Bad Traditionalism

How I Escaped a Disastrous Engagement
Henri Simon Thomassin's "The Magnificat" (The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Harry Shaw Newman, 1941)

The first time I got engaged, I did so because the alternative seemed worse. We had known each other for less than four months. There was a ring. There were diamonds on it. He got down on one knee in front of ten or so of my friends at a hotel piano bar we all went to, as a group, on Sunday nights, to drink cocktails very slowly and see who turned up. There was champagne. Somebody put it on Instagram before we paid our bill. A friend of mine made a face of such astonishment in the background that a photograph of our engagement I’d idly tweeted went viral. I got Facebook ads for detox shakes days later. We had an engagement party. I bought a veil, and a monthly membership to a boutique fitness class. We had conversations about letterpress invitations. I did not recognize myself.

I had never wanted to get married. At least, I had never thought that social marriage, in that banal, heterosexual, letterpress invitations sense, was ever something that I would do. My mother was unmarried—she’d become a single mother by choice in her late thirties. My friends’ parents were all divorced. None of my friends were straight. I identified, for the first half of high school, primarily as a lesbian; most of my first romantic partners were women; I was sixteen before I was comfortable with the idea that I liked men as well, settling into an inchoate queerness quieted in practice by the fact that I spent eight years with the same college boyfriend.

We had the same fight every week or two for the entirety of our relationship. He was Anglo-Irish, fond of country walks and pub dogs and quiet brandies in fireside alcoves. He wanted to get married young, have several children. He wanted to stay in Oxford forever, or at least live a few hours’ drive from his childhood friends. He did not believe in abortion or divorce. He was Catholic. He was, he liked to say, inconveniently Catholic.

Whatever I was, it was not inconvenient.

I was a theologian by training, but I went to church only rarely. I never remembered when to genuflect. I was ethnically Jewish and baptized vaguely Christian; in practice I belonged to that vague class of coffee-hour Episcopalianism sometimes described as moral therapeutic deism: a neoliberal generality. I believed in being a generally decent person, and largely doing what I liked—in listening to the call of my own heart and finding spirituality wherever seemed an interesting place to go and look. An interesting place, but also a convenient one.

It was not that I did not hunger for more. I read Tarot and I lit candles. I memorized poems. I dabbled in witchcraft. I fetishized transcendence. I confused it for experience. I did a lot of stupid things in the name of experience.

At times I wondered about becoming Catholic. I was curious, albeit in an aesthetic way, about Catholicism. But it seemed hideous to me then. It was, I thought, a religion by and for unhappy people, people who insisted on resisting all the comfortably liberatory notions of our enlightened modern age out of sheer perversity. All Catholics, in my mind, were secretly Brideshead characters like Lord and Lady Marchmain: despising one another, poisoning their children, refusing to divorce.

I moved back to New York, in my mid-twenties. My Catholic partner of eight years and I broke up. I thought this made me free. I tried everything I thought I was supposed to want, or that it would be poetic or bohemian or interesting for me to want, that it would be enlightened and liberatory for me to experience: Tinder, Dan Savage–sanctioned open relationships, consciously political lesbian polycules, dates where strange men promised to buy me diamonds, or tried to lick my face. It did not get me very far.

The sin lay in how easy it became—on an app, in conversations with friends, at brunch—to convert people into anecdotes, to talk of social capital, or sexual capital.

Hedonism wasn’t the problem. My sins had never tended in that direction. Rather, the sin lay in how easy it became—on an app, in conversations with friends, at brunch—to convert people into anecdotes, to talk of social capital, or sexual capital. It was about networking coffees that people my senior secretly hoped were dates. It was about dates people my own age secretly hoped were networking coffees. It was about dating up and dating down and the idea that we were all options for everybody else, such that the present moment existed only in relation to an infinite number of unvoiced futures.

It was about how many parties I spent all day preparing for, and how many photographs I took of myself there, how little I remember of anything anybody said to me, and how relieved I was to order an Uber home. It was about Facetuning. It was about scheduling multiple dates on a single night, and what a joke that was for everybody involved. It was the acquaintance who would text me to find out what I was wearing a week before any social gathering, and who introduced me to the phrase “bride arms.” It was the one who regularly committed to three or four conflicting gatherings on any given Friday night before selecting the most socially advantageous one to attend. It was about the first literary-world party I ever attended, when I was twenty-three and didn’t know better than to say “oh, here and there,” when a man I’d never met asked me where I’d been published, and how he did not let me finish my sentence before he turned and walked away.

