A review of Marriage and Modernization. By Don Browning.

Eerdmans, 2003.

How have the forces of modernization and globalization impacted on the institutions of marriage and family? Is the decline of marriage in the Western world inevitable?  What role does religion play in the revitalizing of marriage and family? And how can the fortunes of marriage be reversed in the social, cultural and educational arenas? What models can we look to today which can guide us in our attempt to resurrect the institution of marriage?

These and other profound questions are closely explored in this new volume by a leading ethicist and family educator from the Chicago Divinity School. Political, historical, religious and theological disciplines are carefully woven together in this wide-ranging work. The outcome is a renewed call for the importance of marriage in an age that needs to rediscover why it is such a necessary and crucial institution.

Browning examines how the family has fared over the millennia, and then uses this historical backdrop to see whether and how modernization and marriage can co-exist. He argues that we cannot turn back the clock, and refutes the concept that marriage is a pre-modern institution, incapable of surviving in a modern and postmodern environment.

He points out the now familiar negative impacts of modernization on marriage and family, but also argues that there have been positive benefits as well to arise out of modernization. His thesis is that modernization, at least in its destructive aspects, needs to be curtailed (not eliminated, as if that were possible) while marriage needs to be supported and promoted anew. Somehow the two can and must develop together.

Detailed examinations of the family in different cultures and nations is followed by meaty chapters on the findings of evolutionary psychology, feminism and global trends, and theological defences of marriage. For example the place of marriage and the role of fathers in the thinking of Aquinas and Luther are given close attention. Given that the male alienation from families is perhaps the most important social problem of today, this chapter offers insights and wisdom from generations past which shed considerable light on the way we might proceed on these key social questions today.

The concluding chapters seek to develop a practical theology of marriage and to examine world family strategies.  He develops his theology of the family mainly from Christian considerations, although drawing on non-Christian resources as well. Catholic and Protestant considerations are investigated, and brief assessments are made of earlier formulations. He also examples various marriage renewal movements and programs found amongst the different denominations.

Global strategies to renew the institution of marriage are explored, with their strengths and weaknesses examined. From papal encyclicals of the Catholic church to the work of Allan Carlson and the Howard Center in Illinois, a number of marriage renewal projects are discussed. Common themes are drawn out and elaborated upon, and tentative proposals for the way ahead suggested.

Those wanting a “solution” to the “problem” of marriage will not find what they are looking for here. The problems are too complex and the situation too diverse to offer a magic pill of reform. At best Browning can only point to wisdom from the past coupled with insights from the present to guide us into the future.

But the foundational themes addressed here are the right place to begin: families are essential to the well-being of society; marriage is the centerpiece of strong family life; and all levels of society (governmental, cultural, educational and religious) need to contribute to the defence and promotion of the institution of marriage.

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