Gone Canopy

Michael Metzger

To figure out who the Academy might select for Best Actress, catch the film Gone Girl. And to get a glimpse what the United States Supreme Court might decide regarding same-sex marriage, watch a 1971 movie that could have been titled Gone Canopy.

The United States Supreme Court has agreed to definitively answer this summer whether the Constitution allows states to ban same-sex marriage. If you wonder what the justices are likely to decide, watch Fiddler on the Roof. It’s about a life of uncertainty in a changing world. The main character, Tevye, feels like a fiddle player on a roof, “trying to scratch out a pleasant simple tune without breaking his neck.”

Teyve sees traditions such as marriage slipping away. He and his wife Golde have three daughters, Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava. The first marriage, between Tzeitel and Motel, includes the local Rabbi marrying them under a canopy. The next two marriages have no ceremony, no canopy. Hodel and Perchik tell Tevye they only seek his blessing. Chava and Fyedka marry for love with no consideration for religious tradition.

From time immemorial, there has been what Peter Berger calls a “sacred canopy” governing life. Canopies establish a set of rules that become traditions. They create cultures, or worlds, wrote Philip Rieff. He saw three worlds.1 A canopy called fate governed the first, stretching from Athens to the enchanted mysticisms of aboriginal Australia. In a first world there is an interchangeability of gods but still a set of rules.

The second canopy is faith, stretching from Judaism to Christianity to Islam. Like the first world, this canopy is also a vertical authority establishing a set of rules. Eventually, the second world won over the first, especially in its view of marriage. This second world is what Teyve sees being upended by a third world where the canopy is a fiction. It’s gone. All cultural values are equal, with no reference to transcendence whatsoever.

This third world dates from at least the early 1800s, when a 29-year-old named Robert Owen felt the dehumanizing effects of the Industrial Revolution. He saw communism as a solution, reconstructing society according to commercial calculation. But this required upending three institutions: private property, religion, and “the present form of marriage.” The canopy had to go.

Fast forward a few decades. As the Civil War split the States, Lincoln noted an irony. “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” A young soldier, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., recognized this and left the faith. He embraced pragmatism—the good is equal to the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Later, as Supreme Court Justice, this became a new set of rules, determining cases by cultural values, without any reference to vertical authority.

Fast forward again. Marriage is now viewed as an arrangement between consenting adults rather than an institution defined by a canopy. The faith community is complicit in the second canopy’s collapse. Few churches take the cultural mandate seriously. Culture remains king, however, and we see this in the growing number of Christians defining marriage as between consenting adults. Talk about the power of culture.

In his 1882 work, “The Parable of the Madman,” Friedrich Nietzsche writes of the madman announcing the death of God. He warns of a coming world where we don’t know which way is up. That’s the third world. There are a few ways the faith community can begin to solve this problem. For starters, it can recognize reality—today’s church is in exile. It’s an outsider and that’s an indictment. This exile is self-inflicted, just as the Babylonian exile was for the Judeans. In Babylon, God began to solve this problem by directing them to reinvigorate industriousness and the institution of marriage. In other words, he told the Judeans to first get their house in order. Pretty good advice for us as well, especially since the Court’s decision is likely already a done deal.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

1 Philip Rieff, My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority, Kenneth S. Piver, General Editor, Volume I, Sacred Order/Social Order (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006)


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  1. The issue is the priority of desires and their satisfaction.As you conclude maintenance of the light in the appropriate way, is healthier than seeking to impose a canopy not acknowledged.Idolatry of various shades seeking coverage of convenience.Sadly, the pain of false contact, connection and communication can birth unhealthy fruits.The depersonalisation of individuals by institutional and structural thinking(vested interest politics of the public and personal), that abstracts and encapsulates creates an inheritance than can morph in various ways. Casual peacemaking and conflict resolution increasing the dissonance.Wilberforce’s journey of enlightenment towards the evils of market thinking, giving slavery its justification, being an example from non communist camp.Attitudes that influence behaviours.Spirit as well as Truth. Women at the well comes to mind. Thirsting for …. ?

  2. Hank: Yes. Google Christopher West and sign up for one of his “Theology of the Body” immersion courses.

    On the home front, I am planning on doing a similar set of weekends, reminding Christians as to: 1) why we have a physical body, 2) what physical sensations (erection and orgasm) point toward, 3) what nuptial union represents, 4) and why marriage is one of – if not the central – metaphor for the gospel.

    These sorts of candid discussion are too rare in today’s church. Too often, Christians are prudish or Puritanical. Prudish Christians are afraid to candidly discuss sex, trying to shield their kids from it as though it is evil. The backlash is kids experimenting – as well as marriages characterized by frigid wives and frustrated husbands (I know this from my days as a counselor). Puritanical churches teach “Thou Shalt Not,” failing to recognize they are calling on a canopy that most listeners cannot see. Neither works. There is a better way.

    Christopher and I are essentially translating the work of Pope John Paul II who, in the late 1970s, reminded the church of why human beings have a body in the first place. Might be the best example out there.

  3. Mike,

    Interesting you mention Lincoln. I fear a civil war in the making. Not necessarily the same as in the 1850’s–1860’s. But one never the less where a polarizing set of differences in social mores creates a gap in two sects that no longer will be able to live together in harmony. Whether that makes for war or isolation between the two opposing groups is yet to be seen.

    It’s difficult to see how the United States can remain united when divisions in the basic fundamentals of living become solidified in two opposing cultural mandates.

  4. Ahhh, the “gone canopy” that as, described here, also included mysogeny and slavery. It will not be missed. A reminder: virtually all legal definitions of marriage omit the word “Love.” As did this reflection.

  5. Barnabas: Interesting work (Lance Wallnau). Never heard of it, however. Of course, I haven’t heard of 99.999999999% of the stuff out there!

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