The Tragic Vision of Christian Singleness
Is it the done thing now to congratulate online friends when their tweet goes viral? I’m not sure, but in any case, my congrats to online friend Shane Morris for well and truly blowing up Twitter last month with a spicy tweet on millennials, children, and singleness. Shane observes, “Millennials who are very cavalier about not having children are in for a shock when they enter their 40s & realize life is only half over. What do you do at that point? Keep trying to be sexy & have fun? I expect to see a lot of sadness & confusion about what to do at that point.” He follows up, “Without the natural connections and belonging that literally emerge from marriage and fertility, the latter years become very cold and lonely. Those ‘Friendsgivings’ will get old, quickly.”
Ouch. At the moment, the original tweet sits at 41,000 likes and about 21,000 quote-tweets. I skimmed just a handful of them, and they’re certainly… colorful:
“Almost 36! I’ve been enjoying life and traveling! I can come and go when I please! I have nieces and nephews I can spend time with! I will still be sexy as f**k until the end of time! Have children bc you want them not bc you’re bored and lonely!”
“Yes. Yes I will keep being sexy and having fun with my professional adult job money.”
“As a Gen X in her 40s who has no children and is currently travelling Europe, I can comfirm [sic] I’m having the time of my life. The only thing making me cry right now is the thought of dragging my bloody suitcase to the train station.”
“I’m in my 40s and have never regretted not having children. Not for even a second. [inserts GIF of woman wrinkling her nose and saying ‘What’s that sound? Children!’]”
“I expect to sell my first book within the next 6 months. I have a second book planned.”
“Me about to enter my 40s & feel nothing but joy that life is only half over so I can work on being more sexy & having hobbies & fun.”
“Yes actually I hope that in my childless 40s I just get to go out and have fun with my husband, along with having my own fun hobbies. That’s actually my dream. Other people dream of having fun with their children. That’s ok too. Can we stop shaming people for not wanting kids??”
“It’s like he’s never heard of dogs.”
“I’d rather regret not having children than regret having them.”
That last one legitimately gives me chills.
To say Shane hit a nerve here would be an understatement. Matt Walsh meanwhile gave the tweet a positive boost, noting that it was triggering such responses because it was obviously true.
Not every critical reaction came from heathen millennial circles, though. Dani Treweek, an Australian theologian who did her dissertation on singleness (and also happens to be an online friend), strongly took issue with Shane’s implication that we’re “doomed to loneliness” without marriage and fertility. “Does he truly think so little of the *family of God*?” she asks in her own quote-tweet. She believes this sentiment diminishes friendship as a kind of “wishful thinking” that “isn’t reliable, robust or nourishing,” a “pretender to ideal intimacy which can only truly be found in being a spouse or a parent.” She has further developed her thoughts in a Substack here.
People might jump to some false conclusions about where Dani’s coming from here. Some figures in the so-called “Spiritual Friendship” movement (which seeks to salvage elements of gay identity language) have developed the notion of “intimate friendship” in many unsound directions — including the progressively more progressive Revoice conference. So, without any background knowledge on Dani, some people following these conversations might wonder if she is adjacent to these circles. In fact, Dani and I first e-“met” because we were comparing notes on the awfulness of all things Revoice. She has clashed with various voices in that camp and is consistently clear in her own stance on the normalization of gay identity within allegedly Christian spaces. We still have our disagreements, of course, but I don’t want people to rush to an inaccurate judgment on how extensive they are.
With that said, I will honestly confess that this subject is difficult for me to write about, because I’ve never felt completely comfortable in any one “camp” here. These things are hard, often painful, and, I think, fundamentally tragic. That word, “tragic,” is key here. Thomas Sowell first gave me the concept of a “tragic vision,” and throughout life I’ve found that its applications are almost boundless.
In that spirit, I propose a “tragic vision” of Christian singleness.
What is this vision, in a nutshell? It begins with God’s words in Genesis, that it is in a profound sense “not good” for man to be alone. We could recast this positively: Humans as a species are telically oriented towards marriage and family. That’s not to deny that individual Christians can still pursue avenues for sanctification and godly service outside of marriage. I do have reservations about vowed celibacy, but that’s for another post and doesn’t diminish the fact that God has worked mightily through many celibate men and women throughout church history. I just think two things can be true at the same time: Particular people may not need romantic intimacy, but people in general will struggle to be content without it.
