Delighted to announce that The Message of Love will be out in September. You can pre-order your copy now before it sells out!!
Seriously, I won’t be pushing the book on this blog apart from this announcement and maybe a couple of posts when it comes out.
Few things are more boring than an author obsessively banging on about their book.
So excuse me this post and then we will move on.
It has taken up weekends, evenings and holidays for the last couple of years or so, so it’s exciting to see publication in sight.
I’ve loved writing about love. For me, the book effectively turned into a biblical theology of Christianity.
It did not start there but that is where it feels like it finished.
By ‘biblical theology of Christianity’ I mean it engages with the great core questions at the heart of the Christian faith. That theology emerges via exegesis, discussion and contemporary application of 17 individual key ‘love texts’ in the Bible.
The sorts of issues are listed below. They are not a table of contents but some of the theological themes that surface along the way.
Who is God and what is he like?
God’s love for his people Israel – unbreakable covenant love, judgement and forgiveness.
God’s just love for the poor and marginalised
The love of the Father for the Son
God is love
God’s great love shown in Jesus Christ
God’s love poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit
Human love for God
Wholehearted love for God – heart, soul, strength
The cost of discipleship love
Love and worship
Love and obedience
Love for one another
The difficult discipline of love as a foretaste of the future
Love, freedom and the Spirit
Erotic Love: sex, the body and desire
Love and Marriage
Misdirected love: the love of money
Every chapter has discussion of implications for how the ‘Bible Speaks Today’.
The more these themes came into focus, the clearer it became how and where a biblical theology of love confronts and contrasts with how love is understood in the twenty-first century West.
Overall, the book discusses how the Christian faith is effectively a beautiful vision of a flourishing life together.
But it also asks some hard questions.
If God’s people are called to love and worship a God who is love, what does that look like in churches? In how Christians treat opponents? In a culture where the church is often seen as opposed to love rather than the embodiment of it?
If love describes God’s character, his dealings with his people and his attitude to the world; if love is the ultimate goal of his redemptive work and is heartbeat of the Christian life and future hope; if churches are to be communities of other-focused love – what challenges does this pose to churches today?
To you and I?
Where do we need repentance and renewal? What is the connection between love and mission?
That hopefully gives you a flavour of what The Message of Love is all about.
A couple of encouraging endorsements are in from NT scholars Scot McKnight and Ben Witherington.
For close to two decades I have studied both how the Bible presents love and how Bible scholars have expressed that presentation. Luminaries like James Moffatt and Leon Morris, from two considerably different traditions, have become standard treatments but I found both coming up short for different reasons. No one will ever offer the final word on what the Bible says about love, but I know of no volume that is as thorough, sensitive to context and contour, as Patrick Mitchel’s sparklingly clear and faithful exposition of how the Bible presents love, how in fact the God of love loves the world and the people of God in Christ. This will become a standard text for my classes on New Testament theology.
Oddly enough, it has been decades since a really good study of love in the Bible has appeared. Finally, we may now thank Patrick Mitchel for remedying this oversight in The Message of Love. There is a reason that Jesus said that the great commandment has to do with love, and Paul said love was greater than even faith and hope. It is because God himself is love, it is the essence of his character, and Mitchel in this book lays out for us how that is a consistent theme throughout the Bible. Highly recommended.
This is a second of a series on the importance of love in Christian theology and contemporary culture.
In the last post we talked about the relegation of love within the theological priorities of post-Reformational traditions where love comes in a very definite second to faith.
In this post we’ll look at the opposite trend: how in (some) contemporary Christianity love is celebrated and extolled, prioritised and spoken about in terms that elevate it to such a degree that it becomes a goal in itself.
By this I mean that love takes on a sentimental and even mystical nature, that when experienced you have reached a higher spiritual existence.
Love itself becomes divine – the ground of our being.
This links back to a post on how, in contemporary culture, we have shifted from John’s famous statement, ‘God is love’ to ‘Love is God’. Where love itself is idolised and revered as that alone which gives life meaning.
As the fab 4 sang, ‘All you need is love’.
This is all quite subtle and hard to pin down, after all, you have to be a miserable old curmudgeon to be anti-love don’t you?
