There is an old saying in the religion-beat world that goes something like this: You can always find interesting news trends if you keep looking at what happens when each generation moves through the symbolic crossroads of life -- being born, getting married, having children and dying.
During this week's Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in), host Todd Wilken and I talked about a number of different trends linked to marriage in this day and age, spinning off from two New York Times stories. One was about people flocking to New York City for secular weddings in a state-run marriage bureau chapel. Yes, "chapel." The other was about the trend toward very sexy -- but still white -- wedding dresses.
All kinds of issues came up in this discussion. For example: Lots of churches have had to establish policies on how to handle couples who have been "living in sin" -- that's what people used to call it -- before marriage. There are still interesting stories to be found linked to that topic. But times move on. I am curious. In the age of R-rated wedding dresses, are religious leaders going to have to have wedding dress codes for brides? Do priests and rabbis need to approve wedding dresses in advance?
Truth be told, there is a big, big subject looming in the background during this chat. We are talking about radical American individualism and its whole "this day is all about you" wedding ethos that produces both gigantic, break-the-bank church weddings and all of those destination weddings on beaches, mountain cliffs and who knows where.
The bottom line is even bigger than the financial bottom line: Is the wedding a sacrament or not? Is the rite defined by individuals or by worshipping communities?
If you want to see some of these trends summarized, check out this Yahoo! piece that ran under the headline, "Millennials aren't going to the chapel when they get married." This is, in part, a story about those newsy "nones." But there is more to it than that:
... As couples prepare to exchange vows in front of friends and family, many of them are headed someplace other than a chapel. Of the many ways the typical American wedding has changed over the years, perhaps the most dramatic is the venue.
Today’s couples are forgoing the traditional church setting in favor of rustic barns, high-end hotels or the county courthouse. ... Given the uncertain economic terrain many young couples are navigating and the ever-skyrocketing costs of a ceremony and reception (the average cost of a wedding in 2014 was more than $30,000), the shift to more modest venues might not be surprising.
An abundance of nonreligious wedding venues may also appeal to young couples who believe the event should be a reflection of their tastes and interests, much like their curated social media lives. Why settle for your childhood church when you could say “I do” in an art gallery or at a craft brewery?
There is evidence, however, that more than pragmatic or aesthetic concerns are in play for many young couples. The rise in courthouse weddings is one clue that something more fundamental has shifted in the religious landscape.
All of that is true. But, at the same time, there are specific religious, cultural and moral trends at work.
Take intermarriage, for example. Catholic marrying a Jew? Hold that wedding on a beach.
Getting hitched after five years of cohabitation and the faith of your family will not let you use that lovely local chapel unless you, well, confess your sins and stop sleeping in the same bed for several months? Hold that wedding in that place where you always brunch on Sunday mornings rather than heading to church.
See how big this topic can get? Here's the Yahoo! summary:
The rise of secular wedding ceremonies does not foretell an end of organized religion in this rite of passage, nor does having a secular wedding mean a couple is not religiously active or may not decide to become involved in a religious community at some later date. Historically, religion has been tightly woven into family life and has played an outsized role, both socially and spiritually, in major life events — birth, marriage and death. But during this fall wedding season, an increasing number of Americans will no longer look to churches or other religious institutions to supply the stage or the lead actors for this important event.
If the wedding is all about you, when why not do it where you want it and on your own terms? Hey, write your own vows! Wear a dress that stuns your grandmother! Just do it.
Enjoy the podcast.