Gone Girl and the politics of kissing

There’s a politics to relationships. Politics is the give and take that operates in every sphere of life, the deals you have to do, the things you have to trade to get what you want, the process of you deciding what is really important and what you can let go. Life is politics if you think there are overarching end goals, whether you think they are given out by God, the state, your family or you get to set them yourself. You have to let some things go to try and get what you really want. As everyone is doing that it’s all just one big horse trade.

Gone Girl is all about the politics of a marriage. Let me be honest, it’s absolutely gripping. Last week I didn’t have lunch with the people in my office for two days because I sat at my desk reading Gone Girl. I could not put it down. ,

In saying that I came away feeling..well..soiled. Not because I was so engrossed I didn’t make it to the loo, but because Gillian Flynn takes the politics of marriage; how we trade and deal and manipulate to get the things that we want to absolute extremes. Amy is tired of being “cool girl” as a way of getting what she wants from her husband and finds a different way. Nick is tired of being “trapped” with someone he doesn’t love and looks elsewhere. And in an attempt to get himself out of a difficult situation, starts to play a different role, the role of doting husband in which he becomes trapped forever. It’s dark. It’s, in the end, pretty hopeless. Someone “wins”, but it’s a pretty empty victory, and there is huge collateral damage along the way. Someone gets what they want, but what have they become along the way? A monster.

You know there is a whole movement today to redefine marriage. It’s not the gay marriage issue really, that just a symptom of a bigger shift, that even most Christians I know have bought into: marriage is about making you happy. At its best it is about making the other person happy, but nevertheless, it’s an institution best used to express and increase the happiness of the participants. It should be available to anyone who feels that it will be useful for them in that quest.

And that’s the impossible dynamic that Gone Girl explores. Because to really get what you want, you will have to seriously limit and even hurt the other person. Both people aiming to get what makes them happy ends in destruction. Amy tries two tacks: pretending to be someone that Nick will love, and forcing him into expressing a love he does not feel. She gets what she wants, he is crushed and defeated. At the heart of a secular view of marriage that says you both aim for happiness is, I am afraid, someone doing a deal, settling for less than happiness in order to assuage the needs of other.

Of course, in certain view of the world, that is an intensely beautiful thing. There is something amazing, isn’t there where one person voluntarily gives up their happiness for the sake of love and service and care for the other. Despite all the talk about marriage being for happiness we know that the real marriages, the true lovers, chuck in their preferences in order to do what is really best for the other person. It’s those relationships that have real and lasting value. Like those photos everyone’s posting on Facebook at the moment of the guy documenting his wife’s battle with cancer, his willingness to feel the pain for her is what marriage is really all about.

And that’s because it’s not given to us as a route to personal happiness. It’s there, like so many things in creation as a faint but amazing echo of the most amazing union there is, where one partner loves the other unto pain and separation and death. No trades, just giving. And true human love is found as two are united in their love for a third, the one who loves them stronger than death. Without that, you risk ending up with just politics.

Forgotten Fridays

Fridays on my blog are going to be about posting songs that I love, but that seem to have been forgotten by everyone else. Hidden album tracks, number 17 hits, little known artists. You’ll find them all here. First, of course, some Kylie. This has got to be one of my favourite Kylie songs – loads better than “Can’t get you out of my head” and other so-called classics. Also, gotta love the 90s synth piano. Wrap your eardrums around this.

(Warning, this is very much from her “I’m a vixen in a bikini” stage)

Radical. Not.

So, I was reading this article someone posted on Facebook about Nadia Bolz-Weber, a “radical” priest in Denver Colorado. She’s like so kurr-razy, she has tattoos! She swears in sermons and people think it’s really cool! She supports gay marriage and she’s a feminist! She uses social media to promote herself! How amazingly radical! Not.

It really doesn’t sound that radical to me. I mean, let’s get this right. Swears in order to sound cool: been normal since I was in secondary school. Has tattoos – sitting in this coffee shop I can see 5 tattoos from my seat, and that’s only the ones not covered by clothes. Feminism; yup pretty much everyone I know thinks you’re under a moral responsibility to be one of those. Supporting gay marriage – well that’s basically the mainstream view of everyone in the west at least. And social media to promote your product (in this case, herself) – well hardly groundbreaking is it? I struggle to think of many church leaders who are more un-radical, and less a projection of the culture in which they live.

