Review: Modern Kinship: A Queer Guide to Christian Marriage, by David and Constantino Khalaf (Westminster John Knox Press. Pp. 232. $16)
By Victor Lee Austin
The Khalafs are a norm-busting, deeply traditional married couple. They have a common surname (it was originally David’s), and they understand having a common name to be a sign to the world that their marriage has established a new intimate household and has (as they said in their vows) made them “kin” one to another. But a common name entails an unavoidable sacrifice, and they would be the last people to say that what they have done is something others should do. Indeed they are clear that they think it very unfortunate that in traditional marriages the woman gave up her family name to take that of her husband. Nonetheless, they acknowledge the power of a common name, and desire it.
I say they are a deeply traditional married couple. Although not virgins when they met, they chose to abstain from sex and did not set up a common household until they were married. They understand their marriage as being for life, and deliberately included the traditional words in their vows: that the vows were to last for as long as they both shall live. They are also quite level-headed about the problems and dangers that beset marriages: they describe their misunderstandings, how they worked through difficulties in navigating their varied pasts. They see divorce as having real possibility that cannot be denied — and on that very account something that requires intentional work with each other so as to avoid it.
They are countercultural at the very same time as they are cultural. Constantino’s conversion narrative — only briefly told — is that in a year of desolation, coming at the end of a nine-year relationship (and the simultaneous end of a three-year affair), he found himself “in communion with the Spirit.” He turned to the Gospels. There he met Jesus. And he fell in love with Jesus. Although told in a gay register, this is an ancient conversion pattern. And its outcome will be familiar to anyone at all acquainted with the world of American Christianity. After he fell in love with Jesus, he met David. There followed coincidences, happenstances, unlikely differences between them, and yet, they fell in love and are married — and are now working on their marriage, just like any Christian couple should.
The book will appeal to LGBTQ Christians as a way of applying to their particular situations the sort of romantic advice, marital preparation, and concern for marital health that is widely available for heterosexual couples.
But now I must dig deeper. The Khalafs, being gay, see some things that married straight people often miss. One such thing is the false elevation of marriage as the highest achievement in a believer’s life. On the contrary, they say, marriage is hardly a pinnacle of achievement; rather, it causes them to see their inadequacies. Life is a growth into maturity. Here they say that marriage is not necessary for growth into maturity: “there’s no reason to believe that those who haven’t unlocked these achievements [from meeting the demands of marriage] are any less far along in their maturity.” The Church needs to say that marriage is not necessary.
I agree. So do a number of women who have written on singleness in the Church (for instance Jana Bennett, Christine Colón, Bonnie Field, and Christina Hitchcock). And so do celibate gays, both evangelical and Roman Catholic, at the Spiritual Friendship weblog.
I want to ask the Khalafs: Is the experience of sex necessary for human maturity? They are open to the possibility of a person living as a celibate, with the proviso that it be a self-chosen life and not one forced upon individuals by the Church. (Is that a fair dichotomy? It seems to me one could choose freely to submit to biblical authority, and then hear the Bible as calling nonmarried people to celibacy, and then participate in a church that encouraged such a reading of the Bible and its corresponding life choices.)
Nonetheless, although they admit that sex can mean different things to different people in different circumstances, at its heart “sex is good, a gift from God used to express a unique and particular kind of intimacy between human beings.” But what is that “unique and particular kind of intimacy”? Can there be intimacy that is not expressed sexually? At one place they say sex is “the closest two humans can get to each other.” Does this mean that sexual intimacy is the highest human form of intimacy? This is at least questionable. Are they closer to each other than Jesus is to either of them? Or if in bad theology one thinks having a divine nature adds something to Jesus (it does not, but that is another article), is there no one in their life that could not be closer to them than they are to each other?
Maybe so, but I want to question that assumption.
Back to sex as God’s gift “to express a unique and particular kind of intimacy between human beings.” Note that children go unmentioned. This is not a gay thing, not an LGBTQ thing; this is an American thing, early 21st century, when children have become productions of the will of others enabled by ever-advancing technology. (I regret to say that their chapter on children is, to my mind, the weakest of the book.) Is there no problem, for instance, with surrogacy as a cultural practice? Does it not open women (particularly vulnerable women) to exploitation at the hands of the powerful? Not to mention the question of abortion, the typical contractual provision that payment will be withheld if an abortion is not obtained by the surrogate when requested. And so forth.
Children are not an optional consideration in a sexual ethic, nor in a marriage theology. But they are clearly optional in the thinking of most Americans about marriage. In that sense we see, from another angle, how culturally conformist this book is.
So where do we go from here? Some of the most interesting parts of the Khalafs’ book are when they insist on reality. They are wise to see divorce as a danger: it is a real thing in our society, and married people need to recognize the forces that would pull them apart from each other. They also recognize that some gays do not think being married entails sexual exclusivity. The Khalafs want to be faithful to each other, and they recognize that it can be harder to do that if their surrounding community does not share the same values. (At this point I would add there are clear parallels in heterosexual communities.)
They do not want to prescribe — they have all the late-modern allergies to closing down options — but nonetheless they are realists, at least with regard to some matters. What then is the conversation to be had? One might start with (what has been called) natural law. To my mind, natural law entails nothing more than ultimate realism: it is an effort to identify what is truly helpful to human flourishing. Its contents are notoriously difficult to specify, but in whatever form they give more content than the naked decisions of human will. Natural law need not be taken as a “prescribed”; it might be only a recognition of what is real.
I would like to suggest that any persons who are guided by reality are open to this conversation.
We Christians need to have a conversation about the use of three kinds of images: marital, family, and friend. Despite its title, this book provides only the most cursory analysis of biblical language, and its arguments that marriage is and has always been essentially a matter of kinship are open to the charge of proof-texting.
So let’s get to work. (1) God is the spouse of Israel. (2) God is our Father and we are siblings of Jesus by adoption. And (3) disciples of Jesus are, in the end, Jesus’ friends. How do these three languages work together, and how do they point to different things? I am not persuaded that marriage is kinship. I might be persuaded that we need rites and ceremonies to honor the establishment of kinship, and that such rites and ceremonies could involve blessings and the exchange of symbols and lead to the establishment of homes. I do think that both kinship and friendship are expansive in a way that marriage is not: I do not think three or more people should be married, but I do think that siblings should always be open to having another sibling, and friends to having another friend.
The most revolutionary idea, in today’s world, might be that it is only in marriage that sex has a place. Not because it is bad, but because its strong character forecloses the potential development of other forms of intimacy. George Bernard Shaw is reported to have said that mathematics is infinitely more interesting than sex. I am rather sure I disagree. I think that a human being (a human mind and spirit and emotional constitution) and human beings together (in their creativity and beauty) and God himself: these are the most interesting things of all.
When the gay movement was nascent a couple of generations ago, its agenda (some might say its promise) was to undo marriage, to smash heteronormativity to bits. There was something idolatrous about marriage. But perhaps the process was misconceived. What we need to do is decenter the place of sex. We need to put sex in its place.
The Rev. Victor Austin is theologian in residence at Church of the Incarnation, Dallas, and the Diocese of Dallas.