Saturday, September 28, 2019

Terry Mattingly at GetReligion discusses a WaPo piece on mainline circuit riding pastors, the generations long demise of the mainlines, and I consider a celebrity transfer from evangelicalism to Episcopalianism

https://www.getreligion.org/getreligion/2019/9/24/mainline-blues-update-wpost-offers-sobering-facts-lovely-images-about-circuit-riding-pastors
Talk to scholars that study American religion and most will say that the implosion of the “Seven Sisters” of old-line Protestantism has to be at the top of any list of big trends in the past half century.
For those who need to refresh their memories, the “Seven Sisters” are the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
Many reporters, when dealing with mainline blues stories (think churches “for sale”) never pause to probe the “WHY?” factor in that old journalism formula “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why” and “how.”
Often, journalists don’t give readers key facts about the mainline decline at all. In recent years, I’ve seen more than a few stories suggesting that the slight (but important) declines in some conservative flocks have the same root causes as the 30-50% declines seen in mainline churches since the 1960s.
...
Back in the days of peak Mars Hill Church Mark Driscoll made a case for church mergers.  "Jesus Loves Church Mergers, And So Should You" was pretty direct.  In 2012 he wrote about churches interested in joining Mars Hill and wrote:
...
  1. Becoming a Mars Hill is not for everyone. The Holy Spirit has different callings for each church, and we rejoice in any and every church that loves and serves people for Jesus. Mars Hill doesn’t work for everyone, and we’re the first to acknowledge that. But, depending on the calling and context, it does work for some.
  2. Statistically, the majority of churches are plateaued and declining. Over 3,500 churches die and close every year. We want to see as many churches open and people meet Jesus as possible. 
  3. We have some success, by God’s grace, adopting in an existing church and transitioning it to a Mars Hill church. In New Mexico, we’ve seen a church go from a few hundred to over 1,000 worshipers in a few years—primarily by conversion growth. In West Seattle, we saw a church go from under 200 to as high as 1,000. In Sammamish, east of Seattle, we saw church go from under 200 to around 800 in a matter of months. This is not all transfer growth. Fully 1,392 people were baptized at Mars Hill last year, and every one of our 14 churches across four states is seeing people meet Jesus regularly. 
...

"This is not all transfer growth" is the key idea I want to consider.  It was something people inside and outside of Mars Hill had considered by 2012, that a lot of the growth of Mars Hill was not the result of evangelism or winning souls so much as transfer growth, the arrival of already-Christian people who were attracted to Mars Hill and found in it a place for community.

A conceptually related transfer can be the celebrity conversion.  Julia Duin wrote that the death of Rachel Held Evans inspired reporters to write with some unusual passion for the recently deceased writer.

https://www.getreligion.org/getreligion/2019/5/6/the-death-of-rachel-held-evans-gives-us-a-rare-look-at-journalistic-grief

...
What I didn’t realize about Evans is how much she connected with reporters –- especially some with degrees from Wheaton and evangelical backgrounds -– who began pouring out tributes by mid-day Saturday. This was the darkest of days on the evangelical left, which is a rising force in evangelical life — in part because of its media clout.
One of the first up was Ruth Graham’s piece in Slate:
Rachel Held Evans, an influential progressive Christian writer and speaker who cheerfully challenged American evangelical culture, died on Saturday at a hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. Evans, 37, entered the hospital in mid-April with the flu, and then had a severe allergic reaction to antibiotics, as she wrote on Twitter several weeks ago. According to her husband, Dan Evans, she then developed sustained seizures. Doctors put her in a medically induced coma, but some seizures returned when her medical team attempted to wean her from the medications that were maintaining her coma. Her condition worsened on Thursday morning, and her medical team discovered severe swelling of her brain. She died early on Saturday morning.
Judging from the speed at which the story was posted, I’m guessing the writer knew that Evans wasn’t going to recover and had an obit ready to go (which is common practice with beat reporters).
Many other stories and commentaries quickly sprang up, including from Religion News Service, the Washington Post , in NPR, the New York Times and more. This was a wave of journalistic grief.
So, who was this woman and why did so many reporters, all of whom appeared to be friends with her, weep after her death?
...
Sounds to me like she happened to be at the right place at the right time during the Barack Obama years. Being named as a member of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships didn’t hurt. She wasn’t bad at marketing herself, either.
...

I think a lot of journalists saw themselves in Evans. As intelligent millennial women not sure how to grapple with the faith they grew up with and without the benefit of a popular Jesus movement like their parents enjoyed in the 1970s, Evans personified their doubts and questions.
...
Would a more traditionally theological woman, maybe a younger version of Anne Graham Lotz, get such a send-off? I doubt it, mainly because very few religion reporters seem of the same cultural and theological cloth as Lotz. They’re a lot more like Evans. And so, when someone like Rachel Held Evans dies an untimely, sad and tragic death it is, for many journalists, as if one of their own has passed. They lost a member of their team.
...

Duin observed that Rachel Held Evans managed to be in the right place at the right time.  By taking a role within the Obama administration after becoming Episcopalian it would not be inapt to say that Rachel Held Evans became a court Episcopalian within the Obama administration, not altogether unlike court evangelicals have some kind of holding court in the Trump administration.

Duin pointed out that she sensed journalists saw themselves in Rachel Held Evans.

Terry Mattingly wrote that in doctrinal terms RHE left evangelicalism for the doctrinal left.  I am not sure I would put it that way, as Darryl Hart has written at book-length evangelicals in the United States have historically been pretty sympathetic to progressive political and social causes.

https://www.getreligion.org/getreligion/2019/5/6/covering-the-life-and-times-of-rachel-held-evans-focus-on-doctrines-not-political-choices

Contra Mattingly, it might be more plausible to suggest Rachel Held Evans became an Episcopalian but could be identified as still a kind of politically progressive evangelical.  That she has been described in the wake of her death as prophetic is easy enough to find.

https://internetmonk.com/archive/86552

Was she a prophetess?  If so, for what cause?  RHE could be regarded as a prophetic voice for a specifically American progressivism that, by the end of her life, reflected mainline denominational associations.  Along the way she became someone Sarah Pulliam Bailey described as the most polarizing woman in evangelicalism, before she became Episcopalian.



April 16, 2015

Talk to an evangelical today and bring up popular author Rachel Held Evans. Chances are, that evangelical will either love or hate her writing. Nearly everyone seems to have an opinion about the 33-year-old woman dubbed “RHE” who has become so polarizing in the past decade.
Since Evans started her blog in 2008, she has amassed a large base, including around 64,000 followers on Twitter and nearly 50,000 fans on Facebook. And even those who don’t formally follow her networks watch her blog to see what she is writing.

Last month, Evans told Religion News Service columnist Jonathan Merritt that she has joined the Episcopal Church. But long before that, her writing was setting off debate about how far evangelicals can go in stretching theological boundaries and still call themselves evangelicals.

