“The Good Life that Can Result
From a Covenantal Love”
A review of
??Why Love Will Always Be a Poor Investment:
Marriage and Consumer Culture
by Kurt Armstrong.
Review by Tim Otto.
As a pastor, trying to shepherd, I sometimes feel completely outdone by the consumer culture wolf. How can the church compete with the marketing whiz kids who sit around all day thinking up salvation stories that revolve around the consumption of goods and services? As they relentlessly inject the propaganda of capitalism directly into minds through earbuds, screens, stories, music, and games, I’m tempted to despair. But happily, Kurt Armstrong has given us a terrific help in his book Why Love Will Always Be a Poor Investment: Marriage and Consumer Culture.
Advertisers know that people are not usually persuaded through logic alone. A typical car ad is not mostly a reasoned argument, but a mini-story told through images of freedom, joy, beauty, and ease. Unfortunately, many Christian marriage books lack transformative power because they are exercises in cool logic: principles for good relationships, lists of skills and strategies, arguments about the unitive and procreative functions of marriage, and prooftexts to back it all up.
But Armstrong’s book artfully mixes plays and poetry and music and myths and lists and longings to create a captivating read that might well convert the heart. He draws on the wisdom of all the right people, quoting Wendell Berry, G.K. Chesterton, Annie Dillard, Tom Waits, Eugene Peterson, Marilynne Robinson, and Michael Polanyi among others.
Armstrong’s metaphors are fun and spot-on. At one point, talking about his wife’s combat style, he writes “She fights hot, like a pile of small sticks on fire, and she argues like she’s driving a bulldozer, trying to finish up a demolition job as the machine is about to run out of fuel.” His attentiveness to the details of life (that is to say, what life is actually made of) rivets the reader’s attention. Lamenting the divorce of a couple, he jams together a list of particulars. “How did they take three decades of conversations, arguments, sex, work, kids, homes, afternoon naps, forgiveness, taxes, breakfasts, lunches, dinners, neighbors, laundry, vacations, and reduce it to ‘There’s nothing there, we have nothing in common’?” Yes, exactly!
Armstrong passionately defends covenantal love against the consumerist notion that everything before us—“including other people—is an object of exchange that can ultimately be directed toward our satisfaction.” Key to Armstrong’s case is that idea that marriage tutors us in the art of love. This explains the provocative title. Marriage isn’t a surefire investment that always returns happiness. Rather, it schools our soul—and that means going through pain, and hurt, and sorrow. And when done rightly, you might lose the person you love the most—to death—which may be the greatest grief imaginable.
The book is divided into four sections with the titles: Body and Soul, Covenantal Love, Grace, and Love is a Home. “Body and Soul” takes on the idea that we humans are best understood as individuals who, through carefully considering our options, can choose correctly in each moment and thus make our lives a “heroic creation” (Stanley Hauerwas). Armstrong argues that to the contrary, our commitments, and primarily our relationships, make us who we are. He also takes on the idea that sex is both just the “slapping together of naked bodies” and that sex is ALL IMPORTANT. He argues for the sacredness of the body through (among other things) a chapter entitled “Jesus Loves Your Penis, Son” and through an inspired description of the miracle that happens when a body makes a single shot of espresso. At the same time sex isn’t all important. The bodily act of sex is only as good as the love animating it—a love that is ideally covenantal.
The section “Covenantal Love” delves into the character of love. Love is not a device best serviced by techniques and technology, but is rather more like a garden that requires patience, commitment and faithfulness. The yield of that garden is character and the ability to give and receive love (and what could be better than that!). The next section, “Grace” explores the habits covenantal love—forgiveness, faith, and self-examination. In the chapter “Bring Your Toothbrush to the Avalanche,” Armstrong describes the anatomy of an argument with his wife so authentically that it feels embarrassing to keep reading and yet it is impossible to stop because it so accurately describes the human condition.
The final section, “Love is a Home,” begins with a chapter on the lure of romantic love and a meditation on limestone and marble. Years of heat and pressure turn limestone into costly, stunning marble. (It is a shame to write it out that baldly. Armstrong’s narrative of that merits a contemplative, slow read.) While the beginning, easy infatuation of romantic love may seduce us, it is the long love of a mature marriage that is most beautiful. The book concludes with a chapter on the transforming work of love, and a history of the miracle that is Armstrong’s marriage.
At a slender 114 pages, I’ll recommend book to most any married couple as a way of combating the lies of our consumer culture, and as a really good read. But with some people at least, I might add a hesitation about the book.
I remember one couple in our congregation who went to pre-marital counseling. The counselor asked them to depict physically their vision of the relationship. The man took both his girlfriend’s hands, faced her square on, and stared intently into her eyes. That was unsettling to his girlfriend. When it was her turn, she took his hand in hers, but had them both face forward. Her vision was that they would walk together into service, outwardly focused, toward all the good that God had for them.
I can’t help but wonder if Armstrong’s book isn’t at times (and full disclosure, I’m single, so maybe I’m just feeling excluded) the two-person equivalent of navel gazing. There is little of church, or Kingdom, or loving God (although presumably the school for sanctification that is marriage produces a character which serves in all those areas). I worry that at times Armstrong makes a good marriage the primary goal, when it is best ordered as a secondary good to loving God. And I wonder if that doesn’t set some people up. It creates such a high expectation for marriage, that some people may be tempted to bail precisely because their marriage doesn’t approach the high ideal described by Armstrong. And that would be tremendously sad, because it’s exactly what Armstrong is trying to avoid.
But that hesitation aside, I’m glad for another resource with which to combat the lies of North American consumer culture. Not only is Why Love Will Always Be a Poor Investment a solid refutation of capitalism’s most destructive myths, its creative verve and joy serve as an appealing witness to the good life that can result from a covenantal love.
Tim Otto is the teaching and preaching pastor at the Church of the Sojourners, a live-together church community in San Francisco.