Let me tell you about some real radicals. They reject society’s emphasis on appearance and are therefore often don’t have tattoos or other very trendy accessories. Their priorities are different and their resources go elsewhere. They tend not to swear, not because the words are inherently bad, but because they don’t take Bolz-Weber’s zeitgeisty view that “I shouldn’t have to pretend I’m something I’m not.” Rather, putting others first, they try not to be needlessly offensive in order to be accepted. In fact, the whole acceptance thing is interesting, because it doesn’t seem to matter to them that much. They seem, sort of, safe in who they are.

They radically depart from the orthodoxy that two people who love each other have a right to get married whoever they are. That’s because they don’t think that marriage is about happiness and fulfillment at all, but an opportunity that some people have to reflect something beyond themselves. And sex, belonging there, is not for everyone either. A “right to marriage” makes no sense to them, for it is not something anyone has a right to. For some, this is a painful and difficult conviction, for it means permanent celibacy, to the constant scorn and derision of their peers, even, as I have talked about before, to the point of suggesting they aren’t human at all. But they choose to use the love they feel to serve and love outsiders, and they make homes that aren’t built around nuclear families but are family to everyone who comes in.

They aren’t feminists, because they think all philosophies based on selfishness are lacking in humanity. Much better to accept that a loving creator made us all different and that is fine, and we can work together to show what he’s like and that might well mean I don’t get to do the things I’d most like to do, and submission to that won’t hurt me or anyone else. Self denial might actually be a good thing.

They have depression and don’t hide it, but talk about it publically in the hope it’ll help others dealing with the same thing.

They spend Sundays plugging stuff in, moving chairs, playing instruments, serving coffee, welcoming people they don’t know, talking to a God they can’t see, singing (outside the shower and in front of other people) and sitting through sermons, even without swear words to spice them up.

They are wonderful godparents to precious children, even when their first response might be expected to be jealousy of your family. They weep for your pain as if it’s their own instead of being embarrassed by it, they say they’ll pray about it and really do. They paint your house, they cook you meals, they aren’t ashamed to ask for help when they need it, they move to strange places in the world with strange people to introduce them to an invisible God, they pitch in when there’s a crisis without being asked. They put up with awkward conversations with people with whom they have nothing in common, they live on hardly any money in order to have time to meet up and talk with people, they welcome people who are strange to them who are in need as peers and friends; they don’t set up projects and employ people to “help” them.

These are my people. My funny misfit radicals, actually rejecting the norm and doing something different.

Oh, and you probably don’t know about them because they swim against society’s tide of self promotion, of capturing and publishing everything to promote our endless fun to the rest of the world, to instagram and archive every moment so people know how good it was. There’s a bit in their book which says that their ambition should be to live godly, quiet, lives, loving the people near them, giving what they have for the sake of others, enjoying what has God has made with the hope that we’ll enjoy it without end. That’s what they do. It doesn’t make the papers because they aren’t interested in campaigning to silence or shame those with whom they disagree.

My radicals. My guys. Thanks for doing something really different, and taking all the flack that goes with it.

A Casual no to authenticity

Although most of the people I know who enjoyed Harry P were adults, J.K. Rowling’s book “The Casual Vacancy” bears all the marks of Harry Potter that we loved without the magic and with more grit. It’s definitely not for children. For those who found her love of magic at odds with her claims to Christianity, you may feel the same about her stark portrayal of the dark side of life, using the same pantomimey characterisation you’ll find in Harry Potter.  I liked it, all the more that the people’s desires, machinations, jockeyings for desire and pleasure happen not in a mafia gang or a prison wing, but on a parish council of a successful market town, driven by the desire to lose responsibility for a local housing estate. This is middle class darkness, identifying the unclean-ness that lies in everyone. In that sense it’s very Christian.