From her self-made pulpit, Evans has openly wrestled with faith and evolution, where women fit in church leadership and who will end up in hell. With no formal seminary training or institutional backing, she has challenged traditional evangelical biblical interpretation on the place of LGBT people in the church, advocating for allowing them to join and even become leaders, especially contentious topics in evangelical circles.

The conversation over evangelical identity is decades-old, but it has been growing in intensity over the past 10 years. Four years ago, former megachurch pastor Rob Bell pushed the envelope on heaven, hell and salvation, but now he finds his home on Oprah’s network more than he does in evangelical circles.

As more states allow same-sex marriage, LGBT issues have flared up more frequently in evangelical churches and institutions. Some have been kicked out of their denominations — the wide evangelical umbrella includes many –after announcing that LGBT people could become members or be included in leadership.

For the informal gatekeepers of evangelicals — those who preside over the business of evangelicalism, such as the editors at publishing houses and conference organizers — what people say and how they define themselves as evangelicals still matters. (Evangelicalism is defined, in part, by its lack of traditional leadership hierarchy.)

But Evans is among a growing number of young evangelicals who are questioning the status quo promoted by these gatekeepers.

“A lot of millennials are on a similar journey where they’re trying to place themselves,” said Wes Granberg-Michaelson, who is an expert on ecumenical relations. “Do they try to hang onto the evangelical label and reclaim it, or do they try to forge their own path? That’s still an open question.”

Finding her voice

Evans speaks at evangelical and mainline Protestant conferences, churches and colleges across the country. But she came to evangelical prominence by an unusual path.


She isn’t a pastor or a theologian, and doesn’t lead an organization or a specific cause. In fact, she is not connected to any institution other than her evangelical publishers. She usually writes from her home in Dayton, Tenn., where her husband, Dan, runs her Web site.

She emerged over  the past decade as part of a wave of evangelical bloggers who gained independent followings.

“I just know I’m not the only one who sits in the pew sometimes and asks, ‘Am I the only one who’s doubting all of this?’”she said. “I want people to know there’s somebody else out there who feels the same way.”

Writers like Evans are attractive prospects for publishers who have come to rely heavily on authors who already have large social media followings. But Evans’s voice is unusual for traditional evangelical publishers like her own Thomas Nelson. Some have quietly speculated that Evans maintains her evangelical connections even as a member of an Episcopal Church so she can reach more readers.


“I know that there’s a lot of people who feel like, ‘Well who is she? She didn’t go to seminary, she hasn’t cut her teeth as a pastor,’” Evans said. “I think some people feel like it’s a little bit of a threat to authority, that somebody can just be a blogger, and people will listen to what they say.”
Female authors and speakers, such as Beth Moore or Joyce Meyer, have usually focused on Bible teaching or spirituality. But Evans also reflects a recent crop of popular female bloggers willing to push theological boundaries, including Nadia Bolz-Weber, Sarah Bessey and Elizabeth Esther.
[Bolz-Weber’s liberal, foulmouthed articulation of Christianity speaks to fed-up believers]
Many evangelicals contend that Evans’s biblical interpretations have gone too far, said Andrew Walker, director of policy studies for the Southern Baptist’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
“She has a presence because she’s willing to ask questions and that taps into a millennial narrative about searching for answers,” Walker said. “What she offers as an answer is unbiblical and theologically dangerous.”

...

Evans’s new book, “Searching for Sunday,” documents her transition in and out of churches in her 20s and early 30s. A year ago, Evans began attending St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland, Tenn., because she felt like she didn’t have to fight issues like women’s ordination or LGBT inclusion, though she has not been confirmed in the church and says she’s in no rush to do so.
The question of whether good people like Holocaust victim Anne Frank might be in hell sent her down the “proverbial slope” in college, she writes. “Evangelicalism gave me many gifts, but the ability to distinguish between foundational orthodox beliefs and peripheral ones was not among them…” she writes.

Questions over LGBT inclusion has become something of a litmus test to determine who is a true evangelical.

Scholar David Bebbington has identified four areas, the combination of which set evangelicals apart from other Protestants: a conversion experience, faith-driven activism, a regard for the Bible as the ultimate authority and a stress on Jesus’s death and resurrection. For a majority of evangelicals, the concept of LGBT inclusion collides with the authority and proper interpretation of the Bible.
[Can one pastor bridge deep divides between evangelicals and mainline Protestants?]
Evans’s evangelical church’s activism on a Tennessee campaign to ban gay marriage eventually led her to leave that church. But she says she still feels connected to evangelicalism.

“You can’t just divorce yourself from it,” she said. “I can’t just say, ‘Oh, well, they’re not accepting LGBT people so I just need to check out.’ I want them to be, because I want to see LGBT people be able to worship in an evangelical setting and not feel marginalized or left out. I want that to happen, even though it’s not necessarily my tradition.”
...
Rachel Held Evans, in light of this, can be described as a celebrity conversion from evangelicalism to a mainline Protestant denomination.  Normally in the parlance of writing about Christians a celebrity conversion is usually a phrase brought up when someone who is a celebrity in sports or entertainment or some other field announces they have converted to Christianity.  But with an established celebrity we don't have a conversion, exactly, we have a celebrity conversion that can be thought of as "transfer growth".

What Duin and Mattingly were able to observe was, I would argue, a reverence for Rachel Held Evans as a celebrity through whom her fans were able to live vicariously in a way that is not actually that different from those who were (or are) fans of Mark Driscoll.  It's at the end of the article that Bailey points out the systemic demise of the church Rachel Held Evans associated with:

...
“I wish I could just pull apart every part I like from every tradition and make this little mosaic that is the Rachel religion, but I can’t do that,” Evans said. “I can’t take a little Lutheranism or a little Catholicism. I think especially this generation is okay with dabbling a little bit, and I don’t think there’s any reason to look down on them for that.”

Evans says that the Nicene Creed, a creed that many Christians recite in churches, is where her theological boundaries begin. Her theological progression parallels other “post-evangelicals,” including authors and speakers like Tony Campolo, Brian McLaren and Diana Butler Bass.
Bass, who documented her departure from evangelicalism in her 2002 book “Strength for the Journey,” notes how Evans mirrors an older generation who started in evangelicalism but ended up in mainline Protestantism.

“The baby boomer generation made a similar journey, and it’s interesting millennials are doing the same thing 30 years later,” Bass said. “On one level, it points to an inherent instability in evangelicalism.”

Her adopted faith home, the Episcopal Church, faces its own challenges, including a 12 percent drop in membership over the past decade, according to the most recent statistics available.
“The Episcopal Church is no less plagued by troubles than any other, but for now, it has given me the room to wrestle and it has reminded me what I’m wrestling for,” she writes. “And so, with God’s help, I keep showing up.”

The United States has become more secular and secularist, though not with nearly the speed or thoroughness secularists would like, but the inter-generational demise of the mainline Protestant denominations has been documented for a while.  Rachel Held Evans became a symbol for those within progressive American Christian enclaves for the vitality and sustainability of the mainline tradition, and as an existing evangelical celebrity who transferred, became a kind of celebrity convert within American Christianity from evangelicalism to the mainlines.  But without much conceptual shifting, it was a celebrity conversion that amounted to transfer growth.

