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.

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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.

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.

Feminism. Again.

Yesterday, my colleague posted this article about feminism here. Through the comments on that article, I read a very interesting exchange between Hannah Mudge (a Christian feminist) and Phil Whitall (a complementarian pastor) his summary of which is here  and all of which is well worth a read. As a complementarian myself I found it extremely educational and feel very challenged about addressing the hugely pressing issue of violence against women in my preaching and pastoral work.

I am left with two real questions.

1) Hannah was unable to say what the differences actually are between men and women (not just what they aren’t – they are not personality types or gender roles). If you are an egalitarian or feminist, can you please explain to me what you think these differences are? If you think they are merely biological (like most secular feminism, it seems to me) then can you explain to me why you don’t take the position (if you don’t) of affirming same sex relationships, as people like Steve Chalke and (as far as I can tell) Rachel Held Evans would do. (I chose these examples because they seem to explicitly link their view on that issue, as far as I can tell, to their view on gender equality) That seems to me to be much more consistent. The reason I ask is that I think for the complentarian, men take the role of servant-leader and women as helper supplying-what-is-lacking and that imaging of God’s diverse nature gives a reason for insisting that equal but different is necessary for marriage. But if there are no real distinctions in role – then for what reason can you say two men or two women can’t image God’s character in marriage?

2) A more serious non academic question. It seems to me that the real emphasis on equality but without difference actually encourages men to treat women like they treat other men. This, it seems to me, is not a very healthy model because men do not treat other men very well. I can’t help but wonder if this view actually increases the risk of someone who is violent being sexually violent, because the socially accepted deference to women’s general physical weakness is removed. (As I say I’m guessing, so I may be totally out of order here.) The beautiful thing about complementarianism as I understand it is that it says to men “Generally women are weaker than you physically. Moreover, the nature of having children means that they are often removed from positions of social influence for longer periods than you. Use the “power” that gives you to serve, love, care and honour women as beautiful and precious gifts from the Lord”. I guess most feminists would find that patronising. I can’t help feeling it’s healthier than encouraging men to treat women the way that they treat other men.

I might be wrong. I have no wish to throw brickbats or rule anyone out of conversation. I want to learn. But those seem to me to be two important implications of this debate that strengthen the complementarian view.

In guarded praise of camp

Russell Grant

I used to have a blog called “the Race” which my wife, respectfully suggested be renamed “the Rant”. I have realised this blog is now beginning to go the same way, so I decided to blog in praise, rather than critique of something. Try not to keel over with shock.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast. I once went to series of seminars on masculinity by a Christian psychiatrist (which was whole other world of things to discuss) but he kept saying this phrase about church. What he meant was that the unspoken culture of your church will have much more effect on who comes, both Christian and non, than anything that you plan, say, or do.

And I would love all sorts of people to meet Jesus and experience his self giving love through the church, and so I want to say something in guarded praise of camp. (the cultural phenomenon, not the thing that posh Christians do with other posh Christians in the summer)

You see what do you do if you are an evangelical who doesn’t like beige chinos, sports chat, all male summer camps, and outdoor pursuits? You can be an intellectual. You can read deep books, watch black and white films in German with subtitles, and do a PhD in Biblical studies or science in order to be helpful at apologetics. Ok, but what if you’re not that either. You can be an Indie charismatic. Hang out in fields all summer, strumming your guitar and falling over when people pray and using perpetually blocked toilets. Or an Alpha charismatic – get a job in the city and drink white wine on summer evenings from a long stemmed glass, and sing Tim Hughes songs at weekends.

You will probably find a church with people largely like you, and then become more and more like them. And your church will attract people just like you. Even if you want to reach everyone. Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

But one of the things we have to learn from the gay rights movement, for all that we might disagree, is that people are very different, and unique, and that is fine, it’s good, it’s healthy. A Christian would say it’s God-given, and to be celebrated, and churches should reflect that.

My guess is that camp became associated with gay because as a movement “gay rights” has framed their struggle in terms of “I am who I am and who I am needs to excuses”. And this leads you to deliberately over-express who you are (often going far beyond who you are in reality) in order to make the point, to shock and to surprise and push boundaries. Learn that diversity is cool people!

But all churches can do with a bit of that to be honest. A bit of someone reminding them that their culture is not god-given, and in fact it could be eating their strategy for breakfast. It could be sending away the people who are different.

So if you don’t quite fit in to your church culture – well, be a bit camp. Like the way pearls are created by a little bit of irritant in the oyster, so you could shape your church, just a little bit to love the different person, by being a bit different.

My praise, though, is guarded. If you are tempted towards camp, you need to be aware of being self indulgent. It’s easy to buy into the whole philosophy of camp, and be as outrageous as you can and assert rudely the church’s responsibility to love you. If they are godly they will, but it’s not good for you.

