Salvation According to Shakespeare? Yes, Shakespeare!

Sometimes I wonder if we ever even begin to comprehend what took place in Jerusalem when the Son of God hung on that tree. We hear the word ‘salvation’ spoken, preached, taught, and yet do we have any idea what it incorporates? Is it possible that we may be unable to even grasp what happened because we chose to focus on the intellectual aspects of the concept? The facts don’t seem to add up when we theorise and order them. I don’t know about you but it is only my brain that gets excited by the formulas and dissections that ‘ordu salutis’ encompasses. The process of repentance, justification, sanctification and perfection (a condensed version of the progression found in the many Christian doctrines of salvation) may entice my logic and rationale, but my heart, the centre of my being, is untouched.  My heart feels as though it has been left standing at the altar, void of the love necessary to live another day. And yet, it is this language of marriage that the Bible uses to describes Jesus’ love for us. Perhaps, then, if we chose to look at the subject of salvation from a different perspective I think we may be truly blown away by the awesome story captivated in that weighted word. This is not an unlocking of the secret of the majesty of God, rather a new set of eyes. A chance to simply sit back in admiration at the actions of the Son of God. A chance to fall in love with Jesus again.

We will look at salvation through the perspective of possibly the famous romantic tragedy ever written. Romeo and Juliet. Yes, the love that required the lives of both participants, because it is that unselfish. I think you will be amazed at the analogy Shakespeare made in his infamous play. We will begin our investigation by reviewing the interactions between Romeo and his beloved and then explore the analogy that this story makes with the Creator of the universe and his beloved bride. And I hope that you may feel that joy and hope that salvation brings; that your heart may experience the passion that God intended it to feel when his love for you took him to the cross. So let’s leave the formulas to the mathematicians and the dissections to the scientists and let’s experience the romance between two characters that re-enacts the love story God has been writing since the dawn of time.   

Shakespeare’s Story
A fact that may be unknown to many readers is that Romeo was in fact in love with another woman at the start of the play. And this is crucial to the whole story. Rosaline, his fancy in Act One is described by Romeo as ‘Diana,’ the Roman Goddess of the Moon (1.2.206). Romeo was infatuated by Rosaline. Even the way he talked about her was different. In fact, whenever he mentioned her he used a ‘rigid rhyme’ type of speech. However, on closer inspection we discover that his love for Rosaline is not actually true love. His attitude towards her reflects the Petrarchan concept of love. Francesco Petrarca was 14th century poet, born two centuries before Shakespeare, who wrote about love as an unrequited feeling. A one-way stream of desire, with no room for healthy growth or development. A term that we might describe in today’s terms as ‘lust.’ His concept of love was the exact opposite of the unselfish love that the Bible prescribes to Jesus, a subject that we will come back to later. As a result, Romeo’s love for Rosaline was only a fleeting and misdirected emotion.  He was even portrayed by the other characters as ‘love-sick’ and someone who ‘loves by numbers,’ as a mathematician might (1.1., 139, 212-225). Romeo experienced the ‘feeling’ of love rather than actually ‘being’ in love.

Nevertheless, when Romeo sets eyes upon Juliet for the first time, that glorious moment causes his love for Rosaline to shrink into the background. He is completely taken away by her and he rejects the earlier feelings he had. It is through the infamous balcony scene that this love for Juliet is witnesses to the full. It is here that the analogy to the love of God is made beautifully clear. Romeo opens his mouth to Juliet by contrasting the brightness of her beauty with his misguided emotions towards Rosaline. It is Juliet, the sun in Romeo’s eyes, who has put an end to the false light from Rosaline, the moon (2. 1. 2-6).  It is a heart-wrenching, tear-jerking moment, one I’m sure every young woman dreams of. Romeo is instantly drawn to Juliet in a compulsive love, formed from the heart. It is that love that wills him to consider a lover ‘who would disrupt his life.’ 

Romeo is of course aware of the feud between the two families, the Montagues and the Capulets, which was, according to the Friar, a long-standing hatred based on thin air. However, he still considers a love that his family would not approve of. It is the language of the heart that unapologetically goes against everything the brain stands for. It is his heart that loves Juliet, as he is now able to freely express himself in meandering rivers of words, ones contrary to the rigid rhymes spoken towards Rosaline. Romeo is captivated.

