Category Archives: Sacraments

One Perfect Day: Selling Gowns to “non-traditional” brides

The industry’s definition of a traditional bride is one who embraces the trappings of Bridezilla culture with enthusiasm, and her less enthusiastic counterpart is, understandably, a problem. When Vows magazine, a trade publication for wedding-dress retailers, featured an article on catering to the ‘non-traditional bride,’ it noted that such customers ‘don’t always make ‘good’ brides because they’re often uncomfortable starring in the role of ‘girl in a big white dress” and warned retailers that the nontraditional bride was dangerously apt to “forget the wedding and prepare for marriage.”

– Rebecca Mead, One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding

Let’s be frank: it’s clear that the wedding industry does not have the best interest of society, marriage or the common good in mind: its only good is to persuade engaged couples, their families, and their guests  to part with huge sums of money.

One Perfect Day: What a Wedding Represents

Another quotation from Rebecca Mead, One Perfect Day, on the most important sales item for the wedding industry:

“The most significant thing that the wedding industry is selling is fantasy, about the wedding day itself and about the marriage that follows it. The foremost product peddled by the wedding industry is the notion that a wedding, if done right, will provide fulfillment of a hitherto unimagined degree, and will herald a similarly flawless marriage and a subsequent life of domestic contentment. From this perspective, naturally, doing a wedding right means doing it according to the wedding-industry playbook, with no expense spared and no bridal trifle uncoveted. If a bride buys into the wedding industry, she is promised the happily-ever-after that she, in her big white dress and tiara, deserves.

With the prevalence of both high levels of divorce and indebtedness in the United States today, it’s probably high time for someone to call the wedding industry on this massive falsehood. As a theologian, the self-centeredness, to the point of idolatry, of this statement is front and center.

One Perfect Day: What should I register for?

In the first chapter of her book One Perfect Day, Rebecca Mead describes an event called “Wedding March on Madison”, in which Madison Avenue retailers invite brides-to-be to a weekend seminar which Peter K. Hunsinger, the then-president of the Conde Nast Bridal Group, promised would be an opportunity for a bride to “get her MBA in getting married”.

The audience members were certainly eager to learn from the editors of (the bridal magazine) Brides, and were full of questions. How far in advance should a bride start getting facials? As soon as she is engaged, said Denise O’Donoghue, the magazine’s beauty and jewelry director. “Just know that planning a wedding is going to be stressful, so take your fiance for a massage,” Donaghue advised. “You have to involve them in things that are fun for them. The thing to do is to enjoy your engagement period, so you have that glow.” Should a bride register for an engagement party as well as for the wedding? She should register for everything, said Donna Ferrari, the magazine’s tabletop, food and wine director. “Registering for gifts is one of the most indispensable tools in the entire wedding process,” said Ferrari. “It is a convenience and a courtesy to your guests. You can set up an account with a bank for a mortgage; you can register for sports equipment, for luggage, for tablewares. It lets you perpetuate old traditions, and create new ones. Start the registry process months ahead. Twirl those forks; bring swatches; have a clip book. A lot of people are going to say, ‘We don’t need all that stuff.’ You do.”

Aside from the fact that I’m grateful that my fiancee holds exactly none of these attitudes, I cannot help but think that there is very little here worthy of imitation by people who take their Christian spirituality seriously. The admonition of St. Paul, in I Corinthians 11, to avoid gorging oneself at the communion table while other people go hungry, comes to mind.

As for the last line, somewhere in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, a man named Wendell Berry writes novels and poems at a writing desk with a pen and paper, begging to differ with the idea that we need all of that stuff. Beyond the fact that it such over-and-above materialism helps us to commit ecological suicide, what does such love for material objects do to our love of this other person? What does it say that such a momentous self-giving as marriage is the occasion for such blatant, self-gratifying materialism?

Stanley Hauerwas: “You Never Marry the Right Person”

Stanley Hauerwas

"Stanley the Manley"

I’m not typically one to like much from Relevant magazine, but Tim Keller has a nice article  here about marriage and Christians that includes this infamous – and spot on – paragraph from Stanley Hauerwas.

“Destructive to marriage is the self-fulfillment ethic that assumes marriage and the family are primarily institutions of personal fulfillment, necessary for us to become “whole” and happy. The assumption is that there is someone just right for us to marry and that if we look closely enough we will find the right person. This moral assumption overlooks a crucial aspect to marriage. It fails to appreciate the fact that we always marry the wrong person.

We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.”

Reading Barth Backwards, IV/4: The Goal of Baptism

Like the Matthias Gruenewald portrait of John the Baptist of which he was so fond, for Barth the act of water baptism can only point away from itself, towards the twisted body of the Crucified. Like John the Baptist standing and pointing at Jesus in the Isenheim Altarpiece, baptism’s goal rests not in its elemental washing of a person with water, nor in the characteristics or virtues of those participating in it, but rather in its ability to both witness to the reality of Jesus as well as its ability to follow him in his submission to John’s baptism.

