Frank Sinatra: Ring-A-Ding-Ding
Dawn Eden on The Journey Home

Sunday Night Journal — November 18, 2012

Can This Marriage Be Saved?: On the Meaning of Sex, by J. Budziszewski.

Once when I was, as best I can remember, in my early teens, and spending the night at, as best I can remember, my maternal grandmother's house, I was looking for something to read and couldn't find anything except a stack of Ladies' Home Journal magazines. I am unable to reconstruct how this situation came about, and maybe I'm remembering it all wrong, because it was at the home of that same grandmother that I had found a treasure-trove of Hardy Boys books. At any rate, I did leaf through these magazines, and of course there was not much there to interest a teen-aged boy. However, I did find one thing: a regular feature called "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" It told the story of a troubled marriage from the point of view of each spouse, and then gave the views of a marriage counselor on how the spouses might go about working things out.

These little dramas were fascinating to me, which in retrospect seems a little surprising. And when I ask myself what made them interesting, I think it was, first, the fact that they were dramas, and second, the way they illustrated the adage that there are two sides to every story. I was intrigued by the fact that the two people saw things so very differently; frequently it wasn't even two sides so much as two entirely different stories, both spouses portraying themselves as unloved and the other as unloving, both blind to their own faults, or at least oblivious to the other's perception of them.

The phrase occurred to me as I was reading this book, not in reference to any specific marriage, but to marriage itself, and to the general state of relations between the sexes. The old half-humorous phrase "war between the sexes" often seems all too accurate. Is there really more genuine and deep hostility between men and women in general now than there was a generation or two ago? How about a hundred years ago? A thousand years? I don't know how that question could be answered, but it certainly looks to me as if there is. At any rate the institution of marriage is certainly under attack, and in serious trouble. And one of the causes of the trouble is a terrible misconception of the nature of sex, a misconception which Budziszweski attempts to counter in this brief book.

 In seven chapters, beginning with "Does Sex Have to Mean Something?" and ending with "Transcendence," Budziszweski takes on the idea that sex has no meaning, showing that those who say it has none generally cannot avoid being drawn back to the conclusion that it does, and leads the reader through a series of questions about the nature of sex to the threshold of that to which sex points and leads, which is the transcendent love of God.

In equal parts poetic and analytic, the book is beautifully written. It paints a lovely and persuasive picture of sexual attraction, love, and marriage. And at times that almost seemed a weakness to me, as I turned from contemplation of this picture of the mysterious riches of these things when they are rightly understood and practiced to a consideration of what is actually going on around us in our culture. In stark and ugly contrast to Budziszewski's vision (one which of course he shares with other Christian thinkers) stands one of the most repulsive things I've ever read on the subject, Hannah Rosin's piece in the September Atlantic, in which she praises the habit of easy and detached sex among college students. Be warned before you click that link: it contains crude and occasionally disgusting sexual terms, a couple of which, I'm thankful to say, were new to me. Rosin invites us to celebrate and admire the fact that young women have become cold-hearted climbers who put their own material and social success above everything else:

To put it crudely, feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture. And to a surprising degree, it is women—not men—who are perpetuating the culture, especially in school, cannily manipulating it to make space for their success, always keeping their own ends in mind.

I couldn't help thinking, when I read this, of Christ's warning about the end times: "...and the love of many shall wax cold."

At the other end of the social, material, and intellectual scale was a very poor and dissolute man--a drunk, actually--whom I met a few days ago, and who spoke of his sexual life in the crudest and coldest imaginable terms. Ms. Rosin would have recoiled from the sight of him, yet he was, in philosophical principles, pretty much of the same mind as she on the subject of sex.

The Christian vision of love, as articulated by this book and many others, may seem impossibly and naively sweet. These are words from another mental and emotional world entirely:

To the lover, the beloved may seem luminous, iridescent, as though she were lit up from within, like a paper lantern. Some lovers say that she reflects light from a lamp which is not present; others that she seems to be encrusted with gems. She is almost too wonderful to look at steadily. The experience has the aroma of eternity. When Dante says "Now my beatitude has been revealed," his phrasing is therefore exact. He does not say that the beloved is his beatitude; she isn't.... It isn't she who is the infinite and perfect Good. Yet by some magic, by some effulgence of grace, she somehow, to some degree, diffracts or reflects it to him.