In Christianity, individual identity is good, but unlike in most modern secular movements, including gay rights, it’s not the ultimate good. The ultimate good is displaying Christ, which you can only do with other Christians, by loving them. And that will sometimes, often even, mean limiting your displays of individuality. So please, feel free to be camp in order to help the mission of your church. Don’t feel free to so over egg the pudding to test everyone else’s ability to love and accept you. That’s not missional, it’s just self indulgent.

You see, if a transvestite becomes a Christian through Grey Suited Reformed Church in the Wold (FIEC member since 1923,and why shouldn’t they, for the Gospel is powerful?) over time, I would expect that person’s behaviour to affect the church, and the church’s behaviour to affect the person. Hopefully he will teach the church to love and share the Gospel and show kindness to all types of people. Hopefully they will teach him helpful, godly, Jesus reflecting models of sexual expression, which put Jesus and others first rather than self expression. If the change is all one way, the new convert conforming to “The way we do thing here” culture is eating strategy for breakfast,

So cherish the difference, enjoy a bit of camp. Wear pink shoes and guyliner. Feel free never to shop at White Stuff. Eliminate beige from your wardrobe and have a Bacardi Breezer in the pub after church.  But remember camp can be a great servant, but it will be a very poor master.

This could be controversial…

Here’s a narrative you are likely to hear in trendy young Christian circles today.

Our parents’ generation were too obsessed with personal holiness. They focussed on the marks of a Christian being personal – avoidance of drunkeness and sexual immorality, and their view of holiness was all to do with personal Bible study, prayer, honesty at work, and faithfulness in their relationships.

What they missed is the importance of challenging structural sins. Hence, they often thought racism was acceptable. They accepted socially constructed gender roles. They sharply divided personal evangelism (good) from social justice (bad). We’re getting it right, at least more right, because we’re not so obsessed with the private and personal sins, but the really big social sins that actually really hurt people.

Narrative over.

It sounds very appealing, and allows us to feel like we are the pioneers of a new culturally engaged Christianity. Except if you read the Bible, there’s just far more in the New Testament about personal holiness than about structural sin. There just is. There’s very little (if anything) about influencing the government’s policies (submitting to them, yes, influencing, not so much). It seems God is much more concerned about how you actually personally love and care for the people near you, starting with your church, then your family,then other Christians, then your “neighbour”, than he is with wicked structures. If he says anything about the latter, it’s that HE will judge them in the end.

How do we explain that?

I think it’s in a couple of ways:

– the Bible writers had a concern for people to become Christians over and above being freed from injustice. They just did. Hence slaves are to obey they masters in order to win them for Christ (which to our overthrowing structures narrative sounds like craziness itself; the slaves should be revolting!)

– I think the Bible writers were writing a pastoral book for Christians. And most Christians were (and still are) the weakest, the poorest, the least influential and the furthest from centres of power. It is bad pastoral advice to those people to tell them to challenge evil structures – if they do that they and their families will starve, or worse. The Bible doesn’t ask anyone to do what is impossible, to change the world. Most people just can’t do that, especially the type of people that seem to be particularly attracted to the message of God’s love and care for the poor and weak. Every Christian can be involved in winning others to Christ. In a sense, making evangelism central is a democratisation of Christianity – for every Christian can do it, whatever their social status.

So were the previous generation right? Well, in a way they were. It’s not a “Christian” way of life to campaign against third world debt and sleep with your girlfriend. It’s not authentically Christian to campaign against human trafficking instead of (rather than as well as) praying for your friends to become Christians. It’s not cool with God to be all sort of snide and superior to your overly conservative church whilst  creating your own ministry with sex workers. Sexual morality, evangelism, loving your church really matter. If you are living this way you haven’t adopted a Christian lifestyle, you’ve adopted a trendy, semi-bohemian faux revolutionary, self fulfillling lifestyle like lots of other people in their twenties and thirties have.

However, what the New Testament does seem to say is that every single relationship, every power you have over anyone else, every advantage you have is to be submitted to Jesus and to serving other people. Everything. Now whilst many of the first Christians and Christians today just don’t have many of those things (they are not influential, they are not rich, they are not highly educated) if you are a Christian in the Western world, if you are educated, if people work for you rather than just you working for others, you have to use those things to reflect and honour the Lord Jesus and the things he think matters. That is a matter of holiness. If you are Prime Minister, or a high court judge, or chief exec of Tescos or a consumer or a voter or someone who can speak up for others, you must do that as a Christian – which will obviously involve challenging unjust structures. That is, for most people who read this blog, a matter of personal holiness. But so is the other stuff – the submission to authority, the personal prayer and Bible reading, the sexual purity. Everything that you have belongs to Christ – insofar as you are able you use those things to challenge structural sins. That’s not instead of the private stuff, it’s an extension of it, an extension you happen to be able to make because of when and where you live in the world. That is a great responsibility – as Jesus said “from those to whom much has been entrusted, much will be required”.

Christianity is not, though, essentially about changing godless structures. If it were, it would be removed from the hands of the weakest and poorest and ostensibly least significant – the very people the Bible says that the Gospel is for.