it is even more so in the Christian context, where it is often present within the language of following God’s will and being a recipient of God’s blessing. It may be expressed as a condition: “if you obey God’s will, then God will grant you happiness.” Or, happiness may be seen as an expression of God’s blessing: “God blessed me with. … “ Either way, this is the question at the heart of the matter: what kind of life can be considered to be truly good, or what kind of things and circumstances we should desire?
In this book, I have sought to show that our current desires and our ideas about happiness are clearly aligned not so much with the vision of a good life in the New Testament, but with the culture we currently inhabit. What Ronald Rolheiser observed about American Christian culture is true throughout the West: “No possibility of real happiness is seen outside [marriage].” Of course, it does not need to be said explicitly. Here is an observation of a single Christian woman: “In retrospect, it’s not that anyone overtly declared to me there was no joy to be had as a single, celibate woman. It’s just that like many of us, I secretly believed that the deepest drafts are to be drunk only by those invited to a joy party. And the only people invited to that party are those walking in the marriage/sex/kids shoes. Too bad for me or anyone else stuck wearing these unsought single shoes.”
Unsurprisingly, then, for many, marriage symbolizes the ultimate expression of God’s blessing. For those who are single but have come to believe the link between marriage and God’s blessing or God’s favor, their singleness can become a source of deep spiritual anguish too: Have I done something wrong? Is God punishing me? Why is God not listening to my prayers? Others give up on their questions and their commitment to the Christian way—or at least the church which clearly views their lives as less esteemed.
The link between marriage and God’s blessing also represents another picture of happiness not readily available for many single Christians: the experience of parenthood. This can be particularly difficult for women approaching the end of their fertile years who belong to communities of faith which do not approve of single motherhood, unless one has become a single mother before becoming a Christian. Yet they may get some understanding of their longings, even in the case of a “slip up”: “If I did have a child out of wedlock, it wouldn’t have been from a lack of desire to do it the Proper Way, and I suspect some people might even sigh with relief, wondering why I’d never married and glad to know I was Normal after all.” These are really powerful streams and undercurrents of perceived happiness to swim against.
How on earth do we get from here to the vision of the good life offered by Jesus to his disciples? It is likely that many local churches, perceiving themselves to be the bastions of Christian truth (or, more precisely, Christendom’s truth), will continue treating singleness as a threat against Christian presence and witness. But it is also likely that the cultural stirrings against the domination of marriage and family will turn out to have given the church a precious gift, compelling many Christian communities to re-examine the role of blood and marriage ties within the larger family of God. These communities will need to do some serious work in re-learning happiness, and this is what the last chapter will be about.
Praise for Singleness and Marriage after Christendom
“This is an excellent book that provides a helpful corrective and an innovative approach to much of the Christian literature on what it means to be human and to be family. Lina Toth offers a careful analysis of the historical context which opens up a myriad of other ways of being and doing family. This is framed around friendship as a personal, communal, and missional practice which challenges us to live out new ways of being family in our current individualized and often isolated Western contexts.”
—Cathy Ross, head of Pioneer Mission Leadership Training, Oxford
“The book provides a very helpful way into charting the Scriptures, the early church, and what some key theologians have reflected on singleness and marriage. … It will provoke further thought, challenge inherited and prevailing attitudes on how we view sexual relationships, and raise questions as to what the church as community might entail. Drawing on the radical nature of Jesus, it provides a lifeline of hope to explore and provide richer resources on singleness, marriage, family life, and community, shaped by a deep biblical analysis. The book is a valuable resource, written by a gifted communicator, which will provide informed starting points for further discussion.”
—Roy Searle, former leader, Northumbria Community
“Though many today are appealing to ‘traditional family values’ or ‘traditional understandings of marriage,’ Lina Toth is one of the few seriously investigating these traditions. Her book makes her solid biblical and historical research beautifully accessible. Some cherished assumptions crumble, but her work enables us to grasp the shocking things Jesus actually said, and to be caught up in his call to a life of love, hope, joy, and intimacy in his new family.”
—Nathan Nettleton, Baptist pastor and marriage celebrant educator, Melbourne
About the Author
Rev. Dr Lina Toth is Assistant Principal and Lecturer in Practical Theology at the Scottish Baptist College in Paisley, Scotland, UK, and Doctoral Supervisor at the International Baptist Theological Study Centre, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. A musician and artist as well as a theologian, she is particularly interested in ethics, spirituality, and theology of culture. Her second love is history–not so much dates but people and stories which have shaped the world we have today.