Who would not prefer to live in this latter world? No one with much health in his soul, I would think. But even many of those who might wish for it and be open to it do not believe that it is real. I don't know whether the temper of our times is better or worse in that respect, though I must say it certainly seems worse. There has never been such a thing as our mass culture of noisy cynicism and prurience and un-love. To the conflict between the sexes that is an inevitable feature of life in our fallen world, we have added a prevailing materialistic philosophy that directly attacks the very idea that anything in human life, especially sex, has any intrinsic meaning beyond the advantage and pleasure to be obtained by the individuals involved.

Can this marriage--of men and women, of love and sex, of physical and spiritual, of human and divine--be saved? The book supplies much-needed assistance. There's only one problem with it: it's  not likely to be read by anyone who doesn't already agree with it, and while those who do agree with it will find much of interest, it will not startle. The author leads the reader from earthly love to the love and knowledge of God but declines to acknowledge his destination until the last chapter. But no one who is likely to purchase a book from this publisher (ISI Books, the publishing arm of a conservative foundation) by this author on this topic will fail to see it coming. That leaves it up to those who do to get its message out into the wider world.

I should add that it seems to me that there are some distinctive intellectual contributions here, beyond the more or less expectable view of sex in the light of Christianity. At any rate there are some ideas here which I haven't encountered before, in particular the chapter on the meaning of sexual beauty. Budziszewski discusses the phenomenon by which a young man discerns beauty in a young woman that he didn't at first recognize after he gets to know her for what she really is, and how this recognition becomes a step toward marriage. By an interesting coincidence, a day or two after I read that passage I heard Frank Sinatra's "Ring-a-ding-ding" (written by Jimmy van Heusen and Sammy Cahn):

How could that funny face
That seemed to be common place
Project you right in to space
Without any warning?...
She takes your hand,
This captivating creature,
And like it's planned, you're in the phone book
Looking for the nearest preacher

These are the most natural things in the world, but we live in a culture which denigrates and denies them.They are too elemental ever to be destroyed, but they can certainly be damaged, and they certainly have been in our time. Men and women have always struggled to understand and get along with each other, but the bonds of affection and common purpose that once assisted them in that struggle have been attacked and damaged. One must ask the question: who benefits?

(J. Budziszweski is a convert who teaches at the University of Texas; there's an interesting interview with him here.)

 (And Can This Marriage Be Saved? was a "trademark feature" of Ladies' Home Journal for many years.)


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"...and the love of many shall wax cold."

That is very cold indeed.

Description of that man reminds me of that opening scene in Sling Blade that repels me so much. I'm glad it was you and not me.


This would have repelled you, all right. Some things about him, e.g. this, repelled me, too.

Is there really more genuine and deep hostility between men and women in general now than there was a generation or two ago?

We can't know for certain (how would we test it?), but I'm inclined to think so. Feminism pitted women against men and now it seems as if the male backlash to that has pitted men even more against women. Modern people seem to think of marriage as being about power, rather than love.

I have to say that I find it incomprehensible that anyone would care more about their studies (and potential career) than a loving relationship, as those poor benighted students do. I can understand that a man's work will always have a very big part in his life and even be somewhat in competition with his family life, but for so many women to be like this must surely be new to history, or at least unusual. Our society is surely the most androgenous of any since the advent of Christianity, if not the whole of human history.

