Faceting Love: Shooting Cinderella 

Faceting Love: Shooting Cinderella 

[This post is part of my series of Faceting Love. You can read the Intro here.]

About 15 years ago, I spent a year doing intensive studies in a course on Christian Counselling. Among the classes I took that year were ‘lab’ or practical courses, where small groups of students and teachers, no more than a dozen, sat around a large square of tables and discussed how the coursework was effecting us. One memorable day, one of the women in my group passionately exclaimed “Cinderella ought to be shot!” I can’t be certain, but I seem to remember a general chuckle in response to this outburst, but the conversation that followed was anything but jovial.

As we began to explore the cultural narratives of “love” and “happily ever after” that had been fed to us (particularly the females present), there was a general feeling of betrayal. What happens when you’re 25 or 28 and “prince charming” still hasn’t come? What if it was all a lie, and we make our own happiness with or without a partner? After all, true love doesn’t spring to life out of an evening of dancing in pretty clothes! It is forged in the fire of life, committed effort and sacrifice.

My fellow student pointed the finger at Cinderella, but any one of the 20th century Disney princesses – and some of the more recent – send a very similar message. If you are good and pretty and nice someone will eventually come and rescue/love you, and of course that love happens in an instant, or, at most, a few hours – perhaps with a kiss, sometimes even given without consent! (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty) Then there is the incipient message that you need to change who you are to find love (Little Mermaid).

Of course these films, and the company’s assiduous marketing of ‘princess’ merchandise, are an easy target, but the narrative of helpless female and rescuing male is not just in films. It is marketed in children’s clothing and cheap paperbacks, sold to young and old alike, and the narrative of ‘quick and easy love’ is even worse!

So many films tell touching love stories where a couple (one or both often already in a long-term relationship) meet in some unusual circumstances and discover that they are with the wrong person and this is the right one. This realisation sometimes happens as quickly as in a single weekend. “Love” is about a feeling, chemistry, this just being “right” s/he is “the one,” cue swelling music and melting kiss.

Just like Cinderella – true love in one night of dancing  – at a public ball in borrowed clothes. We think it’s that easy, one “enchanted evening” we’ll see someone, and we’ll know, and everything will be perfect.

Now some people tell stories very like these about how they fell in love, and perhaps, for some, it does start this way, but the story of love begins after the explosive meeting, the goo-goo eyes, the melting first kiss.

Amongst my DVD collection I have an old film, “Yours, Mine and Ours,” about a widower and widow who remarry, bringing their combined number of children to 18. They subsequently have a child of their own. Near the end of the film the father is speaking to his eldest step-daughter as he escorts his wife to the car to take her to hospital for the birth of their child. The stepdaughter’s boyfriend has been pressuring her for sex, and this, in part, is what the father has to say, “Take a good look at your mother. It’s giving life that counts. Until you’re ready for it all the rest is just a big fraud. Love isn’t a love-in – it’s the dishes and the orthodontist and the shoe repairman. It isn’t going to bed with a man that proves you’re in love with him. It’s getting up with him and facing the drab, wonderful, everyday world with him.”

Cinderella and her prince may well have found true love together, but it wasn’t in the romantic ballroom. If they found true love, it was in the compromises over hours of sleep and the temperature of the bedroom, the squabbles over royal duties versus time to themselves, the pressure to produce royal heirs, etc. etc.

Quarrels, explanations, forgiveness, laughter and time, lots of time – this is the soil that grows true love, and without it the rest is a fraud and a sham. Culture puts on a lot of dumb show about ‘true love’ and ‘the one.’ We are sold the line that it won’t be hard with the right one, or we somehow believe that someone who loves you will never cause you pain. The truth is, the ones we love hurt us the most (not purposefully, I hasten to add), and the truest love is the one we work longest and hardest to build, feed, maintain and grow.

It may begin in an instant, but love is the work of a lifetime.

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What kind of world?

What kind of world?

Children die. Every day. All over the world. Violence, disasters, disease. Children are targeted, kidnaped, forced into ‘marriage’, given guns and forced to be soldiers. Children are neglected, abused, broken and denied access to what they need in a thousand ways every hour of every day.

When it happens en mass, in other parts of the world, sometimes we in the West notice. When it happens in our cities and our towns, it’s the worst atrocity possible. It is ‘sickening cowardice’, but why only when it happens to ‘our’ children?

