When I finished reading Robert James Waller's 1992 smash hit book The Bridges of Madison County, I was immediately reminded of Dorothy Parker's famous quip, "This is not a book that should be tossed aside lightly; it should be thrown with great force." And that's just what I did. I threw The Bridges of Madison County square across the room in sheer disgust.
I know this is one of the most controversial things I have ever said from this pulpit.
If you loved The Bridges of Madison County, take a big, deep breath and bear with me. I know it was a romantic best-seller. But I'm a minister and I've got to be unpopular and look at what it says about morals and ethics, none of which are good.
Now, in case you're one of the few people who didn't read this book or see the later movie (much better than the book) starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep, let me fill you in. It's about a divorced photographer who goes to photograph covered bridges of Iowa in 1965 and stops to ask directions of Francesca Johnson, the Italian wife of a farmer who is home alone while her husband and kids are at the state fair selling hogs or something. I probably don't need to tell you that Robert Kincaid is way too sexy to ever sell hogs at a state fair. He is probably too sexy to even go to a state fair. (He is not a man who would ever eat cheese curds and corndogs).
Francesca herself has a slightly exotic accent and wears aprons tied around her womanly hips just so, and well… you can imagine what happens. They have an affair. They're soulmates. That's what the author seems to want us to believe. They're soulmates, so it's okay.
For four days Francesca and Robert unravel the secrets of each other's souls and make magical love, of course and at the end of their long weekend she has the choice to stay with her dungaree-wearing husband and kids or to run off with the dashing Mr. Kincaid.
She chooses to stay with her family. She is a dutiful wife and mother, sacrificing her own personal happiness for them. But Francesca writes all about her affair and leaves the journals for her children to find after her death, an act I found incredibly selfish as in "Dear kids, I sacrificed true love to be your mom and to stay married to your schlub of a dad. Now my life is over and you can know what kind of tormented woman I really was. Love, Mom."
You can see I have a few opinions about this book.
I didn't hate this book because I don't understand passion or because I haven't experienced the kind of chemistry that ignited between Francesca and Robert, or because I can't relate to what it's like to be madly, searingly in love with someone and then to give them up. I didn't hate this book because I condemn adultery, although I certainly don't condone it.*
I hated this book most of all, because I thought the author made a caricature of the character of Francesca's husband, which is what always happens in these works that romanticize and glamorize adultery the cheated-on spouse is always some poor schlub or schlubette who doesn't deeply understand their partner, isn't profound enough, or sexy enough, or poetic enough to deserve to be the center of a great love story.
And that infuriates me. It infuriates me because it perpetuates the mythology that love and especially love as it is expressed through the covenant of marriage is something that we have to earn by being fabulous enough to star in a movie or to be the main character in a best-seller. How many of us can fit that bill? Very few.
One doesn't earn loyalty for being a dream girl or guy. That's not fair. One earns it by being loving, by being human, by standing by someone.
While I am not married, my observation is that the romance of marriage doesn't come from two people being "hot" enough, alluring enough, or thrilling enough to keep romance alive for decades on end. It comes from two people (of any gender) taking seriously the covenantal nature of marriage, within whose vows the spouses promise to love and to cherish each other ‘til death do they part.
The poet Rilke speaks of this kind of challenging and salvific love when he writes,
"There is scarcely anything more difficult than to love one another. That it is work, day labor, day labor, God knows there is no other word for it. And look, added to this is the fact that young people are not prepared for such difficult loving; for convention has tried to make this most complicated and ultimate relationship into something easy and frivolous, has given it the appearance of everyone's being able to do it. It is not so." The poet goes on to say that there is incredible richness in doing the hard work of patiently loving, of sticking faithfully with the commitment to one other.
The philosopher Jacob Needleman (The Wisdom Of Love: Toward A Shared Inner Life), from whose book I got the Rilke quote, says that the world is starved for a new understanding of love.
The world is starved for a new understanding of love.
I agree with Needleman that marriage is one of the few relationships in our society that provide two people an opportunity to practice this new kind of love, based not on the thrill of constant pleasure but on helping one another find truth and meaning.