‘Love Alone’ theology
Here are some symptoms of what I call ‘Love Alone’ theology
1. Love is spoken and sung about in ways that it is detached from the narrative of the Bible. Love becomes what we want it to be. Yet, in contrast, Christian love has a particular character – it is shaped by God’s self-giving love in Christ. It calls for a wholehearted response of obedience to God. It requires humility and repentance. It depends on God’s grace. It entails deep cost to the self.
2. The ‘content’ of love is assumed – the assumption being ‘sure we all know what love is don’t we?’. That content tends to be sentimentalised – love is warm, inclusive, feel-good, fulfilling. It is that which meets our deepest needs.
3. The difficulty of love is downplayed – it is assumed that love is automatic and easy. Little or nothing is said about our own distorted loves and sinful desires.
4. The cost of love is ignored – love is that which brings happiness and joy, not that which often involves pain and sacrifice.
5. The focus of love tends to be individualistic – faith in God is what gives ‘me’ an experience of God’s love that brings me comfort and hope.
6. Love trumps all – if something is loving, the presence of love trumps all. So, for example, a couple in love who want a baby to love pay a woman to rent her womb. Love trumps any ethical concerns over surrogacy. The outcome (love) justifies the means.
This is a first of a wee series on the importance of love in Christian theology and contemporary culture.
Here’s a proposal: there is a curious ambivalence towards love within quite a bit of post-Reformational Protestantism / evangelicalism. (Love in Catholic theology has a distinctly different flavour – maybe that’s a topic for another day).
By ambivalence I mean that, while love is extolled and spoken of as a good thing, it is somehow not at the heart of doctrine or preaching.
Does this sound familiar to you? What is the place of love in your theology and in your experience?
Obviously this is a broad claim, but at a general level I think a good case can be made for it. For example, how do you read Romans and Galatians or had them explained and preached to you? Is it something like the following?
In Romans, chapters 1-8 form the great doctrinal core of the book (sin, justification by faith, gift of the Spirit), 9-11 the confusing bit about Israel and then the ‘applied theology’ bit on practical Christian living from chapters 12 on?
In Galatians, a bit of Pauline biography in chapters 1-2, the great doctrinal core of the book (justification, adoption) from 2-4 and then secondary practical instructions on ethical Christian living in chapters 5-6.
In both, the ‘practical’ tends to be seen as secondary to the ‘doctrinal’. They are ‘follow ons’ – advice and commands that should flow from the doctrinal … but what really matters is getting doctrine of justification by faith right.
Faith is primary. Chronologically this makes sense – the Christian life follows from conversion. But, I suggest (and this is a blog post – it would need proper research) historically the dominance of justification, the strong distinction made between it and subsequent sanctification and what I call the ‘anxious Protestant principle’ of works being smuggled into saving faith, has meant that place of love within Paul’s thought has either been downplayed or simply overlooked.
Some time ago the NT scholar John Barclay said this about the relative neglect of chapters 5 and 6 of Galatians in 20th century exegesis: (Obeying the Truth: Paul’s Ethics in Galatians. 1988. Fortress.)
[I]t is a by-product of the “Lutheran” theological consensus. If one considers that the main thrust of Paul’s attacks on “works of the law” is against human works and achievement, one is apt to conclude that his specific ethical instructions are merely an appendix or, perhaps, an attempt to prevent himself from being misunderstood as antinomian. To give these instructions any more integral place would be to admit that Paul also is concerned to promote works.
So love (and the ‘works’ of the Christian life in general) are not integral to saving faith. Note that Barclay is NOT saying that Luther taught this (we’ll come back to what he did teach about faith and love in a later post), he is saying it is a symptom of later theological post-Reformational theological emphases.
On this tack, another scholar, Stephen Chester, gives the example of Lutheran scholar Gerhard Ebeling’s major work The Gospel of Truth (2001) on Galatians in which 230 pages are given to chapters 1-4 and a paltry 25 to chapters 5-6. For Ebeling, yes, love (and works associated with it) is important, but it is nevertheless subsidiary to core doctrinal priorities of the letter. As Chester comments, the impression is given that Paul’s argument is essentially complete at the end of chapter 4 (and a similar point could be made for Romans – effectively the really important doctrinal argument is finished by the end of chapter 8). (Stephen Chester, ‘Faith Working Through Love (Galatians 5:6): The Role of Human Deeds in Salvation in Luther and Calvin’s Exegesis’).
There is something gone awry here because this relegation of love just does not ‘fit’ Paul – nor does it do justice to Jesus or to John or the tone of the New Testament in general.
