When I was fourteen, I took a friend to see Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet. I had seen it before. She hadn’t. Entering the sunlight afterwards, she looked at me with mascara sodden eyes and shouted in a voice wrought with horror, “You didn’t tell me they died!”
I still wonder at the thought of watching Romeo & Juliet without this knowledge; it rends the heart enough without anticipating a happy ending. But few people get to experience the story afresh —the tale looms large in the Western imagination as an epitome of tragedy. We expect the story to go wrong. We expect to come away heartbroken.
But what story typifies the opposite of tragedy, what story is our quintessential ‘happily-ever-after’ tale? Did your thoughts jump to a girl who sleeps among the cinders, whose good heart is rewarded with a rags-to-riches transformation, cumulating in a glass slipper that fits and marriage to a charming prince? We even use the idiom ‘Cinderella story’ to refer to any story — in life and fiction — where against all odds evil is overcome, dreams come true, and happiness forever secured.
But why is this fairy-tale so prolific? Perhaps because within the groundwater of shared convictions sitting beneath our culture is an embedded belief that the narrative arc of our lives should follow the Cinderella pattern. Our lives should progress towards better. And this progression is defined as overcoming trouble, finding true love, and getting married.
And getting married…
Let’s have a glance at how emblematic a modern Western wedding is of ultimate success, happiness secured, and dreams comes true — the bride radiant and victorious, the scrubbed-up groom waiting to claim his prize, the crowd gathered to solemnly witness and joyously celebrate the union, and the bells and whistles of ceremony inexplicably forging two people into one and launching them onwards into a new, better life.
Or perhaps let’s look at how our culture treats singleness not as a legitimate, complete, and satisfying state of being, but as a disease to be cured, or a waiting room of unchosen ones, living in a holding pattern, hoping to be called forth into a fully realised future.
I grew up in Sydney’s inner west — white, privileged, and with academics for parents. Our house was filled with books and my whole family read voraciously. I by no means had anyone telling me that marriage was a must, yet when I looked to the future, at what it meant to grow up, at how my adulthood would culminate, at how my story would unfold, I nurtured the following hopes/expectations — I would go to university, I would get a satisfying job in a field where my gifting met my interests. I would find a soulmate and marry. I would own a house, make a home, and raise a family.
As circumspectness and cynicism arrived with my teenage years, I became aware that insufficiencies within myself could hinder this narrative. I may fail in the field of my choice and end up in an unsatisfying job. I may not be desirable enough for anyone to marry. I may not find a soulmate. Houses are rather expensive and I may be bad at making money. My body could prove recalcitrant when it came to baby production.
But I questioned myself, never the narrative. A future unmarried was a story gone wrong, survivable and with its own joys, but a lesser state of being nevertheless.
I married at twenty. He was dangerously handsome, irresistibly driven and devoted in his ministry work, charming, cantankerous, and an unashamed goofball. He still is. We made a home, we raise a family. Life is full of joy and trouble, swaddled with God’s fingerprints, and interlaced with intersections which allow me to embrace my twin-fold mission: my growth in Christlikeness, and my shaping as a vessel through which God can spread his light. So it is not without a good measure of self-conscious irony that I now use this growth to look back and question the Cinderella narrative I allowed to fishhook my aspirations.
As a young Christian I received teaching on abstaining from sex until marriage, fostering contentment if single, and various warnings against marrying unwisely, but never did any book, teacher, or mentor I encountered ever suggest singleness as the most fruitful way I could live out my purpose to be loved by God and shine his image into all creation.
Yet when Paul instructs the young church on how best to live as shining Spirit filled outposts of the new creation within this trouble filled final age between Jesus’ two comings, he presents singleness as the ideal state and marriage as a concession. Don’t get married, Paul says several times in 1 Corinthians 7 — time is short, life will be hard, there is work to do, and marriage brings extra trouble and distraction. I have never heard this from a pulpit.
But what damage is done if we fail to challenge the Cinderella narrative? We leave people who are single drowning in a culture which tells them that life at its fullest has left them behind, we risk deluding those married into believing securing their nuclear family is their ultimate mission, and we give those whose feel their life is progressing from better to worse no way to make sense of suffering but that they have failed to be sufficient as a person.