I began to understand Catholics.

 

I do not have a good conversion story. It happened like death in a Greek drama: offstage. I’d try to go to church and then I’d give up because it conflicted with my Sunday morning workouts, and I would light more candles, and I’d scroll through Twitter and go to more book parties and try to ignore the fact that there was a fissure in the pillars of the world, and that every day, every time I scrolled or swiped, I was taking a pick to it, and then one day I could not ignore that feeling, and then the next time I tried to go to church I kept going, and then there I was.

I would rather, I thought, be a Lady Marchmain—however poisonous—than accept the world as it was.

Around this time I started dating someone new. He was not Christian, but he’d been raised Evangelical—homeschool, no evolution, lots of Kipling—and he told me he was interested in converting back. He’d specified on OKCupid that he wanted a girl who believed in God. He came to church with me. We talked about the sermons. We talked about marriage, and he told me all about how love was an expansion of your sense of self, and about how marriage was joining your single narrative to a shared narrative with another person, and about how people these days were so obsessed with their own individuality and their own narrative and their own strength and their own independence that they couldn’t cope with actually, genuinely, in-the-flesh giving over your life and self to another human and forsaking all others and becoming one flesh—that maybe the most radical thing you could do in this dissipated modern world of ours, where we’re all on Tinder all the time and constantly weighing our options and maximizing our social capital, was just to say fuck it, yes and get engaged to someone you’ve known only a few weeks, and get married in an honest-to-God monogamous, death-do-us-part sacrament. We were going to have two or three children. We were going to be—socially, sacramentally, officially—a family.

If I’d been raised by conservatives, I might have bought a motorcycle instead.

The year that followed was, in retrospect, a farce. We performed, in public, hysterical heterosexual happiness. We posted a lot on Instagram.

We booked a wedding venue, and spoke to our priest, and did not tell him that, an hour before our meeting, we’d been shouting at each other because he did not think that a proper engaged or married woman should ever travel abroad with her female friends, something I often did, and longed to continue to do. A girls’ trip, he thought, would probably result in me cheating on him, that if he worked hard all day to be a provider and I went on vacation and cheated on him that would make him a sucker, and he didn’t want to be one of those.

Perhaps, I thought, he was right.

After all, I thought, in this liberal, modern age of ours, where we’re so obsessed with autonomy and individuality, perhaps there was something to be said for me learning to be less independent, less selfish, less insistent—so often my vice—on having my own story.

I cancelled a trip with my best friend.

I started wearing mostly skirts—it turned out that he liked women to dress classy and feminine and what he lovingly called trad; he did not, he told me, know what to wear himself when I was in one of my more androgynous jumpsuits. Better to complement each other, he said.

 

There is a tendency, in certain corners of traditionalist Christian discourse, to valorize things as good because they are old. It is the sacralized version of the Lindy effect—the idea, popularized by the statistician Nassim Taleb, that a trend’s predicted “life expectancy” should be understood in light of how long it has already survived. (Thus, in certain reactionary web circles, the use of Lindy as slang meaning both trad and good. Eating rare meat? Lindy. Keeping your maiden name? Not Lindy).

It takes Paul’s directive—be not conformed to this age—and turns it inside out: if something is pre-modern; if something is nostalgic; if something is anathema to the prevailing discourse of our sclerotic liberal modernity, it is automatically good, because it is both ancient and transgressive. This goes double if the traditionalism in question is rooted in some sort of perceived biological reality: differences in sex, authentically prepared food. Trad skirts. Sourdough bread.

This is not, itself, new. Toward the end of À Rebours, the 1884 novel by the dyspeptic Catholic convert Joris-Karl Huysmans, the protagonist Jean des Esseintes (a dyspeptic almost-Catholic), who has spent the novel shutting himself up in a “refined hermitage” full of jewel-encrusted turtles and carefully calibrated liquor combinations, bemoans the artificiality and alienation that once fascinated him about sclerotic liberal modernity, circa 1884. He fantasizes instead about how much better things were in the Medieval era, the good old days when “Radegonde, Queen of France, used to make the altar-bread with her own hands; the days when...three fasting priests or deacons...kneaded the dough with pure, cold, water, and baked it themselves over a bright fire, singing psalms all the while.”