“What John and those baptized by him in the Jordan had in view was the future in which John proclaimed to be directly imminent, the coming kingdom, the coming judgment, the coming grace of God in the form of the remission of sins, the ‘mightier’ than John who was coming to baptize with the Holy Spirit. The demanded conversion, and baptism in the Jordan as its concrete form, had reference to this future. There could be no question of any presenting or materializing of this coming One either openly or secretly immanent in, or brought about by, the human action of the Baptist and those baptized by him. What was preached was not the bringing or representing of this coming One, but conversion towards him” (69-70).

In my experience, one pitfall of both paedobaptists as well as those who practice adult baptism is a decoupling of baptism from conversion, albeit in two different ways. For adult baptizing groups, conversion is something which happens in the heart in a moment in time in which one decides to follow after the way of Jesus. To be sure, for many of these folks, their conversion experience already contains what Barth terms the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” so necessary for one to participate in the life of the Kingdom of God. But water baptism, which Barth terms a necessary first step in following Jesus in a life of discipleship, is often seen as a secondary, unnecessary, and relatively unimportant step in one’s life of discipleship. For these folks, baptism can turn into a ritual which only detracts from a heart relationship with God. I have seen both relatively young children (e.g. 6-8 years old) baptized with minimal preparation or faith formation by adult baptisting groups, just as I have had students training for vocational ministry at the Pentecostal college in which I teach who were not baptized because no one had ever told them that baptism was an important step in their discipleship.

For paedobaptists, conversion gets decoupled from baptism in a different direction. Since many people in infant-baptizing communities are themselves baptized as infants, there is no possibility for conscious conversion prior to baptism. In many instances, this infant baptism is undertaken with either a non-existent or very weak confirmation curriculum while the infant baptized are in junior high or high school. At its worst, this sort of confirmation essentially consists of memorization of certain facts or doctrines with little practical connection, and concludes with a “graduation from church”.

Suffice it to say that Barth had neither of these in mind here.

Reading Barth Backwards, IV/4: Jesus’ Baptism as Normative for Christians [Baptism with Water, #6]

In the Christology and Soteriology survey course I teach at a Pentecostal university, I focus in on the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist as being pedagogical, in the sense that these sacraments teach us about what it is to be a follower of Jesus. The lecture I give on baptism is inevitably the most controversial lecture of each term. This surprised me the first time I taught the course this way, but it has held true each time I’ve taught it since as well. Many evangelicals are conditioned to believe that what really matters for salvation is whether one has made a personal decision to be in relationship with Jesus Christ, and received reconciliation with God. Barth is no less concerned that Christians are (in his verbiage) “baptized in the Holy Spirit” through divine bridging of the chasm that exists between God and humanity. And while Barth is careful to not collapse the distinction between baptism with water and what he calls baptism with the Holy Spirit, he also does not fall into the evangelical habit of making baptism something that is mostly ancillary from salvation itself. For Barth, the importance of this baptism lies in the example of Jesus himself, and his submission to John’s baptism at the start of his Messianic ministry.

“The [early Christian] community certainly did not have to enter upon a new Messianic and saving office of its own. But it did have to enter on the way of those who are called to be His witnesses, and who are thus called to fellowship with him (I Cor 1.9). As they entered on this way, the beginning of His way could not be of mere historical interest for them. It necessarily became exemplary, normative and binding in respect of the form of the beginning of their new life. When in faith in Him the beginning of a life of fellowship with Him was at issue, it had to follow His act of obedience, His subjection to God, His solidarity with men, His acceptance of service both of God and of men. It had to submit to this, to integrate itself into it. It had to perform the same act of acknowledgement and commitment as that with which He began His work as Man. It had to do this with reference to Him and to His beginning, yet resolutely for this very reason. Since His concrete act was baptism with water, it had to perform this act in the same concrete form.

Could it be obedient to Him, or follow Him, without perceiving, affirming and accepting in practice the fact that there, in and with His baptism in the Jordan, an order was set up which embraces and applies to all his disciples, to which they must all submit, since there the community was in fact commanded to baptize, and all who seek to attach themselves both to Him and to it are commanded to have themselves baptized? This is a train of thought which is not to be found anywhere in the New Testament, perhaps because its content and conclusion were so self-evident to the New Testament community.” (68)

This also poses important questions to those in communities which baptize infants, particularly in that the rite of confirmation must be made to be as self-evidently Christological to the participant – it must not collapse into the mere affirmation of church membership or, worse yet, the “graduation ceremony” from participation in the life of the Christian community. On a similar note, those denominations which emphasize the covenant made between person and God at baptism must also be careful to continue to emphasize the exemplary character of Jesus’ baptism, and that this is a necessary first step to following the narrow road of salvation, rather than an end in itself which assures one’s own salvation.