It’s Time To Save Marriage – By Dethroning It From Its Place As An Idol

It’s tempting to think that we learn from history; we all like to think we’re wise and reflective and willing to learn. The truth is many of us don’t learn the lessons we need to; history repeats, as the poet Steve Turner wrote, because no one listens. It may not repeat with exactly the same words, but recognisable rhythms and cadences are there.

For example, there are Christian perspectives on sex, relationships, marriage and dating. In 1997 Christian writer and speaker Joshua Harris published the book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, a book which advocated not dating to preserve emotional purity before marriage and a variety of steps which he at the time believed would lead to good marriage and a good sex life within marriage. No one doubted his intentions – and the book sold in vast quantities, becoming hugely influential in (evangelical) Christian culture. The problem is that it didn’t work; people became paralysed be fear of making mistakes in their relationships and they found that taking the steps he prescribed didn’t always have the promised outcome. One size, it turns out, does not fit all. This has led to a two-year process of listening, thinking and reassessing from Joshua Harris, which has resulted in him apologising for hurt caused and the book being withdrawn from publication. There’s much else to say, of course; and whilst his diligence is to be applauded, it’s true that apologies don’t necessarily fix what’s broken. However it would be hoped that we – the church  – had learned something important here.

In the last week a high-profile pastor from a high-profile American church published a blog about why people ‘put off’ marriage, and what they should do about. He (of course, he’s a he; and of course, he’s married) will follow this up with “practical steps for catching your man or woman“. He promises “God’s power will deliver you from any pain” and puts masturbation in the same (no-doubt) sinful category as co-habiting. We are made for marriage he says, paying-lip service to the possibility of a ‘supernatural gift from God’ of singleness. It all boils down to this; do this, get that. Do this and you’ll get a (very good) marriage. Do this and you’ll get the partner you dream of.

Again, no one doubts the intentions here, but let’s attempt to examine where this leaves people. It leaves the single with a set of things to do in order to guarantee a good marriage; the post may be replete with Biblical references, but there’s precious little reference to the gracious gifts of grace (not in response to works) God gives. And none of how life just happens; life getting in the way. Sin, sickness, failure. None of that – even people’s ‘blemishes are beautiful’; which they may be, of course, but it’s a somewhat romanticised way of describing someone with an anger problem or who habitually spends too much money.

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The fundamental problem comes, it seems to me, with describing people (apart from the ‘supernaturally gifted for singleness’) as ‘made for marriage’. It sees marriage as something we have to do unless we have a clear calling otherwise. Amongst much else, it misunderstands the order of creation in the Genesis picture; God makes people, then He institutes marriage as a gift to them. Marriage is given by God to people, made to serve them; in that sense, it’s like the Sabbath, a similar misunderstanding of which Jesus had to tidy up. Marriage, like the Sabbath, is created by God to help and serve people in all manner of ways. It’s different from Sabbath in terms of where it stands in the 10 Commandments – Sabbath observance is a requirement from God (because we have a tendency to think work is ours to keep on doing and that our work earns us something from God); marriage is to be honoured by not committing adultery – but nowhere are we told we must get married. Just that if we’re married, we’re not to undermine it (through abuse, adultery or the like).

Two or three clicks away from the marriage blog post, I find a ministry founded by the author which seeks to be ” a company of radicals helping to define healthy sexuality”. It’s all well-intentioned; some of it may even contain good advice (I haven’t read anything like all the content on the site). The problem stems, though, from setting marriage as the goal we’re made for, and that we must have a special calling to not be married. This immediately suggests that the unmarried who have not received that ‘special calling’ are broken or in error or sinful in some way. The fault must lie with them; and God forbid they masturbate, or even think about sex in the mean time. It also says to the married couple struggling to keep the flame alive in the midst of children, bills to pay, ill-health or just the pressures of life that they too are broken and wrong, somehow short of God’s plan. The whole enterprise of human relationships and sexuality reduced to a slot-machine, a formula, a puzzle where you just have to put the right pieces in the right places.