I was thinking about promiscuous women, who have certainly existed throughout history, but maybe apart from true nymphomaniacs, I cannot believe that such women approached their affairs in the same way as men. I don't know just how detached men really are with multiple lovers (not as detached as they'd like to think, I'll bet) but moreso than women in general, I'm sure. So if women are truly as detached today as men in their multiple sexual encounters then they have lost touch with their own womanhood. I'm pretty sure that women now in our 40's approached sex more with a view to finding love - having a relationship. The promiscuous girls I knew at school were only that way b/c of living in a sexually permissive society and they were desperate for love, not sexual adventure per se. Nobody looked after these lassies, hardly anyone looks after the young lassies now.

Someone needs to tell these party girls that when they are ready to marry and settle down 15-20 years hence, no marrying kind of man will want them. They will be too old and too used up.

It's all good fun until someone loses an eye.

Louise, that "hardly anyone looks after the young lassies now" reminded me of this:

Are You There God? It's Me, Monica

I wish I hadn't clicked that link.

That book sounds good - I will check it out for my 'Love' course. I'm not going to click the link! I know about the hookup culture, we have it here where I teach.

It's everywhere.

"all good fun until someone loses an eye" about sums up the sexual revolution, doesn't it? An eye or a soul.

Caitlin Flanagan (author of the piece Marianne links to) is an interesting case. She's pretty much your regular secularist, as far as I can tell, and I'm not sure she has any principled objection to the sexual revolution, but she is willing to look at reality.

Sorry about providing that link. It's pretty ghastly stuff, I know. And especially since it's not really about the actual hook-up culture, but the hook-uppers in their early training years.

And Maclin, though Flanagan may be a secularist, she is still loathed by the left, especially women on the left. I read somewhere recently that her ideas have been said to be the same as those of Michele Bachmann. Kiss o'death.

Can marriage be saved in a post-Christian divorce culture? Humanly speaking - no. Fortunately, nothing is impossible with God.

"all good fun until someone loses an eye" about sums up the sexual revolution, doesn't it? An eye or a soul.


" still loathed by the left, especially women on the left."

Indeed. I've seen some of that vituperation. It's almost funny.

"Modern people seem to think of marriage as being about power, rather than love."

That seems very clearly true in some circles at least. That's nearly always the view or at least a major element of the view when the subject is treated in The Atlantic. Even it's not power specifically it's about WHAT I WANT or maybe WHAT I AM ENTITLED TO.

I read that Atlantic article a while back, and remember this bit:

When I asked Tali what she really wanted, she didn’t say anything about commitment or marriage or a return to a more chival­rous age. “Some guy to ask me out on a date to the frozen-­yogurt place,” she said. That’s it. A $3 date.

But... when I asked Tali and her peers a related question: Did they want the hookup culture to go away—might they prefer the mores of an earlier age, with formal dating and slightly more obvious rules? This question, each time, prompted a look of horror.

One of the most depressing things I've read in a while, that bit.

That is depressing, but I wonder if they have any idea what they are rejecting. I also wonder about the perennial attraction of Jane Austen. It's not just middle-aged women watching those movies. Of course, there is the very depressing, awful English Jane Austen TV series.


One thing that really strikes me is that they sure don't seem happy. There's a sullen cynical quality about them, male and female. And the word "cold" keeps coming back to me.

That must be why they go to the frozen yogurt place for a date.


You're on to something there.

Savage. Barbaric. Are these words too strong(for what we're becoming?)

You might say, as some do (approvingly), that we're ("just") acting/becoming like animals, but it almost seems worse--at least procreation remains an integral part of the act with them.

On the bright side, it's always good and encouraging for me when I hear people talk like this (the comments here). Sometimes it seems like the entire world is of the same opinion as the "Atlantic" writer you referenced. Or fast getting there.

Anyway, I think I might track down that book, it sounds really interesting.

Someone needs to tell these party girls that when they are ready to marry and settle down 15-20 years hence, no marrying kind of man will want them. They will be too old and too used up.

More importantly, I think, they and the men around them will have trained themselves out of all the habits that make a person good marriage material. You can't spend 10-15 years coldly calculating the tradeoffs between career advancement and carnal pleasure and then suddenly turn into a good husband or wife, a person ready unreservedly to sacrifice yourself for the good of your spouse.

