In One by One, Gina Dalfonzo capably explains the many challenges that singles face in participating in local Christian communities and lays out some ideas on how churches can do better in this important area. (Dalfonzo rightly notes that as more and more young Americans choose to delay marriage, it is highly likely that singles will make up a larger and larger portion of many congregations, making her book especially timely.)
The issues facing singles are many: To begin, singles often receive mixed and even contradictory messages from their churches about how they fit into the life of the church and how they should relate to others in the community. This happens in many arenas, but it is especially common (and confusing) when the topic is dating and relationships with the opposite sex. If they aren’t going on any dates, they are told that their standards are too high. If they go out too often, they’re told to be more selective. If you are a young woman and are not being asked out on dates, you are told to try being more forward with men you are interested in. But if you are more forward, you will be told that women should not initiate or take the lead in the relationship. It’s all very “not that, but not this either, and definitely not that.” And if you’re single it’s all dispiriting and depressing. Indeed, it becomes difficult to feel motivated to date at all because you can imagine a million ways that it could go wrong and increasingly lack confidence that the relationship could possibly go right and end in marriage.
Making things worse, as Dalfonzo explains in the first part of the book, these dating complications are often simply exaggerated versions of the more basic problems facing evangelical singles. Singles in the church are often viewed as problems that should be avoided or projects that need to be fixed. Many in the church intuitively think they know what singles should be doing to fit into the community, but there’s very little clarity or basic help on how to do any of that.
Of course, as is often the case with evangelicals, the problems we see within our own communities are a slightly different shade of a similar problem that exists in mainstream society. Dalfonzo hints at this overlap in a few places, but it would have been nice to see the connections made more explicit. Oftentimes evangelical social critiques become so inward focused that we end up losing track of the secular sources of our problems, choosing to focus narrowly on the evangelical symptoms rather than the disease itself, which is nearly always felt in a slightly different way in more mainstream American society. Dalfonzo is more attentive to secular books on these issues than many evangelicals would be while writing a similar book, but many of her citations are of other books written about singleness and women, rather than more general treatments of emerging adults and changing family norms in contemporary America.
It’s a somewhat unfortunate omission because, if anything, I suspect bringing some of these ideas into the book would have strengthened her argument. Take, for example, the complexity surrounding women and careers. Because work and home have been divorced since the industrial economy, we have developed a companionate model for marriage which works well for a very small slice of the population—likeminded and affluent careerists who find ways of “merging” their interests and desires—and poorly for everyone else as marriages struggle to maintain intimacy when the respective parties live so much of their lives in wholly separate spheres.
The problem is even more acute for single women, I would imagine, for all the reasons Katelyn Beaty lays out in A Woman’s Place and which Dalfonzo mentions briefly at a few points in One by One: On the one hand, a single Christian woman in her 20s and 30s both needs to support herself financially and needs, as do all people, some sort of fulfilling work to give her a sense of purpose and fulfillment in her daily life. For many people, though not all, both of these things will be done via one’s career. But then as we mature into our careers, this often causes a narrowing of our possibilities more generally and our romantic prospects in particular. So how does one move forward, should a romantic relationship become possible? This is one of the chief questions Beaty attempts to answer in her book. Again, Dalfonzo mentions these questions briefly, but is more focused on the specific problems singles have with evangelical church life and so some of the sharp edges of the problem are inadvertently blunted.
The question of career and identity raises a further question, which is the chief question I have with the book. While granting that virtually all of the practical wisdom Dalfonzo offers is helpful, I am, as I said recently, increasingly curious about the move to publish books concerned with how one specific identity group struggles to fit into the life of the church.
To be sure, all the books I have read that fit that description—Wes Hill’s Washed and Waiting, Anthony Bradley’s edited volume Aliens in the Promised Land, and Dalfonzo’s book, amongst others—are addressing real problems in the life of the church. But I find myself torn between the desire to affirm these writers and an increasing sense of uneasiness about this entire rhetorical approach. My reason for wanting to affirm the writers of these books is two-fold: First, because I do not really understand their struggle or pain, being a straight white male who married at a relatively young age. Second, because I think much of their practical counsel is very good. If I gave Hill, Bradley, or Dalfonzo’s books to any ministry leader in a local church they would likely find the writing challenging, helpful, moving, and instructive.