Marriage (and the perfect, nuclear family) have become, in attitudes like these, the great evangelical Christian idol. I speak as a minister, much of whose theology might be defined as evangelical. I’m also married with (foster) children. Here’s the truth from that perspective. God doesn’t free us from all pain – I’m still chronically ill; my marriage is not perfect; every need can not be met by one relationship. I adore my wife and kids. But it’s very, very hard work. God will free us from all pain – in the new creation. For now, we all struggle and fight and sometimes get healed and sometimes don’t. I know from 19 years of pastoral ministry that many wonderful Christian people do all the things they’re told are ‘right’  – ‘guard the  heart’, keep a ‘pure thought life’, trust Jesus completely, do all the right things to catch a spouse. But they find it doesn’t work; unless they’re unusually well supported, loved and cared for, cynicism grows, love for God hardens and they drift away or tune out. Of course they do – wouldn’t you, if you gradually discover that the grace gift you thought you were looking at, made for, designed for, was in fact a carefully constructed golden calf?

To better preserve the gift of marriage and family that God has given us, it’s time for the church to dethrone it. To talk openly and freely about lust not being slaked by saying ‘I do’; by admitting that many who are married are lonely; that there’s no formula to finding the right person; that any area of our life is far more complex than the blueprint formula suggests. The longer I go on in this work, the more I find broken, hurt, saddened people fearing they are somehow incomplete without a spouse, fearing they are missing God’s ‘best for their lives’; laden with shame and fear for a sexual thought or deed because they are told that these are the worst possible sins (by men who consume far more than they need, lash out in angry words and thoughts, hold to casual racism or so much else – but remain curiously unchallenged).

Sin is sin. It’s a problem for us all; but in Jesus it’s dealt with. In Him there is no shame or guilt; yet our idolising of marriage and family and the sex we claim goes with it, leaves a trail of that shame and guilt that is rarely voiced and seldom heard. Let’s step away from the slot-machine systematisation of relationships with God and people; let’s listen to the still, small voice of God in and to those broken beneath the wheels of the Golden Calves the evangelical church loves to erect in the place of cross and empty tomb.

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They Shall Not Grow Old: Remembering The Stories That Shape Us

Much of human life can be understood as an attempt to keep something alive in the face of the reality of death. It could be the memories of loved ones, having children, leaving something to our children, achievements that will ensure we are spoken of long after we have died. It could be anything. The older we get the more aware we are of our mortality and we turn attention to what we will leave behind us.

This is one of the unique aspects of being human. We live with a profound awareness of our own death, and with that comes a seemingly inbuilt desire to outlive it. If the Biblical author is right this is in part explained by the understanding that God has ‘set eternity in the hearts of people.’ Other traditions have different understandings of this; but few seem to deny its reality. Societies wrestle with this on a larger scale; a key question is how to ensure that future generations don’t lose sight of the lessons of the past and so repeat the mistakes of their ancestors. In South Africa, for example, as the ‘born free’ generation (the first generation born after apartheid officially fell) grows into adulthood there is an increasingly urgent discussion about what stories and monuments must be kept and which should fall. These are conversations replete with emotion and fear, a sense of the widening gap between generations. Older generations want their stories preserved and learned from; younger generations want their unique voices heard, freed from the shackles of having to do what they’re told by people still perceived to fighting yesterday’s battles.

Global conflicts are perhaps the biggest example of this. How we remember them and keep the stories alive, without glorifying immense suffering or sentimentalisation is an increasingly fraught debate. This year we have recently marked the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, a date that leads to acts of remembrance in many countries involved in that war. As the gap between 11/11/1918 and the present day has widened, so has the diversity of opinions in how to mark these anniversaries. Red poppies? White? None? On football shirts or not? A minute’s silence at sporting events? And so on.

If one’s own family was not – like mine, as far as I know –  directly affected by the conflict, it’s hard to connect with these events. With a Jewish heritage on one side of my family – my Grandmother’s family had a narrow escape from the death camps – I have a more natural connection with the 1939-45 conflict. It seems like part of my story; World War One feels like something more abstract and theoretical.