BTW, "Can This Marriage Be Saved" is still an ongoing feature of LHJ. It has outlasted the Emily Post/Peggy Post etiquette column.

"Sacrifice" of any kind doesn't seem to be on the agenda at all, at least in Rosin-world. I'm sure there must be millions of young people out there who aren't so far gone. But one disturbing implication of one of these stories, not sure if it was Rosin's or not, is that things are worse at the more prestigious schools. That suggests that the ruling class can be expected to get even more unpleasant.

Noah, I definitely recommend the book. Re "like animals," there's something in the book about that--more like "sub-human", I think he says.


Grumpy's school is at least somewhat elite and FWIW my two daughters who are there say there is plenty of non-hookup culture as well. It's a sign of the times that this qualifies as good news.

Isn't there a bunch of sociological data showing that highly educated, high-income people are more likely to get married and stay married? I wonder whether that will change as the cohort Rosen describes gets older. Or maybe the elites will decay and the lower classes will decay even further.

NZ TV has been showing those very popular "Twilight" vampire movies. I watched a few scenes in one of them and was surprised by how romantic the love was between the "regular" girl and the vampire guy. And it also seemed full of wholesome family values, er, other than the blood-drinking stuff, of course.

Anyway, the series' popularity must mean lots of young women really don't want what the hook-up culture has to offer, right?

I'm pretty sure that's true. It's easy to over-simplify all this, in fact it's hard not to, because the picture is very complex. Anne-Marie's point about upper-class marriages is correct--Charles Murray just published a book exploring the collapse of marriage and family among lower-class white people (he stuck with white people so as not to be seen as picking on poor black people).

So, what's the relationship of that to the crazy sex mores? One part of it is that upper-class career-oriented girls/women are pretty careful to make sure they don't get pregnant, and have abortions when they do. They stay in control. Which is part of what Rosin is saying. In control, in a not very admirable way.

Very apropos choice of music, Janet.



Savage. Barbaric. Are these words too strong(for what we're becoming?)

I don't think they're too strong.

I wouldn't necessarily choose those particular words, but not because they're too strong. "Corrupt" comes to mind.

I read the LHJ occasionally in the dentist or hairdresser but I've never seen 'Can this Marriage be Saved'. Today I picked it up at the beautician, and of course it jumped right out at me. It's fascinating!

I guess its 50 or so years of popularity makes the fact that it stuck with me for so long less surprising.

Yes, it is fascinating, in part because it offers so much hope. The featured marriages always show improvement and never end in divorce. My MIL subscribes to LHJ and whenever I am at her house I look for the latest CTMBS.

I heard a news story on the radio a while back (some NPR feature I guess) about the factory that makes Chinese fortune cookies. There is a very grave prohibition against negative fortunes. Something similar might be going on with LHJ. I hope the marriages really are doing better.

Isn't Patty Griffin a beauty, though!

My love class read Eve Tushnet's recent piece, 'Disciple, Hedonist, Bourgeois.' They really enjoyed it. They tuned in to the point that they are supposed to be hedonists until 30 and then turn into a bourgeois, without any idea how to do so.

Great music, too. She's been singing to me while I dust.


On Ladies Home Journal - it's a successful formula, like Readers Digest. People need the positive.

I agree with Anne-Marie about "the school where Grumpy teaches." Two of my kids are there. There is plenty of real romance there, at least in certain circles.

Unfortunately it isn't as widespread as one would hope for at a school with that name.

I had mean to include that Eve Tushnet piece in this discussion, Grumpy. Part of what she says is similar to what I was saying about control. Not exactly the same thing.

Robert, I think one reason we end up with the impression that it's all hookup is that that's the norm presented in popular culture. Our dear friends in the entertainment industry always helping it along. ("it" above meaning youthful society at large, not just the one school.)

of course there is plenty of non hook up culture here. What I meant was something more like 'there is *a* hookup culture here' - ie it exists. I didn't mean, 'this place is a hook up culture full stop'

Yes, that's what I took you to mean.

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