Shane’s quote-tweets show that there is a cultural need for his original tweet. Articles like this one abound about “how the church idolizes the family,” but their authors reckon without the fact that young church people are entering a world where all the pressures are decidedly from the opposite side. Normalizing marriage-mindedness in the church is good, actually. Ditto for normalizing the Christian couple’s duty to pursue a biological family.
Yet, on point as Shane’s tweet was, for what it was, I think it’s incomplete. He’s speaking to one half of our culture’s marriage problem: Millennials are increasingly not marriage-minded. But there’s also this uncomfortably painful truth: As the old natural ways of spouse-hunting don’t present themselves like they used to in previous generations, our generation of marriage-minded millennials is struggling.
You can still find some “thick communities” where couples find each other. I know newlyweds in my own hometown who are part of a large local homeschool alumni network. But not every Christian young person will be able to plug into that sort of network in their communities, churches, or schools. It’s not that they’re cavalier about having children or deliberately deferring the search for a mate. Far from it. This is what makes the tragedy acute, both for women thinking about their biological clock and for men who want to raise a biological family.
Now, Shane could fairly point out that such singles tend not to respond well to glib, upbeat rhetoric about “happy, joyful singleness in Christ.” The men are seeking helpmeets, lonely Adams without an Eve. And the women are ready to throw their coffee mugs at the next ladies’ conference speaker who chirps that “Jesus is the only husband I need!” There are more nuanced ways to frame a positive message for singles, of course. Many people will join Dani Treweek in saying that the church family can step into the gap. I don’t disagree that healthy, generous Christian community can ease that pain. Married Christians can fold singles into family holiday celebrations, include them in the life of a church or Christian school, and graciously inquire about practical needs. Close fellow singles can provide companionship, prayer, and emotional support (which, naturally, will be easier if they’re of the same sex—see “the Harry rule”).
In spite of all this, speaking as a single woman, I still maintain nothing and nobody can fully meet the need that would have been met by a spouse.
Of course, this opens the door for a lot of pernicious theology to rush in. I’ve written elsewhere about the persuasive dangers of “vowed friendship” in the context of same-sex attraction, for Christians who can’t pursue either licit or illicit romantic relationships. It’s a sad irony that writers in that space tend to be psychologically attuned to singles’ deeper relational needs, which is exactly why they’re so dangerous.
One of the few exceptions I’ve found is a book I reviewed for North American Anglican, the 50-year-old anonymous work Letters of a Christian Homosexual. The author was a young Christian layman who struggled with unwanted homosexuality. This exceptionally gifted writer, who calls himself “Alex” and never revealed his true identity, writes very candidly about the persistence of his attractions and the loneliness of singleness. For these reasons, his work has sometimes been appropriated by people who take it in directions I doubt he would approve of. But he himself has nothing to sell except his own personal lament, which makes him a rare voice. Obviously, his situation is very particular, but I found value in his writing for any context of unchosen singleness. I kept coming back to this striking passage:
"Of course you can be preoccupied for a good deal of the time with your work, and find that it really does take your mind off yourself. Even so you can hardly help but have some leisure; and what is to fill that? Well, a whole heap of interests, to keep your time and your hands and your thoughts busy, yes, and your emotions too. But what then? At the end of the most exciting game, or the most enjoyable excursion, or the most sublime concert—what then? You come home to yourself again: the embers are cold in the grate, and the house is empty.
"Friends, then: friends are the answer. There must be folk whom you know and love, who know and love you? Yes, they are the next possibility on the list, certainly. But what Archbishop Lang once wrote has stuck in my mind ever since I first read it: something to the effect that in the loneliness of his bachelor life his great need was not for friends, of whom he had plenty, any more than it was for work, of which he had too much; it was for “that old simple human thing—someone in daily nearness to love.” And that is precisely it. Just as at some point you left both work and hobbies behind, so you leave your friends, too, at the garden gate; and you’re still going to be on your own in the house tonight, and brother, it’s so lonely… ."
“Someone in daily nearness to love” — precisely.
