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.
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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)