VERY MARRIED: Field Notes on Love and Fidelity. By Katherine Willis Pershey. Foreword by Eugene H. Peterson. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2016. 223 pages.
There are those who say that marriage is an archaic institution whose best days are in the past. Yes, people still get married, but it’s more out of habit than any real sense of value. It is true that people are delaying marriage, often after living together for a few years, and after children start coming along. It’s true that divorce is more commonplace, or at least it has become less stigmatized. Yet, despite all the bad press there is a good number of us who still believe that marriage is a societal good and that it is a sacred institution. While many opponents of gay marriage suggested that such marriages would undermine marriage, the desire among gay and lesbian couples to seek marriage suggests that if anything, their push for legalization should be viewed as a strong endorsement for the institution as being not only a social good, but a human one.
Numerous books have been written about marriage. Many are written from a faith perspective. I recently offered up my own contribution with a bible study guide I titled Marriage in Interesting Times: A Participatory Study Guide. Another offering has come from the pen of Katherine Willis Pershey, a friend and clergy colleague. Katherine’s book is titled Very Married. She covers some of the material I covered, but from a much more distinctly personal perspective (I believe that the two books can be fruitfully read together). This book, which is a celebration of fidelity, is part memoir and part pastoral reflection. Like me, Katherine affirms marriage equality, and that perspective is present in the book, but this is first and foremost a personal reflection, though the implications found in the book apply equally to cross-gender and same-gender marriages.
Before I get to the contents of the book I need to introduce Katherine to readers of this review who might not know her. She is an ordained Disciples pastor serving as an associate minister at United Church of Christ congregation. I first got to know her when we were both serving Disciples churches in Southern California. Besides being a pastor, Katherine is an excellent author who excels at writing memoirs with a purpose. Her earlier book, titled Any Day a Beautiful Day: A Story of Faith and Family (Chalice Press, 2012) speaks of marriage, as well as childbirth and parenting. It too is an excellent read and can be read in partnership with Very Married. There is some attention given to parenting and family here, but the primary focus is on marriage.
Katherine begins her book by admitting to things. First, she's not a marriage expert. She's a pastor, not a therapist. But she can speak to the topic from the perspective of one who is a pastor and thus has encountered folks seeking marriage and who live out married life. Now in her late 30s, she has been married to the same man (Benjamin) since she was 22 years old. While not an expert, she does claim to be a "marriage geek." She writes that "marriage is the fundamental fact of my life; as surely as I live and move and have my being in god, so too do I live and move and have my being within the bonds of marriage" (p. 18). While she recognizes that many analyses of marriage are bleak, she remains committed to marriage. Not only is she committed to marriage, but to fidelity in marriage. She recognizes that sometimes marriages will experience brokenness and may end in divorce, but she remains hopeful about the future of this institution. It is hard work, but worth the effort!
As noted earlier this is written in the form of a memoir. The subtitle speaks of field notes, and that is the form that the book takes. Katherine takes up issues that emerge from married life, often her own marriage, and offers her take on the matter (her field notes). She discusses such issues as having the desire for a spouse and the need for vows and the bonds of marriage. Here is what she says about the importance of vows:
We needed the vows to carry us through the moments of rage. We needed the public commitment to carry us through the exchanges of indignation. We needed the county-issued, clergy-signed marriage certificate to carry us through pneumonia and mourning and anxiety and seminary and debt and job interviews and pregnancy and postpartum depression and you get the picture. We needed to be one flesh—husband and wife—to get through the day, let alone the years. Love alone wouldn’t have been enough (pp. 66-67).
Love alone isn’t enough. You need the institution to sustain things through thick and thin. Through times poverty as well as times of prosperity. She writes about being attracted to another and what that meant for her marriage—she was tempted but didn’t act. While her marriage continues unabated, she admits times when things were tenuous, and so she understands why divorce takes place. There’s a chapter on sex before marriage and one in which she discusses how white privilege has influenced her vision marriage, and how other communities face challenges she never did encounter. These are just a few of the field notes taken along the way. But hopefully you get the picture of what you will encounter by reading this book.
Because this is a memoir that discusses marriage, a central role in the book is played by her husband Benjamin. This book could not have been written without his cooperation and permission. Even as Katherine has made herself vulnerable in writing the book, Benjamin has done the same. But he not only gave permission, he encouraged her to write the book—warts and all. She hasn’t shied away from some of intimate details, including the struggles they’ve faced over time. By writing the book in this way, Katherine doesn’t leave us with a fairy-tale vision of marriage. Katherine and Benjamin love each other deeply and are committed to each other, but they, like many of us, have ups and downs. This is especially true of their earliest years of marriage. Of course, the journey isn’t over yet. There are a lot of years ahead, and many more challenges to face.
Katherine writes from an interesting social location and theological vantage point. She is a feminist, inclined toward liberal theology, and yet she affirms the value of what some would call more traditional values of marriage and family. She notes early on that both conservative and liberal readers will find something here that they won’t agree with. That’s probably a good place to be when you write a book like this. I think, that it's this embrace of the good of both progressive and traditional visions that makes for a most helpful book.
As I suggested earlier, Katherine is still relatively young. She and Benjamin have seen enough of life to derive wisdom to share, even with someone like me who has been married for almost as long as she has been alive. I expect that I’m close in age to that of her parents. Like Eugene Peterson, who is even older than me, I found the book to be a powerful witness to the importance of marriage to our society. Indeed, perhaps even more importantly in an a rather sex-saturated culture, she has affirmed strongly the importance of fidelity in marriage. Along with this affirmation, she has born witness to the importance of faith in her marriage. She writes near the end of the book: "We love because God first loved us. We will continue to fall short of our intentions to be paragons of patience and kindness and mutuality. But we will also continue to do whatever it takes to remain joyfully, faithfully, and very married" (pp. 205-206).
With this as her witness, she offers us a book that will bless many a couple, both those entering marriage and those already married. Marriage, as she reminds us, isn't easy, but it can be a blessing! We are blessed that she has written such a powerful book!