I grieve for those whose lives changed forever in Manchester last night, for those who lost those they love, for those whose bodies will never be the same, and for the masses of people who will suffer psychological trauma over this event for years – perhaps the rest of their lives.

I grieve for the family of the suicide bomber, those who knew him and cared about him, those who never suspected he could do such a thing and those who feared he would, but didn’t know how to stop him.

When I first heard the news this morning, it was shocking, but even before I could process the human cost, the great grief and pain of such an event, I was fearing the political aftermath. The protests of innocence, the evil language of “our values” verse “their ideology.” I shrunk from the prospect of the triumphalism I knew would be spouted by the PM, and the thousands of people who would cling to her assurances of strength and stability, her violent language about evil and retribution.

Violence is not the answer. Hating criminals is not the answer. Attacking an “ideology” is not the answer. Circling our wagons around our own self-satisfied, smug assurance of the ‘rightness’ of our own ‘way of life’ and the evil of those who oppose it in anyway only further marginalises and criminalises those who disagree, who feel excluded or judged or inescapably different.

As I write this, there is no official information about the identity or motives of the bomber available. ISIS has reportedly (and belatedly) ‘claimed’ responsibility – as they do for every attack on the West, as far as I can see, but this has not been ‘verified’ and would be treated by me as highly suspect in any event. Yet it seems that everywhere I look people are talking about “ideology” and “terrorists” and rooting out this “cancer”.

You see, those who carry out such attacks are not, cannot be, actual members of our society. They cannot be “like us” or one of us. It is convenient when such attackers are ‘foreign’ either in religion or nationality as that makes ‘other-ising’ them easier, but even when brutal attacks on children are perpetrated in Western nations by homegrown white people (think Sandy Hook, December 2012), we still have to find a way to other-ise the perpetrators. He was unstable, a loner, mentally ill – anything other than the boy next door, a member of our community, someone who was quite obviously failed by his society, his school, his government. There may be those who are born to be killers, but I suspect the vast majority (if not all) who kill are created by the world in which they live. They are rejected and marginalised, treated differently because of trivial details of person or understanding. They are created by wars and bombs and the childhood trauma of losing home and loved ones. They are created by a society that hates what they love and calls their religion – their identity – evil with no real understanding of who they are or what they believe. They are created by a system of education that is unable to reach or teach, social care that fails to care, families that are too overstretched in pursuit of food and shelter to have time to invest in things like love and care.

All who commit these crimes are human beings. All were once babies, likely with mothers who loved them. They were born onto this earth just like the rest of us, and if life was less kind to them than it has been to us, that does not make them less human! If they have lacked the moral fibre or mental strength to tolerate a society which ignores and marginalises them, if they have been trained with poor values or seduced be violent rhetoric which promises them every good thing they feel incapable of obtaining by fair means, pity them, mourn their death, mourn that the world in which we lives continues to allow such things to occur – not by failing to be ‘tough enough’ on ‘radical ideology’, but by failing to love, to embrace difference, to promote understanding, to pursue peace, to know its neighbours.

Weep, weep for the dead children of Manchester, of Syria, of the Mediterranean, of the refugee camps, of natural disasters all over the world, but weep also for yourself, for the world in which we find ourselves, for the evil which we tolerate and call ‘good’ in order to maintain our own comfort and security. Weep for the bomber and every man, woman, and child like him who have so little to live for in this world and such a low value for life – even their own – that they would perpetrate such unspeakable acts against the helpless and innocent.

And when we have wept, perhaps it will be time to consider the kind of society, the kind of world, in which we would like to live, and how we might go about building it.

Universalism vs. Power

Universalism vs. Power

Today I came across an article on Universalism in the Early Church. It is interesting and well referenced to reputable scholars in patristics. The author cites and impressive list of early church Fathers who were pro-universal salvation, and connects the switch in Christian theology to exclusivism with the writings of Augustine (in the late fourth and early fifth centuries), the Emperor Justinian and the Fifth Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in the sixth century.

As a student of patristics, I find this timing significant. Almost anyone who has studied the history of the Christian faith knows the name of Constantine as the emperor who made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire. Many now mournfully mark this event as a defining moment in the established Church’s abandonment of the teachings of Jesus. For those who led the churches at the time, it seemed a godsend.