It is this theme of the ‘disruptive lover’ that truly expounds Shakespeare’s ideas towards Gods approach to mankind. Juliet responds to Romeo with a request, an appeal for him to ‘doff his name’ (2. 1. 33-36). She knows that they can never be together because of the family hatred towards each other, and so she asks him to lose his identity as a Montague. If this is true love, then at least one, if not both, need to change their name and identity if they want to be together and leave behind their family history. True love, in its highest form, must cost the participants everything.  Later in the dialogue Juliet provides the climax of her invitation: ‘Romeo, doff thy name, And for that name, which is no part of thee, Take all myself (2. 1. 46-48).’

If Romeo chooses to renounce his name and take up his love for Juliet he would be rewarded with Juliet herself. She does not promise a solution to the family grudge or in fact a way that they can be together, she simply offers herself. This is not a business transaction, but a relationship. Romeo, in acknowledging this fact, agrees to the offer: ‘I take thee at thy word, Call me but love, and I’ll be newly baptiz’d; Henceforth I never will be Romeo (2. 1. 49-51).’

Romeo confesses his trust and loyalty to her and recognises her devotion to him. They give each other their word. No longer will they be characterised by their family traits but by their new identity in each other. They believe wholeheartedly that the other will fulfil their side of the vow, never doubting the integrity of the promise just made. And yet it is not a decision that Romeo can make for himself. He understands that he has no power to change his name; Juliet must do it for him. Only if she calls him love will his name and nature be changed.

Although all seems to be well at this point the play does not end there. The love story between Romeo and Juliet suffers two fatalities; the final act of Shakespeare’s analogy. The unfortunate lovers have tried their whole lives to be united with each other, but this has not been possible. Only in death, by each other, are they truly united. Their love for each other acknowledges that it’s most faithful manifestation must be their death for each other, and it is in this place that they are truly happy. The resolution that Shakespeare offers finalizes his message of salvation.  

God’s Story
In order to experience the full beauty of this divine romance we ought to see, as Shakespeare may have done, Juliet as Jesus and Romeo as you and me. At the start of the story Romeo festers a false lust towards Rosaline, and this represents the false love that we feel from this world. It is a mechanical and formulaic love, an impersonation of the sense of being in love. The Bible talks about this as the ‘love of the flesh.’ Shakespeare ingeniously uses the feelings of Romeo towards Juliet to expose the true nature of this worldly love. However, it is only when Romeo experiences true love that the deceitfulness of the first comes to light. The same exists with Jesus. It is only when we experience the ultimate source of love and grace, in Jesus Christ, that the fraudulence of the world becomes clear. Our hearts will flourish in freedom, according to Shakespeare, when they interact with the divine love of God. And only through God.

Juliet’s request of Romeo to ‘doff his name’ expresses the reality that we can only be with Jesus if our nature is changed. In our present state, as sinners living in a fallen world, we are unable to be with the pure nature of God. We must be changed. Jesus’ love is disruptive. It changes our world, if we accept it. In the play, Romeo rejects his feelings towards Rosaline and agrees to change his life forever by loving Juliet. We are called to do the same with God. In order to follow Jesus, to live in his love, everything must be sacrificed; our identity must be surrendered. 

Juliet’s response to Romeo shows Christ’s promise to us. She vows ‘all of herself’ to Romeo. Christ does the same to us. God does not force us to accept his gift with the bribery of eternal life, blessings or in heavenly mansions, instead he offers us Himself. His own life. Much like a marriage is a promise of two people to each other, so it is with Christ and us. We shall be one with Him, as he is one with the Father. We are called into a relationship with Jesus. The promise of salvation, according to Shakespeare, is neither a legal binding nor a business transaction; it is the offer of a relationship. If we deny ourselves we shall become one with Christ. Yet, as Romeo demonstrates to us, it is not within our own power to accept.If we are to be made new, if our natures are to be changed, it will not be by our own doing. It is only by the will of God that we are changed.

The final scene from the play demonstrates the shocking reality of the offer of salvation. Both characters must die in order for them to be truly together. It is the genuine love that they feel for each other that causes this. The same is true for the believer and God. Christ has already died for us and we are called to be part of that death, dying to ourselves in order that we may live in Him. The reward of our death is unity with Jesus Himself. ‘Christ’s death, was not a technicality by which we are covered with grace, but rather a passionate and inconceivable act of kindness and altruism and love stemming from God’s desire to be reunited with His creation.’  

