To love and to cherish till WHEN?

My wife, Tamie, has battled illness for about a year and a half. She hasn’t felt much like going to the movies. But my other sweetheart — my 12-year-old daughter, Kendall — joined me on a pre-Valentine’s Day date to see “The Vow.”

We shared a large popcorn and enjoyed the true story of “a newlywed couple recovering from an accident that puts the wife in a coma. She wakes up with severe memory loss and can’t remember any of her life with her new husband … so he has to fight to win her heart all over again.”

The theater where we saw the film was packed as “The Vow” opened as the weekend’s No. 1 box office draw.

The movie itself has no religious content, as far as I can recall. The wedding does not even occur in a house of worship. Yet the film raises intriguing questions about the institution of marriage.

Kudos to Religion News Service, which recognized a peg for a timely trend story tied to the opening of “The Vow” and other recent examples of “the complexities of love in medically challenging situations.”

Here’s the top of the story by RNS senior correspondent Adelle M. Banks (editor’s note: a veteran speaker at tmatt’s Washington Journalism Center):

Philip Weeks fondly remembers the days when his wife of 56 years, June, was a nurse and an artist whose paintings were compared to Rembrandt’s.

Her paintings still hang in their home in Lynchburg, Va., but almost everything else has changed for the couple after she was diagnosed with possible Alzheimer’s and then an abrupt form of dementia.

In one moment, the retired Charismatic Episcopal bishop said, she would lean over to kiss him. “An hour later, she looked at me and said, ‘Who are you?’” he recalled.

When the person you married goes through a dramatic change, what’s a spouse to do? As Valentine’s Day approaches, clergy, ethicists and brain injury experts agree: There are no easy answers.

The examples cited by RNS (including a recent mainstream news story that drew fierce debate here at GetReligion):

— Last summer, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson initially suggested on his “700 Club” program that a man divorce his wife who had Alzheimer’s and “start all over again” with dating. Alzheimer’s, he said, was “like a walking death.” He later said he was “misunderstood.” (See Mollie’s GetReligion post on media coverage of Robertson’s comments.)

— In early January, The Washington Post Magazine ran a story about a woman whose husband suffered a traumatic brain injury after a heart attack. She eventually decided to divorce him but continue caring for him with her second husband.

— On Friday (Feb. 10), “The Vow” hits movie screens, an adaptation of a rereleased book about a young married couple whose serious car accident left the wife unable to recognize her husband. In fact, she thought she was not married.

The RNS story hints at the role of faith in such decisions. For example, this section of the story provides opposing viewpoints:

Page Melton Ivie, the subject of The Washington Post story, said faith played a role in her decisions on how to best care for her first husband, Robert Melton.

“In the context of my faith, I am standing by him and with him,” she wrote during an online chat after the story was published. “I am fortunate to have found someone who will share this with me.”

Others didn’t look at it that way.

“Some day she will have to stand before God and explain why she put herself before her vows to God and to Robert,” wrote Dennis Babish, a blogger for Prison Fellowship’s Breakpoint Blog.

The original Post story, of course, did not offer any kind of depth on the faith angle of the decision. Sadly, readers of the new RNS report are likely to left wanting more, as well. Part of that undoubtedly has to do with the fact that this is a wire service story of less than 1,000 words. Also, it certainly seems that the principle players in the story are not anxious to discuss the faith details. I couldn’t help but wish for more insight on how faith influenced Ivie.

Similarly, NBC’s TODAY.com brushes over the faith angle of the real-life couple on whom “The Vow” movie is based:

In a family built on determination and faith, Kim and Krickitt Carpenter have learned that love not only conquers all, it also fills seats in movie theaters.

Yet the NBC report — like the movie — offers no elaboration on that reported “faith.”

The RNS story ends with a nod to the faith of the bishop quoted in the lede:

Weeks, who has self-published a book called “A Long Dark Night: A Caregiver’s Journey with Dementia,” said he came close to losing his faith, but not his love. Eventually, he said, he stopped doubting God.

“He was giving me a quality of love for her that I did not have before,” the bishop said of his wife. “I think I’m a better husband now because I’ve learned how to deal with this.”

For those looking for deeper meaning, one of the more thought-provoking scenes in “The Vow” concerns not the young couple but the woman’s mother. The young wife learns that her father had an affair with her young friend and confronts her mother about why she stayed with him. The mother responds:

I chose to stay with him for all the things he’s done right; not the one thing he’s done wrong. I chose to forgive him.

