Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Scandal of the Ring(less)

My rule for wearing my wedding ring has always been ‘if I am wearing a tie or a suit jacket, or if it is date night, I will wear my ring.’  But today I went to work at my part-time gig at a local garden shop and country store wearing shorts, a polo, and my wedding ring.  And I feel that I compromised part of my values and succumbed to societal pressure.

There have been many reasons for my aversion to wearing my ring over the years, and none of them dubious.  For one thing, it doesn’t fit right.  My parents blessed me with abnormal hands:  oversized knuckles on undersized fingers.  For my ring to fit over the knuckle, it is so big that it leaves a gap when it gets to the base of the finger.  It slides, bumps, gets caught on things, and generally feels as comfortable as a rock in my shoe.

Another reason is the various jobs I have held over the last several years while I have been in school.  For a while I laid tile with my cousin.  You better believe I was not going anywhere near tile, thin-set, or grout with a ring, much less a wet-saw.  I like all my fingers right where they are.  Then I was an assistant tennis pro.  If there is the slightest ripple in my racquet grip I have to take it off and start over, so I certainly can’t play with an ill-fitting ring on my finger.  Besides, I have enough tan lines from tennis without adding one on my finger.

Above all, though, I have never enjoyed wearing a wedding ring because I have never understood the concept of jewelry.  It was never valued in my family, and I have never worn any sort of jewelry.  Neither one of my parents even owns a wedding ring (Mom used to, but lost it doing yard work and never saw the point of replacing it).  My mom and sister don’t even have their ears pierced.  There are just too many other things we would rather spend money on besides ancient hunks of metal and stone (of course, stamp it with a picture of a Roman emperor or a Greek inscription and you have my attention!).

Gold and other “precious” metals and stones, unlike other natural resources like oil, plants, and water, have limited or no practical use—and therefore no intrinsic value (see what I mean by intrinsic value as opposed to extrinsic or instrumental value).  That’s right, gold and diamonds are intrinsically worthless (and so is the American dollar, and all other forms of fiat currency. A Forbes contributor explains why all money is fiat money, regardless of whether it is backed my a commodity.).  Their value to human beings is completely culturally constructed, having been arbitrarily invested with instrumental and symbolic value by groups of people, who continually negotiate their value in comparison to the intrinsic value of goods, services, and ultimately of human labor.  As Jon Stewart comedically observes, and any investor will confirm, this negotiated value is subject to fluctuation.

As my wife and I approach our anniversary in early June, I have successfully abstained from participation in the societally mandated wedding ring cult for nearly five years.  I have only occasionally been asked about it, and those who know me generally have a pretty good idea of my (dis)inclinations without me explaining myself.  Those who don’t know me sometimes display slight curiosity or confusion when they find out I’m married but don’t wear a ring, but they generally let it go quite easily.

Now comes the scandal.  Within a week or two of starting my part-time job at a local garden shop in Clemmons, NC, the owner casually commented that some of her customers had been asking about “the new guy.”  She joked that I was going to have to get a ring so women would stop asking her for my phone number.  I have never thought of myself as high on the attractiveness scale, so I was slightly embarrassed but easily discounted the comment as a combination of jest and flattery.

A couple of days ago she said again, slightly less jokingly this time, “We’re really going to have to get you a ring, I’ve had several women whispering to me about the cute new guy and trying to get your number for their daughters.”

I didn’t think much of it until later the same day when a customer struck up a conversation with me.  After a little small talk she smoothly remarked, “…and if you’re single I have a couple of daughters….”  As she trailed off I quickly informed her that I am married before she continued any further.  “But you aren’t wearing a ring!” she protested, as if she thought I was pulling the old fake wife routine.  I’m still not sure if her doubt was because I’m not attractive enough to be married or if she thought I was trying to avoid going out with her daughter.

I simply answered that I don’t wear a ring and that I never had because I dislike jewelry and I often work with power tools, explaining the danger of operating a saw with a ring on.  The look of scandal that crossed her face would have shamed slick Willy Clinton.