I have not soft-pedaled my concern that figures like Mark Driscoll and Rachel Held Evans in popular level Christian publishing are two sides of the same coin, popular communicators whose initial and primary training was in communications who gained wide followings through personality and whose approaches to biblical texts and theological concepts is ... sloppy.  Granting people may strongly disagree with me what I regard as troublesome about both Mark Driscoll and Rachel Held Evans is that if they can be considered prophetic voices I regard them as prophetic voices for types of Americanism first and foremost.  Yes, discussions about Jesus ensue and are plentiful in the books but once you accept a role in an administration you signal what earthly empire you are willing to align with.  To the extent that she could be identified as evangelical Rachel Held Evans was a "court evangelical" for the Obama administration, which made her a hero to those who admire her but I have my doubts that anyone should accept any kind of role in any administration.

It is not impossible to grieve for the terrible loss of the Evans family while also regarding the star-making machinery of popular level Christianity in America in its mainline Protestant and evangelical forms as something to view with skepticism.  My concern is less with her personally, having never met or, or with her as a person.  I never doubted she wrote her own books even when I disagreed with a variety of things she had to say, whereas I read Mark Driscoll books and reached the inescapable conclusion he was failing to credit authors whose work I could prove he was familiar with.  It's a terrible observation to make but rock stars are more glamorous when they die young.  I regard it as unfortunate RHE decided to endorse Nadia Bolz-Weber's book Shameless, which is little more than a blue state variation on Mark and Grace Driscoll's Real Marriage.

Rachel Held Evans wrote that Mark Driscoll was a bully and that people should stand up to him.  That was done by evangelicals and conservatives as well as progressives. Confronting the facts about what Mark Driscoll did with his empire based in Puget Sound was only possible through the efforts of a truly ecumenical collaboration across secular and religious, progressive and conservative communities.  I was glad to be a part of that process of bringing things to light.  I hoped that Mars Hill would reform rather than collapse but it collapsed, and it collapsed because its corporate structure was designed in such a way that Mark Driscoll was either sitting on the throne of the corporate entity or he was not even a member.  By deciding to resign he doomed Mars Hill to extinction, which it was likely to face anyway.

That years-long process gave me a clearer understanding of which conservatives and progressives I could respect and trust and which ones I couldn't.  Unfortunately, Rachel Held Evans, despite her public stance against Mark Driscoll, never became a progressive I took seriously.  I came to see, as I have said before, Mark Driscoll and Rachel Held Evans as two sides of the same coin, a star-making celebrity-driven popular-level Christian media juggernaut with stars whose works are sold whether or not their works add anything of substance to their respective traditions.  To see Rachel Held Evans endorse the Bolz-Weber book, a pastrix whose gimmick is being the cussing pastor who tells it like it is about sex and says that Augustin and Origen had issues about sex and that Song of Songs is this amazing work of Hebrew erotic made clear to me that RHE's convictions that Driscoll was a bully had to do with the "what" of his views but her endorsement of NBW suggests that the objection was not in the "how" of the persona or gimmick.

It's alright for a cussing pastor with a flair for drama and even an admitted tendency toward narcissism to get an endorsement provided the star is within the same basic constellation.  That I don't believe there's good reason to regard Nadia Bolz-Weber or Mark Driscoll as having any business being taken seriously giving marriage advice via best-seller self-help books is not something I think I need to argue at length. I've done that elsewhere.  I find it troubling that after her stance of confrontation against Mark Driscoll's shtick Rachel Held Evans found Bolz-Weber's more or less corresonding gimmicks worthy of endorsement and this gnaws at me because having read both the MD and NBW books I can see how the core gimmicks both writers use are essentially the same.  She was encouraging to many and she asked some important questions and played a crucial part in publicly dissenting against Mark Driscoll's persona but her endorsement of NBW laves me with the sense that a blue-state variation of Driscoll's core gimmicks was something she was happy to endorse.

What I find troublesome about the praise for Rachel Held Evans since she has passed is that she has gotten an enconium at The New Yorker, a publication that had nothing to say about her when she was alive.  Rock stars are most powerful as symbols when they die young, and rock stars can be more perfect in death than they could ever be in life.  Selling these crafted personas, these media-mediated personalities, is exactly what the star-making machinery does in American culture in general and with some uniquely hagiographic tendencies in popular level American Christian media in particular.  It is axiomatic that in death every Christian is regarded as a  saint who has hoped in Christ, but the American Jesus, whether the one reverse-engineered for blue or red state voting agendas, is inextricable from American journalism.  She cemented her blue state court evangelical/Episcopalian status years ago, after all.  Call it the stubborn jaded sentiment of someone in middle-age, but I can no longer respect those celebrity Christians or Christian celebrities who make a point of being in the orbit of American power, whether a Billy Graham or a Rachel Held Evans.  Her fans may have to consider in her passing that if Rachel Held Evans was an evangelical she was as much a "court evangelical" for the Obama administration as a Jerry Falwell Jr. is a "court evangelical" for the Trump administration.  That no Christian should wish to be so closely aligned to American power seems obvious to me ... but it is clearly not so obvious to others.

For all that, the mainline Protestant denominations are probably still as much in a death spiral now as they were at the start of the year but remembering the death of a Christian woman who died tragically too young can give journalists an opportunity to write about her and retroactively make her a star, an even bigger star than she may have been while alive.  Chronicling the peak and fall of what used to be Mars Hill gave me years enough to observe that what American Christians tend to do is to debate the merits or demerits of specific designated celebrity Christians and Christian celebrities, at no point does an interrogation of the basic functioning of the star-making system come up.  We are not supposed to ask why these people were made stars to begin with and on what basis, and whatever team we have aligned ourselves with, that goes double for the stars in "our" constellation.  

John Halle connects some dots between the recent Gibson vs Oberlin decision and a NewMusicBox declaration that classical music is white supremacist

One of the more prevalent and tiresome tropes in internet discourse is a propensity to distill people and events down to binaries.  To put it at a more personal level I find it frustrating to read online discourse that frames anyone to the right of "us" as fascist and anyone to the left of "us" as simultaneously Marxist and socialist and all in favor of policies that self-identified conservatives are apt to present as a rebirth of Stalinism.  On the conservative side or the libertarian side or not-liberal-in-the-DNC side in the United States this can bring with it a claim that the social justice warriors are socialists and there's no criticism of that stuff from within the entirety of the left.

Well, that's pretty obviously not actually the case but conservatives generally don't read widely enough among the spectrum that could be regarded as the left (and by this I don't mean the Democratic National Convention, let alone any Clintons).

