Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Meaning Of Marriage

Marriage has fallen out of fashion. People still get married, but they no longer feel like they have to. In 1960, 72% of adults in the US were married. In 2008, the number dropped to 50%. There’s no such thing as “living in sin” anymore. 75% of couples lived together before marriage in 2008, a practice unheard of in 1960. We are two and three generations removed from the Sexual Revolution, and our view of marriage has changed so much it’s barely recognizable. And while there were flaws in the traditional view of marriage, doing away with it has created just as many problems, if not more, than it solved. In The Meaning of Marriage, Tim and Kathy Keller outline the connection between marriage and Christianity, and why both need the other.

For the Kellers, the change in marriage started with a loss of faith. A society without God doesn’t have a higher power for people to put their hope in, so they look for it in each other. Instead of finding meaning through a relationship with the divine, interpersonal relationships and the social status that comes with them become the primary way people define themselves. The result is a narcissistic culture where the pursuit of sex is as much about validation as pleasure. Everyone wants to be the type of person other people want to have sex with, even if they don’t want to actually have sex with a lot of people. Conversely, there’s nothing sadder than someone who can’t get laid. In American Pie, the main characters are obsessed with losing their virginity before they graduate high school. They don’t want to feel like losers.

Marriage is the next step in the process. We aren’t just looking for a companion these days. We want a soulmate. No one wants to think they settled. In a world where we can find hundreds of dates on our phones, how can we know someone is the best we can get? Marriage has gone from something that helps us get where we are going to the final destination. Instead of romance strengthening a marriage, marriage is now a way to strengthen a romance. We want so much from our significant other that there’s no way they can live up to our expectations. It’s no wonder the divorce rate is so high. No one is going to be happy all the time. That’s not how life works. It’s not that we don’t value marriage enough. It’s that we ask it to do too much.

From a Christian perspective, we have turned love into an idol. Our hearts are designed to worship God, and if we put anything else there instead, it becomes an idol. There’s a reason “have no other gods before me” was the first commandment: idol worship is at the root of evil. Even good things, like romance and marriage, become bad if we get our identity from them. Getting your identity from something gives it power over you. People who define themselves by their wealth will do anything for money. Famous people create an image for themselves that becomes their identity, and they lose their mind when it gets challenged. Nothing becomes more important than the brand:
The Lance Armstrong case is a great example of what sociologists call the social construction of reality because he used the media, threats and intimidation, his disease, and philanthropy to as he put it “control the narrative” of his life. That is he manipulated the people and institutions (i.e. the media, athletics, and even the medical community) to create a version of reality where he was a drug-free champion. “Controlling the narrative” is another way of saying influencing all that is being said, written, and thought about you.
If what your spouse thinks of you determines your value as a person, it distorts the relationship. You become more concerned with winning their approval than loving them well, and those things don’t go together. The same thing happens in parenting. People who want their kids to like them end up spoiling them because they indulge their every whim.

The freedom the gospel brings is that your identity is no longer tied to what other people think of you. Jesus Christ died on the cross for your sins, and nothing you (or anyone else) can do can change that. You can lose your job, you can go bankrupt, and your spouse can leave you. If you get your identity from those things, they end up controlling you, which causes anxiety because there’s only so much you can control about them. However, if your identity comes from God, you are firmly rooted in something outside of what happens in this world, and nothing that happens to you can impact who you are. The challenges in your life can no longer crush you because your self-definition is no longer at stake if you fail.

Marriage between two people who are firmly rooted in Christ is still hard. The key is both people can serve each other, instead of needing to be served, because they are first served by Jesus. We love because he first loved us. No one is perfect, but when both parties can swallow their pride, admit fault and trust in something other than themselves, marriage becomes easier. While it’s easier said than done, there’s a reason why marriages between two believers tend to be more successful, and it’s not because Christians are any better than anyone else. There is no difference in the divorce rates between people who identify as Christians and the rest of society. Just saying you are a Christian doesn’t mean much if you don’t live the faith. The difference comes for those who attend church regularly, and then it drops 35%.

The point of going to church isn’t because you need a place where you can meet with God; it’s so that you can get to know your fellow worshippers. Human beings are not meant to live alone. We are at our best when we are part of a strong community that surrounds us with people who care about us, share our values and participate in our lives. A healthy church community is a lot like a high school where everyone is nice to each other and no one is competing for status. Our society has tried to replace church with college, work and social media, but it doesn’t work. Higher education is prohibitively expensive and can only last so long, while you can lose your job at any time, and communicating with someone through a screen can’t replace face-to-face interaction. A marriage where two people don’t find community in the same place is one that fractures a lot easier when things get tough.

If all your friends are single, you won’t know anyone who can understand your marital problems. A successful marriage will naturally turn inward since you have to spend less time with other people and more with your spouse. For the apostle Paul, “the gift of singleness” was that it gave him more time to devote to his ministry. Not everyone has to get married. Some of the greatest people in human (and Christian) history didn’t. Marriage is a good thing, but it’s not the best thing. It is designed to be a reflection of the relationship between Christ and His church. A reflection can’t save you. Only the real thing can.

