Food for Thought: Andrew Brown on weddings

The New York Times published a tiny blog entry highlighting a blog entry by Andrew Brown of The Guardian. Fighting the temptation to go academic into a discourse expanding the meaning of “intertextuality,” I’ll stick to a summary of his main points.

Folks commenting on Brown’s article seem to largely miss the two-pronged nature of his observations.  He laments both the extravagant consumerism of contemporary weddings and the “egoism” of the overly personalized wedding.  The “new” contemporary wedding, including the ceremony itself, is heir to the simulacrum of postmodernity — the quest for originality and authenticity that leads inevitably to both reinventing the past’s truths and/or to a present devoid of realizing that consumption trends still hold sway.

Um, the last sentence is my own.  His language is simplier.  I’ll put this another way as “food for thought” for couples planning their wedding right now.

The upper class (the bourgeoisie), the upwardly mobile, and couples with large networks of family and friends regardless of income level do spend lots of money on their weddings.  Most couples, though, do not.  The $20,000 or $30,000 so often quoted in the media is an average (not to be confused with “median,” which is the most frequent amount spent).  Nothing historical odd embedded in this tidbit.  If you adjust for inflation, the costs per good or service are not bizarre.  The availability of credit and its wide-spread use is the only true financial difference between today and 1850 that helps the working classes afford (for good or ill) a “white wedding.”

As mass production gave way to just-in-time production, the middle classes swelled with fewer middle class jobs available, more folks attended college, colleges mandate liberal arts’ classes in sociology and literature, concerns about eco-friendly services expanded, cultural diversity became cool, and technologies developed to democratize art (digital photography to the internet to home printers), postmodern cultural trends seeped into all aspects of life.

Between the post Civil War era and the 1940s, getting married in either a church with the family minister or rabbi officiating the marriage ceremony OR visiting the home of a qualified Justice of the Peace to solemnize the rite of matrimony was dominant.  The reception was usually a “wedding breakfast” at the bride’s home.  According to the newspaper announcements I’ve read, wealthier families sometimes enlisted the services of wedding clergy to come to their home to officiate.

New Deal period programs ranging from backing housing loans to social security to union support juxtaposed with lots of production of all kinds of goods to export to war-torn Europe and elsewhere paved the way for the post World War II boom and, in conjunction, the new hotel/reception hall/catered home nuptial party + church or Justice of the Peace wedding ceremony.  But the products available for weddings were quite standardized.

Then the economy shifted as over-capacity in production and imports grew.  Long-term prospects for middle class employment plunged, yet more attended college.  Concerns about the consequences of mass produced art forms blossomed.  So did worries about environmental hazards.  And borrowing from other cultures became hip. Throw in the internet, and cultural studies becomes super interesting.

In the “creative class” are the wedding professionals for the new age.  No more standard photography posing — that’s what our grandparents and parents did.  Cakes frosted with thick, stiff white buttercream are lovely, yet redundant when so many artists can sculpt something more astonishing.  Why bother with the family minister or a stodgy JP when you can hire a celebrant to co-create a ceremony with your stamp of approval on every word?

The personalized wedding was born.  Every detail — from the flowers to the dress to the rings to the photos to the site to shoes to invitations to the ceremony itself can reflect your amazingly unique selves and bond.

Hold up, writes Andrew Brown.  Do not forget that despite your fabulous different selves, long-lasting marriages have similar features and similar problems.  Should weddings be so personal — should the couple input so much of themselves without acknowledging the wisdom of the sages and old-school pros?

Last year, a writer submitted a similar piece for the Wall Street Journal, which I posted below.  Please keep in mind that I am not taking sides here.  Still, I do think they raise interesting points.
WALL STREET JOURNAL — JUNE 19, 2009

For Better or for Worse: When Marriage Vows Get Creative
By DAVID LAPP

It’s the end of spring, and that means engaged couples are putting the last touches on their summer wedding celebrations. Should the cake have three tiers or four? Do the chairs for guests need bows? And, finally, what will they say in their vows?