If you thought marriage was great because you get tax breaks and an assured Saturday night date out of it, I've got news for you: as fine as those benefits are, marriage is actually great and important because it gives you an incredible opportunity to practice the spiritual discipline of loving another person enough to support their spiritual growth as well as yours. I envy you that. So don't take it for granted! As an unmarried person, I tend to idealize marriage somewhat. I think that's okay. Who better but a minister the one who has the joy of pronouncing people "wedded partners for life?to idealize the state of holy matrimony?
Which reminds me that there is something else about marriage that Robert James Waller's scenario doesn't allow for: a good marriage isn't just about two people. It is about two people strengthening each other so that they can each, singly and together as a unit, be a better force in community. I say this at every marriage at which I officiate, or something like it: "From this day forward, the bond that you create together should draw you out into the world in love, to expand your circle of friends and interest, to give you more emotional resources with which you can make a blessing beyond the boundary of your own home."
Adultery is just the opposite of this expansive blessing. If adultery is about anything, it is about two people meeting on the sly, expending energy on keeping a shameful secret, pursuing pleasure for themselves at the cost not only of their partner's trust, but of the trust of their entire extended family and community. When I read the Ten Commandments and I see "Thou shalt not commit adultery," and then "Thou shalt not steal," I think they're cut from the same moral cloth. Adultery and theft are nasty moral siblings to each other. They both very often derive from extreme selfishness and entitlement, from the mistaken notion that if I want something, I should be able to have it, and everyone else be damned. Everyone else can pay for what I want; I shouldn't have to. What I care about is my pleasure, my fulfillment, my distraction, my new toy, my cheap --or -- expensive thrill.
I'm not talking about Jean Valjean stealing a loaf of bread because he's starving to death. We all understand that kind of stealing. Likewise, there are extraordinary circumstances under which we may understand and forgive the motivators for adultery. But let's not go there this morning. Let's stay in the hard place for awhile longer, as uncomfortable as that may be.
If there is anything that two people can do that contracts, rather than expands, their selves, their characters, their interests and their souls, it is adultery. Yes, Jesus saved the woman caught in adultery from being stoned by reminding the mob who was ready to kill her of their own hypocrisy. But he didn't just give her a hug and walk away. He told her to go and sin no more. Straighten up and fly right, sister. You're sinning. And it harms not just you but all of us. These people might not have the right idea in getting ready to kill you, but neither have you got the right idea by committing adultery.
Back in those ancient days, adultery was forbidden because wives were considered property, not equal partners. An adulterous woman, you see, might become pregnant by another man, and then you've got issues of paternity to deal with. There was also just the plain embarrassment of your woman disobeying you. (Remember when "honor and obey" was part of the marriage vows?)
So when Moses got the word from God that "Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery," he would have understood it not as a commandment intended to spare people's feelings and to promote intimacy, but more as a commandment about property and ownership. Although I should point out that the Jews, unlike other patriarchal societies, commanded men to remain faithful to their wives as well as vice versa.
I was fascinated by the situational ethics in an episode in Elizabeth Gilbert's book Eat, Pray, Love, where she relates the interesting technique used by a Balinese medicine woman to help couples with fertility problems. After checking both husband and wife and establishing that the problem is with the male, Wayan tells the husband that his wife needs special treatment and must come to her office for a series of appointments. Unbeknownst to the husband, Wayan procures the sexual services of one of the virile young taxi drivers in town to have intercourse with the "patient," hoping for a baby and for a miraculous cure for her infertility. We may laugh at this creative take on adultery, but in a culture where a man would very likely commit violence against his wife upon finding that he is infertile, it is not so much farcical as tragic.
It may surprise you to learn that the great reformer Martin Luther advised women to find new sex partners if their husbands could not make them pregnant. The history of adultery is more interesting than we knew.
I am well aware of the many defenses of adultery. It's no big deal, some people say. It's much the commonest and least damaging of sins, others say. It's just sex, I've heard. But of course, sex is not just sex. Sex within marriage is, among other things, the exchange of life energy between two people in a covenanted relationship. When one of the couple shares his or her life energy with another partner or many he or she also brings with them the essence of their spouse, bringing them into an intimate synergy with a complete stranger, without their permission. In an adulterous relationship, there are never just two in a bed. Spouses are woven and bound together. One cannot go outside the bond without bringing the other with him or her. The devastation that comes from adultery is irrational because it is spiritual and psychical. It is a violation not just of trust, but a theft and degradation of the cheated on one's spiritual essence. Thou shalt not steal.