It’s different on a societal level. A society that devalues marriage is one that won’t last. Demographics are destiny. Over dozens of generations, people groups who don’t get married, have fewer kids, and don’t give them stable home environments will have trouble competing with those who do. None of us would be here today if at least some of our ancestors hadn’t gotten married. That’s how Christianity outlasted the Roman Empire, and it’s why religions outlast nations. Thousands of years later, nothing has changed. There is nothing new under the sun. The faith will never die because believers will always get (and stay) married, even if those around them no longer see the point.
All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. 
-- Isaiah 40:6-8  
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. 
-- Matthew 24:35

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Lion In The Living Room

Cats are the new kings of the jungle. There are over 600 million of them in the world, and the number is only growing. With bigger predators pushed to the brink of extinction by human development, the household cat is now at the top of the food chain. Unlike dogs, who have been systematically bred into subservience over thousands of years of domestication, cats are unchanged genetically from when they first came into contact with humans. If dogs are man’s best friend, cats are our wary companion, happy to follow behind us, but always maintaining their independence. Like humans, cats have remade the world in their own image, and it isn’t always clear which species is getting the better deal in the relationship. In The Lion in the Living Room, Abigail Tucker takes a deep, fascinating and often hilarious dive into the world of cats. After reading it, you will never look at your pet the same way again.

Scientists have traced the genetic origins of modern cats to a single species in the ancient Middle East. It appears they just showed up as humans began living in villages, made themselves comfortable and started feeding off the scraps. As Tucker puts it, they were less domestic recruits than invaders. Humans traditionally domesticate animals by hijacking their dominance hierarchy and establishing themselves as the alpha of the group. Cats don’t have one; they are solitary predators who don’t need a pack to survive. The key difference between cats and dogs, as well as every other barnyard animal who has been suited to fit human needs, is they always maintained control of their reproduction. Cat breeders are a relatively modern invention: it’s only in the last fifty years that we have begun to create micro-species like the munchkin. For most of human history, the generic tabby cat has bred without our interference, creating huge populations of strays outside our control.

Once cats are established in an ecosystem, they are almost impossible to eliminate. “Breeding like rabbits” is the popular expression for quickly churning out kids, but cats aren’t far behind. Within five years, a male and female cat can have as many as 354,294 direct descendants. Neutering, the preferred method of keeping their population under control, can often backfire, since cats who don’t have to deal with the stress of mating and breeding live longer, while kittens born in colonies where there are fixed cats have better odds of survival. People who try to protect vulnerable populations of birds and smaller animals live in fear of cats. The odds are stacked against them: cats are relentless and intelligent predators with public opinion overwhelmingly on their side. The gun lobby doesn’t have anything on the cat lobby, and cats are much more dangerous, at least to other animals. They are responsible for 14% of vertebrate extinctions worldwide.

Cats don’t take long to make themselves at home. A century after they were introduced in Australia, the Aborigines viewed them as native animals, even though they decimated populations of animals who had never learned to fear them. These days, cats in Australia (pets and strays) eat more fish on an annual basis than humans. By hijacking our natural fondness for small and seemingly helpless creatures, they have flipped the domestication script. Cats have conditioned us; their purrs mimic the wails of an infant. While they are theoretically supposed to hunt rodents who spread disease, they mostly coexist with the other smaller animals who also feed on our garbage. Why would an alley cat hunt a rat when there’s more than enough trash to feed them both? Historians now believe cats were one of the prime carriers of the Black Plague.

One of the crazier findings presented in the book is that cats spread a microorganism that has infected the brains of over 60 million people. Once infected, people become more prone to risk-taking behavior that can lead to death. Cats are just the middleman: the bug starts in smaller animals who become easier for cats to kill after they are infected, who then spread the bug up the ladder. There might be a reason why so many ancient societies feared cats and treated them with some suspicion. As a rule, cat enthusiasts are more prone to mental health issues, though it’s unclear whether that’s more causation or correlation. Reports of schizophrenia have spiked in the last 200 years, at the same time cats have passed dogs as the most popular household pet.

Cats are the perfect animal for an urbanized society. When people lived in more rural settings, cats were more like presences who roamed around the farm than members of the family. However, as we began moving into apartments, the lack of upkeep and space cats need to survive made them more appealing. Just as important, they filled the void created by the lack of community inherent in city life. Sometimes you just want to go where everyone knows your name, even if they ignore you half the time. The changes in the cat/human relationship have happened quickly. Kitty litter was invented in 1947. Cats now outnumber dogs worldwide by a ratio of 3:1, even though dogs perform many functions, from aiding the blind, sniffing for bombs and guarding our homes, more important than being featured in memes.

However, the move indoors has not been all good news for cats. They are apex predators without a pyramid, and the lack of territory to call their own can make them uneasy, especially when they are living with other cats whom they don’t get along with. Many would prefer to live in a small cage they can control rather than an open space they cannot. Like Lucifer, they would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven. While dogs have co-evolved with humans to the point where they need us to survive, cats would do just fine in a world without humans. They are an evolutionary masterpiece, a finely tuned killing and breeding machine that deigns to grace us with their presence. Cockroaches might not be the only things that survive a nuclear apocalypse.