This wasn’t always a problem, of course. Until recently, everyone just used the words provided by his or her church or synagogue. In recent years, however, more and more couples have decided to write their own vows. This departure from tradition has become so common that some couples now choose to buy the words that will bind them together for a lifetime — online.

In the world-wide Web of wedding options, instantvows.com offers a competitive “Instant Vows Wedding Package” ($17, limited time offer). Ghostwriters Central promises vows “that capture your personal voice while encompassing the appropriate etiquette and emotion” — with “the added advantage” of being written by professionals. You send the site a brief description and some memories of you and your beloved and it will send you the vows (for $125).

In this custom-made vows market there is plenty of opportunity for mockery, although it is also easy to dismiss the writing of one’s own wedding vows — or farming them out to professionals — as a harmless exercise, just another way for a couple to personalize their love for each other. As one online seller puts it: “There is no better way to express your true feelings for your partner than to put together the perfect words for that unforgettable moment.”

Brides.com, a popular wedding guide, agrees. After noting how momentous the words are, it suggests that personalizing your own vows makes them “all the more meaningful.” Innocent enough, right? Maybe not, for it goes on to suggest that a bride try the question-phrase “Will you promise to be honest in your relationship, and give him support and strength?” over the more traditional “Will you love and honor him, comfort and cherish him, and forsaking all others, be faithful to him?” The traditional vows insist on exclusive faithfulness. In this revised vow, all that’s required is honesty and “support and strength.”

To be fair, though, many couples want to express the kind of commitment enshrined in the traditional vows — they just want to personalize it. This is exactly what my fiancée and I had in mind when we recently sat down with our pastor for premarital counseling. I told him that we planned to write our own vows. He dismissed my idea and directed us to the Book of Common Prayer (published in 1549) for the vows he thought we should exchange. The vows there are more formal, and hardly original: “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.” My sensibilities were offended. “Don’t you know this is our wedding?”

But let’s imagine for a moment that, instead of reciting the oath that his 43 predecessors have taken, President Barack Obama had insisted at his inauguration on personalizing it, perhaps replacing “I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States” with the more flexible “I will try as hard as possible to do the job of president of the United States.” That sounds a little more natural and honest, he might have argued: How does he know if he’ll always be able to live up to his word? Besides, he might have stated, “The traditional oath is what every other president has said. I want mine to be original.”

We, the people, would have been outraged — and rightly so. The very specific words our Constitution requires the president to recite demonstrate the gravity of the obligations he assumes. They can’t be reduced to the whims of one person.

Like the presidential oath, the traditional marriage vows — whether Catholic, Jewish or Protestant — typically ask a marrying couple to make specific pledges: as the Catholic marriage ceremony puts it, “I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health.” And for how long? “I will love and honor you all the days of my life.” The words of religious marriage vows are direct and uncompromisingly clear.

Why? Because when one enters marriage, one steps into an institution bigger than oneself: It includes another person, the community and future children. Acts of this magnitude warrant precise and time-tested words. And as my pastor said: “A church acts like family: We share in the couple’s vows as we witness the vows being made, as we pray for them, support them, and even keep them accountable to those vows during difficult times.”

In 1943, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to a young bride and groom, reminding them that “it is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.” In the traditional vows, the institution — marriage — makes and forms the couple; the vows set out what marriage is and what it requires. In today’s write-your-own or instant-download vows, the couple picks and chooses the promises they make to each other — they make their own definition. The more casual attitudes toward the vows are probably a symptom of our more casual attitude toward marriage.

The good news is that young people generally take marriage seriously. A recent report from the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University finds that 71% of high-school senior boys and 82% of high-school senior girls believe that having a good marriage and family life is “extremely important.” But when the same group is asked whether it is “very likely” that they will stay married to the same person for life, only 63% of girls and 57% of boys think so. So our young people value marriage — but they find it difficult to believe that marriage can last. Unfortunately, many of the wedding ceremonies they watch — or listen to — won’t convince them otherwise.

Mr. Lapp is a research assistant at the Institute for American Values in New York.

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page W13

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