John Halle has written recently about a by now common charge in classical music journalism and editorial writing to the effect that classical music is a reflection of a white supremacist ideology.

https://johnhalle.com/burning-down-the-house-the-aesthetics-of-self-immolation/


According to a recent article in New Music Box “The field of Western classical music  . . . suppresses Black and brown voices.”
By now,  the charge is more than a little familiar to those in the business.
What makes it somewhat relevant to those outside of it is the comparison with this recent news item which I will quote in its entirety:
An Ohio jury on Friday slapped Oberlin College with an $11.2 million damages penalty for siding with three black students who had claimed they were victims of racial profiling after they were caught shoplifting in 2016, a report said.
The liberal arts college must pay the massive compensatory damages award to the family-owned Gibson’s Bakery, where the three students had been arrested for attempting to steal or buy alcohol with a false ID.
The arrests were met with massive protests by students and faculty at the school.
During the protests, the Dean of Students, Meredith Raimondo, drew up a flyer, claiming Gibson’s had a history of racial profiling, the Chronicle-Telegram reported.
The flyer also urged students to boycott the bakery, the Chronicle-Telegram reported.
The students pleaded guilty to the attempted theft in 2017 and admitted in court they were not racially profiled.
The $11.2 million award could triple in a hearing next week on punitive damages, according to the report.
****
While the comparison may seem distant, the connecting thread consists in what is now obvious about the information age we inhabit: with the dominance of social media no one is going to prevent you from giving voice to your views no matter how marginal or absurd. Indeed you will almost always find a few-and maybe even a mob to cheer you on, just as did the Oberlin students who initiated the protest. They knew that they could count on the student body righteously taking their places in the anti-racist herd, joining them in chanting “no justice, no peace” with the unquestioning support of their professors and even of the administration.
What they didn’t bank on is that those who knew the facts and knew they were being smeared and libeled didn’t get mad-they didn’t even try to defend themselves publicly. Rather they got even through their constitutional right to the legal system, striking back and winning a multimillion dollar civil judgement. Their victory, according to this report, was seem by many in the town as “a sign that not only Oberlin College but in the future, powerful institutions will hesitate before trying to crush the little guy.”
****
One of the paradoxes of the age of social media is that prejudicial group response is praiseworthy just so long as it coincides with what a group believes ought to be the case.  This isn't just something that can happen with classical musicians and aspiring composers who are inclined to cast the sum of classical music as white supremacist because orchestras are orchestras that play orchestral music.  It also happens when religious conservatives imagine they are persecuted in the United States when people object to how they attempt to work their convictions about social life into judicial and policy decisions implemented by governments.  
The possibility that the orchestra had its time in the sun a century or two ago and that it may have stopped being the most accessible musical idiom to compose for may not matter to those who want to cast the symphony as symbolic, as emblematic of white supremacist ideology in classical music.  People who insist on making that point won't necessarily argue that traditional Chinese classical music is inherently racist because Americans by and large don't care about classical music traditions from eastern Asia.  It's not that there can't be virulently racist people in mainland China, obviously, but in American journalistic and op-ed contexts that kind of racism is not even up for consideration.  That Persians don't consider themselves the same as Iranians could be construed as a kind of racist distinction but that, too, may not come up for consideration in op-ed writing about classical music.  
Halle continued with the following:
It should be apparent that a similar set of neoliberal identitarian assumptions to those which ended up requiring a major transfer of assets from the Oberlin endowment to a local bakery inform the New Music Box piece mentioned at the beginning. Just as Oberlin students will reflexively protest a small business being charged with racism regardless of the evidence, so too can the notion that “western classical music is rooted in white supremacy” be simply asserted without the slightest argument. Indeed, anyone doing so can be confident that a mob will line up “in solidarity”. Furthermore just as the Oberlin students received institutional support via the Dean of Students, the flagship publication of contemporary music and those who read it appear to get a visceral thrill from metaphorically slashing their own wrists and from attacking as reactionaries and racists those attempting to prevent them from doing so.
What will be invisible to those performing the denunciations are African American composers themselves who will see through the treacly activistist gestures as age old liberal tokenism and condescension in an aestheticized, post-modern form. In fact, it was an African American composer who drew my attention to the article, characterizing it as “bullshit” and its author as a “whining incompetent.”
****
None of this, of course, will matter to those on the outside of our tiny circle of “new music” initiates. Potential audiences, insofar as we hope have them at all, will not be furious or even provoked. They will read one sentence of this nonsense, roll their eyes and come away with their preconceptions confirmed that classical composers and the institutions which support them are indeed as ridiculous and fraudulent as they always believed us to to be, a matter discussed here.
As for the fist pumping mobs, they are either oblivious or don’t care how they are seen by others. What is clear is that their baseless assertions of the inherent white supremacy of classical music help no one. Insofar as they succeed they will only further degrade the systems of financial support which continue to providing many musicians with a decent livelihood. And that includes the ostensible targets of their efforts towards “inclusivity”-those who are now establishing a place for themselves within it.
Update 6/10/2019: Lightly edited for clarity. Links added.
Update 2 6/10/2019: Incredibly (or maybe not) a bit of digging on the case reveals a still more direct connection to music: one of those taking a leading role in attempts to “smear the (Gibson Bakery) brand” was an Oberlin Professor of Music Theory.
We live in an era in which it is possible, again, to hear Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's cantata cycle Song of Hiawatha.  A British composer of half African descent who set a Longfellow poem about a fictional American Indian as a cycle of cantatas makes it a little tough to presume that the entire classical music tradition is white supremacist.  Now it could be possible to argue that the black British composer who set Longfellow was setting a poem to music that is a fabricated depiction of Native American cultures and figures that could be some kind of terrible double whammy of a form of cultural appropriation of a cultural depiction that was in many respects profoundly fraudulent but then are we supposed to hold it against Samuel Coleridge-Taylor that he loved the poem and its story of Native American society?  It's possible to guess that as a man of mixed race lineage who faced racial discrimination he may have sympathized with the attempt of a poet like Longfellow to depict non-whites in a positive light. 

That Coleridge-Taylor was a student of the British composer Charles Stanford meant that the music Coleridge-Taylor composed has since been considered Victorian to a fault.  When Andrew Clements reviewed a performance of a performance of the complete cantata cycle Coleridge-Taylor composed on excerpts from Longfellow's Hiawatha poem the verdict was "meh"  A composer who at one point was a touchstone figure for pan-Africanist thought in the early 20th century has been regarded as a competent but possibly more generally uninspired late Victorian throwback to go by a review at The Guardian. 

Halle's commentary on the Gibson/Oberlin case should (but won't) be a reminder that conservatives who broadbrush left/progressive writers as all despising the Western traditions in the arts are painting with too broad a brush.  Ian Pace has been writing about the deskilling of musicology but could not, if you've read half a dozen posts by him, be construed as some right-wing reactionary with respect to politics or economics. 

But with respect to NewMusicBox something I've noticed about a variety of contributors is that there can be a strong emphasis on ethnic and sexual identity and the music ... well ... you can always hear samples of the music but discussing the music itself is often near the periphery of essays that indicate a concern for identitarian representation in the symphonic canon or Western educational canon context.