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Enter film-maker Peter Jackson The New Zealand Director (best know for the Lord Of The Rings films), was approached by London’s Imperial War Museum to create something out of their archive material to mark the anniversary. The result is hallmark Jackson – technologically groundbreaking and in many respects completely overwhelming. Film as old as 100 years often operates at a variety of different speeds – sometimes within the same reel – so first of all the selected material had to be altered to be of a universal speed; in itself no small task. Then the images, obscured and clouded over the years, were cleaned up. Then they were colourised. To cap it all, soundless images were given a soundtrack – be it birdsong, an explosion or an actor bringing words to silently moving lips through the work of forensic lip-readers, with regional accents appropriate to the soldiers on-screen. The finished product – which in other hands could have been tacky, laboured or too worthy – is truly remarkable. It is called They Shall Not Grow Old.

The story of the declaration of war, joining up and training is told in black and white, a small television-sized box in the middle of the screen; as throughout the whole 90 minutes, recordings taken of veterans in the 1960s tell the bulk of the story from their own point of view. Then, as the soldiers arrive in France, colour and contextual sound spread to fill the viewer’s senses; the overlaid storytelling continues, with the background noise occasionally breaking through to the foreground. All of a sudden distant black and white faces seem to be peering in the viewer’s eyes – and soul. As the story of attack after attack is told, we see images relating to what the narrators are describing – maimed bodies, stumbling survivors, soldiers puffing on a cigarette. As the loss resulting from one attack is described, the camera pans slowly over a large group shot of soldiers gathering, smiling in a mystified, excited and oh so alive way right back at you; at one point, one of them says something; “We’re going to be on film!” he says. Everyone on-screen laughs; so do you.

It’s not uncommon for a cinematic experience to be described in pseudo-religious terms. Transcendent, an epiphany. This films offers that, and in doing so it seems almost unfair to describe it like one would any other film; it sits apart, a unique act of artistic remembrance that has the capacity to change minds and hearts. To keep the dead alive.

We all want to do that – keep the dead alive. It’s impossible. The idea that an aged relative who served in a war – or experienced something equally unusual – can tell his stories to younger generations so they can understand may be worthy, but it is by nature dying off as the people do. So how do we do so? How do we remember? They Shall Not Grow Old gives us one way; it allows the voices themselves to speak, allowing us to hear and see them for ourselves. At no point are we lectured; we’re not told this is ‘good for us’ or that this is ‘important’. It is not ‘worthy’, in the worst sense of that word. The story is simply told in the first person, and we simply listen and watch.

Remembering  – more helpfully understood as retelling a story – is part of our human identity. Which is why it lies at the heart of our religious worship. For Christians the retelling of the central narrative of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection  – Communion, Eucharist, Lord’s Supper, Mass – is the central act of thanksgiving. We retell the story, we take some of it tangibly in to us in the form of bread and wine, and our thankfulness is renewed. For some of us that is a weekly part of worship, a natural part of our life so familiar that as we grow old we may find that we no longer need a written text to help us say and hear the words; it has seeped in to the fabric our lives. Other Christian traditions see it as such a special occasion as to only mark it a few times a year. For some it is cloaked in ritual; for other it is clothed in profound but relaxed intimacy. Whatever it looks like, remembering is at the heart of our worship.

It would be too much to describe the remembering Peter Jackson’s film provokes in us in these religious terms. There is none of the elevation of the dead as perfect sacrificial heroes that can occasionally seem to accompany other acts of remembrance. Instead our narrators describe how they were lied to about the war, how they were considered “the refuse of the industrial system’; how they ‘weren’t to think for ourselves’. They signed up to heroically serve their country lest the women in their towns and cities adorn them with the white feather of cowardice; they ended up mercifully shooting dead fatally wounded men drowning a slow death in the mud and understanding themselves as ‘like rabbits, hunted by mankind’. There is no glory or heroism; instead individual tragedy is given a name and a face and a voice.