Recently as the question of marriage equality has come to fore within Australia, marriage has been thrust rather nakedly into the public spotlight. Voices on either side of the debate shout forth its immortal splendour and unparalleled virtues. Yet I fear the church’s voice in this loud discussion — both affirming and non-affirming of extending the marriage act — has revealed an unhealthy and unscriptural alliance to this embedded Cinderella narrative.
I can only hope that this forced exposure will cause our inflated view of marriage to burst like a distended balloon and fall back to earth. Marriage deserves a place of honour and wonderment. God takes two whole people and mysteriously forges them into one. Within this bond God has purposed children to be seeded, enabling humanity to fill the earth. Yet let’s not forget that man and women were united as mutual bearers of God’s image and commissioned together as guardians of creation before mention of marriage. Then in Genesis 2 marriage is introduced as one way Adam and Eve realised this calling.
But we are not in newborn Eden anymore. We are in the last days. Times have changed; priorities have changed. Adam and Eve failed their created purpose of fill creation with God’s image — Jesus fulfilled it. And if Jesus is humanity perfected, how can the church champion marriage as the ideal state of being? Jesus reminded his critiques that marriage is finite not eternal; we enter the world single, and single we enter the new creation. And Jesus recommissioned those rebirthed in his image, not to marry and raise a family, but to go — filled with light and Spirit — and make disciples of every nation. Old Testament women are often defined by marriage and fertility, yet they are burdened with the need to birth the child who will crush the serpent. In the New Testament women simply appear as gospel workers. And Paul warns that marriage can hinder this calling. Does this not all suggest that marriage is no preeminent state, but one of many paths in which humanity can unite to carry our purpose and identity to live loved by God as vessels of his light?
We Christ-followers have an epic narrative to underpin our identity, our hopes, our actions, our stories — salvation history, the gospel. And this epic plays out far more like a dystopian novel than a fairy-tale romance. The story of our world has gone wrong, and we are called to make a choice, slot into place within all the dehumanising forces that have taken grip of our society — or join the resistance, strive to seed light into the darkness, and hope in a coming new world. This is a story we can all be part of, regardless of age, gender, ability, nationality, class, sexuality, or marriage status. In this story suffering is expected and will be redeemed for God’s good purpose. In this story no one willing gets left behind.
Do get married, don’t get married — it has little relevance to eternity. Do in all things and in all relationships seek God’s Kingdom first. Do read scripture voraciously to gain a biblically broad and beautiful imagination regarding how to live as light within each moment God has given you within this final age. And please let us teach this to our hearts, to our congregations, and most importantly to our young people, because Cinderella is a good story but a lie as life’s narrative. Only in Christ are we fulfilled and completed.
I must acknowledge I am greatly indebted to my lovely and wonderfully clever friend Rosie Shorter, whose thesis and many discussions we had in during the writing of her thesis, helped me organise these thoughts on the intersection of culture, church, and the Cinderella meta-narrative.
I also in no way mean to make light of the marriage equity debate within Australia, neither some of the concerns of the ‘No’ campaign or the ‘Yes’ campaign’s desire to gain for same-sex couples the respect, legitimacy, and legal protections offered within marriage. Marriage has a place, but I am challenging our cultural obsession with orienting life around obtaining it. Cinderella is not our gospel. We have a wondrous gospel. Christ followers need to know better and do better.
Hello, I’m Laura Tharion, and I am passionate about spreading the joy and wonder to be found in living a resurrected life inside Jesus Christ. I enjoy tea, cake, history, hammocks, wild bushland, gardening, reading, and gifting my favourite books into the hands of others. I had the pleasure of studying at Sydney Missionary and Bible College before my three lovely little boys arrived to fill my days. Here I picked up the pet soap-boxes of mission advocacy and teaching the Bible as one unified story. I have a heart to write—sermons, studies, articles, meditations, poetry, and epic novels, all which aim to explore theology and encourage everyone to fully realise all they have been given and commissioned in Christ. I can be found writing at lauratharion.com or Facebook