For des Esseintes—tormented by the idea of artificiality, by the way that in the age of mechanical reproduction nature is little more than a “withered old crone” who “has had her day”—the fantasy of the Medieval and the fantasy of the authentic converge: the Queen bakes with her own hands. The escape from the technological, with its unsettling transformation of human beings into commodity machines, is found in the natural.

There is something to be said for the desire to reclaim authenticity: to look to the natural world and to creation as sources of wonder, rather than as resources to be mined. There is something to be said, too, for the celebration of the embodied experience, the embedded experience, the understanding—so much more difficult, when we live in an avatar age—of ourselves as animal creatures, subject to sweat and sickness and death. And there is something to be said for looking to what we have lost, in an era and an economic system that so often reduces us to numbers and words, from eras more conscious of bodily reality.

There is something to be said for the desire to reclaim authenticity: to look to the natural world and to creation as sources of wonder, rather than as resources to be mined.

But there is a danger, too, in fetishizing its opposite: a nostalgia that mistakes the Medieval era, or postwar America, for the New Jerusalem. We find it in Michael Brendan Dougherty’s nationalist-cum-Christian memoir My Father Left Me Ireland. We find it in Rod Dreher’s increasingly Orbánist vision of a Benedict-Option-as-integralist-autonomous-zone, in which we take refuge from culture warfare. We find it in the vocal support of Bishop Robert Barron for masculinist self-help guru Jordan Peterson, who preaches a gospel of fleshly predestinarianism.

It is a nostalgia that conflates the joy we are called to take in human life qua life for the eugenicist’s obsession with the right female fecundity. It is a nostalgia that tells us that our real selves are to be found in natural law, in biological determinism, in social expectations wedded to our sex. It venerates, in a distinctly pagan self, biology as law. Its vision of human relations is to actual self-giving love as clericalism is to genuine ecclesiastical shepherding. Heterosexualism, you might call it.

It is the revisioning of God’s creation as blood and soil, in which there is decidedly male and female, Greek and Jew.

I was not fully conscious, at the time, of falling into this strain of traditionalist instinct. If you’d asked me then, I would have still said I understood myself as a queer woman, theologically orthodox and politically progressive, that I understood my faith as not just a tolerant but an affirming one.

But there was a part of me that did not just allow, but embraced, with stubborn Marchmain perversity, my collapse into subservience. It was bride drag: a parody of marital love.

I made excuses for my fiancé’s outbursts, those public and those private. I learned to talk, as his mother did, about how men just needed to “slay dragons”; to blame his destructive anger on natural protectiveness, a desire to provide. I laughed off how my fiancé had called me a “pagan witch” once, and gotten blind drunk and smashed a window screen because I’d gone alone to a Persephone-themed party he disapproved of. I guess New York is pretty pagan, huh, I said, like the problem had been the theme, and not the fact that I’d gone to a party alone.

Maybe I took pleasure in such subservience.

Dan Savage would never.

But bad theology can take you only so far. And if there is grace in any of this, it is that I realized this nine weeks before the wedding. If there is grace in this, it is that I had help.

The people who intervened on my behalf in the weeks before I left my fiancé, and in the weeks after, were not all Christian, although many were. Some were atheists or agnostics. A couple were witches. All of them, though, spoke to me in language I knew how to hear. To break this engagement, they assured me, was not, would not be, some sort of selfish vision of living my best life, chasing personal happiness at the expense of responsibility, of the promise I had made. Rather, it would be actually, finally, choosing an actual vision of the good life—or, at the very least, the space to understand it—over its letterpress cutout.

 

We made a different kind of family that winter.

The Christians I knew prayed the Daily Office for me, and also bought me champagne. A woman I had dated with whom I was still close, who had staged an intervention for me in Central Park a week before I left him, showed up with her girlfriend at the apartment I’d shared with my ex to help me move. It turned out to be the day of the New York City Marathon, and we carted ten or so trash bags halfway across the city before we could find a taxi to take us to the storage unit.

I started wearing pants. I cut my hair short. I determined that I would never change my name.

People invited me to things so that I would not be lonely; they showed up to things I invited them to. They stayed out with me until three in the morning at one Halloween party so that I would not have to go home alone. They helped me paint my studio apartment walls bright teal, the doors bright red, the accents gold.

We went to the opera, this new family of mine. We went to Mass. People I knew from church made sure to go to Mass with me, now that I was going alone. We went to karaoke. We talked about faith, about God, about meaning, about the insufficiency of this scelerotic modern world, and we resisted it not with traditionalism but with love for one another. We stayed up too late and fell asleep in one another’s beds to save us subway rides home. We wrote essays and talked about immanentizing the eschaton, and what that would look like, and wondered whether there would be art in the New Jerusalem.