However one understands the theological significance of the event, the joining of the Christian faith (and its organised expression) to the ruling powers of the Roman Empire established the Christian Church as a significant cultural institution for the first time. This institution was, in turn, used by the powers that be to control the lives and beliefs of the peoples of the empire. This is where the drive to identify the ‘orthodox’ version of Christian faith over against the ‘heretical’ versions gathered its momentum.

In the fourth century the debates centred around the divinity of Jesus, forming the eventual doctrine of the Trinity. In the fifth century the debate centred around the relationship between the two natures of Christ (divine and human). These debates took decades to brew and develop as bishops and theologians wrote letters and theses, contradicted and debated with one another, lobbied secular authorities for support and played politics in an attempt to ‘win’ the debate and get their understanding enshrined in the annals of an ecumenical council.

When I read this article today, I saw a continuity I had not before noticed. As the Roman Empire crumbled, the Roman Catholic Church, particularly in western Europe, became the most significant international power. The Roman pontiffs were, quite literally, kingmakers. What better to cement the Church’s power and authority than the enshrinement and propagation of the doctrine of limited atonement, together with the assurance that the Church holds the keys to eternal salvation.

The process of codification and exclusion that begins with Constantine seems, on reflection, to lead quite naturally to the discarding of the ideal of universal salvation in favour of exclusivist truth claims that give the Church the ultimate power over heaven and hell and, with that power, the ability to intimidate, control and exploit everyone from kings to serfs.

What a terrifying thought. Does the punitive theology of the afterlife actually exist because the institutional church could not sate its thirst for power?

Of course, the whys and wherefores, the causes and influences that shape church doctrine are many and complex, but if it is true that the vast majority of pre-Constantinian thinkers were open to if not exponents of the idea that all might eventually be ‘saved,’ then the post-Constantinian trend towards greater control of the lives of individual people seems clear to me.

What would it mean for Christians and churches today to realise that the message of Jesus has nothing to do with saving people from hell? What would Christianity be, if it wasn’t about “getting saved” and “going to heaven when you die”? What would “church” look like, if there was no need to codify or control correct doctrine, because no one’s “eternal soul” actually depends on it?

Would there be any need for an institution of church to exist at all?

 

Faceting Love: Introduction

Faceting Love: Introduction

I could not have been very old, perhaps between 8 and 10. It was a hot summer day. I know this because we had moved my mattress from the bedframe upstairs down into the living room so that I could enjoy the comfort of the air conditioning that we only had on the ground floor of our house. We had watched Sleeping Beauty that night, the old Disney animated version with the sweeping music and striking colours. I liked Merriweather best, she seemed like me: little and awkward, with a peppery temper and always a bit behind the other two. When my mom sat down beside me to say goodnight, she tried to explain to me that love in real life isn’t like love in the movies. It doesn’t happen like that. I don’t think I quite understood what she meant. I remember responding, “but I would like to fall in love some day.” We were both right – love in real life is almost nothing like love in an old Disney film, but almost everyone seems to want to fall in love one day anyway!

Perhaps it started that night, I don’t really know, but at least from my early teenage years I had an active mental relationship with the concept of love, what it is/was and whether the feelings I occassionally cherished towards one male or another qualified as ‘love’ or were merely something embarrassingly childish like a “crush.” As I got older and into my first serious relationship I discovered some of the more physical aspects of ‘love.’ When that relationship ended, I had many more questions than I had started with, and spent the next eight years or so trying to sort out what exactly was the ‘love’ that I so longed for, how that squared with the meanings of love I had been taught in church (philios, eros, agape), whether it was possible to have enough love in my life without a significant other and what the heck sex had to do with it all (or didn’t, as the case may be).

Recently thoughts on this topic have been surfacing again, and I decided it was an excellent opportunity to create another blog series. I have chosen the title “Faceting Love” for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was the best title I could hit on that didn’t sound twee, cliched or otherwise overused. Secondly, I wished it to be short and simple, yet make one think. I considered “facets of love,” but it didn’t have the right emphasis. The phrase functions as a noun and thus suggests something factual and instructive. I prefer a phrase that functions as a verb suggesting active and ongoing engagement with a topic.

The word “faceting” is the verb form of “facet” and describes the act of cutting faces in a gem, presenting new sides to view and enhancing the overall beauty of the object. Conceptually the number of possible facets is endless, and each artisan would cut a slightly different one. This image resonates when me when applied to the concept of love – surely one of the most complicated of all concepts. The word seems to have an endless semantic range and aspects of meaning that vary among cultures, religions and individuals. Love is also precious and regarded by many as the most important and most powerful human force.