But the reason I really enjoyed this piece of writing was because of what she is saying about authenticity. Authenticity is a twenty first century moral virtue. Birthed by the twentieth century movements that rejected the idea that our purpose  could be dictated from outside ourselves, authenticity was some people’s answer to how we should measure a successful life. There is no external purpose to conform to, one can only be true to oneself. So it was Sartre who wrote that we are, in reality, absolutely free but allow ourselves to become an object for others. I could be anything, do anything, but allow what I be and do to be changed by how others view me. It was those who followed him who said that the successful life was to be authentic, to live life free of the limits placed on us by the objectifying of others. It’s still a popular idea: as I quoted in a sermon a few weeks ago, I found this quote online:

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” It had been liked four hundred thousand times.

In fact, authenticity is an hideously immoral ethic if you think, as I do, that we should consider the effects of our actions on other people as part of living a successful life. Truly there are better accomplishments than being true to yourself; how much better to give yourself for others. Our choices to be authentic are always at the cost of someone else’s giving something up.  Although, apparently, no one’s told the Girl Guides.

That’s why I loved J.K. Rowling’s take on authenticity, because the character in her book who is obsessed with being authentic, who lives as if being true to himself matters is the one who destroys all he touches. It’s about time someone in pop culture had a proper good go at authenticity as the self obsessed, inward looking, stomach churning nonsense it is, and Rowling does that with epic plotting and vigorous demonising.

We are not pure selves, ruined by relating to other people. We are formed by our relationships. We are made in the image of a God who serves, a purpose given from outside ourselves. We should stop worrying about how other people are oppressing our true self and get on with that.

I’m too tired to be charismatic

I love my charismatic brothers and sisters. I’m really not into charismatic bashing at all. I love their music, I love their enthusiasm, I particularly love the way they turn up to meet with other Christians expectant that God might actually, you know, do something. And because of their great faith in a real and active God they tend to try big things. In UCCF working with charismatic colleagues and students was one of my biggest joys.

So recently I started following some twitter feeds of charismatic organisations, because I wanted to be encouraged by all the stuff they do; and there is some great stuff happening out there being done by Christians different to me.

But personally, I would find being charismatic really exhausting. These twitter feeds are endlessly full of the really intense time these guys have had with God, the new inspiring challenging thing they have been to, the way they prayed and people were freed, another life changing encounter with the Lord.

My Christian life isn’t like that. And I’m not sure that’s wrong. In fact the New Testament is all about God in the normality, the mundane, the simple putting of others first as a well fitting hoodie, the well worn denim of loving the church, the scuffed trainers of personal evangelism changing my daughter’s nappies, reading the Bible as a family over Tesco Value yoghurts, collapsing into bed with a quick prayer. Church is sometimes intense, more often its just a group of us trying to help each other keep going. God is in the dull stuff. Endlessly lifting the intensity isn’t more spiritual, in fact, it can make God seem like he’s far away from normality, which he definitely is not.

So thank you charismatic brethren for all you bring. But be careful. All of us have heresies that we lean towards, perhaps mine is legalism. But your just may be gnosticism, a pushing of God into some super spiritual intense bit of your life. Love Jesus everywhere. It’s a bit…well..calmer. But that’s fine.

Our Western Cross

So every time I read 1 Peter or meet the growing number of Christians in my church who have been really genuinely persecuted for their faith, and still live with the consequences of that now, I wonder if the “suffering” of middle class white Christians get can ever really be compared to that of the early church or the church in the Muslim world. (Checking my privilege you see.)

And the more I think about it, the more I think apocalyptic warnings about the effect of gay marriage on Christian professionals are not where its at. Not right now anyway. The reason being a Christian is easier here is, I think, that I am usually not doing it right.

You see, the whole gay marriage thing got me thinking about whether it is possible for churches to send moral messages without excluding and giving the impression that acceptance rests on conformity. And at least one of the answers is that people who aren’t Christians need to know that we are failures too, and that we really believe we are. Their actual experience of church needs to be that we are not singling gays or divorced people, single parents or addicts or people just out of prison as broken and failed – we have all failed. Its not that those people are damaged goods, it’s that we all are, and there is a great healer who loves to care for and fix and comfort those who are damaged. He will not break the bruised reed.