“It’s like I’m in college,” one of my friends said that December. That feeling you get during a particularly good cast party. Like you still believe that what you do matters.

My fiancé and I had bought six Georgian daggers at a flea market outside Tbilisi for the groomsmen back when we were engaged. My ex had wanted his bachelor parties to be a celebration of the masculine virtues. He’d considered going axe-throwing in Brooklyn. Men, he said, made things. We were aligned on this much: we both found the tequila-doused notion of the bachelor party or the hen night (strippers; penis-shaped cakes; goodbye to your sexual freedom) repulsive. But it was also true that I had no idea what the complementary bachelorette party was supposed to be. I liked cooking. Throwing axes also sounded fun. I bought my bridesmaids earrings.

Anyway, the daggers had caused one of my ex’s greatest outbursts—long story—when we were still together, and he had told me to get rid of them. But deep down I knew that I didn’t want to, so I kept them in my mother’s apartment until I finally had the courage to leave him. Once I did, I distributed them to each of my former bridesmaids at what was supposed to the bridal shower. Six Georgian daggers. Six shows of strength.

Instead of a wedding—my mother was paying, and the booze deposit was nonrefundable—we had a big party, where everybody I’d ever known was welcome to show up and laugh and dance and be with one another. Everybody but me wore white. Instead of gifts, people brought mementos of relationships they wanted to forget. They left them, anonymously, on a table, and took instead the trinkets of strangers, now given new stories and new life. A woman I’d only met twice—a vintage clothing specialist—dyed my reception dress blood-orange, and refused to let me pay her. 

The faith I sought, in the aftermath of my disastrous engagement, was not the faith of the strong, nor of the settled, nor of the secure.

The queer communities I have belonged to often talk about chosen family. People who have been marginalized, who have, in so many cases, been cut off from their biological families of origin, who forge new ways of being in relation to one another. In a chosen family, you become mother and father to one another; you become siblings because you need each other, because people need you. All too often excluded from the traditional rites of your community, you create your own. You have your own Thanksgivings, your own Christmas dinners: places where “orphans” are welcome, where there is always an extra place.

So too the body of Christ.

We were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free. Thus Paul writes; thus the Pentecost Lectionary goes. And we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Thus, one flesh.

The faith I sought, in the aftermath of my disastrous engagement, was not the faith of the strong, nor of the settled, nor of the secure. It could not be the faith of the squarely paired or the appropriately fecund. It could not be the faith of trad skirts and cleaved roles, of dominance hierarchies that are little more than teleologies of oppression.

It could not be Lindy.

The faith that found me—yes—resisted whatever it was I wanted to resist about modernity, and Tinder, and the commodification of the human person. But it resisted, too, the notion that our only way out is back: that the answer to a hookup culture of disposability is to stop wearing jumpsuits, that becoming one flesh means becoming a cardboard cutout of femininity, of entertaining evolutionary psychology, of confusing Darwinism and natural law, as if God had never become man.

The Magnificat helped me: before I left, once I’d gone. Mary helped me. My fiancé had never liked her much. She’s just some girl, he’d often said. Just a mom. But it is Mary who knows the truth in her body, the truth of her body, which is not some biologically determined generation but rather the utterly miraculous truth of virgin birth. There is something that happens in the body that is also not governed purely by blood, and that something is what makes the valleys high and the mountains low, and also makes a man who has died come back from the dead. That the proud are scattered; that the mighty are put down; that a virgin bears a child: all these are part of the same eschatological miracle of Christ. The social order of things—its hierarchies, its divisions—may seem inevitable; it is not. Christ’s love breaks it open. Christ’s love takes the body, takes the family, takes nature itself, and reveals how much more there is within them than we can ever come to comprehend.

To be not conformed to this age is not to succumb to nostalgia, nor to the golden-age rhetoric of social traditionalism. Rather, it is to recognize that transformative power of Christian life to create a body that transcends our understanding of flesh. It is to recognize that justice, that liberation, that the New Jerusalem, means tearing down all the oppressive structures that bind us: those uniquely modern and those lindy, too.

It is to recognize what miracles create, and what—in so doing—they destroy.

Published in the July / August 2020 issue: 

Tara Isabella Burton is the author of Social Creature: A Novel and Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World. She holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Oxford.

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