“It’s also dangerous for a good lookin’ man your age to be going around without a wedding ring!”  Once again, I have always considered myself decidedly average in the looks category, so her compliment slightly embarrassed me.  I looked down and sheepishly said as much, while my ego secretly hoped she would continue the flattery.

What she had already said was enough to get me thinking.  Why is it “dangerous for a man my age?”  I must have arrived at the point where everyone assumes that if you are not married, you are desperately trying to get married.  I also wondered why it has just become an issue since I have been working at this particular store.  I have been avoiding jewelry for 15 years or more, and I’ve been barely wearing my wedding ring for 5 years.  I don’t have an answer for this one, but I suspect it has to do with the clientele.  Relatedly, it’s worth noting that all the comments have come from middle-aged women trying to set me up with their daughters.  Not once has an attractive, age-appropriate woman commented on “the cute new guy.”  Make of that what you will.

S&R in Heidelberg

My wife, Sarah, and I vacationing in Heidelberg, Germany in June 2012.

It’s not like I’m hiding the fact that I’m married.  If anyone asks, I proudly tell them about my wonderful wife.  How she selflessly moved cross-country with me so I could pursue my master’s degree.  How she has worked full-time to support us while I was in school.  How much I admire her kind heart and the job that she does as a social worker on the rough side of town.  How she pretends to be interested in my studies even though I’m a nerd and most of it is pretty dull to most folks.

I have no reason to be deceptive.  The absence of a ring does not make me more likely to cause trouble, and the presence of a ring certainly would not prevent me from illicit behavior were I so inclined.  Ladies, if you don’t trust your husband to go out without his ring, you might reconsider why he is trustworthy at all.  No, I’m not being deceptive, but some folks act as though they’ve been intentionally misled when they find out I’m married but don’t wear a ring, as if I’m perpetrating some elaborate ruse.   But there is also more.  I think that the reactions I have been seeing result not only from a feeling of deception, but also from a deep-rooted discomfort with the bucking of cultural norms.

So, I wore my ring to work today, and I’m still uncomfortable with the precedent that I have set for myself.  This is the first time in a while that I have conformed to social pressure on something like this.  In the end, I guess I thought it would be easier than to explain myself to everyone who asks.  But I probably won’t do it again.

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Book Review – Ancient Christian Martyrdom

Candida Moss, Ancient Christian Martyrdom, (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2012)

Modern histories of martyrdom have tended to take one of two approaches:  1) they attempt to reconstruct the history of martyrdom genealogically, tracing it from its modern definition backward into antiquity in an attempt to find the origin of the idea and practice; 2)  they attempt to explain the existence of martyrdom in spite of the seeming irrationality of the act, flying in the face of the assumption that human beings naturally seek a long, healthy life, and will generally do anything to avoid death.

Both approaches have tended to find the origin of martyrdom somewhere in the second century, when, it is argued, the meaning of the Greek term μάρτυς (martys, “a witness”) shifted from its sense of a courtroom witness to the idea of a person who died for Christ.  Similarly, the corresponding term μαρτύριον (martyrion, “testimony”) shifted from the legal testimony provided by a witness to referring to martyrdom, the act of dying rather than recanting the Christian faith.

In her book Ancient Christian Martyrdom:  Diverse Practices, Theologies, and Traditions, Candida Moss (Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, Notre Dame University) questions and problematizes both of these approaches, arguing that they both rely on the presupposition of a single, monolithic notion of martyrdom that can be tracked back to a single origin.  She argues that attempts to reconstruct the linguistic evolution of the term μαρτύς have been weighted too heavily, and give a false sense of uniformity of thought on the practice.  On the contrary, the idea of martyrdom is not synonymous with any specific linguistic term.  Furthermore, identification of the origin of martyrdom with the birth of the linguistic term privileges Christianity, and assumes martyrs could not have existed before the existence of the term for martyr—this would exclude classic examples such as the Maccabees, Daniel, and Socrates.

Moss MartyrdomInstead, Moss treats martyrdom as a discursive formation by which early Christians shaped their own identities, interpreted experience, and defined community boundaries.  Rejecting the presupposition of a single definition of martyrdom, she instead examines the ways that ideologies of martyrdom varied in different places and cultural settings in the ancient world.  She furthermore finds precursors to Christian martyrdom in ancient Greek and Jewish ideologies of honor, a noble death, and commitment to one’s values.

