Pure Nonsense: The Courtship Idealism That Failed

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I’m sure you are familiar with them, you know, that family who has a life that resembles a Thomas Kinkade painting, always so idyllic and cute. In fact, they are so adorable they are annoying. This sort of charmed life comes a sort of “holier than thou” smugness. Sure, they are too perfect to say it outright, they always religiously maintain that facade of sweetness, but they often have the easy answers that often betray their true cluelessness.

I can recall, for example, a lovely twenty-something, themselves engaged, who with complete sincerity suggested that my romantic struggles may be God’s will for me to remain single. They themselves successful because of their endearing charm and connections (which to them meant divine favor) whereas my own inability to navigate was to be taken equally as a sign. Apparently they worship the God of circumstances, one that absolved them of any responsibility to help those less fortunate—other than to offer some words of encouragement and advice.

Anyhow, thank God that doctors do not subscribe to a similar thought process: “We know you are lots of pain, broken legs are not easy for sure, but have you ever considered that it might not be God’s will for you to walk? Here’s an ice cube, I suck on one of these when I’m feeling down and out…” That sort of response would probably fall under the category of medical malpractice. Likewise, the advice of those who heap a burden on the shoulders of others and yet are unwilling to lift a finger to help (Matt. 23:4) are guilty of spiritual malpractice:

“Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:15‭-‬17 NIV)

The passage above, from James, contrasts the mere words of the pretentious from the sacrificial love that true faith requires. Talk is cheap, my darlings. And what my advice giver really meant to say is that they were unwilling to pull out all the stops on my behalf, they themselves were comfortable with my circumstances as they had persisted for years and thus they were unwilling to confront the prejudices or cultural assumptions that had made an impossible hurdle for me. But, rather than take personal responsibility for their own indifference towards my plight, they turned it into God’s will.

The Courtship Idealism That Failed…

When the news of the separation of Joshua Harris from his wife of over twenty years reached me this week it was hard not to connect it back to the courtship ideal he expressed many years ago. Harris, a “purity culture” advocate, rose to prominence in fundamentalist churches for his book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” published in 1997. In this book unmarried Harris promoted a model of courtship that was supposed to lead to happily ever after and instead left many of us outside looking in—unable to overcome this stumbling block put in our path.

The Harris model of courtship required a level of commitment that, for the less beautiful and bold, made it virtually impossible for many of us to get started. This absurdly increased threshold of commitment meant that unmarried women, even in their mid or late twenties, refuse to go so much as a coffee date with an eligible bachelor for fear that it could lead to ‘defilement’ or marriage. The horrors of being sucked into a commitment after finding out that slightly awkward guy is a lovable child of God! I mean, isn’t that what King Solomon had in mind by “guard your heart”?

I have about 1000 reasons to doubt that interpretation.

Pushers of purity culture didn’t necessarily intend their model as a panacea. I’m guessing Harris and others would deny that there were any guarantees of success that accompanied following their prescribed methods. I’m also pretty sure they did not anticipate the unintended consequences and damage caused by their teachings either. Nevertheless, they did “tie up the heavy, cumbersome loads” of fear and many have failed to find meaningful relationship with their religious counterparts as a result. It undoubtedly contributed to my own woes.

Sure, some, including Mr Harris, were able to get through this courtship minefield. However, that doesn’t mean it produced that perfect marriage that is promised by their courtship prescription. However, formulas aren’t going to produce happiness through the years and struggle of a marriage. If anything they built up impossible expectations for married life in the same way that they did for dating relationships and leads to disappointment. At very least, while unwarranted confidence is attractive, nobody wants to be married to someone with all the answers.

True Faith Comes Through Struggle…

For all of us who weren’t born into a Precious Moments world, who had to beg and plead, compete against the odds, claw for inches at a time, to earn our small measure of success, we can’t simply rely on circumstances. Our Pollyannaish notions of destiny and love have always went up against the headwinds of fear and brickwall after brickwall of rejection. We weren’t born tall, extraordinarily handsome or especially wise. If we were wait for our dreams to arrive on a silver platter we would never get anywhere.