But this is my concern: The modern project, such as it is, consists largely in breaking groups of people who should rightly belong together down into smaller, more balkanized mini-societies. It does this by foregrounding the things that make a person individually distinct and backgrounding the various shared forms of identity, such as religious belief, family, or, perhaps most of all, neighborhood. Viewed with a probably appropriate degree of cynicism, the reasoning here is easy enough to spot: Businesses find it easier to sell to alienated, lonely people. Politicians find it easier to establish themselves in a secure position of influence if their constituencies are broken down into smaller sub-sets which can then be effectively bossed and manipulated by political structures. And, of course, the capitalist class finds it easier to transform people into full-fledged wage slaves if they have no other defining commitments in their lives that would undermine their commitment to the company—thus Google’s experiments with Feudalism.
When we embrace the sort of identities that late capitalism assigns to us, we may actually be making the problem of social alienation and breakdown worse. This excerpt from Terry Eagleton, quoted recently on Twitter by Freddie de Boer, gets at the problem:
One could envisage much celebration of the marginal and minority as positive in themselves—an absurd enough view, of course, since margins and minorities currently include neo-Nazis, UFO buffs, the international bourgeoisie and those who believe in lashing delinquent adolsecents until the blood runs down their thighs. The idea of a creative majority movement, for this habit of mind as much as for the old-style liberalism of a John Stuart Mill, would come to seem like a contradiction in terms, precisely because this style of thought, suitably amnesiac, could no longer remember any instance of a beneficent system or an appealing mass movement. At its extreme, such a case ought to find it hard to cope with a previously marginal current becoming politically dominant (the African National Congress, for example), given its formalist prejudice against ‘dominance’ as such. Logically speaking, it could only hope that its own values would never come to power. The ideas of systems, consensus and organization would themselves become demonized in vaguely anarchic fashion, denounced as absolute ills by those committed to a tolerant relativism.
My fear is that, while many of the ideas and complaints raised in the named books are entirely valid, the underlying grammar of these books grants too much influence to the idea of minority identities and, in so doing, actually weakens those minority groups from being able to achieve their real (and significant!) goals because it functionally balkanizes societies, such as specific Christian congregations, which ought to pay far greater mind to what they share than what makes them different from one another. This does not mean that we would ignore personal differences, of course, or that we would not seek to relate to one another in sensible ways responding to the unique challenges and demands of our shared membership.
But it probably does mean that my identity as a Lincolnite, a Reformed Protestant, and a Meador cause me to view my identity, if I must think about it at all, in more communal terms than individualistic.1
Of course, this may sum up the problem better than anything I’ve said above: Can we, on the one hand, recognize the real and often troubling ways in which some people are treated poorly within Christian congregations while avoiding the danger of self-segregating ourselves in such a way that we only exacerbate the problem? Put another way: If writing extensively about these problems and discussing them in groups and on social media inadvertently makes the problems worse by reinforcing our personal sense of identity and alienation from the other, what then can we do to actually address the problem?
I don’t have a definitive answer to that question, but I suspect it begins with attuning ourselves more closely to the demands that place, people, and vocation put upon us and remembering that the Christian view of love involves dying to one’s own preferences and desires in order to better serve and advance the interests of one’s neighbor. There are problems with Wendell Berry’s Port William, of course, but that sort of thick idea of membership would go some distance to addressing the real problems Dalfonzo raises in her book without potentially making us more vulnerable to the machinations of the capitalist class and the political elites.
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- And, again, I know that this is probably much easier for me to say because I am not a minority in most communities I belong to and so this could be read as a kind of special pleading for defaulting to majority preferences. I think if that were the outcome it would be a basic failure of Christian love because all members of the community should be looking to serve the other, which means you are unlikely to end up with a small group culture exclusively defined by the functional majority. But I can understand why others would dismiss my concern here.