Proscriptive or Descriptive Marriage Play?

There is a funny and thoughtful post here about the beautiful analogy of the relationship between Jesus and the Church and the husband and wife. (actually, the whole blog, written by a really interesting guy, is worth a read!)

This is a metaphor present throughout much of scripture about which much ink has been spilled over the years. It is something with which I have both a fascination and, at the same time, a lack of connection. Over the years I have run the gamut in my feelings and thoughts about this image and that is probably why I find Harrison’s comments so humorous and, as with all good humor, something that strikes a chord.

As with a lot of things in scripture, I think it is wise to examine both whether or not the metaphor is proscriptive or descriptive and what it is proscribing or describing about. In other words, is the metaphor instructing the way we are to be in the world (proscriptive) or is it describing how something actually is (descriptive) or perhaps both? Plus, and perhaps more importantly, what is the subject of the text?

For a simplistic example: when we read about creation, it isn’t proscribing anything to us; it is describing God and creation. A more complex example: the Beatitudes are not a set of proscriptive actions, like a recipe for behavior, but rather a description of the Kingdom of Heaven. Neither of these means that they do not greatly affect the way we live our lives, but it does mean they are not a direct set of instructions to act a certain way. It’s a subtle difference but it’s there.

If pushed to it, I’d say there is very little in scripture that is actually proscriptive. It’s probably the Lutheran in me. Certainly Paul’s directive of “Let the same mind be in you that is in Christ Jesus” from Philippians is proscriptive and, if extended to the whole of life, it might be the only proscriptive necessary based on the extensive descriptive present throughout scripture.

Then there is the whole subject issue. What is the subject of the scripture? Nine times out of ten….or 99 times out of  a hundred….or maybe even more than that, the subject is God. If it is descriptive it is describing God, the Son of God, God’s kingdom, God’s relationship with us. If it is proscriptive it is still about God and its proscription only matters because God is God. Shorthand: scripture is about God.

And we, in our narcissistic, curved in, self reflecting obsession make it all about us.

When we look at something like the lovely (lovely as in: made with and of love) metaphor of the Bridegroom, Christ, and his Bride, the Church, and make it into solely something as profane and small and simplistic as a proscription for a happy marriage, we turn the Creator of the Universe, the lover of our soul, the redeemer of creation into the one-dimensional god of our culture’s Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  It is what happens when we make the descriptive into merely proscriptive and make the subject us and not God.

We cannot fully love one another like God loves us. This is not merely another restatement of the typical objections many people express in relation to this kind of imagery which were spoofed with so much wit in Harrison’s post. It is not merely about the huge rise in divorce, alternative relationships or societal understandings and reinterpretations of committment. It is about Paul’s descriptive:  we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We put a burdensom weight upon marriage that it was never meant to bear when we turn this metaphor upside down and see it as instruction for a proper relationship.

And yet, perhaps paradoxically, when we see the very best of our human relationships–the ones involving mutual love, self-sacrifice, trust, purpose and all that the human heart is capable of–as a metaphor for God’s relationship with us, we actually begin to get a taste of God’s love for us.

Descriptively, that is.

5 thoughts on “Proscriptive or Descriptive Marriage Play?

  1. shepherdess, thank you for the link to my blog.

    but thanks even more for your thoughts. i’ve been challenged by reading this post. in ephesians 5 — just after the section i (kind of a little bit) summarized — paul makes it sound as if he told all this stuff about marriage in an effort to explain the mystery of Christ and his love for the church.

    which is disheartening at best. because that would require that our marriages already do exemplify the love of Christ for his bride. i suppose we’ve come a long way? that now we read this text the opposite direction — as paul using christ’s love to teach us how marriage should be?

    • I’m glad to link to your blog. I enjoy it for both the insights and the humor! And thank you for taking the time to comment on my post.

      Much of scripture is disheartening in its ability to convict us, but that may be exactly what the mirror of scripture (or as Martin Luther would say, the second use of the law: the mirror that shows us our flaws, driving us to God’s grace and mercy) is to be.
      Ultimately I do not think the point of the text is to be a marriage handbook. (And, for the record, I don’t think that is what you were necessarily saying either in your post.) I think Paul is using the idealized image of marriage in all the very best ways it can be as an allegorical story for God’s deep, intimate, personal and all consuming relationship with us. In order to be a genuinely allegorical story, it certainly must be truly characteristics of the type of relationship it uses as an illustration, of course, but I think we miss the main teaching when we make it about us and the human experience of other humans.
      For example: Jesus tells the story of a man coming down from Jerusalem who is attacked by robbers and left for dead, passed over by many who should have helped him, and finally saved by a Samaritan. When he tells this story, he is not proscribing how people from Samarian should act, describing what happens to everyone when they come down the road from Jerusalem or using the victim as the model for all recipients of mercy. He is describing what a neighbor is and does to answer the question: who is my neighbor? Which was the follow up question to: how do I inherit eternal life? The answer wasn’t to go be a Samaritan, help a wounded man on the road or get beat up on the way down from Jerusalem. Jesus’ story was an allegorical play (to use your word 🙂 ) to illustrate what it looks like. Should a Samaritan (and a Samaritan alone) spend his days patroling the roads to and from Jerusalem? No more so than any of us. There are tons of things to be learned from this story, just as there are from the rich and beautiful illustration of the Bridegroom and his Bride, but the point of the story isn’t the characters in the story but rather life with God.
      And ultimately, that’s what I’m every so clumsily saying: The true subject is God.

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