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Following Jesus

Shiny Happy People: The Myth of the Perpetually Joyful Christian

August 8, 2018 by

photo of a clay oven

Our family made a clay oven last Sunday. I’m not going to give a blow by blow, death-by-exposition account of how we did it, or try to convince you to do this as a bonding experience with your family for the following reasons:

  1. This is precisely the sort of quaint, back-to-the-land nonsense normally espoused by tofu-eating, sandal-wearing, leftie-leaning, Guardian readers. Not my scene.
  2. Like all of our “family projects” most of the work was done by me.
  3. In any case, the experience was awful: it was exhausting, stressful, and the occasion of bad language. Don’t try this at home.

We had spent two hours building the oven by slapping a wet mixture of clay and sand on top of a molded sand cone; the idea being that after the clay dried a bit we would hollow out the sand in the middle. After waiting a few hours, Olivia took the two younger children off to play and I started to hollow out the oven while the two older boys cleaned up the tools. I had removed about a third of the sand when I noticed a distinct sag in the roof. I hoped it would be alright and kept going. After I removed another third I watched the roof sinking dramatically and rushed to find a brace. It was while I was desperately trying to stop the roof breaking up altogether that that our five-year-old came up to say mom wanted to know how long I was going to be. “Tell mom probably about a million years,” I told him. The roof sank lower and broke open; I threw the brace at it and it collapsed.

“Dad,” my ten-year-old son was asking, “Dad, can I go fishing now?”

“Son,” I said, “don’t you think that asking that question at this particular point in time is a little insensitive?” He shifted from foot to foot. I turned back to the oven and addressed some pointed remarks quite specifically to it.

After a few minutes I called the boys back together. “OK,” I said, “you can all go check in with mom and then do biking, fishing, whatever. Tell her that I’ve finished saying bad things and I’m going to be re-building the oven.” And I did, clearing off the ruins into buckets and starting over. Various members from the Darvell community stopped past every so often and said encouraging things while I muttered to myself and heaved great glops of slime, smoothing the whole mass into a dome-shaped lump. It seemed to hold together.

What is it with us Christians? Do we think that it’s our duty to be happy or that if we’re not happy it’s evidence of our lack of faith, or what?

I was thinking of the oven and the experience of making it the other day when I flipped through a Christian monthly magazine. My next thought was of the R.E.M. song Shiny Happy People Holding Hands. Seemed like everyone pictured had these great big pasted-on smiles. What is it with us Christians? Do we think that it’s our duty to be happy (“we’re going to have fun dammit”), or that if we’re not happy it’s evidence of our lack of faith, or what? Does it not bother you to hear someone saying in that sort of bog-standard happy fruity voice “Isn’t God wonderful?” Because in my experience, yes he is: wonderful, terrible, frightening, awesome, and very very demanding.

The idea that God is there to help make our lives a little easier is a little flawed. I don’t know anyone who sails through life without a few catastrophes and a little cursing into the wind. I don’t even think a smooth ride is something to wish for. Discipleship is either something to devote your life to or it is nothing, and if we want to witness to the local heathens around us, we would do better to act the way we really are than to pretend to be the way we wish we were.

Oh, and the oven worked like a honey. I hollowed it out successfully the next day and lit a fire inside; two days later we baked our first bread. I’ll have to find those old Birkenstocks and place a large order for tofu.


About the author


Ian Barth

Ian lives at the Darvell community in East Sussex, UK with his wife Olivia and their four boys.

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  • Thank you. The Jesus of the desert and the fishing boats and companion of beggars is the one that inspires me to keep going day by day. ...and hey: what do you have against tofu? Have you ever even TRIED it? You might be surprised!