I’ve been reading bell hook’s book All About Love: New Visions. In it, she stresses the importance of defining love so that we can’t be controlled by abusive people who claim to love us. She borrows her definition of love from M. Scott Peck: “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth…Love is as love does. Love is an act of will–namely, both an intention and an action.”
hooks later discusses our culture’s reluctance to define love:
It is particularly distressing that so many recent books on love continue to insist that definitions of love are unnecessary and meaningless. Or worse, the authors suggest love should mean something different to men than it does to women–that the sexes should respect and adapt to our inability to communicate since we do not share the same language. This type of literature is popular because it does not demand a change in fixed ways of thinking about gender roles, culture, or love. Rather than sharing strategies that would help us become more loving it actually encourages everyone to adapt to circumstances where love is lacking.
It’s funny how much this idea–that love should mean something different to men than it does to women–has caught on in Christian culture. Funny. And a bit sad.
I think of the books that were popular when I was a teenager and when I was attending a Christian college. The ones that flew off the bookshelf at Lifeway. The ones that the “cool” churches had Young Adult Bible studies on.
There was the For Men Only and For Women Only series. I remember buying For Men Only with my college suitemate Carina because it made us feel rebellious. We read it in her dorm room and snickered at how dumb it was.But the premise was exactly what bell hooks described above–that men and women are totally different and must be loved in different ways. The description on Amazon for For Men Only says it all (emphasis mine):
Now at your fingertips is the tool that will unlock the secret to her mysterious ways. Through hundreds of interviews and the results of a scientific national survey of women, this book demonstrates that women are actually not random and that they really can be systematized and “mapped.” In fact, much to men’s delight, this book shows that women are actually quite easy to understand and please—as long as you know what it is they need. This simple map will guide you to loving your wife or girlfriend in the way she needs to be loved.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the only Christian relationship book that emphasizes extreme sex differences when it comes to love.
There’s Eggerich’s Love and Respect, a book that I stopped reading out of frustration when I was dating my last boyfriend: “Psychological studies affirm it, and the Bible has been saying it for ages. Cracking the communication code between husband and wife involves understanding one thing: that unconditional respect is as powerful for him as unconditional love is for her. It’s the secret to marriage that every couple seeks, and yet few couples ever find.”Again, this idea that men and women need different things in a relationship.
How about the Eldredges’ books Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman’s Soul and Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul? Secret? Mystery? Or how about Men are Like Waffles, Women are Like Spaghetti?
Or Hayley and Michael DiMarco’s Marriable: Taking the Desperate Out of Dating, a book I read in college, which had separate chapters for men and women. Most notably, there was a chapter on “Male Porn” and “Female Porn.” The male porn section was on, well, porn. The female porn section was on chick flicks. Even when it comes to sex, says Christian culture, men and women want different things.
What happens when we insist on this dichotomy between men and women when it comes to love? What happens when we pretend that men and women are too different to understand each other? Or that all men want one thing when it comes to love and all women want another?
That men want respect and women want romance?
That men want physically pleasing sex and women just want to feel close to someone emotionally?
That men are a secret? Women are a mystery?
What happens is we cannot love each other fully. We cannot “nurture another’s spiritual growth,” according to Peck’s definition of love, because we’re only giving another person half of what they need. Because we’re assuming we know what their needs are based on the genitalia they happen to have (or because we’re assuming we can never really know what they need). Men and women both become dehumanized. They become simply mysterious terrain to be “systematized and mapped.”
I told you I stopped reading Love and Respect. Why? Because I don’t just need love and my boyfriend at the time didn’t just need respect. We both needed both. Equally. Unconditionally. One cannot exist without the other. I couldn’t stand the idea of being treated as simply this object called Woman–just follow the instructions to please! I couldn’t stand the idea of treating the man I was with in the same way.
The more the church settles for these split-up, scattered, partial definitions of love, the more the church pretends that all men are the same and all women are the same and all men are different from all women, the more that the church withholds holistic, fulfilling definitions of love from both men and women…
…the less the church knows love. The less the church knows God.