Last April, Josiah Duggar — of TLC’s “19 Kids and Counting”—announced that he was entering into a “courtship” with Marjorie Jackson. People magazine described what they’re doing as “an older-fashioned way of dating that has couples getting to know each other as a preparation for marriage.”
Duggar was not the first of his siblings to do so, and they are not trendsetters.
That “older-fashioned” practice of Christian courtship became popular some time in the mid-1980s, particularly among very conservative communities, who often practiced homeschooling and met in home churches. The goal is to eschew modern dating practices. Couples gain parental blessing for their relationship, often mediated through the father; spend time together only in the presence of chaperones; and save physical contact (including kissing and hugging) for after the wedding.
The ability to choose your own spouse seems like an inalienable right to many Americans. Technology can help eliminate some of the variables — about 35 percent of spouses now meet online, and a Tinder revolution is in full swing — but at the end of the day, it’s up to grown adults to decide who they’ll marry.
But a close look at pop culture reveals a certain weariness with the self-screening process, an acute awareness that it’s still hard work to find love.
“All of us have more opportunities for connection,” says documentary filmmaker Amy Kohn, “but we feel more disconnected than ever.”
Could modern, progressive, even secular Americans be wondering what it would be like to cede their right to choose a mate to someone — or Someone — else?
It’s starting to look that way. Take FYI’s “Arranged,” which premiered in mid-April. The show follows three arranged couples just before and after their weddings. One couple is a pair of teenagers in Queens — ages 18 and 17, the same as Josiah and Marjorie; another is two professionals in their 30s living in Los Angeles; a third couple is 20-somethings in South Carolina. In each case, the couples strongly identify with their cultural background (Romani Gypsy, Indian and traditional Southerners) and rely on their families to make the match between them.
Or there’s the surprise hit “Married At First Sight,” also on FYI and now in its second season. Based on a Danish series, the show features three couples who have been matched by a panel of experts — a clinical psychologist, a sociologist, a sexologist and a spiritual adviser — and who literally meet for the first time at the altar. After the wedding, they live with one another for a month before deciding whether to stay married or get a divorce. So far, the show has had about a 66 percent success rate — promising odds for viewers weary of breakups. (Plus, the couples are awfully attractive.)
Traditional religion isn’t a big part of “Married At First Sight.” There’s one interfaith couple (Catholic and Jewish) on the second season, and Greg Epstein, Harvard’s Humanist chaplain, serves as the show’s “spiritual advisor.” In “Arranged,” religion takes a more prominent role: for all three couples, it’s part of their pairing. “My Mom arranged us,” says Southerner Meghan in the pilot, “but if you ask her, she says God arranged us, and he worked through her.”
Arranged marriages exist for a variety of reasons in different cultures. But the conservative Christian practice of courtship is specifically meant to retain physical and emotional purity, and to eliminate the pain of heartbreak that might come from repeated breakups. It is also frequently connected to traditional gender roles; a young woman would stay at home, frequently without going to college, and remaining under her father’s protection. A young man (or sometimes his father) would take the lead in initiating contact with a young woman’s parents.
Courtship remained somewhat fringe well into the 1990s. But most any American who was in an evangelical youth group or Christian college in the 1990s remembers the 1997 bestseller ”I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” with its iconic fedora-wearing model on the cover. Joshua Harris, whose parents were leaders in the modern homeschooling movement, wrote the book at the tender age of 21, before meeting his own future wife. (Nearly a decade later, Harris — by then a pastor — preached a sermon entitled “Courtship, Schmourtship: What Really Matters in Relationships” and exhorted singles in his congregation to practice more freedom in their male-female relationships, including going out for coffee with one another.)
The practice of Christian courtship is alive and well in many pockets of traditional Christianity, and front-page People announcements indicate it’s becoming more well known by those in the mainstream. Its practices are well illustrated in Amy Kohn’s documentary “A Courtship,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April.
The film follows Kelly, a woman in her early thirties, who lives in Michigan with Ron and Dawn Wright and their two pre-teen daughters. Kelly wasn’t raised in a family that practices courtship, but when she learned about the practice she wanted to be part of it, so she asked the Wrights to be her “spiritual parents.” On the website of their family business, called “Before the Kiss,” the Wrights write, “As God continues to knit [Kelly] into our family, we are in the process of training her to be a wife, homemaker, mother and teacher as we go through the manner of her courtship.”
In this arrangement, Ron — acting as Kelly’s spiritual father — meets and has preliminary screening discussions with any man who expresses an interest in Kelly. As the film begins, Kelly has been living with the Wrights for seven years without any man passing Ron’s scrutiny, but at last, a young man has passed the test. Before Kelly and her suitor can enter a formal courtship, though, they need to get to know one another. They spend time in the Wrights’ home together, along with the whole family and the young man’s brother, who comes along for the ride.
Kohn stumbled across Christian courtship in a pre-Duggar environment, while doing research for a documentary on arranged marriages. She found the Wrights’ Web site, and then Kelly’s story. Though the practice of courtship seemed foreign, the themes behind it seemed universal: romance, love, longing, sadness.
Kohn spoke over the phone with me after the film premiered at Tribeca. “When I was dating, I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be great if someone could screen my partners?” Although most viewers wouldn’t take it as far as Kelly, they still resonated with her excitement—”the terrifying moment when you’re not sure if the person is going to call you back” — and with her emotional ups and downs.
Still, for most people, the idea of giving up your own agency seems nuts. And yet, for religious people, it might come more easily. When Kelly gives up her decision to Ron, for her it’s synonymous with giving up all of her decisions to God.
For Kohn — who isn’t religious herself — the film also provided a way to look at a segment of American Christianity that many people don’t understand with new eyes, something she thinks is important. “If you look at religion through the lens of romance, people drop their guard, because people are so excited to talk about romance,” she said.
And the trend of marrying religion and, well, marriage in pop culture shows no signs of slowing: the Game Show Network, for instance, recently premiered “It Takes a Church,” a dating reality show hosted by Christian pop star Natalie Grant, in which an entire church is enlisted to find a mate for one of their members. With the ongoing Tinderfication of romance, more courtship shows seem inevitable.
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today’s chief film critic and an assistant professor of English and humanities at King’s College in New York. She is co-author, with Robert Joustra, of a forthcoming book on the politics of apocalypse. She tweets @alissamarie.