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Martin Luther on Marriage and the Family  

Merry Wiesner-Hanks

Marriage was at the heart of Martin Luther’s break with Rome and the Reformation that followed. He preached sermons praising marriage beginning in 1519 and several years later wrote his first formal treatise attacking the value of vows of celibacy and arguing that marriage was the best Christian life. In 1525 he followed his words by deeds and married a nun who had fled her convent, Katharina von Bora. What started as a marriage of principle and mutual esteem became one of affection and deep emotional bonds. Luther continued to attack the celibate life of Catholic clergy and nuns and to celebrate marriage as a godly estate throughout his career, in sermons, formal treatises, lectures, advice manuals, letters, comments on legal cases, and casual conversation. In all of these, he both praised marriage and family life and commented on its burdensome side, moving from theoretical speculations while he was a celibate monk to reflecting on his own experiences as he became a family man, though his basic theology of marriage did not change much after the early 1520s. His words were direct and blunt, even in formal treatises. Sexual desire was inescapable for all but a handful, he argued, so should be channeled into marriage. Vows of celibacy should be rendered void, and monasteries and convents should be closed or much reduced in size. He agreed with St. Augustine on the three purposes of marriage, in the same order of importance: the procreation of children, the avoidance of sin, and mutual help and companionship. He praised spousal love but asserted that the ideal of reciprocal love in marriage was not an ideal of equality. Proper marital households were hierarchical, for the wife was and had to be the husband’s helpmeet and subordinate. Bearing children was the “precious and godly task” for which women were created, he wrote, and death in childbirth and even the deaths of children were part of God’s plan, though he himself was devastated when his twelve-year-old daughter died. As cities and territories in Germany and then beyond became Protestant, they passed marriage ordinances and established institutions to regulate marriage, turning to Luther for advice on such issues as divorce, desertion, secret engagements, and parental consent. In making their decisions, judges slowly applied the new Protestant ideas about marriage, which people also learned about through sermons, artwork, and pamphlets. In general, however, other than clerical marriage, actual Protestant marriage patterns were not that different from Catholic ones. They fit with secular values as well, for rural and urban residents of all religious persuasions regarded appropriate marriages and stable families as essential to the social order. Recent scholarship has generally rejected earlier views that the Protestant Reformation by itself brought about dramatic change—for good or ill—in marriage and instead noted ways in which the reformers, including Luther, built on ideas and practices that were already there, especially in the middle-class urban milieus in which most of them grew up.

Article

Gender, Marriage, and Sexual Purity in American Religious History  

Seth Dowland

Throughout American history, religious people and groups have developed, sustained, or challenged cultural norms around gender, marriage, and sexual purity. Beginning with the earliest English Protestant settlers in the 17th century, American Christians have devoted consistent attention to the proper roles of men and women, and to the proper functioning of families. Throughout American history, religious leaders have assigned men as spiritual leaders of their families. Assessments of women’s piety—and its importance in maintaining social order—have grown more positive over time. Prophetic radicals and political activists have frequently challenged American Christianity by attacking its traditionalism on issues related to gender and sexuality. The ideal of a “traditional family” has, however, proven quite robust. Even as cultural attitudes around gender and sexuality have shifted dramatically in recent years, the presumption that typical American families are heterosexual, middle-class, and Christian has persisted. This presumption developed over time and has remained dominant owing in part to the contributions of American religious groups.

