Willie Nelson and the Divorce Culture

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Will Campbell used to say there were two things he never trusted: fat revolutionaries and recently divorced marriage counselors. I tend to agree. Sometimes, however, the divorced marriage counselor has something worth hearing about the farce of the divorce culture. That’s the case even when he doesn’t intend to say much at all.

In a recently released book, Texas outlaw songwriter Willie Nelson says quite a bit about his rejection of the Christianity he once professed. Nelson was, for a time, a student at Baylor University and a member of a Southern Baptist church. Years of dissipation have left him far from those Baptist church pews. Now he holds to a pantheistic form of paganism, embracing everything from pop-Taoism to psychic powers to reincarnation. It is clear, however, that he’s rebelling against something, which is why it seems to delight him to talk about smoking marijuana in Jimmy Carter’s White House or lighting up a joint in the presence of Ann Richards, then the goveror of Texas. The tensions between Nelson’s longing for the Christians in his past and his longing to be “on the road again” are everywhere in his music. He is, after all, the man who sings both “Family Bible” and “Whiskey River.”

The sadness of the artist’s life is seen most clearly, however, in the way he frames his failed marriages. Nelson married his first wife when he was eighteen and has been married, repeatedly, ever since. As a matter of fact, he once was married (accidentally, he says) in the 1970s to two women at one time. Even so, Nelson reveals to his biographer that he doesn’t believe there’s such a thing as an ex-wife.

“There is no such thing as an ex-wife, there are only additional wives,” Nelson says. “It’s an accumulation.”

Clearly, Nelson’s relationships to women are quite different from that of the typical American male. Despite looking, well, like Willie Nelson, women all over the country swoon in his presence. But he is typical in the way he treats divorce. It is seen as a sad thing, but almost the equivalent of a high school breakup, except with lawyers involved. Nelson seems quite casual about his divorces, his marriages, and his serial adulteries. But he seems to recognize in this one off-hand statement, that marriage isn’t as casual as he pretends it is. Even in the voice of man happy to be “insisting that the world keep moving our way,” you can hear a bone-chilling sadness.

I wonder how many American men and women ponder the same reality. They thought a divorce would “free” them to pursue the next phase of life, but there’s always something “accumulated.” A one-flesh covenant cannot be so easily rended. What God hath joined together can be pronounced “asunder” by a court system, and even by a family. But is it ever really over?

Maybe that’s why our church pews are filled with divorced men and women who are grieving, not just over a failed marriage or over the loneliness of being, as we so callously put it, “single again.” Maybe they are grieving too because they’ve been sold a package of lies. They’ve been told a divorce means a “new start.” They’ve been told the next marriage will be the one that counts, with a whole new family in the bargain. They’ve been told there’s such a thing as an “ex-wife.”

As we minister in a divorce culture, we need to recognize that, even in the hatred and violence of divorce, a marriage cannot be simply forgotten. A covenant cannot just be packed up in boxes and moved out the door. Let’s remember as we teach about marriage, and as we love those who’ve been scarred by divorce, that this isn’t something casual. An ex-spouse may be hated, but cannot be forgotten. Whatever Hollywood and the town clerk says, there are millions of people who look in anguish at pictues of a covenant ceremony and say, with Willie Nelson, “You were always on my mind.”

The culture is changing but it can be good news for the church.


Onward cover

About Russell Moore

Russell Moore

Russell Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the moral and public policy agency 
of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

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