I have begun to wonder whether angling for more representation in the symphony is missing that the symphony has had its day in the sun.  It's a shame that composers of color and women got sidelined by the symphonic mainstream of criticism, journalism and scholarship not just because good works of music have been overlooked but also, since I just picked up Robert Flanagan's The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras (HT Greg Sandow, who has blogged on the topic a time or two.), the symphony seems to have been on life support in American for generations.

I've seen authors talk about orientalism in Western classical music and say some stern things about that tendency.  But just as I have doubts about whether flipping the script of the German Idealist Romantic artist-as-genius-prophet script doesn't perpetuate that script in a deliberate photo-negative form, I find that contemporary American anti-orientalist polemic in the NewMusicBox variety can be a flipped script orientalism, in which contributors can write as if classical music in the European tradition were rife with tedious four on the floor common time non-syncopated swamps of airy white harmony in contrast to the vibrant assymetric meters of real Asian and central European or Indian musical traditions.  That ... does seem like flipping the script on "orientalism" in which the condescenion to the benighted artless society is directed toward the imperial/colonial power culture.   If what precludes orientalism is that the composer or writer is of a demography that can be described as historically (or currently, obviously) repressed or oppressed by colonial or imperial cultural norms then identity politics becomes the basis for a potential reverse-orientalist ideal.  If an orientalist/imperialist-colonial praxis involves depiction or assimilation of colonized cultures the rock and a hard place of that would be that anything like success on the part of musicians who seek to subvert the colonial/imperial/orientalist tropes would constitute assimilation into orientalism if the issue at stake is power structures. 

Yet the success of Coleridge-Taylor within his lifetime through his cantata cycle on Longfellow's Hiawatha poem should raise a question as to whether that throws a monkey wrench into an assumption that classical music is white supremacist as described by NewMusicBox contributors.  I don't hear that it is.  If the notational systems and traditions of Western written music are that terrible they are terrible to those who are making a point of saying they are terrible.  Yet Thomas Commuck decided to publish a shape note hymnal for which he wrote or transcribed about a hundred melodies.  Was that a sign of a Native American absorbed into a Christianity linked to colonial/imperial hegemony of white supremacist interest?  Commuck's introduction to Indian Melodies grants that whites might look down on his musical efforts but he wrote that he hoped that if no other whites would consider his musical work that Christians would since they could say they share hope in the same Savior. 

On the whole the efforts of Indianist composers from the late 19th and early 20th century have not had nearly the exposure and discussion that African American composers have had over the last century.  Would this be because African American music is the "real" musical voice of America?  I find it one of the beautiful traditions of American music, popular and art, but as I get older and consider that half my lineage is Native American it strikes me that nobody seems to talk about Native American musical traditions even a twentieth as much as they discuss African American and African music.  Of course one of the problems with an Indianist school of music involves questions as to how Native American this music really was and another problem/question invoked is whether Native American musical idioms translate into or are amenable to Western musical techniques and idioms.  Some have argued that African American music doesn't play by the rules of Western classical music.  Someone arguing that didn't seem to live in a time and place to send memos to Florence Price, William Grant Still, or William Levi Dawson.  But there's little reason to deny that Arthur Farwell is at best and at most a marginal figure compared to many other American composers, classical or popular. 

What gives me pause about the kinds of musical manifestos John Halle has alluded to is that besides the reverse-orientalist potential of some of those musical manifestos the contrast with "classical" music in a modern Western form, or a Western form is something I can try to describe with reference to religious thought.  There are Christian fundamentalists who believe that the dead institutional norms of any observably "liturgical" church practices and traditions are "dead traditions" and their aim can be to recover the fundamental pure early Church experience.  Some of the admonitions to go back to whatever not-European-classical musical traditions exist that are seen as the pure non-colonial or non-imperial arts to contrast with the decadent desiccated "classical" come across as fundamentalist to me. 

Having written so much about a kind of "left" in musicology there are some things I've been thinking about with respect to a "right".  I have seen arguments from traditionalist or conservative writers that there's a generic cultural or aesthetic pluralism that is embraced that doesn't hold up well for the arts.  I regard this, also, as basically a canard.  I regard it as a canard because we have the whole history of the Cold War behind us now and we can see that there were attempts to understand and assimilate jazz into the classical music practices on both sides of the Iron Curtain.  Whether Claude Bolling in France or Nikolai Kapustin, born in the Ukraine, there have been composers who have sought to develop a fusion of jazz and classical music--there have been those who assert that jazz and classical music can't really interact without managing to explain why beyond invocations of perceived inherent tendencies of material. 

I don't intend to deal with those claims here, what I intend to do is to point out that if there were serious efforts to develop a synthesis of jazz and classical idioms on both sides of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War we might want to ask "why" musicians were interested in such a musical fusion.  The Cuban guitarist composer and conductor Leo Brouwer has been interested in fusion for decades and provides another potential case, what I suggest we can hear and see in composers in the two geo-political regions of the "democratic West" and the "communist bloc" is a competition regarding which cultural milieu can best define and accomodate pluralism in the arts.   There are some conservative writers who treat "pluralism" as if it were bad because aesthetic criteria and craft are being cast aside explicitly or implicitly but the problem with such a move in literary and historical terms is that it has to account for what I've just described, bids at jazz/classical fusion on both sides of the Iron Curtain.  That within a mere few years after the formal abandonment of socialist realism Polish intellectuals were advocating in the mid-1950s for more jazz in their national musical life makes it tough to claim no one in the Soviet bloc wanted jazz.

The NewMusicBox approach to music and music advocacy seems to have shifted in the last twenty years, which is something Halle seems to be observing at a very general level.  The tone of the contributions comes across as more strident and activist and more ... advertising.  All arts journalism is, to some degree or another a kind of advertising. Virgil Thomson wrote that art criticism, for better and worse, is the solitary holdout we have from all arts coverage being PR and it may be that what Halle has tried to articulate is a sense that NewMusicBox has, more and more, activist manifestos and statements about the state of Western music that are less examinations of music and more advertisements in which phrases like "colonialism", "imperialism" and "white supremacy" come up and it's important to address those things but having read a dozen or so of these kinds of pieces the conclusion is ... advertisement for the contributors work. 

At this point I throw a bone to the Norman Lebrechts of music journalism who pine for the days when someone would write in public about music they didn't write themselves and want others to hear.  Perhaps one of the gloomier aspects of the age of neoliberalism is that absent institutionally backed critics all that's left is PR, to invoke Virgil Thomson's quip, and the PR of the day can now wrap itself not in the American flag but in a new and disguised form of orientalism that is not called (or recognized as) orientalism because of demography. We may live in a neo-orientalist era in which the orientalisms that are frowned upon from the past can be revived in the present provided the revival involves people who can prove they are not from the "classical" or "European" or the 19th century canonical mainstream of symphonic and salon-based music by way of demography on the one hand and musical output on the other.  The paradox is that once they reach the moment of marketing their music as a concert experience the neo-orientalist aspect emerges, a kind of paternalistic inversion in which those composers who are not-Beethoven can market their work as not-Beethoven.  I've heard some Iranian ballads that sounded great but I'm not going to try to compose in that style and traditional Iranian ballads are still traditional Iranian ballads. 

