the love narrative pervades all
Reading Time: 9 minutes (Fabrizio Verrecchia.)
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Hi and welcome back! A few days ago, we started talking about a 2008 book, Where Have All the Good Men Gone by A.J. Kiesling (who was, at least at the time of that writing, single). We’re discussing it to get some ideas of why single, middle-aged evangelical women just can’t find husbands within their faith community. And it turns out that one major hindrance for them is their own fixation on a particular love narrative. Today, let me show you the false love narrative that holds these single evangelical women back — and how far they’re willing to go to hang onto it.

the love narrative pervades all
(Fabrizio Verrecchia.)

(Note: Ms. Kiesling does not actually specify evangelicals as her book’s topic or target readers. However, her conclusions and complaints apply almost exclusively to evangelicals. Moreover, reviews of her book tend to come from evangelicals — who overwhelmingly agree with those conclusions and complaints. Also, quotes from the book derive from its 2008 paperback edition.)

Marriage: Where the Rubber Meets the Road.

The entire topic of older evangelical singles fascinates me. Like almost no other topic could, this one illustrates just how dissonant evangelicals’ faith truly is — and how poorly evangelicalism fits with actual reality.

On the one hand, evangelicals technically believe in a literal god who literally hand-picks their mates for them before they’re even born. His self-appointed spokesmen also insist that he wants his followers to marry and make babies. Their entire culture revolves around marriage and family life.

But on the other hand, a lot of evangelical men and women are single when they’d really rather be married. Every day, they get older and older — and more and more lonely.

Oh, I mean they’re absolutely positive that their god will totally eventually drop their hand-picked mates into their laps.

Just, it’s not happening today. Or tomorrow.

And the next day ain’t lookin’ too good, either, come to think of it.

Some of these aging singles just passively wait, refusing to take any actions that might cross their paths with those of said hand-picked mates. Others think Jesus needs a little effort from them to complete his magic love-spell, so they put themselves out there — after praying fervently, of course.

Neither approach works, though.

The Odds Are Good; the Goods Are Odd.

It’s not that there just aren’t any singles in evangelical groups, of course. Literally millions of single evangelical men and women are out there. Sure, the ratio skews female, but there’s lots of men still. Numbers vary, but it seems like 40% of evangelicals aged 30-49 aren’t married (17% have never been married, while 14% are divorced and 1% are single and — gasp! — cohabiting with their partner).

It’s hard to count completely accurately the entire number of evangelicals in the United States, but La Wiki thinks there are about 100 million of them. Of course, many of those won’t be TRUE CHRISTIANS™. Still, we can safely say a great many single evangelicals are there for the having, and many will be just as fervent and true-blue as any proper TRUE CHRISTIAN™ would like. As one family-studies group tells us,

Just 12% of prime-age unmarried men both believe basic Christian teachings and are meaningfully practicing Christian piety. The figure is about 18% for women. This means that for both men and women, majorities are not in any meaningful sense practicing or believing Christianity. This includes people of non-Christian faiths, people of no faith, and people who may identify as Christian, but who are extremely irregularly connected to a church and who also espouse few Christian beliefs.

And what’s the gender ratio among those more pious Christians? For every 100 eligible women, there are 85 eligible men. In other words, large shares of devout Christian women will have great difficulty finding a similarly, or even passably, devout Christian romantic partner.

However, these relatively few fervent adults are somehow not pairing up with each other.

The Big Problem Here: Failure to Live By the Narrative.

In her book Where Have All the Good Men Gone, A.J. Kiesling lays out what she perceives as The Big Problem Here. And she does so many times in the book, always using the same fallacious thinking:

Somehow we’ve taken what was meant to be a very natural process (boy meets girl, boy woos girl, boy marries girl) and turned it into what can seem at times a virtual impossibility. [p. 15]

In essence, her argument runs thusly:

Everything used to be totally great. Now, it’s all gone higgledy-piggledy. Grr! That’s why I — er, I mean, that’s why single evangelical women in general can’t find husbands!

She blames a whole variety of influences for why it’s suddenly become so incredibly hard for evangelical women to find husbands. In her first chapter, she lets her survey respondents speak for her [pp. 16-17]:

  • Ickie mass media infects TRUE CHRISTIANS™ with unrealistic expectations and poor mate selection techniques. “We can’t even think for ourselves anymore!”
  • Everyone’s just so selfish nowadays and unwilling/unable to “choose to be happy with a partner.”
  • People want guarantees that their marriages will succeed, so they “want a trial period (hence, the living-together epidemic),” which totally is “missing the point big time!”

But there’s one aspect of modern life — and modern mate selection — that upsets her the most:

Evangelical men no longer play along with the narrative script running in evangelical women’s heads.

The Love Narrative Guiding Evangelical Women.

After complaining about the low quality of men she’s met through online dating (OLD), A.J. Kiesling lays out her own ideal romantic vision for marriage [p. 13]:

. . . I think I was born one of those who must have mystery and romance and longing and, finally, longing fulfilled. I sit in darkened theaters watching the latest remake of a Jane Austen classic, and my eyes well up with tears. Call me odd perhaps, but as you’ll soon discover, there’s a whole subculture of postmodern women like me who can’t quite reconcile the flat, perfunctory nature of modern dating with the bittersweet tension of romances from an earlier era that we read about in books or watch on-screen. We long for something more, and fortunately, many of the guys out there do too.

Of course, those books and movies she longs to emulate are, in fact, fictional stories. They’re not real-life.

Never were.

fictional characters
From 2001’s Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.

The Source of the Narrative: Fantasy Within Reality.