Summary
Shakespeare saw the experience of conversion as a love story between two characters that could not be together. Both parties must give up everything to be with the other. It is almost an exact replica of the Biblical analogy of marriage. Salvation is not a transaction of souls; a reward of heavenly mansions or the fear of eternal death, but a relationship with Jesus. He was the one who gave up His perfection and glory in order to die, so that we would be able to accept his proposal. We owe everything to Jesus, and yet can never repay it. It is only the integrity of Jesus’ love that allows us the freedom to accept it and the freedom to live in it.  

Final Thoughts

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Are there Strangers in the Kingdom of God?

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A few weeks ago I was travelling back from Cornwall with my family and we stopped for lunch at a service station. As were standing outside the toilets, waiting for my wife to come out, one of my family members said to me, “doesn’t it make you scared, thinking of all these strangers around you, they could be anybody.” I’ll admit at that point I wasn’t exactly tuned in to thought of whether or not an axe-murderer had just walked past me, but it did get me thinking. What is it about the word ‘stranger’ that scares us? Do strangers even exist, or are we simply scaring ourselves with the purpose of seeing the worst in people? What does the Bible say about strangers?

As a child I remember being taught this nightmare scenario: you are walking along a street and a man pulls up to you in his car and offers you a sweet. You take the sweet, after the hidden side-effects of the sweet take effect; he picks up your drugged body, locks you in the boot, and drives off. Never to be seen again. Okay, it wasn’t taught in such graphic detail, but I remember the message: Don’t take sweets from strangers. Don’t talk to strangers. It is drilled into us from birth. Stranger danger!  I heard the message so many times that, even now, as an adult, I can hardly bring myself to speak to somebody on a bus or train. But is this how it should be? Is this how it was meant to be? We are taught to be careful who we talk to, but does this counteract some of the teachings of Jesus?

I would like to bring your minds back to Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan. A parable which, I believe, speaks to society’s attitude toward strangers. As Christians we commend the Samaritan for his charity and generosity, and we aspire to do the same. Yet, as it happens, we neglect his bravery. Out of the three people that Jesus mentioned, the Samaritan was the one that should NOT have stopped. The injured man was a Jew, and Jews hated Samaritans. By stopping to help the man, the Samaritan risked ambush. Instead, the Samaritan put his life on the line to help a stranger. To know a stranger. To say ‘yes’ to a stranger and stand out among the crowd. If we took the evolutionary approach to the topic, we would commend the Priest and Levite for walking past and not helping him. The survival of the fittest means that those injured on the wayside get left on the wayside. The weak die off and the strongest endure; creating more individuals who walk past on the other side. This is the attitude that creates the belief of ‘strangers.’ The individualism that rules today’s western society.

And yet Jesus didn’t commend them. He condoned them.  

They were not the focus of the story. Instead, Jesus focused on the man, the animal in the eyes of his Jewish listeners, who carried the Spirit of community. The one who would ignore any threat that the fabricated word ‘stranger’ carried, and cross the line of hatred to see the basic humanitarian need in a fellow brother. Jesus acknowledged the one saw in the eyes of a stranger, a brother, a father, a son, an uncle, a cousin, a being created in the image of God, a member of His family. His choice reflected the life that Jesus would like us to live.  A life that intentionally seeks others at their worst, and helps them, regardless of the view that society might take on strangers.

In closing I would like to tell a story that happened to me last week. I am part of a group of young people who go to London every Friday, with some soup and sandwiches, and intentionally befriend homeless. On such a visit, we walked up to one man and asked if he would like some food, at which point he said no and then proceeded to throw up. Nearly giving some extra flavour to our sandwich bag! We stayed with him through his ordeal and gave some fresh tissues and a bottle of water so he could freshen up. In the horridness of the situation the thing that struck me the most, discounting the smell, was the response of the passersby. Not one stopped to see if he was okay. No one asked if he needed anything. People moved out of the path. Some hurled comments, to us, such as ‘sort your friend out.’ Most turned their noses up, and one lady even moved to the other side of the pavement to avoid contact with another human being. It was only until afterward that I realised we had been part of a real life enactment of the Good Samaritan. There were no priests or Levites to raise their religiously stuck-up, evolutionary programmed noses at the man, just hundreds of people unwilling to step in and care for humanity at its most desperate. At its most vulnerable. The repercussions of society’s belief in evolution and individualism laid out for the world to see. But they missed it. For they were too busy looking at the sick to miss the person. The human. The life. Too busy keeping track of their work and habits that the heart to accept that it could have been anyone had disappeared. We treat others as ‘strangers’ when truly, Biblically speaking, they are our brothers and sisters. Family. In becoming a Christian we are baptised into a family in which members are starving to death, others are left to beg with their bodies, and still others dying from our self-righteous exploits of their countries (The Irresistible Revolution, Shane Claiborne, p.162). And no one treats family members like that. I would like to make a suggestion… that we erase the word ‘stranger’ from our dictionaries. Never to be heard again.
Ever.