Chapter 2 of James K A Smith’s book is ‘You might not love what you think’
If the first question of discipleship is ‘What do you love?’, a possible problem arises: ‘Do you actually love what you think you love?’
He tells the story of Andrei Tarkovsky’sStalker – where characters are given the terrifying choice of entering the Room where their deepest desires will be revealed. What if their conscious choice is not what they are given? The lesson being explored is whether what we think actually aligns with what we want. What we really desire is revealed in our daily life and habits not necessarily in what we say or think we love.
And Smith also goes to Sam Mendes’ American Beauty where Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham (why are all Lester’s ‘losers’? – see Fargo) pursues ‘freedom’ – including in the form of Angela, the teenage friend of his daughter. Without ruining the plot, at a critical moment, Lester finds out that he doesn’t actually want what he thought he wanted.
In essence, Smith is arguing that a holistic approach to discipleship needs to appreciate how we are formed by all sorts of unconscious influences, desires and habits that “orientate our being-in-the-world.” (33). He refers to modern psychology that suggests that 95% of what we do in the world is unconscious habit (‘second nature’), only 5% is the result of deliberate choices.
He argues that ‘virtues’ are on the unconscious register – these are acquired habits that dispose to act in certain ways (36). Good character isn’t accidental – it is a web of accumulated dispositions. These can be acquired intentionally by upbringing, training and practice, but also unintentionally.
Smith says we engage in formative routines and habits all that time but rarely recognize what is going on – indeed we are surrounded and immersed in environments (‘liturgies’) that have their own formative power to train our loves.
So, he argues, we learn to love rival kingdoms because we are participating in rival liturgies. Just assuming that ‘we are what we think’ is reductionistic and naïve – it misses the reality of who we are and how we love.
So Smith is writing as a sort of ‘wake up call’ – to see things as they really are. The rest of the chapter is about how to read these secular liturgies. He unpacks the spirituality of the shopping mall – an intensely religious centre at the heart of everyday life.
(I get my students to do an assignment around visiting a big shopping centre and analyzing the beliefs and practices at work. It seems utterly normal and benign, yet is full of ‘theology’ and ‘liturgy’ and the attracting power of ‘loves’).
Back to Smith: in brief what is going on in the mall?
It is not trying to engage our thinking, but it is not neutral
It is interested in what we love – it is aimed at our hearts. Nice line – “Victoria’s secret is that she’s actually after your heart.” (41)
familiar and homogenous – we feel at home whatever city or even country we are in (the picture above in Turkey could be virtually anywhere)
large atriums and foyers welcome the faithful pilgrims; funneling them into the worship centre
High vaulted ceilings, open to the sky, bright lights, calming music draw people into a space cut off from the outside world – he makes a nice point about how the walls hide the surrounding moat of cars and distractions of the outside world. You are brought into a sanctuary, retreat and escape. (42)
You are ushered into a sort of timeless zone, comfortable peaceful space with its own rhythm.
The space has its own calendar of remembrances and festivals – one morphing into the other during the year: a ceaseless litany of holidays and special days (with new ones being created regularly) in order to draw in more pilgrims.
The structure parallels the great Medieval Cathedrals with side chapels for devotion
Rich iconography lines the walls and windows – manniquins inviting us to imitate them – ideals of perfection representing the good life.
This is all packaged in themes of compelling beauty – inviting us to participate in this life that can be ours.
Inside the ‘chapels’, us ‘seekers’ are welcomed unconditionally as we look for something that will give us joy, satisfaction and pleasure
The consummation of our worship is a transaction of exchange and communion – we leave with something ‘concrete’, more tangible than feelings
“Released by the priest with a benediction, we make our way out of the chapel in a kind of denouement, not necessarily with the intention of leaving (our awareness of time has been muted), but rather to continue contemplation and be invited into another chapel. Who could resist the tangible realities of the good life so abundantly and invitingly offered?” (45).
We are not intellectually reasoning ‘this stuff will make me happy’ because, if we did think about it much, we would quickly know that no it won’t. But by endless repetition I’m ‘covertly conscripted’ / my loves have been automated / I have been formed by secular liturgies that are loaded with meaning.
And Smith says similar ‘liturgical’ unpacking can be done of all sorts of everyday rituals
A stadium as a temple of nationalism and militarism
Smartphones – in terms of content we look at and the rituals that tie us umbilicially to them – we see how they are loaded with an egocentric vision of life where I am the centre of the universe.