Even Jane Austen wasn’t writing about real life. She based her stories on fairly realistic situations and people, yes, but she wrote to compensate for real life, not to offer her society up to future generations as a blueprint for love. As that link’s reviewer notes at the end of that article,

To say that Austen is a realist as a writer is not quite the same as saying she describes society as it really is. [. . .] Realism is a literary device rejecting escapism and extravagance to produce a lifelike illusion and not a direct translation of reality.

If Kiesling is going by Jane Austen’s work as a totally valid instruction guide for romance, she’s gonna have a bad time — right out of the gate. Not even Regency people considered Austen’s novels as guides to life.

As well, I’d like to know just how many middle-aged evangelical men share her affection for Regency literature. If those “many of the guys” do indeed share her fiction-inspired affection for these romance novels and movies, they somehow aren’t finding their way to her inbox and phone.

Nor are they finding their way to her fiction-addled middle-aged sisters’ inboxes and phones.

The Narrative Illusion, Broken.

I think A.J. Kiesling is correct about “the flat, perfunctory nature of modern dating.” After all, she’s talking about the dating world of evangelical Christians. Lots of people have noticed how transactional and self-focused even secular dating can be nowadays. I hear them complaining like that constantly in dating forums like Reddit’s r/datingoverthirtyOne man on that link complains:

If I had a dime for every time I went on a seemingly good date, lots of laughing and shared stories, only to get the proverbial You’re a great guy but I just didn’t feel that spark! Drives me crazy hearing this. What sort of spark we’re [sic] you expecting after a 1-2 hour coffee date and walk, or a conversation over a glass of wine. I blame Disney lol

That “Disney” reference is no accident. And I don’t think he really thinks the situation is all that funny. Middle-aged evangelical men complain constantly that evangelical women their age want a “Disney romance.” It amounts to the same thing Kiesling complained about lacking: this desire to be put on a pedestal, adored, wined-and-dined, showered with gifts, and given the storybook romance she aches to have.

And well, evangelical men seem to complain about this demand even more than secular ones do.

They might sometimes be willing to go that far for an ideal potential wife. Sure.

However, they are way less willing to go to such lengths for one who’s quite far from the their ideal — like A.J. Kiesling and the other women filling evangelical singles’ groups.

The Narrative as a Comforting Lie.

As I mentioned, the love narrative Jane Austen developed for her novels didn’t even exist in her own day. Parents arranged marriages. They paired their children with other families of basically equal status and wealth. Men and women alike didn’t get to just follow their hearts. That facet of romance didn’t become a common idea until relatively recently.

Until recent years, as well, women had very few ways of supporting themselves. Thus, simple economics forced families to arrange marriages as well and as highly as they possibly could. Once their daughters had gotten married, they were usually stuck there for a lifetime.

So for probably most of human history, really, marriage operated like that: perfunctory, self-interested, and transactional, with families seeking the best matches they could possibly attain.

In a lot of ways, the love narrative Kiesling so adores emerged as a comforting lie for women. It never reflected reality. I could say much the same about the whole courtly love thing of the Middle Ages.

The upshot: very, very few women until recent years got the matches they wanted with men they passionately loved. Only a very fortunate few women further enjoyed a delightful Happily Ever After with those men.

Even now, very few women get any of that.

And even fewer evangelical women get any of that.

Almost none of those women will be the middle-aged ones filling evangelical churches. If they’re single mothers too, or overweight, this sentiment goes double.

Wasting Valuable Time.

[F]or men in the church, it’s a buyer’s market. With the surplus of godly, talented, accomplished Christian women, men can afford to be pickier, holding tightly to standards of physical attraction, sense of humor, similar interest, or taste in coffee.

Joy Beth Smith

Frustrated middle-aged evangelical singleton Joy Beth Smith complained years ago, “It feels like things should be different in the church.” Maybe so. But it isn’t. In fact, it’s way worse in evangelical culture than it is in the secular world. And it’s worse on the part of both evangelical men and women.

I couldn’t help but wince repeatedly as I saw A.J. Kiesling make reference after reference to this fantasy love narrative that’s wasted years of her husband hunt. Perhaps I know something about her tribe’s men that she doesn’t know yet, even after giving a few dozen of those men a survey about love that she designed herself.

If she could take stock of exactly what assets she brings to a marriage and develop more of the assets her target men appreciate, as well as forget about this romantic narrative as a demand she feels entitled to make, she might be able to find someone. Sure, maybe he wouldn’t be a tall, hot, middle-aged male virgin who earns six figures, likes him some chunky middle-aged women and more importantly doesn’t care what his peers think of that preference, and is just aching to step into a pre-made family with an ex-husband floating around in the background. But he’d probably be more like what she calls a “genuinely nice guy.”

By her own admission, tons of great “genuinely nice guys” fill evangelical churches. Kiesling has already written all of those men off as potential mates. So have her sisters.

Languishing in the Pews of Narrative Poisoning.

Unfortunately, those “genuinely nice guys” just aren’t the kind of evangelical men that evangelical women like A.J. Kiesling really want to marry.

Er, I mean, those aren’t the kind of men that Jesus told them they’ll marry eventually.

Unfortunately, Jesus isn’t telling the more-desirable men of her tribe the same thing about women like her. Nor does he inspire those men to care about the love narrative those women so adore.

Men and women in evangelicalism go about their spouse selection process at cross purposes to each other. No way, no how can this story end well. Evangelical women will carry their narrative demands with them to the grave, and they will endure a very lonely journey on the way there.

NEXT UP: The cruel dilemma facing evangelical women like A.J. Kiesling — and the truth they absolutely don’t want to accept.

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(Last notes: Roll to Disbelieve is a judgment-free zone. I don’t actually approve of the way that evangelicals go about mate selection or how they categorize potential mates as high-status or low-status, or how they think in terms of market value for human beings. It’s weird how evangelicals tend to objectify women so much, especially since they claim they’re the only ones who don’t do that. Weird…)

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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