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My take: Why this female priest loves 'Sister Wives'
February 28th, 2011
06:00 AM ET

My take: Why this female priest loves 'Sister Wives'

Editor's Note: Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio is ordained in the Episcopal Church and has taught a variety of educational institutions, including Yale University. She is also the author of "God and Harry at Yale: Faith and Fiction in the Classroom."

By Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio, Special to CNN

“Sister Wives” is virtually sacred time in my home. When it’s on, I refuse to answer the phone or move from the couch, and anyone who talks risks both a DVR rewind and a scornful look for interrupting the episode’s flow.

I admit that referring to any television viewing as “sacred time” is a bit sacrilegious, especially coming from an Episcopal priest. But I can’t help it — I’m so fascinated by this show that I’ve seen every episode twice (including the honeymoon special), researched fundamentalist Mormon wedding rituals, and dreamed of visiting the cake tasting bakery.

Yet many don’t appreciate my enthusiasm. Every time I confess my love for Meri, Christine, Janelle, Robyn, their flock of children and their bushy-haired husband, I tend to receive responses like:

“But you’re a woman.”

“But you’re a feminist.”

“But you’re a priest.”

“But you’re monogamous … right?”

My answers to each are “Yes,” “yes,” “yes” — and “of course!”

So how can a liberal Christian monogamist feminist female priest such as myself love a sensationalistic reality TV show about a polygamous fundamentalist Mormon family?

I think it all goes back to the meaning of marriage itself. Most adults in our society understand marriage as a special kind of intimacy, a closeness so connected that two become one—as stated by Genesis 2:24, or, if you prefer, the Spice Girls.

This relationship is defined by an imposing “till death do us part” commitment to share all that you are and all that you have with a single other person. For many couples that special love expands with time, creating space for children who will be adored, cuddled, and raised with the best of intentions.

Christians today see marriage as an institution that provides a constant and daily opportunity to practice loving well. By caring about a single other, one learns what it means to love all people well, and then take that love into the world.

This is a beautiful image, but hard to live up to. Late nights at work, dressing kids for soccer practice, dusting, cooking, vacuuming, trying to get that orange stain out of a spouse’s favorite shirt for the sixth time – it can transform marriage into a black hole.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world — with its politics and problems, its friendships and unreturned phone calls — fades into a vast, inviting, but inaccessible universe.
Marriage is supposed to be something that opens you up to the world. But with bills amassing and responsibilities going unmanaged and no one else but an equally stressed spouse to turn to, the world doesn’t look so inviting. Instead, it seems filled with 6 billion scary strangers who offer about as much support and protection as a washcloth.

Moreover, in a job market where many — including my husband and me — must move away from extended family and childhood friends for work, there is a longing for the kind of deep, abiding and intimate community that only family brings. One yearns sometimes for the folk societies of old, the kind of village it proverbially takes to raise a child, a world where you can drop the kids off at a neighbor’s without having to check their references first.

And it’s not long, after starting down this path, that the reasons for having a second or third or fourth wife in the family don’t seem so hard for someone like me to imagine. It would provide stability. I would have more support. We could enrich the family our society challenges in so many ways.

Then I snap back to reality: I don’t want another wife in our family. I would be devastated if my husband talked about bringing another woman into our family. My husband is already stressed with the financial burden of providing for our little life; he doesn’t want to be responsible for 12 or 20 children.

So while neither my husband nor I have any interest in adding another party to our relationship, “Sister Wives” still touches a nerve. I can understand why you’d want another spouse, and that understanding challenges me to think about whether our society’s dominant view of marriage is the only legit one.

Put differently, while I’m not endorsing this lifestyle, learning about the Brown family offers a new perspective — and a confusing one — about the families most of us have. It makes one wonder: Is there only one mold for the Jell-O of marriage?

On the one hand, marriage hasn’t always been defined by love and intimacy between two spouses, even in the Christian tradition. In the past, couples married for economic reasons or to climb the social ladder, and women were not seen as equal partners but as property to be bought and traded like sheep or goats.

Likewise, marriage was primarily a vehicle for procreation in the early church, which led priests to pray for fecundity over the newly married as they lay in bed ready to consummate their union. In biblical times, for better or for worse, Abraham slept with his wife’s slave girl to make a baby, and Lamech, Jacob, Gideon and Elkanah all had multiple wives.

King Solomon, it is said, had 700.

Even today, marriage takes myriad forms. Some couples enter arranged unions, some have open relationships, an increasing number of couples don’t marry at all, and some — like Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn — wed for sisterly companionship and family life as much as they marry for love of a man.

So are these lifestyles wrong? I’m not sure. There are reasons to both support and deride these practices from a Christian standpoint. Polygamy, for instance, has a rich biblical history. So that ought to justify it. And yet, all we need to do is cue Warren Jeffs to know that many instances of polygamy are damaging to women. That ought to render it abhorrent.

This ambiguity is reason for the Christian community — and society at large — to continue the debate about what defines a healthy and life-giving marriage. And with season two of “Sister Wives” debuting soon, we will surely have new material to discuss.

Perhaps the Browns will persuade us that multiple wives does not a happy union make, but we might also find that a plurality of practices — even a plurality of wives — can lead to happily ever after.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints • Culture & Science • Episcopal • Fundamentalism • Mormonism • My Take • TV

soundoff (240 Responses)
  1. Virginia

    Here is yet another Christian (a priest no less) who knows little of the faith they claim to believe. No where in the Bible does God tell his followers to live in plural marriage. I believe she has gotten caught up in the academic view of Christianity. She needs to read and study the Bible like all Christians are supposed to.

    November 15, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
  2. Framma

    "Happily ever after?" Have you watched the women in this show? As a clinical social worker, what I see is 3 women who are suffering on many levels but trying to put a brave face on it because they have been taught to "keep sweet," and 1 woman, who as the latest wife and the current favorite, is still riding the high of a new experience. Please acquaint yourself with some women who have actually grown up in this lifestyle, married into it, and been reduced to a status that is often little more than that of a possession of their husbands, and then you might want to revisit your conclusions. There are lots of women who would be happy to share their unhappy stories with you if you look around.

    October 21, 2011 at 10:40 pm |
  3. Insider

    Can't tell you how distressing it for me as an ex polygamist wife (and previous member of the same religious group to which the Browns belong) to read some of the ignorant views about polygyny. The Browns are attempting to be the "new and improved" face of polygamy, and they have an expressed agenda to see polygyny accepted by US society. This writer says the women who are with Kody Brown "wed for sisterly companionship and family life as much as they marry for love of a man." Nonsense. Polygyny is a religious obligation for Mormon Fundamentalists, and their scriptures teach that women who refuse to live it wi be "destroyed." There is a lot of pain behind the smiling faces. This priest is flying the Browns out to speak to her theological students. I suggest that she lacks the background to ask them the right questions. I also suggest that she has someone present the opposite side of the coin. I would be happy to oblige. If polygamy is ever legalized it will set women's rights back a thousand years! i

    October 21, 2011 at 10:06 pm |
  4. Goddog

    A bit sacrilegious? I love how dismissive you are of this part of your faith. You probably like watching the show because it gives you a glimpse of how people who actually follow the letter of their religion live. You also act like because you are a priest we should be impressed that you have, like, human interests (because you should be above such things...?) My Take; Why a Nazi loves Steven Spielberg movies. Stop thinking so highly of yourself and stop treating your religion like you get to choose when to be pious. Go back to your herd... your sheep are getting tattoos and getting pierced because their shepherd is giving them scornful looks.

    July 12, 2011 at 11:26 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.