In the first chapter, Moss surveys the intellectual, cultural, religious, and literary traditions that might have influenced the Christian construction of martyrdom, providing a “reservoir that sustained the early Christian imagination” (19).  This chapter identifies Greek ideas concerning the importance of a noble death exemplified by Socrates, sacrificial death exemplified by Jesus, and commitment to religious law exemplified by Daniel and the Maccabees as important influences on the construction of Christian martyrdom ideology.

The following chapters examine attitudes toward martyrdom in specific literary and geographical contexts.  Chapter 2 begins with Asia Minor and the infamous letters of Ignatius and the Martyrdom of Polycarp, which many have considered to be some of the earliest evidence for a developed theology of martyrdom.  Moss complicates this evidence by noting the complex textual history and the impossibility of dating these works.  She nevertheless finds them informative in identifying a martyrological tradition in Asia Minor, because they both focus on the death of the martyr as a sacrificial death mimicking that of Christ.  Furthermore, Polycarp’s stoic strength and self-control throughout his execution casts him as a Christian Socrates.  Thus, “Polycarp is a fusion of Christ figure and Greco-Roman heroic male…” (76).

The third chapter addresses the martyrdom literature that is associated with Rome, most notably that of Justin Martyr.  Justin’s writings, the Dialogue with Trypho and his Apologies, construct an ideology of martyrdom as suffering as a way to define the boundaries of Christianity.  For Justin, Christians suffer unjustly “for the name only,” at the hands of the Romans, and this suffering (and endurance) becomes a way to distinguish Christians from other groups.  Romans and Jews are both cast as persecutors, and those who claim to be Christians but who reject martyrdom are labeled heretics.  Justin is thus able to stake out the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy by constructing martyrdom and its accompanying suffering as identifying markers of Christianity.

Chapter 4 takes up martyrdom in Gaul, a problematic region because of its traditional association with Asian Christianity through Irenaeus.  Still, Moss finds sufficient evidence in the Letter of the Churches of Vienne and Lyons, as well as Irenaeus’ writings, to argue for a distinct theology of martyrdom in Gaul.  Noting that these writings are the only second-century accounts to focus on Stephen as protomartyr, Moss sees the martyrs in the Letter as imitators of Christ.  In addition, and distinguishing them from Polycarp, Irenaus and the Letter show an interest in the cosmic battle with Satan as described in Revelation and the Gospel of John.  Thus, the bodies of the martyrs simultaneously imitate the death of Christ and house the battle with Satan.

In chapter 5, Moss examines martyrdom in North Africa, focusing on the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs and the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas.  Although some have portrayed North African martyrdom material as apocalyptic based on the violence, suffering, and death in Perpetua’s visions and in her physical existence, Moss cautions that such apocalyptic elements should not eclipse the rest of the account.  She sees Perpetua as another example of the virtuous death, especially due to her execution in the amphitheater as part of the gladiatorial spectacle.  The text intentionally masculinizes Perpetua in body and character by making her courageous and strong, but maintains her femininity by having her modestly rearrange her dress and adjusting her hairpin.  Perpetua hovers between masculine and feminine until she finally guides the gladiator’s sword to her own throat.

Finally, chapter 6 examines Alexandria and the way that Clement of Alexandria rhetorically carves out a “middle ground” in martyrdom theology between “zealously pro-martyrdom” groups and “anti-martyrdom” groups as a way of claiming authority for the “orthodox middle.”  Moss questions the scholarly tendency to reify the binary between the orthodox and the heterodox attitudes toward martyrdom, arguing that these are instead constructions of later church leaders.  According to Moss, “The discourse of martyrdom was a valuable tool in ancient claims to authority” (20).

This book makes significant contributions to our understanding of early Christian thought about martyrdom.  Far from the homogenous ideological history that many scholars have attempted to narrate, Moss demonstrates conclusively that there existed a wide variety of practices and beliefs surrounding martyrdom in antiquity, which varied from region to region and even from one text to another.

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