The Abstinence Teacher: A Novel (Reading Group Gold)
The Abstinence Teacher: A Novel (Reading Group Gold)
Tom Perrotta
St. Martin's Griffin, 2008
384 pp., $17.99

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I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage
I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage
Susan Squire
Bloomsbury USA, 2008
272 pp., $25.99

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Reviewed by LaVonne Neff

Abstinence Now and Then

We're more enlightened. Aren't we?

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No longer. Nowadays even celibate Catholic priests avoid appealing to asceticism as an explanation for their unusual lifestyle, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that "the marriage covenant, by which a man and a woman form with each other an intimate communion of life and love, … is ordered to the good of the couple, as well as to the generation and education of children." What happened to cause such an attitude shift? When did Christians decide that "God wants you to have better sex"? Peter Brown doesn't say: his interest is more historical and philosophical than practical. For the ancient theologians he quotes, the body is strangely detached from everyday concerns such as hunger or pain or sexual desire. Instead, it is made "to bear the symbolic weight of mighty aspirations."

There are no mighty aspirations in The Abstinence Teacher, nor is there much intentional abstinence. There is, however, a great deal of isolation. By contrast, abstinence was the ideal of just about everyone quoted in The Body and Society, yet the would-be abstainers were far from isolated. Most lived in families or monasteries, and even the desert hermits formed clusters of like-minded ascetics. Tom Perrotta enjoys such dichotomies, but I'm still looking for ancient Christians who valued marriage and community, sex and passion, children and animals, good food and wine, all things bright and beautiful. I may have to give up: the attitude I seek apparently developed during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, not the Roman Empire.

That, at least is Susan Squire's view in I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage. Though the delightfully sassy Squire romps through the history of sex with nary a thought of "symbolic levels," much of her raw data matches Brown's: "All [first-century Christians], as fervent believers in Jesus as Christ, are certain that in the next five minutes, hours, days, weeks (soon, anyway), earthly life will end. Urging people to conceive more of it is not going to be part of their game plan. In an apocalyptic frame of mind, the value of marriage and children would be approximately nil."

It's a downhill slide from St. Paul, who thinks it is better to marry than to burn; to Tertullian, who suggests that it is even better to do neither; to St. Augustine, who connects lust with original sin; to Innocent III, who writes that men and beasts, being made of slime, are the vilest of God's creations, and that this "vileness is reproduced 'from the filthiest sperm … in the stench of lust.'" The flesh will out, of course—medieval kings and queens, for example, seem not to listen much to theologians, and troubadours sing of loves that the church does not sanction—but only a theological tsunami will change the tone of official ecclesial pronouncements.

The tsunami comes in the form of Martin Luther, "a 40-year-old virgin wearing a monk's cowl" who blasts celibacy's theological proponents, starts a matchmaking service for priests and nuns, and eventually marries and fathers six children. In his wake, love becomes not the sin but "the expectation. Romantic, compassionate, erotic, intellectual, emotional, physical—hopefully, and delusionally, all at once and all the time. No surprise that divorce is common, or that hope continues to triumph over experience. The cure for lust is now the cure for loneliness, that cure being love."

Tim and Ruth, the protagonists of The Abstinence Teacher, take the love cure for granted, yet they remain lonely and isolated. One believes in abstinence, at least under certain circumstances, but can't live up to his beliefs. The other thinks abstinence is an aberration, but can't find the love she craves. Offering neither self-help nor salvation, Perrotta accepts them as they are: "standing side by side, not quite touching, but close enough that she could breathe in the sleepy smell of his body and feel a gentle current moving between them. They kept staring straight ahead for a long time, almost as if they were afraid of looking at each other, the silence gathering around them, thickening, until the world outside the window disappeared—the sky, the houses, the trees, the airborne leaves, even the man on the car [Tim's pastor]—and they were alone."

LaVonne Neff has given up her storied career in religion publishing in order to eat dark chocolate bonbons and read novels.

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