salvation through kinship

I have been watching a lot of this show – Big Love – lately, and have been thinking a lot about the ideas around salvation that its characters and their context(s) have. In case you are not familiar with it, it is a show about a suburban polygamist family, with three wives living in houses side-by-side, each with their own children, and the husband going back and forth between the houses. The wives share the responsibilities for cooking, caring for one another’s children, and home-keeping. It is about their struggles with their pasts, their struggle to fit-in and appear “normal”, their struggles with the complexities of their relationship, and their attempts to be faithful to “The Principle” of plural marriage that they feel is their spiritual and religious calling, by way of their own interpretation of the tradition of Joseph Smith. (sideline: this show fits surprisingly well into the current milieu in the US and Canada of self-created new-age type religious or spiritual pursuits, where the only authority is God/higher power/divine energy and then the self to interpret, with no accountability to traditions or other persons.)

In many ways, more than anything else I think I would sum it up as being a show about desire. There’s the sexual side of desire that’s depicted – both for the adults and the teenagers in the show. There’s the consumerist-culture aspect of desire that’s depicted in one character’s compulsive online shopping and subsequent gambling compulsion. There’s the desire for success in business and enterprise that the husband in the show is constantly pursuing. There’s a desire for family and meaningful community that I think hooks the desire of the viewer as the idealized shared suburban home-stead is depicted. There’s a desire for acceptance and love that every character seems to be pursuing. There is also a desire for salvation, for eternal life, that characters often remind themselves and each other of as being the primary reason that they are engaged in this often difficult and complex family grouping. I think these various desires, their honest depiction and the forthright way they’re addressed, are what really make the show compelling – who among us can’t identify with desire, misplaced or otherwise, and the problematic pursuit of its fulfillment?

In many of the churches that trace their history to Joseph Smith (“Restoration” traditions, if you will, named for their pursuit of restoring Christ’s church to a perceived earlier and more accurate form), one’s salvation rests heavily on or in one’s family. If one isn’t at least married, and hopefully with children, one is risking one’s mortal soul. In Big Love we view an extreme playing-out of this situation, where the reward of ruling a planet comes to men who have multiple wives. But even in the more socially-acceptable, non-polygamist “regular” Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, family in the here and nowis essential to one’s everlasting life later on.

I would say that in my denomination, which comes from the same Restoration tradition, there are still lingering idea(l)s of the necessity of family for salvation. I know many single people (including myself) in the church who have experienced pressure to find a (heteronormative) relationship and get married – even when that pressure is presented as seemingly “well-meaning” assumptions. I also know several married couples who have experienced pressure to have children, regardless of their own desires or abilities to include children in their family circle. Of course, people would never tell one another that their lack of spouse and family is a threat to their salvation, but nonetheless I think these pressures are the residue of the family-as-salvation formula that is found in the early Restoration churches.

While it’s problematics are clear to me, the salvation-through-kinship formula has a certain amount of pull on my own desires. For me, the two primary problematics are: the focus on salvation as something for the afterlife, rather than a work God is carrying out here and now; and the heteronormative assumptions about family that the formula prescribes. Both of these, I think, can actually be unbound from the tradition by using the tradition itself in creative and redemptive ways!

The idea of salvation as only being something for the afterlife is one that can even be taken apart by the Gospels, where Jesus talks about the “Kin(g)dom” that is already among us as well as being as-yet-unfulfilled. Joseph Smith had a focus on the importance of place and attempting to live here and now as if we are in God’s promised future – “Zion”. The heteronormative family-form prescription can, I would dangerously venture to suggest, be taken apart with the tradition’s most problematic and often embarrassing practice of polygamy. Now, let’s be clear, polygamy is not an ideal! Its assumptions about male patriarchal power, female submissiveness, and hierarchical placement of wives all make it very troublesome. However, what I am saying is that it is a way of having a non-normative family whose formation is grounded (ideally!) in the pursuit of a spiritual calling, a call to live in communion with others, rather than the pursuit of relationships and family for personal gain.

These thoughts of mine are still in their infancy, and I recognize their dry, tinderbox character that could easily be ignited by carelessness. However, I think it is high time we started talking more openly about how our sex lives, family lives, and desires influence and relate to our salvation, or our perception of our salvation. Perhaps by reclaiming the idea of kinship, of communion as location for salvation, and being more conscious of our desires and their both positive and negative pulls on our lives, we can move forward in paths of Christian discipleship that stand more strongly in the face of a far too individualistic and materialistic culture.

what is church?

devicetorootoutevil“Church” is an interesting word. It is multi-valent, multi-layered, and carries many meanings. It is a building, where something pertaining to religious practice takes place. It is a doctrine in the Christian faith. It is where Jesus is when “two or three are gathered”. It is an institution. It is a practice. It is a divinely-ordered way of being. It is a way of seeing the world.

There have been a myriad of examples over time of what church can look like. It’s a few people meeting regularly in a home to share meals and tell stories. It’s a “righteous” few who believe particular things in particular ways. It’s a place people go on Sunday morning because they think they “should” go, or are afraid of what people might think about them if they didn’t go. It is a community of people who share each other’s joys and sorrows and do their best to be present for one another. It is people who plant gardens in vacant lots. It is a place people go for a hot meal and a warm bed.

I’ve come to understand church to be one of the most complicated doctrines in Christian theology because it is so loaded – it is an institution, and yet it is so much bigger than what we understand institutions to be, it is noble ideas and lofty goals and it is also destructive and can bring out the worst in people.

I believe that Christian discipleship must be lived out in community, as the ability to live in peace with others is fundamental to what it means to be a disciple. I also know, however, that we often fall short of actually supporting one another in our discipleship.

I’ve been working with a committee on writing a statement about ecclesiology – the theological word for what we believe about church. It’s a hard task, really hard. And yet I hope that this struggle and difficulty means that we are actually perhaps getting at some truth about what church is about.

The picture at the top of this post is of an art piece that used to be in a public park here in Vancouver, the sculpture is entitled “Device to Root Out Evil”. When I first saw this piece I gasped in excitement at the novelty of an upside-down church, as there are definitely days when I feel like the church ought to be turned upside-down. When I learned the title, I was even more in awe of it, realizing what a critique it poses to all churches. Christianity has thought of itself as such a device for far too long. What if what church is about is not rooting-out evil, but cultivating goodness and flourishing? What would that look like?

I think this question of how the church ought to view it’s task and what that is is a question of utmost importance. All Christians should be engaged in the task of exploring how best they can live out their discipleship in community – in church. This may not look quite the same as it has in the past – in fact, it probably shouldn’t look at all like it used to – and that’s a good thing, because God is always doing new things and calling us into new life. How will you contribute to this exciting discernment of community?

Photo Credit:
Creative Commons LicenseThe photo above is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.