Over the next few weeks I will be cutting a few faces on the gem of love, and sharing my thoughts with you all. I will draw on some biblical ideas, some of my own insights and history, and anything else that takes my fancy. Enjoy!

Embracing Death – Embracing Life

Embracing Death – Embracing Life

Death follows life, yet life also follows death. Poppies bloom on the graves of those long dead, children grow into adults who are eventually succeed by a new generation of children. Death is a natural part of the cycle of life. It is annually reflected in cycles of nature, and daily illustrated in the lives that end – because the time has come, or because they have been cruelly cut short through violence, illness or some other tragedy. Life ends. Sooner or later. Life ends, every day, but life also begins every day. Countless children are born daily; seeds germinate; new ideas lead to new actions and initiatives. These things are our now, and they are our future. The world of those now dead is our past.
As one who has experienced the death of a loved one, it is impossible to call death “nothing at all”. It carries with it a gut-wrenching, life-altering finality, for the dead are really gone. They do not linger in the wind or look down from the sky, they have been torn out of the lives of those who loved them, knew them or hated them, and their absence causes a rift that only time and grieving may eventually close. Death is a trauma and a nightmare to those who remain alive.
So we fear death, and I think it is this fear of death that leads to our nostalgic desire to dwell in the past. We remember what we loved about those who have died, but we do not dwell on their weaknesses. We remember the joys of the glory days of the institutions that we cherish (by they church or state or local drama group). We remember the ideal moments of family togetherness, holidays and vacations, laughter and games. We do not dwell on the arguments, disagreements, moments of coolness, or pain caused. Or perhaps, we can’t forget it because this legacy is now all we have left.
Why do we dwell so in our minds on death, on what is gone, on what is past. Why do we strain every nerve to recreate what has vanished, to reanimate what is dead, to live in the memory of what can never be again?
Perhaps, just perhaps, the future is more frightening than death itself. To live, that is the most terrifying thing of all. For to live, truly, is to love, to love self, to love others, to love earth and sky and sea, to love the hawk and the sparrow and the duck.
For many years now I have disliked the spring. I have sat amidst the transient loveliness of leaf and blossom unmoved by the beauty, almost repelled by it. Two years ago, as I walked the dog and picked up her waste among the fallen petals I realised why I so dislike the season. Spring is wasteful, it bursts forth in exuberant life, pouring out fragrance and beauty in a frantic effort to attract, yet mere weeks or months later that beauty is fallen, trodden underfoot, rotting on the pavement and in the undergrowth.
This year, I see something different, as the colour on the hills lightens a shade each day, and I notice the blossom on a tree here, or the leaves on a shrub there. As the streams fill with spring rains and the skies are a little more blue than grey, I feel it in me to embrace the spring. Every day I pass the lambs leaping in the fields and know they will likely end up at the butchers, but this is part of the cycle of rural life, its beauty and its hardship. Death does not take the loveliness of life, although it may sometimes smother our ability to see it.
We cannot go backwards. Our beloved dead will never again breathe, speak to us, hold us, laugh with us. The memories of our past will never recur. The ‘glory days’ will never come back again, but what of the glorious days of our future, or the future of our children, what of the life that follows that death.
With every choice we make countless other possibilities for our lives are eliminated, this is our chance at life. This life, this moment, this now, is all we have. We can live with it, change it and be changed by it, or we can resist it and fear it and hide from it.
Do we fear death, or do we fear life?

And when I set out thinking about how churches should stop fearing death because only through death can they come to something fresh and new or how our society invests so much money in prolonging life and so little in enriching life, perhaps I didn’t realise that I was also talking to myself, exorcising my own fear of life that strongly manifests itself as an odd fondness for the idea of death.

Winter (or a time of Death)

I don’t write any more. I don’t have the time or I don’t have the energy or I don’t have the vision or I don’t have the hope. What is there to say? Who is going to listen? Does it matter if someone ‘listens’ or reads? Shouldn’t I write for myself and not others? Perhaps I used to think I wrote for God or because it was a calling to something higher and better. Maybe I thought if that was the case it would be bound to ‘work’ or change lives or I’d be guaranteed success or no effort would be in vain.

