University Park hovered at the very edge of sultry, the morning air shimmering at that precise degree of warmth at which coconut oil melts, cocoa butter begins to soften, and sauerkraut ferments perfectly. Turtle embryos incubated at that temperature all come out male. Pigs begin to feel stress, and chinchillas are in danger of heatstroke. On the other hand, it would have been a good nighttime temperature for green iguanas. The hairs at the back of my neck quivered faintly with the rumble of a distant jet. A breeze lifted the collar of Abigail’s blouse.
We were seated at a redwood picnic table, sipping pink lemonade and watching the annual Post-Everything University baseball game from afar. It was a grudge match — faculty and administration are traditional foes — but no one expected a decisive victory for either side. Two years out of three, the match breaks up in quarrels before the seventh inning. People who think norms like “fairness” are socially constructed have a difficult time agreeing how to play, and it’s hard to tell the teams apart anyway; they both wear shades of black. Most people come for the picnic.
Abigail nudged me. Two young people, presumably students, were treading across the grass, and seemed to be making for us. As they drew near, I recognized Jordan, though I didn’t know the dark-haired girl at his side.
“Professor and Mrs. Theophilus,” he said, “I’d like you to meet my special friend, Becca.”
We all smiled and exchanged pleasantries. The young couple stood for a moment, then Jordan said something about lemonade and they sauntered off.
“I didn’t know he had a girlfriend,” murmured Abby.
“They do have that air of attachment, don’t they?”
“Seems like a nice girl.”
“Seems to be. Didn’t say much.”
“Well, they wanted lemonade.”
We chatted for another five minutes or so, until someone spoke from close behind us. Abby jumped, but it was only Jordan again.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. T, I didn’t mean to startle you. I just wanted you and Professor T to meet my special friend, Kala.”
Except for the color of her hair, she looked just like Becca. More permutations of pleasantries. Yes, she attended Post-Everything University. No, she hadn’t decided on a major. She looked forward to meeting us again. They moved away.
Abby spoke first. “Which one do you say it is? I still say Becca.”
“You said you thought he and Becca looked attached.”
“So do him and Kala. Say, the buffet table is opening up. Ready for a hot dog or hamburger?”
She thought she was, so we wandered over to the tent, got in line, and filled our plates. At the condiment station we encountered a familiar face. “Fancy meeting you again, Jordan,” said Abby. “And who might this be?”
“Oh, hello! Mrs. Theophilus, Professor Theophilus, I’d like to introduce my special friend, Amber. We’re just getting some mustard.”
“If you substitute salsa for mustard, so are we.”
They laughed. We laughed. We separated. Abby and I took seats at one of the long tables. Abby arched an eyebrow at me. I lifted one at her. “What do you make of it?”
“Not sure,” she said. “What we used to call playing the field?”
“They don’t do that any more. Besides, there was that same air of attachment about all of them.”
“I’ve been thinking about that. The girls looked more attached than he did.”
“You may have something there. Is that salt? Would you pass it over here, please?”
A little while later I nudged Abby’s foot with my toe.
“I’m fond of you, too, Theo.”
“No, no, look over there. You’re not going to believe this.”
Jordan was approaching at the head of what looked like a caravan. “How interesting,” said Abby. She propped her chin on her hands and watched.
“Professor Theophilus,” the young man began, “I’m sorry to bother you and Mrs. Theo again — ”
“We’re always happy to see you, Jordan.”
“Thanks. I’d like you to meet my special friends, Amanda, Brooke, MacKenzie, Danielle, and Melissa. They saw me talking with you at the ketchup and mustard table and wanted to meet you.” I must have looked puzzled, because he continued, “They’ve read some of your stuff in that magazine Groundless.”
“Nounless,” I corrected. On the personal waveband, Abby transmitted amusement.
“Right, Nounless,” said Jordan.
“Well, I’m pleased to meet you, Amanda, Brooke, and — and the rest of you.”
After a bit more chit and chat, the conversation faltered. One of the girls said, “Jordan, I think the music is about to begin. Are you coming?”
Jordan seemed about to answer, then hesitated and turned to me. “Professor T, since I keep bumping into you today anyway, could I ask a question about my term paper? It would only take a few minutes. That is,” he said, turning to Abby, “if Mrs. Theo doesn’t mind. I don’t want to ruin your picnic time.”
I glanced at Abby, who gave the universal smiling-shrugging “Sure, go ahead” sign.
“If you can keep it short,” I said to Jordan.
“Thanks, Prof.” To the girl who had just spoken, he said “I’ll catch up with you later.” He watched absent-mindedly as the caravan of girls receded, then turned again toward me.