So what is the ‘ultimate story’ (or I would say gospel) of consumerism in the mall?
[much of what he says here about the ‘good news’ of consumerism is not new (see posts on consumerism here and especially those on William Cavanaugh) – but it is helpfully and creatively put together with the idea of liturgy
1. I’m broken, therefore I shop.
Consumerism pretends to offer a picture of unbridled endless optimism. Far from it – underneath the message is you are imperfect (‘sinner’) who needs fixing. These visions of happiness, friendship, sexiness, contentment and joy (the good life) – are not yours. You know it and so do we. You need redemption and we can provide it.
2. I shop with others.
While consumerism is associated with individualism and self-interest, it also, says Smith, is a social phenomenon – but one that fosters competition not community; objectification rather than other-regarding love. We compare ourselves to others as measured against mall’s perfect image of what we ‘should’ be.
3. I shop (and shop and shop) and therefore I am.
The market’s liturgy is an invitation to redemption – to a solution to our brokenness. Shopping as therapy and healing, a path to joy and overcoming sadness and ourselves – whether body shape, looks, clothes, cool technology. But, as Smith reminds us, the ‘secret’ of bright shiny happy consumerism is that nothing it offers is meant to last. The thrill dissipates fast – and we are back in the cycle of the next fix. A pattern not only of aquisition but of relentless consumption. The ‘unseen’ side of the story is all the discarded ‘good’s that are now useless. Consumerism reduces things to nothingness. Nothing has lasting value. In the process we are being trained to overinvest in things than cannot deliver, while at the same time wastefully devaluing things that become tomorrow’s rubbish.
4. Don’t ask, don’t tell.
By this Smith means the dark side of consumerism. The mall deliberately insulates the pilgrims from the inconvenient truths about their worship. Behind the perfect shiny mythic façade is a way of life that is unsustainable globally, as well as being built on the backs of the poor in the majority world. The image is as if the goods on sale have magically arrived from nowhere and been made by no-one. The mall cuts all connections between consumer and the person who actually made the thing in question. Issues of ethics and fair treatment of workers are airbrushed out of existence. The dream is an unending and ‘costless’ provision of absolutetly anything we desire. This is the American way after all. The vast waste and environmental cost is hidden away out of sight. Don’t ask, don’t tell, just consume – be happy.
None of this ‘gospel’ is announced or explained in written form. It is ‘caught rather than taught’. Because we like to think we are thinking beings, we imagine sin and temptation as a rational choice that we will have time and space to decide upon. Rather, says Smith, we have disordered loves and poorly shaped habits. We need –re-formation in our lives.
Smith suggests a couple of ways to approach this:
We need to reimagine temptation and sin – not just as rational intentional choices – but often sin is the result of vices – badly ordered habits and practices.
To begin to reorder our love lives, we first need to become aware of the daily liturgies in our lives. He mentions the Ignatian Daily Examen :
Find time to pause for reflection on the rituals and rhythms of your life
What are the things that do something to you?
What vision of the good life is carried in those liturgies?
What story if embedded in those cultural practices?
What kind of person do they want you to become?
To what kingdom are they orientated?
What does this cultural liturgy want you to love?
And as we become more attuned to the presence and power of these liturgies, we then can begin to consider engaging in counter-liturgies within Christian worship … as a powerful way to be reformed in our loves and imaginations.
Any examples of a daily liturgy in your life come to mind?
I’m teaching a course on faith and contemporary culture at the moment. We focus in on the values, beliefs and narrative of consumerism as a case study. By definition consumerism is never satisfied – the (temporary) answer is always more .. and more.
A couple of weeks ago in class we talked about the relationship of consumerism with the body. Here’s Werner G Jeanrond on this theme in an unjustly little known book I’ve just started reading called A Theology of Love.
Fasting, painful sporting activities, beauty operations, all sorts of medicines and remedies are recommended in order to reach a higher level of control over the body. A new and perfect body is longed for – a kind of secular object of salvation. The desire for the perfect body seems to have replaced the desire for the perfect soul in many quarters of Western society. This fight against the present and imperfect body and for the new and perfect body can, of course, never end. Asceticism, once the hallmark of religious aspirations, has made a comeback in the secular cult of the body. This cult of the body has seemingly reached eschatological proportions. Moreover, this desire for perfect bodies has become an inexhaustible source of wealth generation for those market forces that have offered their mediating remedies to meet this desire, fully conscious of the fact that this desire can never be stilled. Love cannot be made through the production of perfect bodies.