Now, compare that passage with this passage from author Debbie Maken’s Getting Serious About Getting Married:
"I don’t believe the church offers anything that can fill that void on a Friday night. It can’t make up for sleeping alone, hearing the floor creak and knowing you are all alone. It can’t fill the empty space on the other side of the bed. It can’t erase that sigh upon entering a dark, empty home night after night because you could only avoid the place for so long as you buried yourself in office work. It can’t provide a date for those events designed for couples. It won’t send you flowers on Valentine’s Day or fill the emptiness on Mother’s Day. It doesn’t make up for watching nieces and nephews open presents on Christmas morning instead of your own children. It won’t make up for the countless microwave meals eaten alone. It doesn’t help as you earn wealth and wonder who will inherit it. It doesn’t remove that lump in your throat with each passing birthday. It cannot make up for waking up alone for days, weeks, months, years, and decades. There’s just no adequate substitute for a husband and family."
What’s the difference between these two pictures? The difference is that Maken isn’t writing this as a single person. She’s writing this to single people, as a happily married woman. A concluding passage puts the final period on things:
"I love waking up every morning next to my husband—and sometimes waking up early…as little feet patter into our room. I love riding to church in the passenger seat and having a hand to hold during the service. I look forward to the passing of years and what they will bring, rather than anticipating each birthday with dread. I love having a date every weekend. I love the freedom to have legitimate sex whenever we want (and obviously we do considering my fertility rate during these first three years of marriage!). I have a husband with whom I can share my deepest thoughts and affections. We are building a life together and are creating a legacy to leave for our children.
"I cannot apologize for wanting this same wonderful life for my daughters and for each single woman who reads this book.
"May God guide you and bless you as you ponder the duty to marry and pursue the highest calling given to men and women."
In a word, oof.
But Debbie might say, “Hey, I’m trying not to sound just like all those glib women’s conference speakers! I’m trying to get real! I’m trying to help!”
To which I would say, “Yes Debbie, but this is also not helping.” I don’t doubt Debbie’s good intentions. I’m not even saying that what she says is all wrong. I’m just saying that this sort of thing sounds a lot better coming from an Alex than a Debbie.
If you’re still reading this and you’re married, at this point you might be thinking, “OK. I get it. How can I not be a Debbie?” A few suggestions come to mind. First of all, recognize just how hard it is for people to find a mate and get married today, even with all the will in the world. Recognize that this is particularly hard for young women who are waiting for men to make the first move, precisely because they are approaching marriage within a conservative frame! In addition, I would say recognize that all the complex, subtle considerations of attraction, compatibility, etc., which play into any relationship don’t loom any smaller just because a couple is Christian. Men and women across the board will still look for/respond to many of the same things, even though one hopes they will do so in a moral and mature way within the church. And relationships “in here” will still break up for many of the same reasons relationships break up “out there.” Keeping this in mind will keep you sensitive and help you avoid jumping to conclusions, about single women or men. Lastly, just always be mindful of who’s listening when you share thoughts on singleness in the abstract, and tailor those thoughts accordingly. Are you trying to address eligible young bachelors you know who need a loving kick in the pants? Are you trying to address young women who might have imbibed third-wave feminist thinking about marriage and child-bearing? Or are you trying to address men and women who are serving while they stand and wait? Or all of the above, in their own sections? Regardless, choose the audience before you deliver the speech, podcast, article, tweet, etc.
Lest I’m misunderstood, I think Shane’s tweet clearly signaled his audience, which is why I didn’t have a problem with it. I just think that when writing around this topic at more length, it’s important to consider all sides of the problem, as I’ve tried to begin doing here.
I could say more, but this has grown long enough as it is, and I did warn that it was only meant as a beginning. This is an area where many more people are going to have do much more thoughtful work, as we move into a future where community ties are increasingly frayed, and the lonely hearts club welcomes increasingly more members. May Christians find their own distinct ways of speaking into this need, both inside and outside of the church.
Bethel McGrew (@BMcGrewvy) is an essayist and social critic.
"In Praise of Christian Friendship" by Sean Morris
Podcast: "Gospel-Shaped Marriage"
"Stop Telling People to 'Just Get Married'" by Justin Poythress
"Was Paul Co-Dependent?" by Bruce Lowe
Holiness and Honor: A Reformed View of Sex and Marriage, with Iain Duguid, David Murray, and Joel Beeke. Includes Tim Geiger's message, "Biblical Sexuality for Married and Single Christians."
Fine China Is For Single Women Too by Lydia Brownback
Note: This article was originally published on the author's blog.