Bride that she will be, father that I am, Eden and I spent two evenings this week watching “Father of the Bride.” With popcorn between us, we spent several hours laughing uproariously and crying tenderly as first Spencer Tracy and then Steve Martin made their way through their daughter’s weddings.
The stories are remarkably similar, from opening scene on. Sometimes the dialogue is exactly the same. Remember the time when the bride-to-be plans to go out for the evening with her newly-announced fiancé? And the father suggests a coat, because it is cold outside? She casually dismisses his concern, but as soon as her new man makes the same suggestion, without a blink she says “Sure.” And we smile, we laugh, we might even cry.
One of the best observers of our cultural life between and around the two films has been the sociologist Peter Berger. I first began reading him in my early 20s, and actually drew him into a letter to the editor I wrote to The Bakersfield Californian, the paper that came to our house every day of my growing up.
I had deepening passions about the world, and was beginning to ask more complex questions about my place in it. To my surprise, the Californian turned my innocently-written letter into an op-ed, titling it “Bias Isn’t a Bad Word—Just an Honest Word.” I was arguing for cultural honesty about presuppositions, about the deepest commitments we have and the ways that they shape our lives in the public square. In a word, it was this question: who gets to decide what reality is, and isn’t? Berger was writing about the ways of the world, with unusual insight, and I was listening.
I thought of him as I watched the “Father(s) of the Bride.” From 1950 to 1990, a little more than a generation—and America changed. None of us can afford to be romantics, in the cultural sense. The 1950s was not a golden age; in thousands of ways it wasn’t. Racially we were a deeply wounded people, with social/political/economic fragmentation running through every part of life. And while I can only smile at the picturing of the first father of the bride climbing into his single bed alongside the single bed of his wife, I know that was the way marital intimacy was visually portrayed in the 1950s. By the time Steve Martin made his movie, our humor was more crude than quaint. “Fasten your condom!” he says to his daughter and her young man as they leave for the evening, and we laugh.
What particularly intrigued me was the portrayal of the wedding itself. It was glorious in a middle/upper class kind of way. Lots of money spent, pretty people in a pretty place, and beautiful brides with heart-in-their-throats fathers at the center of it all.
But the first film was set in a moment when there was a cultural consensus about God and the world, even in increasingly secular Hollywood. And so the liturgical setting of the wedding service was a Trinitarian Christian faith, with the Book of Common Prayer from beginning to end giving order to their vows.
In contrast, by the 1990s we had become a society with increasingly darkened “windows on transcendence,” as Berger saw us. We were having a very hard time imagining a world with windows, a world beyond the simply, starkly material. So in the second film the wedding is ostensibly in a Christian church, but there is nothing about God, much less a Trinitarian God whose Church offers social meaning to the binding of a man to a woman in marriage. In fact the clergyman makes sure that the religiously pluralist congregation is not offended by any mention of God, and so he doesn’t. The wedding takes place on this side of heaven—though in a church, because of course the bride still wants “a church wedding.”
Reading the signs of the times is hard, and at our best we do so through a glass darkly. Like everyone else, I’m just paying attention to what I see and hear, and wondering what it means. But sometimes I wonder about questions like: In these first years of the 21st-century, are our evolving habits of heart nourishing us as a people? Are they giving us the social and political skills to more fully flourish as a nation? Are we better able to be “e pluribus unum”– out of the many, one –in a world without windows to transcendence and truth, not to mention a belief as strange as the Trinity, which intriguingly is its own “e pluribus unum”? Or are we more who we want to be, who we want to be, now that we are more fully secular?
And sometimes I wonder about Vaclav Havel’s insistence that when we lose God, we lose access to these four words: meaning and purpose, responsibility and accountability. And I wish that we could have serious, society-wide conversations about his reading on moral meaning in the modern world. And I even wonder what he would have thought about the two different tellings of the tale of two weddings—of what differences there were, and of what difference the differences make.