Someone may draw me aside later and say that you or someone you know had an affair that was actually healing and inspiring, a great learning experience. No one found out, you'll say, so no one was hurt. To that I say, thank God, but I'm confident that the learning could have come some way that didn't involve lying and cheating. Couldn't it have? There are other ways we can channel thrilling chemistry than by sexual intimacy. In the 19th century, there was this great tradition of romantic friendships. Men and women or men and men or women and women wrote each other love letters and poems, took long, starry-eyed walks together and carried on intense flirtations all without ever crossing the line into sexual activity. It can be done. Falling in love is a wonderful thing that doesn't always have to result in falling into bed. We've lost so much in these times by assuming that it does.
Others will object that I'm not being realistic. But we're just not meant to be monogamous, they will say. Our life spans are so much longer than they used to be, they will say. Well, that's fine. I have wondered and thought the same things. So let me ask this: why get married, then? If one feels that monogamy is unrealistic and undesirable, why be a hypocrite -- taking advantage of all the societal approval and legal benefits that come with marriage-- if you don't intend to fulfill one of its most basic expectations?
Because in our society, my friends, marriage implies maturity, monogamy and commitment. As definitions of marriage change to include same-sex couples, I am certain that one thing will remain the same: marriage by any popular definition in our society means to be faithful to one, forsaking all others. When two people achieve that milestone, society grants them instant credit for being grown-up. It is, I think, dishonest to accept that credit and that approbation and to fail to make good on its solemn commitments.
Fidelity is not an arbitrary commitment; it is integral to marriage. Fidelity isn't meant to be a punishment, or an ethical obstacle course, or a stumbling block, or a "Take my wife, please" joke. It's meant, I think, to invite us to put away childish things, as St. Paul says, to focus our love and attention on something deeper and more profound than the incessant seeking after the thrill of a new body, a new infatuation and the mythical perfect lover, who will thrill us in every way, forever and ever.
In the Ten Commandments, God says to us, Look children, this is a covenantal world you are living in. It is a world with a sacred dimension, and these ten rules I give you now will help you keep before you that sacred reality, to feel it, to know it, and best of all, to grow within it. In the covenant of marriage, a legal and spiritual agreement that is even older than those Ten Commandments, we have the opportunity to more intimately know that sacred reality, to live it, in all its peaks and valleys, with one other cherished person.
No one said there would be constant thrills and happiness in it. It promises something much deeper a tie that binds not only two, and their children, but all of us, for better for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, for as long as we all shall live.
Let us go forth honoring marriage, whether our own, or others'.
This was one of the most difficult sermons I have ever delivered. Walter, our student minister, and I discussed at length the sense of responsibility the preacher has to communicate the truth as she understands it, knowing that that conclusion may alienate or hurt some listeners. I certainly knew this would be true in the case of this sermon. I went home on Sunday afternoon with a heavy heart.
In my private reflections and personal life, I have had a lot more moral ambiguity about adultery than these pages reveal. I have known many couples who found lasting love through what began as adulterous relationships. I have known people in marriages so unhappy that the jolt of an affair woke them up and helped them move out of an abusive situation. My own great-grandmother, Anna Kurtak Billo, was in an arranged marriage and ran away from her husband to reunite with her beloved. My great-grandfather, Stephen Billo, caught her and beat her in the town square to assert his dominance over his disobedient wife. This was expected of him. No one should sacrifice his or her soul to the expectations of marriage.
All of which is to say that my personal reaction to adultery is far more mixed and nuanced than this sermon would suggest. And yet this sermon came out of long hours of serious reflection on adultery and its consequences for individuals and families that I have known, and I could not avoid or compromise those conclusions. I felt as I explored the subject as I do today that adultery is minimized and even winked at in our culture, and that we do not take seriously enough its damage to our families and communities. One need only to browse through the personal ads to find hundreds of people brazenly advertising for a married lover because they're bored, or "the zing is gone." It is this kind of libidinous egotism I wanted most to rail against.
As a preacher, I had hard news to deliver, and felt it was my responsibility to do so. As a pastor, I want all of my congregants should know that my door is not ever closed to them whether they are now, or have been, involved in an extra-marital affair, or if they are considering one. My ministerial commitment is to help married people uphold the covenant of their marriage, but that commitment does not replace or supercede my willingness to counsel and support anyone wherever he or she is on the issue. - VW