Love Upside Down – two reviews
Steven Ogden Love Upside Down (O Books, 2010)
A review by Judith Bore
(Reviewed June 2011)
This is a slim book on a big fat topic, perhaps the biggest and fattest of them all. Before I got my copy I took out the three books from my shelves that I already had on the topic. C. S. Lewis’s The Four Loves, The Art of Loving from Eric Fromm and a much more recent book, On Kindness, by Adam Phillips and Barbara - all slim books too - each written from a different perspective. But all written because their authors like Steven Ogden have closely observed and studied in their professional or academic lives (as well as the personal) this thing called ‘love’ and ‘bumped into’ the problems, in particular places and times, that surround it in real time.
But who hasn’t come up against these? And this is one of the points of ‘Love Upside Down’: this thing, the lack or loss of which causes us to suffer, is also the thing that we must still ‘suffer’ when we find it, if it is to do its work. Transformations of any kind, be it from baby into child, adolescent into parent, believer into non-believer, all have their moments of delight and pain, liberation and misery. In his account Steven is appropriately generous with his own fiery – furnace moments.
But that is only the introduction, the health warning as it were.
Our writer places himself firmly within the ambit of Christianity and writes with the gentle authority of the ‘pastor’ he has been for most of his life. He wants to prioritize the message of the ‘real’ Jesus, the subversive one, and show his readers that the ‘horizon of love’ within which the ‘Church’ is camped has constantly been retracted from where it was set by the Jesus of the Gospels.
Jesus, the Palestinian teacher pointed out his horizon by the way he lived and the parables he used. This was ‘love lived’, ‘love embedded’, love ‘incarnated’ by a lover of life who showed his friends how to escape graciously the psychological tyranny of the religious and secular hierarchies of their day.
But many of us have grown up with the words on love from St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians ringing in our ears. As poetry it moves and calls us, but as a handbook to day-to-day living it is not particularly helpful: it can even become tyrannical in its ‘demandingness’. Until that is, we come to realize that this ‘Love’ is something of a mirror image of our desire to love and be loved, desires that always exceed our capacity to achieve them. It is ‘impossible love’. All we can ever do is learn to nurture and encourage something like it in ourselves and others. Like Patrick White I sometimes think Christian Love is ‘too big’ and that the faithfulness of the ordinary loves that can endure petty squabbles and enjoy the little make-ups such as he describes in ‘Flaws in the Glass’ is the best we should try for.
But in a different sense love does need to be big and never more so than the 21stcentury. So Steven has willingly put his plough in the furrow ploughed by thinkers of all the great religious traditions in the field with the farthest horizon. And taken risks, not just in writing books but facing in the flesh and in public the hate of those in his own Anglican Communion who are not ready to move their horizon. Like many thinkers in the post-modern world, he points to the searing experience of difference that can cause confusion and self-doubt and a retreat to the psychological safety of a group that is well defended against its assault. Many in our churches, and outside them it must be said, want (and perhaps need) to remain in versions of a traditional society where it is, put in caricature form, men on top women underneath, where it is hetero-sexual love only if you please: a meritocracy where material success gives status, triumph over nature is celebrated and where of course it is ‘team players only’. Love Upside Down challenges this blueprint and is a call to ‘move on’.
However, it does not have the colourful language and strident voice of the hell-fire preacher (perhaps it needs it!). Rather it is ‘midwifery’ at its best, calm and encouraging in tone. We must hope that this book falls into the hands of people who are almost ready to move their horizon of love to include the ‘real world ‘, not just their cosy ideal neighbourhood; people who need to be aware that there is a community at that new horizon.
Best wishes to Love Upside Down. Go on dear reader, dare to read it on the train. And leave it there, just in case…
Love Upside Down reviewed by Chantal Babin
(Reviewed June 2011)
Excellent P.R. for his Church, Steven Ogden asserts that Biblical readings have power. This might be true but do they have more power than, for instance, statements such as Confucius' wise warning “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves”......or even Coleridge's poetical phrase “Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee”?
But the power of Biblical readings is not what Steven Ogden's book is all about. Although he is full of praise for the Church preaching of love, his challenging arguments eventually detract from the religious institution.
Starting with some personal experiences, i.e. unrequited love, deviant and mentally ill family members' exclusion from family reunions, Ogden winds his way to denouncing the Church's hypocrisy. Although he claims that Love is the “Church's source of resilience, relevance and integrity”, he explores how the Church measures up in relation to the concept of love.
Re-affirming that the love of Jesus is all there is, he also reminds us that love is Jesus' concrete action to rescue people on the edge and therefore Christian love is subversive; or, if applied with integrity, it should be. Jesus by washing his disciples' feet treats them as friends, thus subverting the social order. Departing from social and religious customs Jesus displays a form of “love upside down”.
He therefore challenges the Church's conflict between its principles’ perspective versus the unconventional kingdom of God's perspective. Putting people before principles is central in Ogden's book. The Kingdom which he qualifies as “quirky” should embrace and love all; Christian principles do not. Alluding to racially different people, to “lesbian and gay people” (sic) seen by the Church as deviant, he affirms that “The gracious acceptance of people who are different is not a marginal interest, but core business in the horizon of love”. Orthodoxy is not Christian anymore but the love of Jesus is unconditional and that it is all there is. However, in his chapter “Response to Difference”, Ogden argues about the necessity to create community for love to flourish; he makes a startling comment quoting Derrida en passant, calling him “The French Jewish philosopher Jacques Derrida” thus pointing to their religious difference and implicitly refuting his own argument. This is un-warranted and alarming. Ogden canvasses inconsistently throughout his book. Whilst warning against New Age beliefs he borrows freely from the neo-spiritual gurus; he throws in concepts of self-help, self-acceptance, self-love, self-respect, the search for meaning, even the sacredness of life; as for respect for the environment, which he includes as part of love upside down, Ogden stops short of hugging a tree. In all fairness, although convoluted, his proposition for a green Christianity is interesting. He then brings all these neo-spiritual concepts under the one umbrella of Christianity. This is alarming.
Love Upside Down is a pleasant read that revisits Christian values, confirming that the life and teachings of Jesus provide a model for understanding love. But is it upside down simply because Jesus rescued the down and out unconditionally? A legendarily magnanimous and exceedingly compassionate Jesus is portrayed, once more, as the principal proponent of love, almost the universal one.
Although challenging its principles Ogden remains safely within the precinct of Christianity, maybe he is afraid of “the bearded old man sitting on a cloud” despite his claim of not believing in Him. Going straight to the point putting people before principles is what turns love upside down.