The tasks of a contemporary theology of love, therefore, ought to include the demythologization of the ongoing cult of the body and the reconstruction of possibilities for Christian respect and care for the body. (12)
As someone without a perfect body, I say AMEN!
The destructive goal of the cult of the body is the creation of feelings of dissatisfaction and envy. The motive is money. The promise is love and acceptance by self and others. The effect is destructive of self-esteem and erosion of identity. Its target is particularly women, but has increasingly moved on to men (in order to broaden the market).
Such is the saturation of our imaginative and cognitive space by consumer messages about the body, that we don’t, I think, in the church talk, preach, teach and reflect on the corrosive impact of the cult of the body. Assumptions that ‘our’ culture is somehow ‘neutral’, ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ are naive at best. For culture continually ‘forms’ and ‘shapes’ us. It acts, as James K A Smith would say, as a ‘secular liturgy’ that trains our hearts and loves.
We, I think, need active ‘reconstruction’ of a Christian theology of the body. John Paul II’s ‘Theology of the Body‘ represents a major serious Catholic response to the body in contemporary culture but I doubt that too many Protestants and evangelicals are aware of it. An authentic Christian theology of the body will liberate people from the relentless demands of the secular cult of the body. It speaks of a radically different story and identity. I’ll come back to this in another post – this one is already getting long
The idealised image of the perfect body is telling us what the good life literally looks like. It is telling us (well me anyway – don’t know about you!) that I am not perfect. I don’t measure up. Something is wrong, broken, lacking. But the optimistic good news is that it can be fixed! Happiness and love can be mine. Implicit in this contract is that the key to salvation lies with me – to spend money on the right products or procedures, and/or to pummel my body into shape through diet and exercise.
This is a secular ‘gospel’ of sin and redemption.
Put like this is seems a pretty silly, thin and unconvincing sort of ‘gospel’ doesn’t it? I mean who really believes that shopping and/or exercise or a perfect body is the key to a happy life? But this objection fails to appreciate how consumerism works ‘below the surface’ – at the level of unspoken images, emotions, feelings and dreams. Described rationally it looks silly and superficial. But it is anything but – it is the driving force of Western culture worth mega-billions.
Why? What is so powerful about consumer images (like that of the perfect body)?
And this leads to one place where I disagree with Jeanrond’s language (and it’s not characteristic of the book). He talks about the desire for a perfect body replacing the desire for a perfect soul. But Christianity does not hope for a perfected soul. It hopes for a perfected resurrection body.
What consumerism ‘get’s in a way that some dualistic and overly rationalistic forms of Christianity do not, is that we are embodied creatures. We think, but we also feel, imagine, touch, and dream as we engage with the physical world in which we live. Smith again: we are ‘lovers’ and ‘worshippers’ who explore our way through
“an affective, gut-like orientation to the world that is prior to reflection and even eludes conceptual articulation … we are the sorts of animals for whom things matter in ways we don’t often (and can’t) articulate.” (51)
This is why pictures tend to be more powerful than words – try talking to someone who is watching TV or playing a game on a tablet. Images and pictures get into our hearts more easily and immediately than propositions and words. Images of the perfect body, for example, are designed to awaken our desire – not just sexual though that is certainly part of it – but desire for an attractive vision of an alternative life to one we currently have.
So the power or ‘genius’ of contemporary consumerism is that it instinctively understands human nature. We are holistic, not dualistic, creatures; we all desire some sort of kingdom; we all worship something; our lives are shaped by our loves. Smith puts it like this
I think we should first recognize and admit that the marketing industry – which promises an erotically charged transcendence through media that connects to our heart and imagination – is operating with a better, more creational, more incarnational, more holistic anthropology than much of the (evangelical) church … they rightly understand that we are erotic creatures – creatures who are orientated primarily by love and passion and desire … meanwhile, the church has been duped by modernity and has bought into a kind of Cartesian model of the human person, wrongly assuming that the heady realm of ideas and beliefs is the core of our being. These are certainly part of being human, but I think they come second to embodied desire. And because of this, the church has been trying to counter the consumer formation of the heart by focusing on the head and missing the target: it’s as if the church is pouring water on the head to put out a fire in our heart. (76-77)