February 28th, 2011
06:00 AM ET
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.
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.
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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 and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.