“Jordan,” I said, puzzled, “before you ask your term paper question, maybe you can clear something up. Mrs. Theophilus and I thought you were introducing Becca as your girlfriend. Then we thought you were introducing Kala as your girlfriend, and then Amber, and so forth. All these girlfriends later, we’re a little confused.”
He opened his eyes wide and laughed. “I didn’t mean to confuse you, Professor T. None of these girls is my girlfriend.”
“Didn’t you say ‘special friend’?” asked Abby.
“Well, sure. I think all my friends are special.”
Abby and I glanced at each other. “Thanks for clearing that up,” I said. “You can ask your question about the term paper now.”
Jordan wasn’t finished. “You still look sort of puzzled.”
“That wouldn’t be surprising,” I laughed, “but you’ve answered my question. I thought you meant one thing when you introduced the girls; you turned out to mean something else, that’s all. Go ahead and ask your term paper question.”
“No, wait, I’m interested. Isn’t this how you socialized with girls in your generation?”
“We asked girls on dates.”
Silence fell. I said encouragingly, “Feel free to ask your term paper question now.”
Ignoring that remark, he replied to my answer to his question. “I’m always afraid the girl will say no. I’m not very good with girls.” Abby raised her lemonade cup to her mouth to hide her smile; I knew she was thinking of the caravan. Jordan continued, “So if I think a girl is nice, I’ll say something like ‘A bunch of us are going to the Post-Everything Picnic. Why don’t you come too?’ You know. Group dating.” He glanced at Abby.
She declared, “That’s not group dating, Jordan, it’s harem dating.”
He was taken aback. “Why do you say that?”
“If I had been one of those girls, I would have been wondering ‘Did we have an arrangement, or didn’t we? And if we did, what’s up with these other seven girls?'”
“Oh, I don’t think any of them were confused about that!”
“This is how all of my friends socialize.”
Abby was unmoved. “That only means that the confusion is universal,” she said smilingly.
Jordan turned toward me for rescue. “You see what I’m talking about, don’t you? I thought group dating was a more biblical way to socialize anyway.”
“Who says so?” I asked.
“The college pastor at MacChurch, for one. Also the InterChristian campus minister — I think you know him. He says that couples dating is a modern invention with no biblical basis.”
“I do know Cal. Why does he say that?”
“He hasn’t explained, but it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? Nobody in the Bible did couples dating.”
“That’s true. Did they all do group dating, then?”
“Now that you put it that way — no, I guess not.”
“So what does the Bible support?”
“What do you think?”
He pulled up short. “You’re not going to say families should arrange the children’s marriages, are you?”
“Well, Rebeccah and Isaac — ”
“What about them?”
“Then again — David and Abigail came together on their own, didn’t they? But then — ”
He stopped dead.
“What’s the matter?”
“They all did different things.”
“So I don’t know what’s biblical!”
“Jordan,” I suggested, “I think you’re going about this in the wrong way.”
“It wouldn’t necessarily matter if people in biblical times had gone in for group dating, or couples dating, or whatever.”
“The mere fact that the Bible mentions or doesn’t mention a social arrangement doesn’t tell us whether the arrangement is good or bad.”
He looked aghast. “Are you saying the Bible’s teaching isn’t true?”
“Not at all. But there’s a difference between what the Bible records and what it approves.”
“Could you give me an example?”
Abby cut in. “The Law of Moses even tolerated divorce, but God never approved that social practice. He said He hated it.””I hate divorce,” says God in Malachi 2:16. The passage has a double meaning, employing the marital covenant as a symbol of the faith covenant. See also Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:8-9.
“Okay, I should do what the Bible says, not just what biblical people did. But I don’t think the Bible gives any commands about group dating — or couples dating — or for that matter any kind of socializing between the sexes — pro or con.”
“Now you’re getting somewhere,” I said.
“Am I? I feel like I’m getting nowhere.”
“Theo,” said Abby, “you’re so oblique. What my husband means,” she said to Jordan, “is that at first you were just reading your own social attitude into Scripture, and now you’re not making that mistake. That’s a gain.”
“Isn’t that what I said?” I asked.
“I get what you’re saying, Mrs. T,” Jordan said, “but if the Bible doesn’t give any guidance at all about the subject — ”
“I didn’t say that it doesn’t give any, Jordan.”
Jordan looked from Abby’s face to mine and back again. “Are you two always like this when you’re together?”
Abby and I laughed. “What my wife means,” I said, “is that the commandments are only one of the ways in which the Bible teaches Wisdom. You have to follow them — they’re indispensable — but that’s only the first step.”
“What’s the next step?”
“At the risk of being oblique,” I said —
Copyright 2004 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.