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The Chronicle of Higher Education
Theology Course Puts Students Into the Middle of Marital Chaos
By THOMAS BARTLETT
In his course, "Theology of Marriage," the first thing Robert Brancatelli asks his students to do is to write down their deepest fears. They usually write about failure, losing control, or intimacy.
It may seem like an odd exercise for a course on the theology of marriage. But Mr. Brancatelli, an assistant professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University, believes that it makes perfect sense. "The course is about self-work," he says. "That's because marriage is about giving the core of yourself to someone else."
Along with encouraging students to recognize their fears, he also tries to disabuse them of idealized notions about marriage.
"A lot of it is about shedding some of this crap about love and romance," he says. "Candlelit dinners are nice, but those are incidentals."
The professor acknowledges that such talk makes him sound like a cynic. He's not, he says -- he's just a realist.
"I respect marriage enough to be honest about it," he says.
Mr. Brancatelli is frank with students about his own divorce. "This is where I think I went wrong and how it happened," he tells them. Still, he considers himself very pro-marriage: "I think it's the greatest thing."
The class is more than a self-help seminar. Students also examine the history of marriage within the Judeo-Christian tradition. They spend one class period talking about domestic violence ("I want them to think about what can happen when a marriage breaks down," the professor says) and another period discussing the controversy over gay marriage. The problem, he says, is trying to squeeze all of this into one course.
Each semester Mr. Brancatelli asks students what they think makes for a good marriage. Most of the time they answer "communication" or "fidelity." The correct answer, he informs them, is having a sense of humor.
I and Thou, by Martin Buber (Free Press, 1971); Perspectives on Marriage: A Reader, edited by Kieran Scott and Michael Warren (Oxford University Press, 2000); The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera (Perennial, 1999); The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts, by Judith S. Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee (Warner Books, 1996).
For their final project, students are divided into groups of three or four. Each group interviews a married couple and then writes a 20-page report.
"I want them to go to the couple's house, sit on the couch with the cat hair, watch the kids run around. Be right there in the middle of the chaos," says Mr. Brancatelli. "I want them to get a taste of that reality."