If we were fatalists and shared the mechanical view of God’s will of those who depend on circumstances rather than faith, the faith of those who “ask, knock and seek” (Matt. 7:7-12) that Jesus described, then we could also blame circumstances for our not getting out of bed anymore. I can assure you of this, there were days where I had fight to continue, where it was only the love of another person that kept me going, and that’s what real faith is. Real faith is having the guts to face the impossible.

The cutesy patootsy life doesn’t actually require any faith, sacrifice or grace. Everything depends on their good feelings and God’s will mysteriously never goes against their own expectations. And it works until they face that first real test. When those delusions of “meant to be” are replaced with the reality of failure. I pity those who get the rug yanked out from under their idealism at a later age. That is why I pray that Mr Harris and his family find God’s grace is sufficient even when things do not go as planned.

We need fewer books giving advice. We need less advice from single men, with their graceless formulas (*ahem* Bill Gothard, are you listening?), and more faith of real action. Being a best-selling author at twenty-one might be a thrill and even good for your chances of getting married. My question is what did these idealistic men do to help others across that impossibly high threshold they created? In the end what matters is what we do to help others carry their burden.

It’s time to kiss the book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” goodbye. A courtship ideal cannot prevent divorce and it seems to more often prevent marriage. It is faith of action, not a courtship ideal, that makes a successful loving relationship possible. A faith that is willing to sacrifice, truly sacrifice, for the good of another person. A faith that makes the impossible possible rather than blames God’s plan for our own unwillingness to intervene on behalf of others.

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What Is Your Mennonite Marriageability Rating?

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Once upon a time I had a fairy-tale perspective of romance.  I believed in meeting the “right one” then “falling in love” and then living “happily ever after.” 

This is the Disney kind of love that keeps many young women bogged down in princess syndrome because they’re waiting for a knight in shining armor.  It is also why young men only pursue their ideals. 

It is totally faithless.

Instead of loving a person, we are caught up in our unspoken lists of attributes and unrealistic ideals.  Those who do find what they want will likely be disappointed once they marry and find out that not everything is as it appeared.

We might claim to love unconditionally and yet anyone claiming to be totally altruistic is a liar.  We love for what we get or what we hope to get and might as well be honest about it.  Much of what gets us hooked then hitched is superficial and our secret judgement probably should be openly examined.

I’ve decided to come up with a scorecard—both for fun and for introspection about the items listed.  How do you rate against ideals of the Mennonite culture?  Have you ever judged anyone based on any of the things mentioned below?

So, anyhow, without further ado, here’s a marriageability rating scorecard for conservative Mennonites.  

1) Appearance: Be cute or go home!

God may judge by the heart, but we tend to judge by appearance.  Many confuse outward beauty with virtue and stature with strength of character.  Being overweight, poorly dressed or unkempt will certainly count against you.  Sorry if you are not naturally stunning, but take solace in the fact that most of us aren’t and it hasn’t killed us yet.

  • +15 if you are a girl of average height and size to petite.
  • +15 if you are a guy over 5′-10″ tall and don’t look gawky.
  • +15 if you are a guy described as “handsome” by someone other than your mom or sisters.
  • +15 if you are physically fit or considered well-proportioned according to prevailing cultural standards.
  • +15 if you are a girl who gets more than 75 likes when you update your profile picture.
  • +5 if you are a guy with a pickup truck or Jeep.
  • -10 if you have been turned down or have never been asked for a date.

2) Ability: Wow!  Did you see that?

We might claim to value things like character and integrity over athleticism or charisma.  Unfortunately we don’t really have a way to quantify abstractions (like courage or perseverance against the odds) and yet do take notice of something we see clearly like a volleyball spike or a great singing voice.  There are no participation awards and moral victories in this category; it is win or lose, all of nothing, etc.

  • +15 if you have ever been picked to sing a solo.
  • +15 if you articulate well, make people laugh and people seek you out or gather around you.
  • +15 if you have ever played on a championship team and made a solid contribution.
  • +15 if you can play an instrument well enough to keep an audience.
  • +10 for going on a chorus tour more than once or being asked to sing at a wedding.
  • +5 if you are a notable artist, writer, etc.
  • +5 if you are a girl and bagged a buck. (-10 if you are a guy who has not)
  • +5 if you can sincerely parrot accepted Mennonite ideas.
  • -5 for actual intelligence.

