A few weeks ago, I assigned the article “What is Marriage?” to the students in my gender theory class, which I teach at an evangelical university. This article presents an in-depth defense of the conjugal view of marriage, and I included it on the reading list as part of my efforts to expose students to a range of viewpoints—religious and secular, progressive and conservative. The goal is to create robust civil dialogue, and, ideally, to pave the way for thoughtful Christian contributions to cultural understandings of sex and gender. The one promise I make to my students at the beginning of the course is that they are guaranteed to read something they will find disagreeable, probably even offensive.
That promise used to be easier to keep.
When I first began teaching this course, my students were certainly curious about questions of gender, sexuality, feminism—the various “hot button” issues of our cultural moment—but they were nonetheless devout, and demonstrated, more or less, a Christian orientation to these topics. It wasn’t hard to find readings that challenged students’ shared values and assumptions, considering the secular bent of contemporary gender studies.
In just five years, however, this has changed. Students now arrive in my class thoroughly versed in the language and categories of identity politics; they are reticent to disagree with anything for fear of seeming intolerant—except, of course, what they perceive to be intolerant. Like, for example, “What is Marriage?”
My students hated it, as I suspected they would. They also seemed unable to fully understand the argument. As I tried to explain the reasoning behind the conjugal view of marriage and its attitude toward sex, I received dubious stares in response. I realized, as I listened to the discussion, that the idea of “redefining” marriage was nonsensical to them, because they had never encountered the philosophy behind the conjugal view of marriage. To them, the Christian argument against same-sex marriage is an appeal to the authority of a few disparate Bible verses, and therefore compelling only to those with a literalist hermeneutic. What the article names as a “revisionist” idea of marriage—marriage as an emotional, romantic, sexual bond between two people—does not seem “new” to my students at all, because this is the view of marriage they were raised with, albeit with a scriptural, heterosexual gloss.
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