The crisis of the legitimacy and plausibility of the American melting pot paradigm seems real and legitimate.  As a self-described anti-Romantic I'm going to reiterate an idea I've written here in other ways, that classicists who love the arts have and can find ways to let a variety of beautiful artistic traditions interact in ways that Idealists/idealists/Romantics committed to musical purity on the basis of ethnic mythologies and narratives, whether white, black, brown, red, or whatever, write against. 

George Rochberg wrote that the central challenge of our era was confronting the pluralism at hand and work out what to do with it.

THE AESTHETICS OF SURVIVAL: A COMPOSER'S VIEW OF TWENTIETH-CENTURY MUSIC
GEORGE ROCHBERG
Copyright (c) by The University of Michigan 1984
ISBN 0-472-10037-8

page 240

... I suspect that what my quartet suggests to others, and what I began to accept for myself at least fifteen years ago, is that we can no longer live with monolithic ideas about art and how it is produced. Nor can we take as artistic gospel the categorical imperatives laid down by cultural messiahs or their self-appointed apologists and followers of whatever persuasion.

On the contrary, the twentieth century has pointed--however reluctant we may be to accept it in all areas of life, social as well as political, cultural as well as intellectual--toward a difficult-to-define pluralism, a world of new mixtures and combinations of everything we have inherited from the past and whatever we individually or collectively value in the inventions of our own present, replete with juxtapositions of opposites (or seeming opposites) and contraries.  ...

page 241
Granting pluralism, how is a composer to deal with it? From the inside out, i.e., from the internal psychic imagery which becomes the musical gesture to its artistic manifestation. Gesture, singly or in combination, successive or simultaneous, is the determining factor--not style, language, system, or method.  

The crisis of pluralism was not necessarily the pluralism itself but that the ideologies at hand in the Cold War were in battle over which ideology was better-suited to justify, defend and extend pluralism and on what grounds.  This could be a point where cultural conservatives and explicitly anti-communist partisans have a historically viable point, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union did not really signal the end of this ideological context between Marxist and anti-Marxist/capitalist bids at providing an ideological and social framework within which a broad-umbrella plurality could function.  Those two belief systems were not the only means through which to arrive at a kind of musical pluralism.  Spiritual beliefs have been used to arrive at a kind of pluralist vision of musical life, whether Messiaen's Catholicism or Cage's Zen approach.   Or we could go further back to maybe Johann Sebastian Bach's Lutheranism but that gets us to the sticky issue that the attainment of a successful plurality in artistic achievement will not necessarily bring with it a pluralism of the social, political or economic sort that is valuable to us in the twenty-first century West. 

Of course the case of Bach gets at a core objection from contemporary polemics regarding classical music as European, Christian and white ... that artistic plurality of style and achievement is retroactively perceived as a monolithic colonial/imperial achievement.  Maybe it is ... and that leads me to ask, point blank, why such a comparable achievement won't be representative of an imperial/colonial accomplishment in our own time and place.  

an additional rumination on the demise of the paid critic's day in the sun, the demise of the critic reminds me that in the old days many a famous music critic in the 19th c is better known as a composer

If in the insular realm of the Christian blogosphere and Christian formal media it's sometimes popular to say "nobody ever built a monument to a critic", among those who have worked as journalists laments for the demise of the critic and the critic's social role have been going on for a decade or so, whether it's Norman Lebrecht about a decade ago at The New Statesman or, more recently, Tim Page

http://21cm.org/magazine/state-of-the-art-form/2019/09/12/in-memory-of-the-critics-trade/

...
The profession isn’t entirely defunct – there are some extraordinary critics still on the beat. In cities with major arts centers or celebrated orchestras, such positions are easier for an editor to justify in tough financial times (and it has been mostly downhill since the advent of the internet). But it is now more common for a newspaper to find a general assignment writer to write some nice words about the local production of “The Nutcracker” or a visit from Yo-Yo Ma – the so-called “big-ticket items” – while leaving a city’s more venturesome endeavors alone.  
...

The literary art may be flourishing but criticism may not be flourishing in a monetized format compared to what is available online.  Criticism isn't dying as a literary art or even as a scholarly activity, to go by the sheer number of degrees people get that involve the liberal arts, but the profession has been in decline, if by profession we mean people get paid, as opposed to being saddled with a lifetime of student debt to pay off ... or not pay off.

Back when I wrote a little haiku ...

every arts critic
must consecrate consumption
to live with their craft

I wrote it because what struck me about defenses of criticism in the arts, much as I really do love the literary discipline, every defense of criticism depends upon the sacredness of a particular kind of consumption, a wide-ranging omnivorous consumption of arts as experiences and works that is vocational.  Before the critic can be a critic the critic must first be a consumer, not in some pejorative anti-market-forces sense but in the most rudimentary sense of getting the entire brain engaged with whatever is being experienced.  You cannot digest what you do not eat is what I'm getting at, and the critic must be a vocational eater. 

Take Lebrecht's old piece from 2010:
...
But the world needs good critics more now than ever before if it is not to be given a frontal lobotomy by multinational blandness. Cities without critics will vanish off the cultural radar at the very recessional moment when what they most need is to spark a creative impulse. Nations without critics will fall into the demagogic grip of profiteers such as Cowell and the book-club queen Amanda Ross - unlicensed entertainers whose chief concern is the cheap laugh. For Ross, all books are just books. For a writer, each book is a world unto itself. Without critics to engage with the unknown, those worlds will be lost and the collective intelligence impoverished.

The unholy alliance of Andrew Lloyd Webber and the BBC in the Pop Idol-style casting of low-risk theatrical revivals is a glimpse, a peek through the poisoned keyhole, into what a future without critics might resemble. That future is drawing ever closer.

How can we rescue criticism from the brink of extinction? Some of the best minds in the arts are turning over that question without, at present, much by way of a solution. My feeling is that we have to start from small beginnings, training a new generation of critics in the traditional method and hoping that they will show the resourcefulness to achieve continuity. The New Statesman’s search for a young music critic will be widely supported - and not only in this country, as the arts are a global business, but one that, unlike the banks, will never be too big to fail.
...

At the risk of assuming you are conversant in nineteenth century music criticism, dear reader, I might point out that Berlioz and Wagner and Schumann were critics as well as composers.  They wrote reviews.  Perhaps the demise of the critic as journalist is possibly connected to the demise of the critic as actual participant in the arts scene of critical choice?  Over-specialization in criticism at the expense of direct participation in creative activity could be part of what has spelled the death-knell for criticism, although the death of institutionally vetted journalists as official critics might be ... a bit overstated.