3) Ancestory: Who are your parents again? 

One thing off the radar is the importance of pedigree.  Being from the right family can cover over a multitude of sins and being from the wrong family can mean nothing you do is ever going to be good enough.  There is a Mennonite pecking order, there are various tiers we can be classified in, and people rarely marry outside of their own family caste.

  • +20 if you are a pastor or missionary kid.
  • +15 if your dad is a successful businessman.
  • +15 if your mom was asked out by five or more guys before settling on your dad.
  • +10 if you have a common Mennonite surname.
  • +5 if you can play the Mennonite game.
  • -5 if your parents aren’t Mennonite.
  • -10 if you aren’t Mennonite.

4) Ambitions: God has led me to be important…

The Millennial generation is said to value traveling and experiences.  One of the privileges of American affluence is the lack of concern about things like shelter, clothing or food.  It took actual faith for those truly called to go out in the past.  However, today it only takes a fat wallet or an adventure seeking heart.  You can go for a few years and then come back to be knighted as a pastor or regarded as someone special.

  • +15 if you have the luxury of world travel without needing to truly count the cost.
  • +10 if your ambitions make you popular in the Mennonite religious culture.
  • +10 if you describe what you want to do as God’s leading.
  • +5 if your dad is a college graduate or taught a Bible school/seminar class.
  • +5 if you have over a half dozen siblings.
  • +5 if you or your dad is a pilot.

5) Activities: Doing the cool things that people notice.

I had thought it would be wrong to go to Bible school or a missionary trip in order to find a spouse and it would be taboo to admit that you did.  But the correlation is real.  Many conservative Mennonites *do* find their spouse this way and then use some kind of convoluted logic that assumes people who do these kinds of activities are more sincere because they do—never mind that the real reason many of them do these things is to be more marketable. 

  • +15 if you regularly play Rook and Settlers of Catan or think Spike Ball is awesome.
  • +10 if you have convinced yourself that short-term missionary trips and going to Bible school is a sign of spiritual depth.
  • +10 if you homeschooled and somehow avoided social awkwardness.
  • +5 if you think Christian schooling helped you be a better person.
  • +5 if your face was ever on a prayer card.
  • -5 for every break up.

6) Age: Over thirty?  Forgetaboutit…

It is no big secret that the American culture is youth obsessed.  Mennonites are no exception to this and are perhaps even more guilty of ageism than their secular counterparts.  There are many who might even be so bold (or arrogant) as to tell older singles that it might be God’s will that they remain single.  Nevermind the Bible would indicate age as an asset rather than a liability—that is one part of the book that is dismissed as irrelevant in our times.

  • +5 if you are between the age of 18-25
  • -10 if you are single by the age of thirty and not a sought-after person.
  • -1 for every additional year you are over thirty.

Can you outrank the writer?

Add up your totals and then comment your Mennonite marriageability rating if you dare. 

I come out around 20 points and expect to be easily surpassed by most of my conservative Mennonite peers. 

Of course this is not scientific or based in surveys, so don’t take it too seriously. 

However, I’m guessing that you will be more successful in getting hitched if you find a person at your eligibility rating level. 

Props to those of you who are able to overachieve.

Disposable Men: Millennial Rejection of Marriage and Mennonite Bachelors

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We live in an age that prefers convenience over conservation. We do not want long-term commitment to that plastic cup at the picnic over the weekend or anything else really. Even marriage has become disposable and cheap to match the current generation.

Marriage in the conservative Mennonite community is one of those things that has not undergone this silverware to plastic transformation. Divorce is not an option for those raised in this tradition. However—having been otherwise assimilated into the prevailing culture—many of us are choosing to divorce from a marriage commitment altogether and remain single.

In some cases there can be abstinence from marriage for religious and other good reasons. Paul wrote: “Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man (unmarried) to remain as he is.” (1 Corinthians 7:26) That recommendation likely being for the “present crisis” of widespread persecution and the coming destruction of Jerusalem.