Simply put, the film is not an invitation to do something specific; it is an invitation to listen to a story, and let the story do the work it needs to do in you. As powerful an experience as it is, it will keep doing so days and weeks and months and years after you’ve seen it. In doing so, it has added mysterious layers to my awareness of what I am doing as I participate in the retelling of the 2000-year old story that stands as the pivot of history. It questions afresh the myth of redemptive violence and entices thankfulness that I, and my children, do not have to sign up to what these young men signed up to. It leads me to a rededication to retelling the story that shapes my life, that we all locate ourselves in that story.

In Praise Of The Beautifully Inessential

It began with a hushed conversation in a library. I was in my first year of theological study, preparing to enter ordained ministry in the Anglican church. I was talking to one of the more conservative students at our conservative college and said something along the lines of this: ‘My problem is that if theologians really believe that God is the most beautiful and significant being in the world, why is so much of what they write so boring?’. ‘Ah’, said the man listening to me. ‘You need to read some Eugene Peterson’. In my mind, up to then, Eugene Peterson was know only for The Message, a translation of the Bible in the language and idiom of the congregation he pastored in America. I hadn’t really considered that he might have written other things. That started a journey of discovery of theological and devotional writing that is characterised by clarity, deep theological thinking and an intoxicating love for words. It’s also true that unlike many theological writers, Peterson could write with a combination of economy and beauty.

It’s not essential for theology to be beautiful, of course. The Nicene Creed is generally accepted as a binding confessional statement for Christians; it’s full of good theological truth – but one could hardly call it beautiful. For its form, beauty is unnecessary. Beauty is unnecessary for objective truth to thrive, it seems.

All of which leads to me to a 10-year-old documentary film about a Canadian rock band. The film is Anvil: The Story Of Anvil. Back in the mid 1980s, Anvil was one of a series of rock/metal bands that appeared poised on the brink of massive global success. Whilst most of them went on to achieve that, Anvil got stuck. The majority of the film tells the story of Anvil, 30 years on, still writing, recording and performing with the band members in their 50s; only now they have ‘proper’ jobs on the side to pay (some of) the bills. The film bears many of the hallmarks of the rock documentary – backstage footage, gig footage, the writing/recording process, arguments between band members. What’s different here is that the band is not making money in the process; they’re not even in the ‘critically acclaimed, commercially under-appreciated’ sector.

There are many possible reasons for Anvil not becoming Metallica. Bad management and bad production stand out. To be blunt, they will never write a song as threatening and thrilling as Enter Sandman. That, however, is not really the point here. What matters for Anvil, and for us, is they glory in their process and output; although they dream of recognition and adulation, that’s not what they’re in this for. They want to make music and to play music. To them, that’s success.

There’s something here to think on. I often hear parents (and sometimes their children) talk of the need to get a qualification – and hence a job – that will produce something; that will contribute the economy and provide for all their current future needs. What the child must do is do some necessary, important and tangible; she must produce. Clearly we need lawyers and doctors and engineers and builders and the like. Sciences matter. I’m not denying that; but they are not the sum and total of what we need. The moment we think of ourselves as units of economic production we run in to trouble; we’ve allowed an un-critiqued version of capitalism to overwhelm our identity. I studied for a degree in English Literature, not a degree renowned for its job prospects. I jokingly refer it as ‘a degree in reading’. Stop, though, before laughing too hard: when was the last time you (or someone you know) seemed incapable of seeing the real meaning of Facebook post or an email? Why do so many people swallow fake news uncritically? Now do you want to tell me that a ‘degree in reading’, in truly understanding a text, is unimportant simply because it doesn’t lead to a tangible end-product?