Back to the original theme — the question of what exactly “till death us do part” means — it seems that an enterprising religion writer might tackle issues related to how specific faith groups would handle such a traumatic situation. For example, under what circumstances, if any, would a pastor, priest, rabbi or imam advise a spouse to untie the knot?

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • carl jacobs

    the question of what exactly “till death us do part” means

    A dicey problem for the modern view of marriage. We have turned the institution into an ‘at will’ relationship. People can leave for any reason or no reason and without the consent of the spouse. In other words, there aren’t any binding obligations. Any vow can be revoked by the court at the will of only one party to the marriage. So then … why can’t one party simply decide to leave when the other party’s medical problems get too difficult? What requires him to stay? Certainly the vows require no such thing since both the law the court system decline to enforce them. “Death do us part” has no legal standing. Legally speaking, marriage vows today constitute little more than empty rhetoric.

    Typically people view themselves as the ‘actor’ and not the ‘acted upon.’ Each considers it inconceivable that a spouse could reject someone as wonderful as himself. Each assumed he would be the one to decide to leave. So together they sought easy divorce laws so they each could extract themselves from undesirable situations. They each wanted the vows to be rendered null and void before the fact. Well, here is the consequence. One party needs help and the person most capable of giving it decides to look after his own self-interest. The thought of dependency makes people afraid. The thought of being dependent and alone makes people terrified. But we have already decided to that self-interest trumps obligation. Autonomy is a wonder concept until you discover you are nor longer capable of being autonomous.

    A film like this is sort of like a romance novel. It encompasses hopes and dreams more than reality. It gives people hope that a spouse will actually fulfill his obligation voluntarily. “He loves me. He will stay.” Of course, if he says “I love myself more. I will leave” there is no one to call him to account.

    carl

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Carl,

    What was the point you were trying to make about journalism and/or media coverage?

  • sari

    Bobby,
    I shudder to think of the coverage you suggest, especially if the research is carried out by a generic journalist. Any reporter who wished to examine different faith traditions’ attitudes towards marriage, divorce, and chronic infirmity would really need to act a bit like a field anthropologist. He or she would need to research how the faith defines marriage before addressing the issue of ’til death do us part. Even then the result might be unrepresentative of all or most followers of that faith. One thing I learned when studying ethnography is that it’s important to go past the leaders, who deal in hypotheticals (this is what we believe), and spend time observing everyday people to see where institutionalized mores and actual behavior merge.

    For example, my own faith tradition defines marriage as a contract between two people, but, until recently, the reality was more like a contract between two families. Terms for and of divorce are well described in Torah and throughout the body of Jewish Law. Yet, even a small amount of research demonstrates that the stigma attached to divorce waxed and waned with wealth and with the degree of assimilation into the larger society. The traditional marriage formula makes no mention ’til death do us part, though it is understood that marriage is meant to be a lifelong commitment. The journalist would have to take pains to avoid superimposing personal assumptions.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    sari,

    Anthropology and ethnography aside, what I am suggesting would not require a doctoral dissertation, I don’t think.

    I’m suggesting a reporter interview religious leaders who have seen “The Vow” and ask what they would have advised the couple in the movie. The journalist then would write a story about the leaders grappling with the issues raised.

    I think a competent journalist — maybe even a generic one — could make clear that those interviewed were speaking as individuals.

  • sari

    Bobby,
    What I’m saying is that what religious leaders say they’d do isn’t what they’d actually do. More important, what they think often has no bearing on what their followers do. The conversation becomes strictly hypothetical with no bearing on real-life events, similar to the disconnect between the official Catholic position on birth-control and the actual practice of a good percentage of self-labeled Catholics. How important is doctrine if it fails to impact behavior?

    I get tired of reading that Jews believe this and Muslims believe that and having people from neither religion quote articles by reporters who lack any real understanding of either religion’s belief system or internal dynamics. Better to just leave it alone.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    What I’m saying is that what religious leaders say they’d do isn’t what they’d actually do.

    So religious leaders interviewed by the paper would intentionally lie to the reporter? Or am I misunderstanding what you’re saying?

  • sari

    They will give you the party line, whatever that is, which may or may not be consistent with what they’d actually do when confronted with the same problem in real life. Look at all the clergy whose inability to conform to their stated expectations has led to their downfall: adultery, divorce, homosexuality, pedophilia, Pat Robertson’s comments re: spousal disability. Add to that that many religions lack definitive rules re: many of these same topics. A Reform Rabbi will answer differently than one who is Orthodox, but even two of the same denomination may give vastly different answers, yet all are Jewish.