But, the awkward unholy alliance of Mennonite and millennial values is not a Christian ideal.

In this age I suspect the choice to remain single is often selfish and simply a reflection of millennial generation values having rubbed off on us. To many marriage seems inconvenient, it would impose on their freedom to travel the world and require maturation. We, like other millennials, postpone our adulthood and some would rather remain perpetually childish.

There is some difference between us as conservative Mennonites and the typical millennial. We, unlike them, are afraid to date and young women encouraged to turn down all suitors who do not fit their (or their mother’s) idealistic list of requirements. They are convinced (and perhaps because of a culture too focused on women being submissive) not to take a risk until they simply lose interest.

You’ll note that I’ve positioned women as the gatekeepers to courtship and marriage and that’s because they are. It is the one place in conservative Mennonite culture where they know their voice is heard. Can we really blame a young woman, especially one raised around a patriarchal dad or controlling brothers, for being reluctant to sign away her independence?

Unfortunately her reluctance is not equally matched by male counterparts. I know many exasperated unmarried guys who followed all the rules, who jumped through all the hoops, and have only known rejection. A good Mennonite guy will not even get a first date unless he is judged worthy by some incomprehensible measure.

Our not choosing commitment in the present will cost our faith and future potential.

I’m all for choice and choosing wisely. However, that is something altogether different from choosing not to choose altogether for fear of choosing incorrectly. There is an unbalance in favor of over-caution (or a commitment phobia) that could result in lasting consequences and serious disappointment if not addressed.

Marriage, a relationship where Christian commitment to self-sacrificial love is tested and exampled, should not be so easily discarded. Men, especially non-resistant men who can’t serve society as soldiers and police, have strong desire for something of tangible concrete value to protect. Women, by contrast, can have this need to nurture fulfilled in caretaking, a career in the medical profession or elsewhere, and even profit handsomely.

A single man is often ineligible for leadership positions in the church. Conservative Mennonite employers often offer less compensation men without families or overlook them entirely. And, in youth obsessed American culture, his disadvantage only grows and increase in age only increases the stigma. The married men brag from the pulpit how their lovely wife made them everything they are while the bachelor wonders why he is amongst those unworthy.

That’s not to say that there aren’t many unmarried and wanting women either. For as many young women who got asked two dozen times and said “no” every time, there’s also probably as many who never got asked once. It is because Mennonite guys won’t risk asking a girl who doesn’t fit their list of requirements for fear of rejection and getting a reputation for a girl they were unsure about to begin with.

Yet, in my estimation, it is unmarried men and the future of the church that are hurt most in the current paradigm. Our culture is still traditional enough that a single woman can expect to be under the care of her parents. She can enjoy a special flexibility whilst waiting for her white knight. Not true of her brothers, they can’t afford to go on adventures and yet risk being judged as unspiritual for preparing for the responsibility of marriage.

Unmarried conservative Mennonite men are the most disposable. We must be always available without complaint at a moments notice and be providers protection without compromise. It is pathetic, actually, what men give out for free. But to be more guarded, to carefully guard our hearts as something precious or preservable, and keep our strengths to ourselves is impermissible.

We must be like a paper plate, an adequate stand-in performer, something wanted around for temporary use, and okay to be tossed in the trash. And, yet, we must also live up to the traditional Mennonite male role and display the qualities of fine chinaware.

Respect your own value if you wish to be respected.

Here’s my recommendation for those single people who wish to be married and have been routinely rejected or overlooked: Stop grovelling in front of the unappreciative, open your eyes like Peter did envisioning the expansion of the church (Acts 10:9-16) and open the doors of your wedding feast to those who understand the value you intend to offer them.

Jesus spoke about not casting our pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6) and not persisting with those who do not value us: “If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” (Luke 9:5) We might want to consider this advice when the value of our commitment is rejected in our own communities.

Loyalty can be a fault. There are unmarried men and women outside your own religious community who might better appreciate your Christian testimony. So don’t waste the remainder of your virile years wondering why the ‘right one’ won’t even have coffee with you. God isn’t a Mennonite and—as a faithful child of God—you aren’t garbage.