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God has given us some clues here. God didn’t have to create; before creation, He was perfect within Himself. In his relationship with the 3 parts of Himself, he needed nothing. Yet create he did, an expression of love that wanted an outlet, a glorious,  indulgent extravagance. Seas, mountains, rivers, plains, plants, insects, animals, fish, plankton, stars, planets, sun, moon, woman, man, snow, rain. All so unnecessary, all pouring out of an abundant self-expression of light and sound.

Or think on music. Almost all religious expressions involve music and singing; it has often been where new musical expressions have taken root. But why? Do we need to sing? For the Christian the words of Be Thou My Vision or My Jesus, My Saviour remain just as true if they’re spoken aloud. The music isn’t necessary in that sense. But can you imagine a world in which congregations just said those words, to the backdrop of silence?

Music, and art in general, may not be objectively necessary but they do something to us. They speak to us in a form that’s more true than mere facts, deep calling to deep (in itself a Biblical metaphor that achieves a truth that is more than factual). Jesus and the prophets don’t just speak in objective statements of truth; also stories, metaphors, poetry, word pictures, dramatic actions.

Why, then, do we settle for less in our or our children’scareers? Only pursuing that which is productive? A nation consisting solely of tangible product may be economically booming, but it would be colourless.

Why, then, do our churches often seem to only use one form of music (whichever form is the preference of that one subset of the culture)? Is there space for new melodies, rhythms and harmonies alongside the established?  Why is so much Christian ‘art’ of recent years so plainly didactic? Why not take the poet’s eternal advice:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Emily Dickinson

The truth is that Anvil just aren’t that good a band; having seen this film I won’t be downloading their albums. But I am reminded with fresh energy that meaning matters more than material production; that fruitful labour may look different to that which is deemed apparently successful. I’m concerned that, within the church especially, we are uncritically accepting a fully capitalist worldview where even the pastor’s role must be described with precision and point towards outputs and markers. That church members must serve an ‘end product’ of a church machine geared to keep us busy and numerically growing, forgetting to allow the beauty of relationships and creativity in the image of an endlessly relational and creative God to flourish.

Do we, our life choices and communities, allow meaning and beauty and relationship to define us? Or are we too busy making and producing to simply be in the presence of God and each other, basking in the beauty God showers us with and invites us to co-labour with Him in creating? Do we want to build a society of units of production and end product, or a kingdom in which God-given gifts are allowed to flourish in response to One who delights in the unnecessary and inessential?

 

A State Of Unrest: Neither Triumph Nor Tragedy

When I first met the woman who would become my wife, she didn’t look ill. This was 1996, and I had just moved into staff accommodation for the job I had taken in London. I was in the lounge, a day or two after moving in. Bev was coming back from a weekend visiting her parents, and as she made her way to her room, past the lounge, she carried with her a computer. Like I said, this was 1996, so carrying a computer was no mean feat. My memory tells me that a friend was helping her. She may not have looked ill, but she was. At that stage she didn’t know what the problem was; she was increasingly tired, increasingly drained by the shifts she was working, and subject to a variety of tests to discern what the problem was. She moved job, within the same project, to an office-hours role; but the health problems didn’t go away. Some days she wasn’t able to get out of bed; not in the sense of simply feeling tired. In the sense of being unable to move. As a series of diagnoses were ruled out, eventually one was ruled in: M.E. – also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or (more cruelly) Yuppie Flu. No one really knew what that meant; allergies were tested for, but none found. Anti-depressants were prescribed for someone who wasn’t depressed. Some people live with M.E. for life; fortunately for Bev, she recovered.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is still, in some places, a controversial disease. The film Unrest (which I watched on Netflix South Africa) is a striking and moving self-produced documentary about one young woman’s experience of the disease and her attempts along with other sufferers to build awareness and get better treatment for it. Along the way there’s much that’s disturbing and light-shedding to learn: 85% of sufferers are female. Many medical ‘experts’ refer to it as caused by childhood trauma (known as conversion disorder – what was in times past called hysteria) despite a dearth of hard medical evidence to support this. In Denmark, a young woman suffering from the disease was forcibly removed from the care of her parents and treated for mental illness against her will for three years; at the time the film was released, she was still ill. We meet one young man who has been so afflicted by the disease that he has been unable to speak for a year. We watch the woman at the centre of the film lie motionless on the floor; we watch her and her husband both laugh and suffer through various attempts to change life-style in order to find a cure. We learn that with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – as with many other chronic diseases – there is strong correlation with depression and suicide.