Article

William Blake and the Apocalypse  

Christopher Rowland

William Blake (1757–1827) was a British artist, engraver, poet, and writer on theological themes. His illuminated books were the product of his technological inventiveness, and are characterized by the juxtaposition of texts and images in which a dialectic between two different media is a means of stimulating the imagination of the viewer and reader. Influences on Blake are often hard to trace, though he explicitly cites and criticizes Milton and Swedenborg, as well as the contemporary artist Joshua Reynolds. Such influences, which might help explain Blake’s ideas, seem less important than the extraordinary inventiveness which one finds in his words and images and their production, which have analogies to earlier themes, but without offering the evidence that demonstrates direct dependence. Blake’s emphasis is on the importance of “inspiration” rather than “memory,” and as such he set great store on the creativity of the poetic genius and its reception by the engaged reader or viewer. The visual was primary for Blake. It was a major part of his attempt to produce that which is “not too explicit as the fittest for Instruction,” to allow the reader/viewer to work out what the meaning of words and images was and how one might inform the other. Much of his work is inspired by the Bible, though the heterodox approach he takes to biblical interpretation is frequently at odds with mainstream Christian opinion. Blake’s lifelong fascination with the work of John Milton led him both to challenge and refine his great predecessor’s views and, in Milton a Poem, to enable the departed spirit of Milton to discern the worst of his intellectually self-centered excesses. Blake’s interpretative method, his hermeneutic, is encapsulated in some words he wrote to a client who was perplexed by his work. In it he gave priority to imaginative engagement with the Bible which was only then complemented by rational reflection: “Why is the Bible more Entertaining & Instructive than any other book. Is it not because they are addressed to the Imagination which is Spiritual Sensation & but mediately to the Understanding or Reason?” (Letter to Trusler 1799, E702-3). His ongoing work and the complex idiosyncratic mythology that he invented reflect the changed circumstances of the reaction to the events in revolutionary France. Themes of the Blake corpus, such as prophecy, challenge the hegemony of authoritative texts like the Bible. His critique of dualism and monarchical view of God pervade his work. Born in 1757, Blake lived most of his life in London with the exception of four, often difficult, years in Felpham, Sussex (1800–1804). He was married to Catherine Boucher (1762–1831), who in his later years was a collaborator in his engraving and printing. Arguably, the companionship of Job’s wife in the Illustrations of the Book of Job, so different from the impression one gets from the brief reference to Job’s wife in the biblical book, may reflect their marriage. The Felpham years were difficult because they marked a time of great personal upheaval, when the ideas which formed his long illuminated poems, Milton a Poem and Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, took shape. As a consequence of an incident with a soldier in Felpham, he was put on trial at this time for sedition, for comments he was alleged to have made to this English soldier. This experience seared his visionary imagination and left its trace in the repeated references to the soldier who brought the charge against him, Schofield, which are dotted throughout Blake’s Jerusalem. Blake was trained as an engraver and pioneered his own technique. This remained the basis of his art, and arguably offered a means that complemented his visionary imagination (Joseph Viscomi, Blake and the Idea of the Book, 1993). After his move back to London, he lived in obscurity and on the fringes of poverty, indebted to the support of patrons like Thomas Butts, for whom he painted many biblical scenes, and later John Linnell. Only in the last years of his life was he discovered by a group of artists. Toward the end of his life he was adopted as an artistic father figure by a group called “The Ancients,” which included George Richmond, Samuel Palmer, and Edward Calvert.

Article

Martin Luther’s Influence on Legal Reforms and Civil Law  

John Witte Jr.

The Lutheran Reformation transformed not only theology and the church but law and the state as well. Beginning in the 1520s, Martin Luther joined up with various jurists and political leaders to craft ambitious legal reforms of church, state, and society on the strength of Luther’s new theology, particularly his new two kingdoms doctrine. These legal reforms were defined and defended in hundreds of monographs, pamphlets, and sermons published by Lutheran writers from the 1520s to 1550s. They were refined and routinized in hundreds of new reformation ordinances promulgated by German cities, duchies, and territories that converted to the Lutheran cause. By the time of the Peace of Augsburg (1555)—the imperial law that temporarily settled the constitutional order of Germany—the Lutheran Reformation had brought fundamental changes to theology and law, to church and state, marriage and family, criminal law and procedure, and education and charity. Critics of the day, and a steady stream of theologians and historians ever since, have seen this legal phase of the Reformation as a corruption of Luther’s original message of Christian freedom from the strictures of human laws and traditions. But Luther ultimately realized that he needed the law to stabilize and enforce the new Protestant teachings. Radical theological reforms had made possible fundamental legal reforms. Fundamental legal reforms, in turn, would make palpable radical theological reforms. In the course of the 1530s onward, the Lutheran Reformation became in its essence both a theological and a legal reform movement. It struck new balances between law and Gospel, rule and equity, order and faith, and structure and spirit.

