The ingraining begins young. Little girls watch Disney “Princess” movies where love’s first kiss or fitting a slipper is part of a storybook retelling that ends “…and they all lived happily ever after.” (At least until the sequel.) Fairy tales end in Happily Ever After. Many romances are built on dreams of Happily Ever After. (“I’ll love you forever and forever and forever!!!”)
But smart, intelligent, thinking people know better. We can tell the difference between fairy tales and real life. …Can’t we? And if anyone would know that Happily Ever After is a fairy tale, it would be Christians, right? Well… Yes and no.
The Birth of Happily Ever After in Christianity
For a long, long time, mostly before my time, many famous preachers preached an awful lot about Hell and what a terrible place it was. There were some preachers whose hearers reported feeling the very flames of Hell under their seats and rushed to the altar to receive Christ!
But then things started to change, slowly. Hellfire and brimstone passed out of popularity, because people had heard it all before, and in our modern age, nobody wanted to hear about judgment. Who wants to go to church and come home feeling condemned?
So, slowly, a new message emerged. Instead of promoting Christianity by haranguing about hellfire and promoting peace of mind, the message became “Come to Jesus, and your life will be good.” Some sell “…a more rewarding life… a better job, a stronger marriage, [and] a happier home…” as a reward for Good Christian Living, or for just having enough faith (Your Best Life Now, Joel Osteen, cover flap). Many Christian films promote this as well: the happy people are Christians, and the depressed people are the ones who are going to become Christians. Films like Fireproof promote steps toward a happy marriage… everyone is selling Happily Ever After, it seems. Many Christian books promote this as well; for instance, one book I read on dating and relationships advises girls not to give up their princess dreams. In short, it seems that Christianity has gone (in some cases, not all) from using fear as a motivator, to using happiness. (Personally, I’m not sure that I recommend either one!)
Frederick Beuchner, in his book Telling the Truth, comments that “The pressure on the preacher, or course, is to speak just the answer. The answer is what people have come to hear and what he has also come to hear, preaching always as much to himself as to anybody, to keep his spirits up. He has to give an answer because everybody else is giving answers. Transcendental meditation is an answer, and the Democratic party is an answer, and the Republican party, and acupuncture and acupressure are answers, and so are natural foods, yogurt, and brown rice. Yoga is an answer and transactional analysis and jogging. The pressure on the preacher is to promote the Gospel, to sell Christ as an answer that outshines all the other answers by talking up the shining side, by calling even the day of his death Good Friday when if it was good, it was good only after it was bad, the worst of all Fridays.” (Telling the Truth, Beuchner, pp. 35-36, emphasis mine). And so I join the list of writers who quote Beuchner.
So is there a Happily Ever After? Jesus didn’t seem to think so. “In the world you will have troubles, but take heart, I have overcome the world.” Trouble is coming, but don’t fear it – because I’ve overcome it. He predicts problems.
I guess we know already that happily ever after isn’t real; it’s just wishful thinking that makes us believe that Happily Ever After will happen to us. But really, who gets married thinking that there will be Fights and Fits and Arguments and Nights Sleeping on the Couch When the Sun Really Does Go Down On Your Anger, or that you could ever possibly be angry at the Most Perfect Person in the World? Who has children assuming that they will become Terrible Two-Year-Olds or Rebellious Teenagers or Shiftless Adults Who Graduate College and then Stay at Home Because They’re Too Lazy to Get Jobs? Sure, there are some realists… but I think that I for one tend to go through life believing in Happily Ever After. It’s embedded so deeply in both me and my culture – Christian and American – that it can be hard to free oneself from. But maybe I’ve got all this completely wrong and I’ve created a straw man of what people who are in love act like and think like that isn’t really true at all.
Maybe Happily Ever After is a carrot on a stick. Maybe dreams are always better than the reality that they become… and maybe reality is better than dreams sometimes. And maybe happiness comes when you stop long enough to imagine what the moment you’re living in will look like in the rear view mirror.