WPost: The TRUE meaning of marriage vows

From the day GetReligion opened its cyber-doors, we have argued that the liberal half of American Christianity deserves more coverage in the mainstream press. Most of the time, coverage of Christian liberalism turns everything into politics even faster than coverage of traditional, doctrinally conservative forms of Christianity. That's simply bad journalism. Progressive Christians have beliefs and they act on them. They deserve to have the content of their beliefs discussed as religion, as a form of faith, not as some kind of political jargon in support of a political creed. Now, I am not saying that the political activities of liberals (or conservatives) should be ignored. I am saying that readers need to understand the role that religious beliefs and faith play in these actions.

This brings me to a recent Washington Post Magazine cover story about marriage, divorce and the ties that bind that inspired several fervent emails from readers seeking a GetReligion post in response.

At the heart of the story was an issue of Christian doctrine that is being debated in this day and age.

The essential question: Is it ever justified for a spouse to divorce his or her mate when, via health or accident, that spouse suffers from dementia and/or some other similar condition or handicap?

The headline on the article settled this issue, one must assume from the doctrinal point of view of Post editors: "A family learns the true meaning of the vow ‘in sickness and in health.' " Note the word "true."

This is a hot-button topic, centering on a question that has drawn newsworthy responses from the occasional conservative public figure (the Rev. Pat Robertson leaps to mind) as well as those on the left (take Bishop Jack Spong for example).

On top of all of that, the long and poignant Post feature involved a former member of the newspaper's staff. Here is the opening:

The dark-oak farmhouse table where Page and Robert Melton spent many a dinner hour is now laden with vases and framed pictures, fragile pieces of their life together that have to be tucked into cardboard boxes. The movers are coming in the morning and, with much still to pack, Page thinks she could be looking at another all-nighter.

She picks up a sepia-toned drawing of blackbirds. They gave each other art in the early years of their marriage, and this was the first thing Page had given Robert. Next, a photo of Robert standing in front of the Virginia statehouse, looking every inch the formidable journalist he was, a guy who could intimidate colleagues with a dipped chin and glance over wire-rimmed glasses.

The next photo is one of her favorites: Robert with family members by the porch of their homey Dutch colonial in Richmond on the morning of their younger daughter’s christening, in September 2002. A brilliant fall day, it was exactly one year before the heart attack and collapse that left the 46-year-old father of two with a brain injury so severe he would eventually live in an assisted living facility. How often Page had stared at that photo. Was he ill then? she’d wonder. Was there something she could have seen? Should have seen?

So what makes this a story that requires GetReligion comment?

Year's after Robert's collapse, it is clear that he has stabilized in terms of his physical condition. He can talk. He remembers some things, but not others. His wife visits him frequently in his assisted-living home. There is no question that he is being taken care of, with loving attention.

Then a man from the wife's past comes back into her life and that of her family. Eventually, they face the big question.

Page felt 30 again but was racked with guilt. “I believed my vows so strongly that they just kept ringing in my ears.”

She consulted her minister, who told her that by continuing to take care of Robert, she was still honoring those vows.

And that's that. That's all that we learn.

There is, in other words, no other religious content to the discussion. Readers are given no details about the family's involvement in this church or with this pastor. There are no direct quotes. There is no name, no denominational tag. Is this, for example, a church in which marriage is a sacrament?

This is, of course, THE MOMENT of decision in the story, one of two major hinge points in the plot. This is the moment that fulfills the promise of the headline, as well, the moment that delivers the "true meaning" of marriage.

My point is not to focus on the decision that was made. My point is to say that the religious content of the decision must be explored for the story to make any sense. Where is the voice of the pastor? What did he or she actually say? Is this a progressive church that has formalized any doctrine on this point?

This is a journalistic hole in the story. It is clear, from the many painstaking details in this fine feature, the degree to which the wife, her family and her new spouse wrestled with this decision. But what about the pastor? Where is the religious content that explains this point of view?

Eventually, legal and religious rites open the story's final act. The location of the wedding offers the only information readers will get:

Page never used the word “divorce” with Robert, but that would have to be the next step. She hired a lawyer for herself and another one for Robert. ... The divorce was final in early 2011. Page wanted to remain Robert’s legal guardian, as she had been since his injury, and no one objected. ...

On the morning of March 26 last year, Allan and his youngest son, Charles, took Robert to breakfast at IHOP. That evening, Page and Allan married in a small 19th-century chapel at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Richmond in front of about 100 people, including Robert’s father and stepmother, and his brother Will and his wife. But not Robert.

Once again, the issue for me is journalistic. The story pivots on a decision -- a natural decision for some believers, a controversial decision for others -- with doctrinal content. Readers need to know something about the content of that decision to make sense of what comes afterwards.

The pastor helps the wife make this life-changing decision. Where is the voice of the pastor? Why not allow him or her to explain what he or she believes and teaches on this point? One sentence of content is enough? I think the wife and the pastor deserve more than that.

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