Love Story

I’ve talked too much politics recently, and for that I apologize. I suppose today, on St. Valentine’s Day, I’m obligated to talk about love (or wuv, twu wuv, if you prefer). With that said, I feel like most of us have a working, orthodox theology of love. We understand it from the biblical perspective — not as unconditional endorsement or an apathetic tolerance, but as a genuine care of the other which requires grace and discipline both. And so while I could go on about the various forms of love and whatnot, I’ve decided to go another route today.

I’ve been re-reading a bit of narrative theology lately, a school of thought which resonates with those of us with degrees in literature. Sometimes story can convey truth more readily than textbook-esque syllogisms; if you don’t believe me, ask your valentine tonight which he or she would rather hear, “I love you, and here’s what you’ve done to mean so much to me” or “When I look at you, my body increases output of testosterone/estrogen, adrenaline, dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin with the result I feel emotional attachment to you.” One is the story of your life together; the other is what’s happening on the biochemical level. (Trust me: the story means a lot more.)

Perhaps that’s why love stories mean so much to us. We don’t care about the physiology so much as the emotional content. Yes, it’s grand someone’s thoughts swing one way as key neurotransmitters are deployed, but I’d rather see them sacrifice for one another, make loving gestures, that sort of thing. We all prefer Romeo & Juliet (a teenage romance resulting in multiple deaths) to the BBC’s explanation of the chemical reactions in your brain (unless it’s narrated by Sir David Attenborough, and then it’s even money). The deeds, the action, the romance, the tensions, those are why we enjoy love stories. They tell us tales about people like us living lives like ours but to whom something extraordinary happens, an extraordinary something we’d all like to happen to us. It captivates both heart and imagination in ways raw data cannot.

Unless they’re sad love stories, of course. In which case women leave the theater crying as men wonder what just happened in the last two hours, both in the heart of his lover and on the screen (because, let’s face it, no man is going to be paying rapt attention to a chick flick).

Perhaps this is why the Bible makes use of love stories as often as it does. And not just love stories — love poetry. Reading Song of Songs in Hebrew may make one’s head hurt more than reading a Shakespearean sonnet, but we can’t remove Solomon’s work from Scripture. It’s one of the greatest ancient portrayals of romance still existing today. Nowhere else in the Bible can we find such beautiful depictions of love and sexuality. Sometimes readers will wonder how on earth it made it in there in the first place, but again, we all love a love story. We all understand what Solomon and his Beloved feel for each other. Song of Solomon helps us to recognize that such feelings are gifts from God.

In the great debate about sexuality, we’ve forgotten to emphasize that point as much as we should. We omit love to discuss sex. We forget about the God who created both. Maybe that’s because we blush when we read Song of Songs. Maybe it’s because we as Christians have misrepresented sex as something shameful and dirty for so many years. Whatever the reason(s), we need to reclaim eros just as surely as we need to embody agape. The God who is holy love, unconditional love (whether you call is agape or caritas [“charity” in the KJV]) is also the God of eros, of erotic, romantic love.

A brief caveat here: don’t confuse the romantic/erotic with the lustful. God did not create lust any more than He created anything else sinful. Lust is the perversion of love, the pale imitation of the real. Love for another is holistic; it is care for the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual selves of the other. You cannot truly love someone if you don’t care about their mind, just as you can’t fall in love with a soul which is darkened and twisted. Lust says otherwise. It relies upon biochemical sympathy to say “my body wants your body” without caring about any other dimension. It ignores the personhood of the individual and offers a reductionistic identity correspondent to their physicality. And that’s a problem. Bodies don’t last. Sometimes minds don’t even last. But love will care for the whole person, not just a single component of them. Lust never can and never will be able to offer anything more than sexual attraction.

Love offers a lifetime of devotion and dedication. That’s the kind of love God gifted us. He wired us to love one another in this way, designed us so that we would be able to care for one another on a romantic level. Such is the goodness and graciousness of God.

Now, this isn’t to say the single are “less-than.” It’s not to say the love which we pursue defines us in any way other than to point to our humanity and the Divinity which created it. We can enjoy life and personhood and a relationship with God without being married or dating. Paul even refers to it as a preferred state. So those who have the gift of romance can never look down upon those who do not. And those who do not should not feel envy or bitterness towards those who do. All rely on the provision of a sovereign God (and more than a little human initiative). All experience love, no matter the form it may take.

Most importantly, all know the love of God. A God who sent His Son to die on a cross for us, simply because He loves us and want us to love Him.

Now that‘s a love story.

F.A.Q.: A Consistent Ethic of Sexuality

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of divorce and cohabitation,
And fornication and . . . “

That’s not how that poem goes. That’s not how that poem goes at all. With apologies to Mr. Carroll, however, that’s how it will go for the purpose of this blog. The time has finally come to address the walrus — er, carpenter — er, elephant — in the room. One question I’m asked pretty regularly is why Christians spend so much time talking about homosexuality to the exclusion of other, seemingly more pervasive sexual sins. So here goes.

