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.

Counter-Narrative

My generation is the generation of storytellers. We may not necessarily rally ’round the bonfire to relate spine-tingling tales of fiction (although we might), and we may not all be hooked on the latest trilogy of best-selling novels (yet we probably are), but we are the ones who sit down together and say, “Tell me your story.” Social media gives us the ability to heard hundreds of anecdotes and reports a day, and we absorb them all, connect them all. What’s more — we treasure them. We greatly value hearing about each other’s lives, the good and the bad together. We prize having a voice and giving voices to others who may long have been silent.

In fact, we’re so hooked on story we view the world through the lens of narrative. Everything is part of a narrative. For example, while we may know the pertinent historical data about slavery, those data matter less than the narratives of African-Americans from start to finish — the greater story, the metanarrative, of those people. Slavery may be chapter two (or seventeen or whatever), but there are also chapters on emancipation, the Tuskegee Institute, Jim Crow, civil rights, gang violence, poetry, music, and the NAACP. It’s a story of a people, and stories convey emotion and depth history texts lack. Those kind of narratives and metanarratives are what people like me pursue.

The world is full of them. Everyone has multiple roles in multiple stories. And our culture offers a jolly good one.

When you think of yourself as an American (if you are one; if not, as a citizen of your own country), what pops into your head? What’s the (American) story? For us in the States, I’d say it’s one of an obsession with liberty. Liberties seem to have been our main concern for the past 240 years. Early on it was political and economic freedoms, but it’s shifted now to personal liberties. All of us were given at birth what my minor advisor in college dubbed an “LLPH injection” — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That became our story, our American metanarrative. The government of any country (including our own) as well as private citizens cannot interfere with our liberty, with LLPH. Anything else would be un-American. And so our story is written with an eye towards that.

Recent chapters of that story have refined the narrative somewhat. Personal liberties trump all others, even the constitutionally-protected ones. The glorification of individualism via secular humanism is the new story about liberty. Liberals and Conservatives alike are equally guilty here: one group pushes a revised (or removed) sexual ethic, the other a fear of the Other (because the Other threatens their freedom). Drugs are my choice; you can’t take my guns. I can murder my unborn child; I’m under no obligation to pay taxes for your healthcare. And on and on and on and on.

It’s the story of our people. A story of violence and hate and laughter and freedom. A story which has obtained cultural dominance, a sort of hegemonic metanarrative, if you will, one that has been retold and accepted as true again and again and again. A story which all too frequently leaves out God.

So what if there’s another story? What if there’s a counter-narrative to our cultural metanarrative?

Thankfully I know just the story. Even better: it’s a true story. Even even better: it’s a true story about an unfading, unending love.

The story of God begins in the unknown. What happened before this universe existed is best left to the realm of speculation. Once we were spoken into being, though, the fun starts. And so does the pain. One of His first creations rebelled and inspired others to join him. Later the same rebel would entice a new race of beings into rebellion against God. Yet God still loved them, those all-too-human human beings. He made covenants with them, promised to bless and care for them, and said all we had to do in exchange was to let Him be our God.

If only we could have done that.

Instead, the story went another, darker direction. Every time God brought us back to obedience and blessing and worship, we rebelled anew. We rejected Him as king and God over us, preferring instead our own attempts at rule and happiness, attempts which invariably ended in exile and horror. As C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, “What Satan put into the head of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could ‘be like gods’ — could set up on their own as if they had created themselves — be their own masters — invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history — money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery — the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”

But there’s a better story.

God never abandons us. He continues to love us. And so it was that, in His great, unfailing love, He came to us in the form of Jesus Christ. God put on flesh and blood. He bled and died to forgive us of our sins and reconcile us to Himself after our rebellions. He came to life again the third day to defeat death, hell, and the grave. We can share in that victory and gain eternal life.

That’s the story of God. A story which compels us to love as we are loved, to forgive even as we have been forgiven. To go and serve and help and laugh and weep and mourn and rejoice. All because there’s more to life than ourselves. More than the individual. More than the subjective. More than the story our culture tells us.

Donald Miller, in Searching for God Knows What, writes this: “I wonder if when we take Christian theology out of the context of its narrative, when we ignore the poetry in which it is presented, when we turn it into formulas to help us achieve the American dream, we lose its meaning entirely, and the ideas become fodder for the head but have no impact on the way we live our lives or think about God. This is, perhaps, why people are so hostile towards religion.”

He’s right. The love story of God isn’t a how-to guide for living out another narrative. It demands to be the only metanarrative, the only story for which we live our lives. It requires us to reorient our existence around that story, to live it out day by day until we’re called home. When we don’t do that, when we try to stop serving God and instead force Him to serve us, we lose the story. It’s not the right narrative. And people know. They know about the story of God. They know how that narrative should impact our lives. When it doesn’t? When we twist it to suit us? When we make it a secondary story and live out another instead? They get hostile. They belittle God’s story because it effectively doesn’t matter in the lives of those who profess to believe it. So they remain locked in the “long terrible story of man [sic],” a story in which nothing matters but their own LLPH.

Folks, we must tell the better story. We must live out the metanarrative of Scripture, a story of love, hope, community, sacrifice, and eternity. We must present the world with an old, old story, a tale which alone can offer them salvation. This is our story to tell; we are the only ones who can offer the Christian counter-narrative.

Let’s go be storytellers.