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One moment in particular bought me up short and caused me to recognise myself. After a period of elevated activity and stress, we watch a sufferer ‘crash’ – shake uncontrollably as she lies on her bed; a response that we’re told happens after periods of emotional or physical exertion. This felt familiar; I have Ankylosing Spondylitis, a chronic, incurable arthritic disease affecting the spine and many other joints, along with a variety of other symptoms. I have been in various levels of pain every day for around 20 years; I can’t remember what being pain-free, and not taking medication, feels like. That also coincides with the length of my engagement and marriage. Occasionally, in the relatively early days before medication was found to manage my pain, I would shake uncontrollably from the pain as I tried to get in to bed or put on socks. One day I found myself shaking uncontrollably in a more or less empty school chapel, a few minutes after presiding at the funeral of a friend murdered by terrorists, a funeral filmed by television cameras, attended by over 1000 people including Desmond Tutu. It was, by any definition, a period of intense physical and emotional stress. I shook for about 30 minutes, and when I got home afterwards I barely moved for 3 days. The shaking was variously ascribed to needing something to eat, the heat in the chapel and plain old tiredness – all of which probably played a role. But from Unrest I see now it was also the crash of the body responding to the stress of keeping my diseased spine and joints functional under immense pressure. With pressure released, a valve was opened and the stress could be let out.

A.S. is not Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, but like many chronic diseases it is misunderstood and under-researched; both are more common than, say, M.S., but much less well-known or understood by medical professionals, let alone the general public. They are both invisible, and that is often the hardest part for the sufferer and the ones supporting them. Time and again I, for instance, will have to say ‘no’ to helping push a car or move a stack of chairs because of invisible pain. No one will give a sign of compliant; but you can’t help thinking … do they believe me? Am I really that sore? People will talk of being able to do … whatever it is … with a sore back, so you should do; doing another thing after a short night’s sleep, so the CFS sufferer should. This rarely happens to me these days; though many years ago, in a job reference, my then employer referred to me as ‘lazy’ for sometimes not helping with physical chores when I was in pain. I didn’t get the job.

As Unrest moves to its conclusion another resonant point is made. The narrator reflects that many diseases (I might name, for example, cancer) end with either ‘triumph or tragedy’. In my example, you become either a cancer survivor, or – like my mother – you die after a ‘brave fight’. We’ve all heard those phrases used. For CFS, AS, and diseases like them, neither happens. You just keep on. Just keep going. Some join you on the road for a while; but you learn to spot the moment when they realise that there will be neither triumph or tragedy, and they stop asking you, stop checking in. And God forbid you, the one suffering, say how hard it is. Struggling, finding it hard to bear the pain and the fatigue and the brain fog and everything else for 20 years past and 20 or more to come; none of that fits the convenient matrix of triumph or tragedy. There’s no prize for just getting out of bed; no awareness month for diseases that just keep on going. Carers lose support and friends; people grow weary of hearing how your finances are affected; how your sex life is affected; why you’re looking sad today; why you’ve put on weight. I’m still here, goes the song at the movie ends, in neither triumph nor tragedy. That’s the goal of the chronic sufferer and supporters – just to keep on keeping on; to many observers it’s an awfully boring goal.

Meanwhile, as Unrest highlights, some researchers do keep working to learn more. As money is raised and spent in its billions on the diseases which end in triumph or tragedy, research on chronic conditions like CFS and AS continues relatively unnoticed and massively underfunded and significantly misunderstood. Films like Unrest will make a difference; as will Becoming Incurable (which will focus on AS amongst other conditions), currently in post-production. For now, people like those in the film, like my wife, like me and many others will keep on, keeping on.