Short answer: the pot likes calling the kettle black. The other staple sexual sins — pre-marital sex, pornography, cohabitation, most forms of divorce, and adultery — are so common among churchgoers that pastors are afraid to say anything about them for fear of losing their flocks (and their pulpits). The LGBTQ community, however, is a much safer target, and so energies are diverted to speak out against homosexuality, transgenderism, etc. Such behaviors (NOTE: behaviors, not people) are fairly universally condemned from the pews as well as the pulpit, and so more lay Christians are likely to speak out about them. Instead of uncomfortably discussing our own sins, we say, “Let’s pick on someone who sins differently than we do!”

Again, that’s the short answer. The long answer is, well, longer.

Let’s begin by defining our terms. Under the biblical schema, many things are classified as sexual sin. The catch-all word for sexual immorality is porneia; I’m sure you recognize the root as the same for “pornography.” Porneia is a bit of a legal term in the sense it carries the full weight of the Torah behind it. Anything and everything the law of Moses classified as sexual sin is counted as porneia in the New Testament. Most of those laws are scattered throughout Leviticus, but they’ve largely carried over even in popular conception: incest, fornication (pre-marital sex), adultery, homosexuality, and transvestism (included here in its traditional place). Many people claim Jesus never talked about homosexuality, and he didn’t explicitly, but he did make reference to — and sharply condemn — the categorical porneia, so he really did talk about it.

Back on topic, though, porneia very soundly condemns the “church-approved” sexual sins. The only acceptable sexual behavior in either testament is heterosexual intercourse in the context of the marriage covenant. That pretty much excludes both adultery and fornication straightaway. A common argument in favor of the latter nowadays is “Oh, but we love each other, and we’ve promised to only be with each other.” Great! Put a ring on it. The full level of commitment prerequisite to sex shouldn’t be at all daunting if you’ve already made it as far as all that. Secure God’s blessing on your relationship through holy matrimony and enjoy your marriage bed. But until you do, you’re not married, the two have not become one flesh, and sexual intercourse is still out of bounds for you. (I would say I’m sorry, but I have a rule: never apologize for what the word of God says, even — especially — the hard parts.) So again: any sort of sexual behavior outside of a heterosexual marriage is sin. And some of the violent and demeaning sexual behaviors inside of those parameters are sin, too. But that takes care of two things, then, pre-marital and extra-marital sex.

On to another. Divorce is perhaps the most taboo, most difficult subject to teach on. Jesus actually made my job much harder on this score than both Moses and the rabbis in the time of Christ. I mean, one rabbi actually authorized divorce if your wife ruined your meal while cooking it.

“Darling, I burned the toast . . . “
“Well then I’ll see you in divorce court. Start packing.”

Divorced women at the time had no rights and no property. So when Jesus tightened the regulations governing divorce in Matthew 5:31-32 and 19:1-12, he did a great deal to help women. He greatly reduced the valid reasons for obtaining a divorce — as in the number changed from “infinite” to “one,” namely infidelity. Paul nuances this a bit in 1 Timothy 5:8 (as most take it), saying infidelity also includes a failure to provide (up to and including abandonment by most interpretations). And most interpreters take that provision to include safety, so abuse likewise becomes a valid reason for divorce. That’s it, really: infidelity, abandonment, and abuse. The only three reasons the New Testament gives us for divorce. Anyone divorcing for any other reason and remarries both commits adultery and causes the other ex-spouse to do so as well.

This is a hard saying.

Now add the fact lust is equivalent to adultery (Matthew 5:27-30) and you have even bigger problems.

Let’s kick it up another notch (BAM!), a notch brought to you by 20th-Century technology and 21st-Century demand: pornography. There is nothing redemptive about porn; there’s nothing anyone can say to make it less evil. As the saying goes, the only difference between pornography and prostitution is the camera. Both are paying people for sex, yet we only really consider one of them to be evil; why? How? Add to that fundamental thought the aforementioned sinful status of lust. Now consider the rise in demand for violent pornography. Now think about its connection to sex trafficking. And don’t forget the way it warps views of sex, women’s bodies, men’s bodies, women’s personhood, men’s personhood, and everything else it falsely portrays. After all, porn is a lie. Now let’s mention the addiction, the porn-induced sexual dysfunction, the shame and guilt and . . . Finally getting the picture? One last thing, then: if fornication is wrong, and porn requires fornication, then at its most basic, it’s simply a recording of sin. If your spouse asks to watch it together, remember: it will only hurt in the bedroom, never help. I’ll say it again because it bears repeating: there is nothing redemptive about porn.

There. A consistent sexual ethic to cover sexual immorality in all its various guises, inside the church and out. I realize some of you are pondering the topics of polygamy and levirate marriage in Scripture, thinking they’re permissible by the biblical “meta-ethic.” Short answer: no. Longer answer: apples and oranges. Longest answer: that’s another blog for another day.

Let’s be good to each other, folks. Speak these truths in love. The sin is not the person; the sin is a mistake the person made. Love that person with all you are — just as the Lord loves you.