Take our local film editor for The Stranger, Charles Mudede. He's been involved in film-making.  Whether or not his films are any good I can't personally say because I haven't seen the films but I bring up his work to suggest that even if it's just making a few films while writing about hundreds of films my thesis is that criticism as a "pure" journalistic exercise or vocation may really be in trouble but that may highlight all the more clearly that in various eras criticism has been an art and an act of scholarship that retained some connections to "do" as well as "teach". 

I have made no secret of my advocacy for the music of guitarist composers like Nikita Koshkin, Annette Kruisbrink, Leo Brouwer, and Atanas Ourkouzounov.  Naxos has a two disc set of the Ourkouzounov guitar sonatas (1 through 5) and Cycling Modes coming out this December.  I am absolutely intending to write about that album.  One of my admitted soap boxes at this blog before it became known as a "watchblog" was classical guitar music composed by musicians who aren't of the Spanish/Latin American idiom.  I've got nothing against the Ponce guitar sonatas, they're great, and I admire plenty of Sor ... but in American English language writing about the guitar I believe those composers and that work is over-represented.  So I'm more interested in stumping for composers from central and eastern Europe whose work tends to not even be on the radar in the U.S., although that is, thankfully, changing in the last twenty years. 

Virgil Thomson's criticism is still in print even as much of his music is, frankly, justifiably ignored.  It's not exactly badly-made music or anything but I never got into Thomson's music much.  Wagner's legacy has resonated for centuries because he didn't just write music, he wrote a lot that can be regarded as music criticism, theater criticism and unvarnished theory.  He developed theories to account for what he was doing and what he was intending to do in his art.

I find a great deal about Wagner personally and aesthetically to be loathsome but he makes it so much easier to disagree with for having written the critical work that he wrote in addition to the operas.  There's something to be said for a great critic being great even in being wrong if the critic has written something that invites a rebuttal.  A Wagner or even an Adorno can be a great critic by dint of being wrong, utterly wrong, but articulating arguments that further critical enquiry.  Take Adorno on jazz and popular music.  I regard his take on jazz to be wildly wrong but his arguments for why popular music failed to be art have become so commonplace that conservatives like Roger Scruton invoke Adorno's arguments that popular song and popular music don't make the grade as "serious" or art music with few modifications.  Adorno's rambling on different forms of musical cognition is actually useful, and it's useful because it can lay a groundwork for a later writer like the American composer George Rochberg to speculate about time-space and space-time as outworkings of different modes of cognition in music perception and creation.  Adorno may have concluded that popular music wasn't art but his taxonomy of categories and ideas give me concepts I can play with and put alongside ideas from Rochberg or Hepokoski and Darcy on sonata forms as a way to explore the possibility that, for instance, ragtime can be developed into sonata forms. 

Which is to say criticism and analysis are what we need available for such explorations to come about and if there is less of that then we have reason to worry if such musical experimentation can happen.
No one writing at Lebrecht's level of music criticism and musicology is ever going to come up with any of the stuff I've been describing and I would argue it's precisely because it's a job for those kinds of music critics.  I've written this in the past but i"ll write it again, critics who lament the loss of ideas and vitality in a realm of the arts are not really observing that the art form is dying, they aren't even coming to grips with their own mortality as a too-easy canard against critics might put it, my belief is that a person who complains there's nothing new is someone who has been consuming too much.  I got some advice from a fellow years ago that reading is great but that I shouldn't read just because I feel unsure about what I want to write next, what he meant, I think, was to say that reading is wonderful and absorbing art is a valuable thing but it's not the same thing as making stuff.  If contemporary criticism seems in decline I suggest it is not merely because journalism has been gutted by the rise of the internet-based media world but also because too many critics whose careers are in that decline had their careers defined by what they consumed, and then criticized.  Lebrecht can write novels and, eh, I'm never planning to read them.

To pick a specific example who I realize may not be everyone's cup of tea, Kyle Gann seems to have staked out what I would regard as a positive balance between criticism, music scholarship and compositional activity if you survey the course of his career. 

Not that a person has to mix up composing music and writing.  Taruskin's known mainly for writing by now, for instance.  Criticism is its own wonderful literary art form but in such a case as Taruskin I would point out there's a mixture in what he does of writing for scholars and writing journalism, of writing things like the Oxford History of Western Music but also discussing books or albums for venues like The New Republic (a decade or so ago, anyway).  Gann wrote for The Village Voice. 

In the end such critical literary effort has to be taken up in some kind of faith.  I'll explain that by way of describing the writing process for the old Mystery Science Theater 3000 television series that sent up movies.  Joel Hodgson, I think it was, said that when writers came up with obscure jokes they never asked themselves "Will anyone get this joke?" they went with the ideal of "The right person will get this joke."  If one of the writers found a joke personally offensive or in bad taste they'd drop the joke on the principle that if someone found it offensive and out-of-line fans of the show likely would, too. 

In application, I don't see the use in fretting that classical guitar journalism as yet has not discussed polyphonic cycles for solo guitar, by and large.  What I can do is keep doing my research into contrapuntal music written for solo guitar and, when I feel I've soaked up enough to share, share.  Any critic can understand that criticism is not just "about" the arts, it is part of the arts. Noah Berlatsky overstates things a bit by insisting that until critics pass verdict on art it's not recognized as art as such, but there's an element I agree with, and I agree that critics can too often pay attention to whatever is in a herd mentality.  At the risk of giving an example, I don't care so much that authors at Slate decided to write about Archer or Rick & Morty.  I'm more of a Batman: the Animated Series and Samurai Jack and Avatar: The Last Airbender (series, not movie!), and Powerpuff Girls fan myself.   I don't feel the least bit bad for having passed on The Sopranos or Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead

One of the weaknesses of vocational taste-makers is they can have a weakness for presuming that if one enjoys highbrow art in one area one must enjoy it in another area.  We've long had a culture in which someone could admire the late string quartets of Beethoven and then turn around and laugh through the run time of the South Park episode "Christian Rock Hard".  Maybe the demise of criticism coincides with a demise of the middle class, but it seems to me the literary art has slipped out of institutional moorings as much because those institutions have had systemic challenges as because people somehow lack for official arts critics to tell them what stuff they should be consuming.  Ellul's acerbic riff on how the arts critic is to the consumer as the broker is to the business owner comes to mind--we can forget that arts criticism as a journalistic vocation was a relatively recent development in Western history and that in the age of princes and kings who were patrons of the arts there was less need for the critic since the gap between the artistic knowledge of aristocratic patron and artist-servant was not what it has long since become. 


Mandy Len Catron's "case against marriage" as a case against contemporary American marriage

Having written some on Joshua Harris and the courtship fad and what I regard as his legacy and heirs by way of Mark Driscoll and Nadia Bolz-Weber and their respective popular level books on sexuality and marriage, I remember I read Mandy Len Catron's "case against marriage" back in July.  The case is against a particular, American conception of marriage.  More to Catron's polemical point, the case against marriage is against an explicitly white middle-to-upper-class conception of marriage as a pure dyadic relationship untethered from more traditional associations with extended family networks and networks of friends.  So the argument against a specifically early 21st century conception of American white mainstream marriage as the apotheosis of economic autonomy in which social life is an outworking of a kind of social luxury  can come across as more radical a claim than the author seems to actually intend if we go by the clickbait title of The Atlantic article.  I'll be quoting this one at some length.

https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2019/07/case-against-marriage/591973/

...
In his majority opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.” This notion—that marriage is the best answer to the deep human desire for connection and belonging—is incredibly seductive. When I think about getting married, I can feel its undertow. But research suggests that, whatever its benefits, marriage also comes with a cost.

