When I was criticizing that awful Washington Post piece about how morally confounding Mark Sanford’s love life is, it just seemed odd to me that no media outlet has really explained the Christian view of love. For being a country that is majority Christian, it’s shocking how little we read about some of the basic tenets of the theology.
Anyway, no sooner had I hit publish on that last post when I came across an Associated Press story (“For born-again Sanford, love is more than a feeling“) that explains what it calls the “born-again, evangelical Christian” approach to love. You might also recognize it as the Catholic approach to love. And the Orthodox approach to love. And the Lutheran approach to love. And so on and so forth. But I digress.
Here’s the beginning by reporter Allen Breed:
In one especially soul-baring e-mail to his Argentine mistress, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford quoted from 1 Corinthians 13 about the nature of love.
It is patient and kind, he wrote. It is NOT jealous or boastful.
The Christian counselors Sanford sought out while trying to decide whether to stay with his wife or jump on a plane to South America advised him what else love is and isn’t.
“Their point is that love is not a feeling,” Sanford told the Associated Press in a tearful two-day confessional. “It’s a choice. It’s an action.”
That sentiment might seem cold to many Americans, but it is perfectly consistent with the born-again, evangelical Christian world that Sanford inhabits, says sociologist John Bartowski.
Maybe it’s because I’m in a marriage and have contemplated marriage a bit, but I can’t help but laugh that this sentiment might seem cold. To me, cold is cheating on your wife with an Argentine bombshell because you feel like it. Cold is messing up your sons’ view of marriage, romance and love through your narcissism and lack of foresight. Cold is breaking the heart of your wife and partner. Cold is telling the world that you so callously disregarded your marital vows that you somehow managed to pick up a “soul mate” who lives 5,000 miles away. Dios mio! But believing that love is demonstrated through your behavior? That doesn’t seem particularly cold to me.
I think what people are missing about this view is that the head is much more an agent of romance as are the heart and, uh, other body parts. Sanford used his brain to make love choices in recent years — he could have just as easily used that same brain to make different love choices. This isn’t cold so much as reality.
The story goes on to quote someone saying that evangelicals are “carving out a subcultural view of love” that is not so highly romanticized as we see in movies. I think that the source might be confused about whether the Christian view of love predates the chick flick or not, but that’s his fault more than the reporter’s:
That worldview, [Bartowski] says, “divorces” love from emotion, because “feelings are fleeting and not to be trusted.”
“Love is something that is cultivated in the trenches of living a day-to-day relationship,” says Bartowski. “That is not a Hallmark moment.”
Still, it would be nice to have at least one source argue for the romance inherent in the Christian view of love. Let’s go back to that 1 Corinthians quote that began the piece. It’s considered romantic, being used at so many weddings as to be predictable. Here’s a relevant portion:
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.
It may be impossible for marriage partners to achieve, but it’s certainly not something I’d describe as cold.
The article quotes a number of evangelicals all reinforcing the idea that love is demonstrated through actions rather than experienced via ephemeral emotions. There’s a lot missing about what that means, though. For instance, the Christian view is that love is not self-serving (see Corinthians, above). Love is directed at something. It’s how you get to take care of others. You love your children by feeding, clothing and taking care of them when they’re sick. It can be viewed as drudgery or a great blessing. You love your spouse by meeting their sexual, emotional and physical needs. Again, it can be viewed as drudgery or a great honor. Lutherans refer to the estate of marriage in vocational terms. I would have loved to see this idea, as described here by Gene Edward Veith, included in the article:
The purpose of every vocation is to love and serve our neighbor. God does not need our good works, commented Luther, but our neighbor does. In our vocations we encounter specific neighbors whom we are to love and serve through the work of that calling. Husbands and wives are to love and serve each other; parents love and serve their kids; office and factory workers love and serve their customers; rulers love and serve their subjects; pastors and congregations are to love and serve each other. And God is in it all.
Of course, we also sin in vocation — insisting on being served rather than serving; loving ourselves rather than our neighbors; misusing the gifts and the calling God Himself has given us — we come to Him on Sunday mornings in repentance, hearing God’s Word, being built up in our faith. Whereupon God sends us back into our callings, with all of their trials and tribulations, for that faith to bear fruit in love, service, and sanctification.
The competing vision is of love as a feeling that is its own judge. The heart reigns above all. But who, really, is being served in such an emotion-based scenario other than Sanford? The AP article really hammers home this idea that the Christian view of love is about duty, drudgery and coldness. That’s a deeply flawed take on the Christian view — one that reinforces Sanford’s views as expressed in his rambling press conferences and bizarre interviews.
I salute Breed for tackling this story, though. And I’m honestly unsure who is to blame for the story’s flaws. Is it him for his “Evangelicals in the Mist” approach and his use of a narrow range of sources? Or is it the inadequacy of the sources themselves?