A family does not have strangers, so why should the world?

Let’s live in a Kingdom in which there are no strangers. Just brothers and sisters. God’s kingdom.

How close have you been to heaven?

Have you ever experienced a moment where you felt something heavenly take place? Perhaps it was a wedding, a child-birth, or a celebration? It’s those moments, which, in my mind, give us a clue as to what heaven will be like. The moments that bring us into the courts of heaven. Was it inexplicable joy, unrestrained praise, or even absurd forgiveness? I’d like to share now some of my thoughts of what Heaven will be like, the closest I have ever been. Hopefully, it will make you think of heaven, in a more down-to-Earth fashion, if you understand?

For the last four years I have attended Special Needs Camp, run by the Seventh day Adventist Church, at the camp site in Aberdaron. It takes place during the first full week of July, every year. For the last three years that I have been, I have had this distinct feeling, this quiet notion, that this is the closest I have ever been to Heaven. This year the feeling came straight back to me, flooded back to me you could say. Let me explain why.  

We arrived at the camp just before dinner time on Sunday evening, and soon after dinner we had our first evening worship together. It was the first worship of camp. During the program, we sang the song, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. It happens to be Glenmore’s favourite song. Now you need to understand that Glenmore is a middle-aged guy who has Down Syndrome. Although he needs a good deal of personal care, his physical ability is good and he is able to function normally in that respect. He had been quiet during the coach ride to Aberdaron, and in fact, during the evening meal. (Glenmore is one cheeky chap, and so for him to be quiet for the whole day is rather unusual) However, it was a long journey and so we thought he may have been tired. Despite this, after much encouragement, he went up to the front to help out with the actions to his favourite song. But it was like he was lost in his world: singing, dancing, praising and worshipping God freely. I was moved so deeply that I felt like crying. He had no boundaries. No fears. No expectations. It was just him and God, and it was beautiful.

  There were moments like this throughout the week. Moments of such sheer beauty that you had to stop for a moment to take them in. But the culmination event was the Thursday night concert, and the Sabbath services. Let me describe them.

Thursday night is the time that every camper looks forward to. It’s the landmark of the week. The film of the week, which the campers watch on film night (usually Monday or Tuesday), is “converted” into a Banquet. The hall is decorated to look like scenes from the chosen film, and the campers and staff are encouraged to dress up in related costumes. Nevertheless, no matter what film theme there is, you can be one hundred percent certain that Scooby Doo will turn up to the Banquet! (Inside joke). The banquet is then followed by the concert.

This is a concert unlike anything you would have ever seen before.

Almost all the campers and staff take part. Honestly, if there is one concert which you must see before you die – its the Thursday Night Concert at Special Needs Camp, Aberdaron. It is the most awe-inspiring production you will ever see. I bet you! If you find somewhere better, please let me know and I will humbly correct myself (I am so confident I’m writing this in the article) The splendour lies in the campers. To see them sing or dance is like listening in on someone singing in the shower. They simply don’t care about how good, or not good, they are. In their heads, and in ours as well, they sound pitch-perfect. They don’t think about whether they are better than the person before them or after them. No comparison. They simply sing or dance to their hearts contempt. All in.

Their act feels like true worship, and I may be so bold to say that the angels and God Himself are singing and dancing with them. Not only is that, but their joy during the concert is contagious. You can’t help but smile.

I can say that, just as Jesus’ heart was moved when he saw the cripple, the lame and the shepherd-less crowd, my heart was moved when I watched those campers giving their all. The Greek word ‘compassion’ literally means one is ‘moved in his inmost being’; right down to the depths of his soul.