  • Jerry

    Given the aging of the population and the increasing illness including Alzheimer’s that comes with age, this is a very important area deserving a great deal of attention.

    To me, one fruitful area to report on is how religions look at love and what that means in traumatic situations like Alzheimer’s. Saying that a “loved one” has Alzheimer’s requires a definition of what scriptures say about love if a reporter is going to make sense of what a minister etc would say about untying the knot.

  • sari

    Jerry,
    Your and Bobby’s comments suggest that the question should be phrased in terms of a spouse’s obligations. By examining ’til death do us part or the notion of love in Scripture, we superimpose cultural bias over the question, reframing it in terms of the reporter’s personal faith. This is why such stories almost always misinterpret or misrepresent those who are other. American culture emphasizes love as the motivating factor for marriage, but other faiths and cultures may apply a different yardstick. Without addressing the dynamics of arranged marriage or gender expectations, especially in regard to duty/obligation, the article will be meaningless.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Arranged marriage?

    Why do I suspect that if we were analyzing a story on youth sports in America, you’d be advocating inclusion of cricket coaches’ voices?

  • Julia

    One thing I learned when studying ethnography is that it’s important to go past the leaders, who deal in hypotheticals (this is what we believe), and spend time observing everyday people to see where institutionalized mores and actual behavior merge.

    This, together with the specific statements about Catholic leaders and church members being on different pages is really missing something that may be different about Catholicism.

    With Catholics you need to talk of Church teaching, derived from Scripture and Tradition, as well as “what we believe” – “we” being individuals. Catholics are expected to accept the teachings of the church, which may or may not include believing or agreeing with all of it.

    Same way lawyers take oaths to uphold the law and politicians take oaths to abide by and protect the Constitution – even if they don’t agree with all of it.

    So – it would be important to interview a bishop – whose main job in Catholicism is to be a teacher and guardian of the received faith, maybe a theologian/professor or two who are often exploring fringe areas, and then some of the pewsitters.

    Not everybody abides by all the rules all the time, but it’s not irrelevant to cover what those rules or ideals are.

  • sari

    Bobby,
    Many people from India work in my area and attend my child’s school. Likewise people from China, Vietnam, Korea, the Middle East, and other parts of Asia. It is very common for marriages to be arranged by parents. Religiously, they are Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, Muslim, and other less well known religions. Further, each of these branches into various, sometimes contradictory, belief systems (e.g., Shia/Sunni/Sufi).

    The shadchen (matchmaker) failed to disappear from within my own faith tradition; her services are still heavily sought out within the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities right here in this country. In fact, there has been a resurgence among young people, in large part because the sexes do not touch or mingle before marriage. So, yes, if you’re going to have a group of religious leaders discuss spousal obligations, you will need to set your assumptions aside, because those other faith systems may operate on premises different from your own.

    I am truly sorry for your wife’s trials and know how much difference a strong marital bond can make. We have, over twenty-plus years, dealt with frequent moves (4 states in less than five years), unemployment early on but not since, two children with disabilities (one profound), chronic illness (spouse and later myself), relocation to a city with virtually no observant Jewish presence, and the death of a child. Any one of these would be a precipitating factor for divorce, but we are still here. Many friends and colleagues, faced with less onerous conditions, have split in the interim, so I know what a role strong faith has played in my life. Still, I would not use my beliefs to define others’, even within my own faith tradition.

  • Jerry

    sari, You make a very good point. But even when there is an arranged marriage, love can still bloom. In any marriage either started in a haze of romantic infatuation or arranged, true love can bloom.

  • sari

    But even when there is an arranged marriage, love can still bloom. In any marriage either started in a haze of romantic infatuation or arranged, true love can bloom.

    Agreed, Jerry. I did not suggest otherwise. All I said was that reporters must be careful about their assumptions. Bobby’s starting point seemed to assume that everyone takes the same vows. That, with your later comment about love in Scripture (talk about a dissertation topic) suggest the kind of biases that lead to inspirational articles, not factual reporting. Likewise the suggestion that minority viewpoints aren’t really that important, anyway, since they’re statistically insignificant (cricket, c’mon). Golly, no wonder many of us wish reporters would stop reporting on us altogether.

    In the end, the people involved determine the nature of the relationship, be it staying out of duty or leaving out of love.


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