Many kinds of story help to shape our living and aspirations, and I wonder which ones shaped you in the impressionable years of childhood? Some of the stories which have helped to form many from a European background were the oral fairy tales first collected by the Grimm brothers. Stories which have been adapted, re-worked, and sometimes tamed in more recent years by Disney and Pixar.
The traditional tales of Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel implicitly suggest that the role of women is to be beautiful, hard-working, and patient – waiting to be rescued by a handsome male…hero!
Thank God for Shrek – which was released in 2001! Though it was filled with humorous moments, it turned upside down some unhelpful stereotypes. In that movie Princess Fiona was not only better at fighting than Shrek, she was smarter and more emotionally intelligent. In a refreshing twist at the end of the movie, she chose to remain a large green ogre rather than change to a slender young woman. I still struggle a bit with the scene in which Fiona easily defeated Robin Hood and his Merry Men…but, counselling has helped me with this over the years!
For those of us who have been blessed to raise daughters from the 1990s onwards, there have been a growing number of culturally diverse female hero protagonists in popular culture for them, and for the rest of us, to be inspired by. These include historical figures, such as Pocahontas and Mulan; characters inspired by historical people and artefacts, such as Merida (Brave) and Moana, and other well-known fictional characters such as Ariel (The Little Mermaid).
But this culture shift in story-telling has not been limited to animation. In the 1990 movie Pretty Woman – eleven years before Shrek was released – Edward overcame his fear of heights to climb a fire escape, and asked Vivian to stay with him. Slightly mocking, he asks her, “What happens after the prince climbs up and rescues the princess?”, to which Vivian responds firmly, “She rescues him right back!” It’s inspiring! It’s beautiful! And…I think it’s fundamentally flawed! Because the inference in that movie ending is the explicit line at the end of many fairy tales: “And they lived…happily ever after!”
Don’t get me wrong – I love happy endings, but life is more complex than that! We know that there are rich and beautiful times in a relationship; times where there is harmony, shared purpose, and joy…but, there can also be times of exhausting conflict. There can be dissonance about values, in-laws, and whether the toilet seat is left up or down! There can be disagreement about money and addictions, and whether the toothpaste should be squeezed from the middle or the bottom of the tube!
Sometimes the dissonance and the differences become so toxic that even after counselling and prayer, a single journey needs to become two separate journeys. It is never an easy decision and when it happens, each party can be left feeling vulnerable, wounded, and broken. How could they possibly risk love, trust, and intimacy again? Our fairy tale ‘happily ever after’ aspiration has let us down, and we might feel like failures – unable to match the fictional heroes and heroines of our childhood stories.
But, in that space the stories of Christian faith, not fairy tales, become incredibly life-giving because they remind us of the One who knows us best, and loves us the most. Remember the story of our faith which speaks of a God who seeks us out when we’re lost – the Good Shepherd who carries us home. The story of our faith in which the Prodigal always finds a welcoming embrace, and a new beginning. The story of our faith, which suggests that those who mourn will be comforted, and that those who hunger and thirst will be filled.
The story of our faith that trusts God to transform death into life, endings into beginnings, and…even brings love out of the ashes.
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