Perhaps it was the thesis that sucked me dry, life and soul. Perhaps it killed my creativity and imagination. Perhaps it was the gradually sudden disappearance of ‘church’ or ‘faith,’ as I have always understood it, that left me with nothing to write about. I suppose, in a way, it is a time of ending, of death, or perhaps, more creatively, a time of winter. It may yet be followed by a spring. I don’t know, but it seems likely.

For now I feed my son. I follow him around so he doesn’t get hurt. I talk to him. I keep his butt clean and his clothes dry. I help him go to sleep at night and wake in the morning. When I think about it, that process has its own kind of creativity.

I miss writing – the feeling of being alive, of having something vital to communicate, but this time of ‘death’ (winter) does have its charm. I have finally chosen to ignore all outside obligations and focus instead on the responsibilities and duties I have taken upon myself, not out of guilt, but out of love. Sometimes I forget just how great that burden was, and just how free I feel now I no longer carry it.

Disbelieving Church: Conclusions

Disbelieving Church: Conclusions

So we come to the final entry in my Disbelieving Church series. In addition to the Introduction the series has included reflections on Worship, Preaching, Buildings, Kingdom Building, Evangelism, God’s Plan, Salvation, Being Nice, Structures, Prayer, Answers, and Ministry. That makes a round dozen posts plus introduction and conclusion. This seemed the right place to stop, but I am finding it difficult to let go of the series. This is partly because I still have unfinished business with ‘church’ and partly because I don’t know what to explore next!

It has been my intention throughout this series to refrain from moaning or “throwing stones” at the church and focus instead on critique and deconstruction. Obviously my observations come with a sizeable helping of experience, but it is my hope that my readers realise I have not come to these conclusions merely based on “a bad experience with church.” Rather they have developed naturally out of a more than thirty years of living with and investing in churches and more than a decade of theological education. Also, I would not describe this experience as a loss of faith, for the simple reason that although my relationship with God (however conceived) was for many years mediated through my relationship with ‘church,’ it was never predicated on it.

To close this series, I offer three concluding points to balance out my three introductory disclaimers:

Firstly, I have sometimes been advised by persons who have similar problems with some of the issues I have raised to “redeem” the terms, in other words, to redefine them in ways I am happy with and, when using them, do so with this private, acceptable meaning. Similarly, I have received advice to just use the language people will understand, thus allowing collaboration towards positive common goals. While I value and respect the people who have offered this, and similar, advice, it isn’t for me. If I use a term like “evangelism” for a way of life that demonstrates the good news of Jesus’ message of love, freedom and wholeness in conversation with a church-going person who uses it to mean “saving people from eternal damnation,” and I do not explain my meaning, I am unable to understand this as anything other than deceit. I allow them to think I agree, all the time holding my own private meanings of churchy terms. It makes me feel like a spy and a liar. Equally, when I did pursue this way of life, I lived in fear of being discovered and outed as not a ‘proper’ Christian Redeeming the terms may be a helpful exercise for my faith, but I do not see how it could allow me to  remain “in” “church”.

Secondly, after almost three decades in various forms of service to the church, I have discovered that my sense of self-worth has long been predicated on that service. As long as I believed myself to be contributing to the work of the church, that is the work of God’s kingdom, that is, serving Jesus in the world, I felt my life had meaning. Now that I find I can no longer serve this institution, I am bereft of my idol and in search of my God.

Thirdly, there are, of course, many people for whom this does not seem to be a problem. They take the ‘stay in and change the system’ approach. They are realists who take a long-term view of things, and if the ‘church’ of which they are a part appears to be heading in roughly the right direction over the long term, they are willing to tolerate the shortcomings and deviations that I find offensive in pursuit of that eventual good. I respect their choice, but I cannot emulate it. I have finally accepted that I am an idealist. I am also honest. I will not compromise or water-down or lie or hide myself any longer for the sake of the system. Many of these are people I like and respect, some I would even count friends, but I can no longer pretend I am willing to make the sacrifices they make – of conscience, of self, of goals – merely to prolong the life of what I have come to see as an outmoded, cumbersome, exclusivist and frequently harmful institution that has long since strayed from the message of Jesus and living divine love.

 

Postscript: As this series has run for several months now, I felt this was a logical place to stop, but not necessarily because I have nothing more to say. I am now considering developing my ideas further into book form for which I would welcome comments and advice.

Thanks for reading.

R