Article

Christian Marriage and Funeral Services as Rites of Passage  

Ruth A. Meyers

Weddings and funerals mark major transitions in human life. In these rites of passage, which effect a transformation from one status to another, an individual is separated from one state of existence, passes through a threshold or liminal space, and is incorporated into the community with a new status. In a wedding, individuals move from being single to being joined in a marriage, and in rites surrounding death, a person moves from the land of the living to become an ancestor. These rites of passage concern not only those making the transition but also the community. The ritual actions enable the individuals as well as the community to navigate momentous events in human life, they acknowledge and bring about a transformation in the community, and they offer an interpretive framework for the transition. Weddings and funerals are not rooted in any single religious tradition. Rather, they are social and cultural events that may also have a religious dimension. Many religious weddings and funerals incorporate practices from different cultural contexts, and as social or cultural norms change, ritual practices may evolve to accommodate these norms. Wedding practices have changed to reflect modern Western notions of companionate marriage rather than arranged marriage, and, more recently, growing acceptance of same-sex life partnerships has led a few religious bodies to develop rituals to bless these relationships. Funerals express different understandings of life after death, and they are adapted to various practices for disposal of the body, for example, cremation or burial of the body.

Article

Women in Ancient Israel and the Hebrew Bible  

Susan Ackerman

The Hebrew Bible is a book that was primarily written by men, for men, and about men, and thus the biblical text is not particularly forthcoming when it comes to the lives and experiences of women. Other evidence from ancient Israel—the society in which the Hebrew Bible was generated—is also often of little use. Nevertheless, scholars have been able to combine a careful reading of the biblical text with anthropological and archaeological data, and with comparative evidence from the larger biblical world, to reconstruct certain features of ancient Israelite women’s culture. These features include fairly comprehensive pictures of women’s lives as wives and childbearers within Israel’s patrilineal and patrilocal kinship system and of women’s work within the economy of a typical Israelite household. Because the Bible is deeply concerned with religious matters, many aspects of women’s religious culture can also be delineated, even though the Bible’s overwhelmingly male focus means that specific details concerning women’s religious practice must be painstakingly teased out of the biblical text. The Bible’s tendency to focus on the elite classes of ancient Israelite society likewise means that it is possible to sketch a reasonable portrait of the experiences of elite women, especially the women of the royal court, although, again, this information must often be teased out of accounts whose primary interest is elite men.

Article

Desire, Love, and Romance in the Hebrew Bible  

J. Cheryl Exum

In the Hebrew Bible human sexual desire is, for the most part, constructed as male and as dangerous. In the patriarchal economy of ancient Israel, in which women were subordinated to men and younger men to older men, desire poses a potential threat to the preservation of male status, privilege, and hierarchy, upon which the patriarchal system is based. It is viewed warily as an overwhelming urge that, unchecked, can cause a man to lose control and act in ways that might jeopardize his position in the patriarchal hierarchy and, if some texts are to be taken seriously (Proverbs, the story of Samson), even his life. Thus legal texts seek to regulate and control sexual behavior and thereby channel sexual desire in permissible directions; Proverbs responds to the threat that uncontrolled desire poses by offering the young man a patriarchally sanctioned object of desire, personified Wisdom, and narrative texts, such as the stories of Samson and Delilah and David and Bathsheba, provide object lessons in the dangerous consequences of desire. There are few places in the Hebrew Bible where one person is said to love (’ahab) another in an amorous or carnal sense, and in all these cases only one of the pair is said to love. This does not mean that love was not thought of as reciprocated in biblical times, but only that reciprocal love was not a concern of biblical writers, with the exception of the poet of the Song of Songs. The Song of Songs is the only text in the Hebrew Bible in which sex, desire, love, and romance can all be found. This short book, the Bible’s only love poem, gives its readers an unprecedented insight into what it is like to be in love from both points of view, a woman’s and a man’s.