The thing is, I don’t really want to go round admitting my failure to people who aren’t Christians. We’re thinking at the moment about making our church small groups more “missional” – which means people who aren’t Christians being there when we do normal Christian stuff. And normal Christian stuff should mean admitting we are failures to each other – confessing our sins. But our western culture says, you only ever admit your weakness in a long term probably therapeutic context where absolute confidentiality is guaranteed. Sharing your weakness with people in a small group might just be possible after several years of close and deepening relationships – by no means possible if people who aren’t Christians are there just having  a look! But my western privatised success-obsessed culture is giving me a cross to pick up here. A real cross that needs taking up if people are to understand the Gospel – they need to know I am a sinner and not just in some general theological sense, but that I have actual sins, which I regard as heinous, the way they have been told the church regards their sins. Honestly, I’d rather nobody knew about my sin. You’d probably prefer nobody except a few select Christians knew about your weaknesses (even the non-sinful ones) – your struggle with depression, your anger with God about fertility, your deep and hungry loneliness. Letting people in, though, can’t be an option.

This is the cross, in my experience, that no one wants to pick up. I have sat in enough frigid Bible studies to know – not much talking and none at all at application time. I have even had Christians tell me that they can’t be honest in a small group because I, the leader, can’t guarantee their confidentiality! Well they are right about that! There is a risk someone will blab your personal problems all over the place, and that’s really hard. That’s why the image is carrying a cross up a hill, not wearing a bathrobe on a stroll to the massage parlour. Listen people, unless we do this, unless we convince one non-Christian at a time that we really believe we are sinful and need the Lord Jesus too, that it is not their sin we are interested in but our own, they will likely not want to be Christians, and I do not blame them.

And why should we fear our sin coming out into the open? “It is finished” in Jesus words. The only one with the power to condemn has already justified. You can either communicate that with the way you are with Christians and non-Christians present, or you can communicate something else. Our western cross is there to pick up if we’re willing.

Privilege

Recently, I read this post by Hannah Mudge on threads about privilege. It’s a good article with a reminder (not very controversial I’d have thought) that if you have privilege as a Christian it’s your responsibility to listen to others who are less privileged and use your privilege on their behalf. It strikes similar themes but totally different notes to this ranty post by IFES Secretary for Dialogue (ironically) Vinoth Ramachandra. He is offended at the thought of “American men” (their gender a point he underlines twice) investing in theological education for African pastors.

All of this got me thinking about the discourse about privilege. Hannah’s piece is saying, I think, that privileged white men should use what they have to serve other Christians, who are not the majority. One could be forgiven for thinking that’s exactly what the white men Vinoth critiques are doing. But no, they are to be criticised for what they are doing, for this talk of privilege has moved from something to consider to a way of attempting to silence people with whom we disagree. Privilege poisons their input.

It seems to me this is another example of Christians buying into the presuppositions and terms of secular discussion unthinkingly. I’m sure Hannah only wants white men to consider people who are not white men. In fact the use of “privilege”, as Ramachandra shows, is more likely to be a way of discounting the views of people we don’t like and who we identify (whether fairly or not) with oppressive voices. It’s racism in reverse. Very obviously in the case Ramachandra cites – for while I do find the name “theological famine relief” rather patronising, what’s clear is that the call for help has come from African pastors and that these white men ARE using their privilege to respond to that request for help. But writing them off as white men allows him to sideline their theological views as imperialistic, limited, sinful even.

And of course that’s just silly – because the very fact of their privilege means that they have had access to top class academic institutions, they can read widely and fully, and importantly, they can travel to gain a world perspective on Christianity. In this case, I’d have thought it’s their very privilege that makes their input to theological training valuable.

What’s also true is that they have much to learn from female Christians with a different skin colour in the developing world – something none of them would deny I’m sure. But their privilege is being used against them as a weapon, as it often is in secular rights based discourse, and that is not something into which Christians can buy.

Rather, it seems to me, Christians are assured of their value in Christ apart from skin colour, class, ability or education, and are gifted by God’s Spirit, every single one empowered to serve other Christians. Which means I should spend more time wondering how to love the Christians I know and know of, with what I have, rather than slapping down Christians I don’t agree with using secular tools. I wonder if this whole “hermeneutic of suspicion” of people with privilege is getting us anywhere at all – the people for whom it seems to be valuable are the people who want to poison the well against Christians with whom they disagree.

Mark Meynell said all of this in a much wittier way here.