As Chekhov put it, “If you’re afraid of loneliness, don’t marry.” He might have been on to something. In a review of two national surveys, the sociologists Natalia Sarkisian of Boston College and Naomi Gerstel of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst found that marriage actually weakens other social ties. Compared with those who stay single, married folks are less likely to visit or call parents and siblings—and less inclined to offer them emotional support or pragmatic help with things such as chores and transportation. They are also less likely to hang out with friends and neighbors.



Single people, by contrast, are far more connected to the social world around them. On average, they provide more care for their siblings and aging parents. They have more friends. They are more likely to offer help to neighbors and ask for it in return. This is especially true for those who have always been single, shattering the myth of the spinster cat lady entirely. Single women in particular are more politically engaged—attending rallies and fundraising for causes that are important to them—than married women. (These trends persist, but are weaker, for single people who were previously married. Cohabiting couples were underrepresented in the data and excluded from the study.)

Sarkisian and Gerstel wondered whether some of these effects could be explained by the demands of caring for small children. Maybe married parents just don’t have any extra time or energy to offer neighbors and friends. But once they examined the data further, they found that those who were married without children were the most isolated. The researchers suggest that one potential explanation for this is that these couples tend to have more time and money—and thus need less help from family and friends, and are then less likely to offer it in return. The autonomy of successful married life can leave spouses cut off from their communities. Having children may slightly soften the isolating effects of marriage, because parents often turn to others for help.

In light of theories that marriage in American contexts moved from a "cornerstone" to "capstone" model this seems like a "duh" suggestion.  There's an old article from The Atlantic proposing that assortive pairing in romantic relationships has catalyzed and exacerbated income inequality that comes to mind.  One of the axioms I saw during my brief visits to the mano-o-sphere that didn't seem absurd was a proposal that once no one is willing to "marry down" social mobility becomes less likely.  The man-o-sphere being the kind of dark web that it seems to be, the proposal was that men marrying lower class women meant that the women who "married up" could bring their circle of family relations into that marrying up process, if indirectly.  

Those married without children might choose to be "most isolated" but it depends on a lot of other variables, in my observation and experience with married couples.  I realize that a decade at Mars Hill might not be a useful "sample" but there were tens of thousands of people there and when I got to know a large number of married couples I found that the loss of contact was generally set off by parenthood and that many married couples were pretty decent at staying in touch before parenthood demanded most of their attention.  Of course Mars Hill, thousands and thousands of people though it had, might not be a "typical" sample for observing couple behaviors.  

The sociologists found that, for the most part, these trends couldn’t be explained away by structural differences in the lives of married versus unmarried people. They hold true across racial groups and even when researchers control for age and socioeconomic status. So it isn’t the circumstances of married life that isolate—it’s marriage itself.

When I came across Sarkisian and Gerstel’s research, I wasn’t surprised by the data—but I was surprised that no one seemed to be talking about the isolation of modern romantic commitment. Many couples who live together but aren’t married are likely to experience at least some of the costs and benefits associated with marriage. The expectations that come with living with a serious partner, married or not, can enforce the norms that create social isolation. In the months after Mark moved into my apartment, I enjoyed the coziness of our shared domestic life. I liked having another person to help walk the dog and shop for groceries. I loved getting into bed with him every night.

But when I looked at my life, I was surprised by how it seemed to have contracted. I didn’t go out as much. I got fewer invitations for after-work beers. Even my own parents seemed to call less often. When invitations did arrive, they were addressed to us both. We hadn’t even discussed marriage yet, but already it seemed everyone had tacitly agreed that our step toward each other necessitated a step away from friendship and community. I was happy in our home, but that happiness was twinned with a sense of loneliness I hadn’t expected.

When I thought about getting married, I imagined it would only isolate us further. Marriage has social and institutional power that cohabitation does not; it confers more prestige, and it prescribes more powerful norms.

...
Splitting tabs with more rather than fewer people is as much more a chore in real life as it sounds like on paper.  This would be a moment where I reflect upon friendships I made with married people at Mars Hill over the course of ten years.  To put it in aphoristic terms, if I was friends with both the husband and the wife then it was more likely that we'd spend time together, whether watching a film, conversing over dinner, discussing theology or literature, or whatever.  If I was friends with the husband or the wife to a greater degree than I was friends with the other partner in the relationship the less likely it was I'd get invitations or the less likely my invitations to do something might get reciprocated.  That seems to just be how coupled dynamics work.  



Social alienation is so fully integrated into the American ideology of marriage that it’s easy to overlook. Sarkisian and Gerstel point out that modern marriage comes with a cultural presumption of self-sufficiency. This is reflected in how young adults in the U.S. tend to postpone marriage until they can afford to live alone—rather than with family or roommates—and in the assumption that a married life should be one of total financial independence.

This idea of self-sufficiency is also reflected in weddings themselves, which tend to emphasize the individuals getting married rather than the larger community they belong to. On the website TheKnot.com, whose tagline is “Welcome to your day, your way,” you can take a quiz to help define “your wedding style.” There are pages and pages of “wedding inspo” so that every detail can be perfectly refined for a wedding that’s “totally you.” Admittedly, there is something appealing about the idea that a wedding might perfectly express the identities of the individuals involved, but this is a distinctively modern concept.

In his book The All-or-Nothing Marriage, the psychologist Eli Finkel examines how, over the past 200 years, American expectations of marriage have slowly climbed Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Just a few generations ago, the ideal marriage was defined by love, cooperation, and a sense of belonging to a family and community. Today’s newlyweds, Finkel argues, want all that and prestige, autonomy, personal growth, and self-expression. A marriage is supposed to help the individuals within it become the best versions of themselves. This means that more and more, Americans turn to their spouses for needs they once expected an entire community to fulfill.
...

Oscar Wilde is said to have quipped that every comedy ends in a marriage and every tragedy begins with one but perhaps in contemporary English language cultural terms it might be an axiom amenable to any number of modifications.  If sex and sexual attachment are celebrated in popular culture it can seem as though parenthood is either sacralized or dreaded.  I recall some reviews of The Babadook and Tully by authors (women) who seemed to regard the horror films as successes for depicting the struggles of motherhood.  Yes, okay ... but perhaps a contemporary Oscar Wilde could modify the axiom to say that comedies culminate in sex and tragedies begin with parenthood.  

For better and worse, the impression I got about marriage is that it is like the cave Luke Skywalker visits on Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back.  Yoda warns "Your weapons, you will not need them."  Luke asks, "What's in there."  Yoda replies, "Only what you take with you."