Happiness You Can't Buy

Offering up personal testimony about marital imperfections is arguably revolutionary in a time of feel-good self-help books and television shows dedicated to auctioning off marriage as a prize rather than a lifelong agreement between two loving partners. A decade into his marriage, Kurt Armstrong publicly takes stock of his self-described amateur attempt -- since after all, without walk-throughs and acted out entirely by imperfect people, marriage is one big dress rehearsal. In Why Love Will Always Be A Poor Investment: Marriage and Consumer Culture, he writes, "Marriage requires the ongoing, willed practice of love, and just like learning to play a musical instrument, simply wanting to be good at it doesn't accomplish much."

Instead of dwelling on the same predictable list of likely reasons why half of all marriages, both Christian and otherwise, fail -- the rise of premarital cohabitation, an increasingly sexualized culture, the ease with which one can obtain a legal divorce -- Armstrong digs deeper into a cultural crisis of meaning and understanding that leads to complications in both love and marital unions. Through a series of vignettes from his life, he posits that covenantal love is at direct odds with modern consumer culture, which sells the idea that life is competitive, sex is a commodity, and love is scarce. Most of all, consumerist ideology is rooted in the notion that we must abandon what we have the moment something better comes along. As our larger narrative about everyday life becomes inextricably intertwined with the consumerist mentality, romantic comedies, diamond jewelry commercials, and sex selling products as diverse as deodorant and fast food can force the most happily wedded couple to reconsider what constitutes happiness, what it means to live in marital bliss.

In some ways, Armstrong's view of marriage is markedly traditional, and this is perhaps the book's only flaw: that an otherwise progressive deconstruction of capitalism as an integral part of our marriage crisis is somewhat easy on the more troubled, outdated aspects of holy matrimony. He believes in the essence, the very concept of marriage, as virtuous and honorable, at times even casting aside the idea that not everyone is suited for or called to marriage.

However, the triumph of Armstrong's narrative is also in its acknowledgement that at a base level, consumerism is deeply incompatible with Christianity on the whole. While the author stops short of advocating an anti-capitalist religious uprising, he does call on the faithful to re-evaluate their blindly willful acceptance of marketing that ultimately feeds on the insecurity of real or perceived scarcity.

Armstrong writes, "Our culture offers couples no meaningful encouragement to stay together through all the surprising, painful challenges they run into, the inevitable (and necessary) harsh realities of marriage." If you seek some like-minded inspiration about overcoming and celebrating the ups and downs of lifelong partnership, about the possibility of finding acceptance, healing, and love in marriage, you'd do well to read Armstrong's compellingly honest account of a very normal husband, actively doing his best to be a good man.

A review of Why Love Will Always Be A Poor Investment: Marriage and Consumer Culture, by Kurt Armstrong; forward by Aiden Enns. Wipf & Stock.

Brittany Shoot is a writer based in Boston and Copenhagen.

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