Not caring whether they hit any of the notes in the song at all, or even voicing all the words, nothing mattered to the campers in that moment. It was like a release. They had been waiting all year for that moment. That moment of freedom. That instant where they can praise and worship in their own unique way, not wondering if Gary & Co may buzz in to stop them. Simply closing their eyes, and giving God their all. Singing and dancing to God. No fear.

That, I would have to say, is the closest I have been to Heaven. No competition. No expectations. No dress code. Nobody to impress.
Simply captives Set Free.
Hearts Set Free.

Has the Church got Camus’ Plague?

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A strange title for a write up about a Christian Family Camp in 2014 I admit, but before you reject the insinuating statement for resentment or ill-feelings let me explain.

You see, for me Family Camp 2014 gave a broader picture of the plea that emanates from the vast majority of church folk. The cry for something more. A church that encapsulates their whole being, their family, their heart. As such I am lead to agree with Camus’ description of a modern day city wrought the plague may also apply to the church today. As a church, does it feel as though we ‘stream out into the open (from our enclosed weekday lives to the open of Sabbath), drug ourselves with talking, love-making and arguing, and in the last glow of the sunset of our existence, the church freighted by lovers and loud voices, drift like a helmless ship into the throbbing darkness?’ It is a fear-striking description but one that I feel adept considering the feelings found floating around Family Camp. It would be fair to say that there was a general unhappiness with church throughout all the families. Misdirection, gossip and dual-living were just some of the negative emotions associated with church. And yet, throughout all the disappointment and lack of enthusiasm, one could feel a flutter of hope nestling under the surface. A hope unveiled from an underrated source. Nature.

The natural surroundings to the camp offered a stark contrast, not only to the normal habitant of the city-dwellers and folk who live in built-up areas, but also to the general emotional response people had towards life. The incessant, city-led desire for noise and drama felt overruled by the silence and tranquillity of the Cornish landscape. The stillness of nature, with its patience and serenity, made one realise the need for fresh air and the elements. For time outdoors. One family member summed it up perfectly, “if I had just come to the camp and not left site for a week, it still would have been perfect.”  It seems as though it is only when we spend time in nature that we see our lives for what they are. We see the wanton appeal for white noise, for distraction and busyness.  That was how it seemed at Family Camp.

On Sabbath we were asked to go outside and just consider nature in all its beauty and see what lessons we could draw from it. Amongst all the different lessons shared from the families, the underlying thought in most of them was how unhurried and leisurely nature is. How peaceful it can be for the soul just to stand and be still in nature. To hear the softness of the leaves as they rustle. To taste the distinctive flavour of sea air as the wind carries it up the hill. To feel the each delicate blade as the grass strokes across your hand. To see the sky in all its enormity and the sea in all its vastness, and the overwhelming display of colour in the landscape. To smell the natural odours of the plants and the trees and know that they were designed that way. Another family member commented on how harmonious nature is. The colours never clash. The sea, the plants and the birds all resonate in unity, with God as their orchestrator. Nature displays the perfect way to live. Although sometimes the smells do sting!  I could have written a write-up about some of the activities we got up to at Family Camp: the cycling, the sports centre and the camp trip to the beach, but I chose to write about the healing capacity of nature. Not because I’m a psychologist or philosopher, but because without this intentional reminder we will forget.

I could speak for the whole camp and say that the reason we are drawn back year after year is not the food, the concert or the surfing, but for the revival of the soul, the rest are just added bonuses. Our souls delight in nature, in being outdoors. But moreover, they also delight in a sense of community, a sharing of life together. And that is what camp is all about. A week shared with other families; eating together, worshipping together and living together. A practical demonstration of what life could be if we intentionally lived like it.

So does the church have the plague? I’m not sure if it is as bad as plague, but we do suffer from the dual-disease of passivity and numbness. It is only when we retreat to nature, to the wild, that are eyes are opened to the reality of our existence. The psychotic white noise that surrounds our lives can drown out the still, small voice of nature, of community and of God.

Family Camp for me, and for everyone, is a time to be still, to experience life in a shared environment and the blessings that arise from it, and to find the inspiration and motivation to live full of intentionality and purpose. An unshakable cure for a disease-ridden society.