Whether you are a pot-smoking liberal, a teetotaling conservative, a “true native” of your home state, or just someone who can’t drive 55 on the freeway, everyone has something or someone who they love to hate. Now you don’t need to be religious to have heard of that famous Palestinian Jew, who taught the world to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Well, I’ve got another confession to make . . .
I’m a fan of the Jewish Rabbi, but I’ve had my ass kicked so many times “in the name of love” l that I have found myself singing along with the J. Giles band, belting out the anthem, “One thing for sure is . . . Love Stinks!” (video below) But where Peter Wolfe and the boys were lamenting the pitfalls of romantic love, you and I have been lamenting a different version of “love”, a viral strain that we un-affectionately refer to as, “lovey.”
Well, if you’re talking about the great “love commandment” from the Rabbi, we need to be careful. We know that many of Christ’s commands, are almost sarcastic reactions to the Pharisees as he goes about reframing the tradition and reinterpreting “the law.” Like when he says, “pluck out your eye . . . cut off your hand . . camel through the eye of a needle”. There is good reason for all this hyperbole – it is intentional on his part. He is letting us know that what the law requires is beyond difficult . . . it’s virtually impossible. Doesn’t he come right out and say, “it is impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven”? I think humans hate that interpretation because our pride tells us that we should always be able to rise to the occasion . . .
Yeah, I absolutely agree. I think we all start out with this naive optimism about ourselves and then we add religion and stir. There is nothing more intoxicating than our spiritual, delusions of grandeur, but these delusions quickly transform into the worse kind of pride. The thing about Christ’s great “love commandment” is that it sets us all up for a kind of fall. It’s like that Dylan song “It’s Alright Ma” where he says, “advertising signs that con you into thinking that you’re the one, that can do what’s never been done, that can win what’s never been won . . .”, only instead of advertising, it’s this moral law, and an ethical standard – we think we’ve found a “treasure map” for discovering the ‘best version’ of our new and improved selves!
Some people read the “law” and they realize, possibly for the first time, that their behavior is “over the line”, like when Paul writes, “I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.'” The problem today is not a lack of concern for ethics and morals; people are very uptight about issues of “right and wrong.” Today the problem is the raging subjectivism (Rene Descartes!), where the self has been vested with ultimate authority and the barometer for everything, is the subjective thoughts and sensations of the individual: “my feelings, my convictions, my conscience, my principles, my amygdala.” So rather than stand under an objective, external “law”, “lovey” takes the law into its own hands and seizes the presumed moral high ground called, “love.”
And once you say, “I’m on the side of love” (or truth or God or freedom) you gain a supreme, unshakable confidence in yourself and in your worlview. The problem, of course, is that the whole thing that I just described takes place in your mind – it’s good ol’ fashion, idealism. The real problem with idealism is not just that it lies outside of “the real”; the problem with idealism is in the way it encourages us to actually avoid concrete, down to earth-reality. In other words, idealism is often a way to retreat and hide from ourselves and from each other. This is why idealism or ideology becomes the perfect breeding ground for our mythical personas like the “lovey.”
Yeah, at its core, I think “lovey” is about what we might call self-righteousness. I am talking about a righteousness that originates in the confidence of one’s own potential goodness. It is not the righteousness that originates beyond the self, which is where I think Christ is driving us to look. “Lovey” simply imagines that it all bubbles up out of some secret chamber located in one’s “pure and loving heart.” It’s interesting that Christ’s and Paul’s words are rather extreme in their opposition to this kind of “high anthropology.” Some of the most severe language in the whole NT is reserved for those of whom it says, “they believed they were righteous in themselves.” So “lovey” is a cloak or a persona, designed to cover and impersonate – it’s a counterfeit. One of the defining traits of “lovey”, is the stubborn refusal to see the self-righteousness for what it is. When I run into problems is when I finally start to let go of that “lovey” image, but then this voice says to me, “Todd, don’t you want to be a good and loving person?” and then I’m dragged right back into it again!
Getting back to the Rabbi, I think you’re right that when Christ gave his commandments, he knew that we were not going to be able to hit all those notes, rise to all those standards, and “win what’s never been won”, but that doesn’t mean that he is saying, “Oh, that’s ok boys and girls, just do your best!” No, I think he is trying to draw us into a crisis, one where in the face of a perfect law, we are looking into a mirror and seeing the painful truth of it all. The law lets us “see what condition our condition is in!” You know how hard it is to admit that you’re not the person that you thought you were? It feels like having the rug pulled out from under you, “Hello, hello, I’m in a place called ‘vertigo’, it’s everything I wish I didn’t know!”
I remember when I married my wife – she had three little kids – you talk about delusions of grandeur? I was sure that I was a the “knight on the white stallion”, riding into the lives of these people as their hero and a saviour. Wow! Now I’ve been married to her for twenty years and it has taken all those years to dismantle that image I had of myself, the image that I had crafted in my mind about how wise and altruistic I was. It turns out that the only cure for the “false self” is suffering and grace. God allows these “images” of ourselves (an image is an “idol”) to experience suffering and shattering! He loves us so much, he is not willing to let us go on living in the land of idealism and DIY personas. Life in Christ is not a cruise-ship, but a life-long process of surrender and I don’t know about you but I don’t surrender very easily!
So “lovey” is just one of the myriad of ‘personas’ that we create, and costumes we wear, which is why no one needs to get offended when we say “I hate lovey.” We hate “lovey” because it’s a bloodless avatar, not a real person. “Lovey” is a ‘persona’ on a mission – a mission to spread its “lovey-dovey-stuff” wherever it goes. But be careful, you don’t want that “lovey-goo” to get on you. It’s a sticky substance, which clogs your pores, covering you with dark emotions like guilt and self-hatred. I have noticed that one of the ways people spread their “lovey-goo” is in the way they throw around certain words with no apparent sense of awareness, like the obligatory “love ya” at the end of so many phone calls.
I remember when I was up visiting your place this last summer and we were talking. I was going on about how people mindlessly punctuate the end of all their phone calls with, “Love ya!” I told you and Anna how it just rings so hollow, an empty phrase intended to give us a momentary sense of security in these difficult and often impossible relationships. We continued talking about this and at one point, we acknowledged together that I was stuck in a bit of an overreaction. But you guys cared enough that night to walk through it with me. You gave me the freedom to explore the “roots” of my bitter reaction. As you continued to push me further, I began to see how my repulsive tone originated in the underbelly of my family and the lack of love I experienced there. That was a real confession for me, admitting to why I am especially susceptible to the persecution of “lovey”. I realize that while I hate “lovey”, I still need love.
Yeah, that was a great experience for all of us that night. We were carefully wading into the turbulent, murky waters of another brothers painful plight. And I remember as we got into it, you told us how growing up you were given two conflicting messages. You said your mom would often say, “I love you” but there was another message, “I don’t like you” and that message ultimately drowned out the “love ya” message. That’s the sin of “lovey” right there! As you rightly put it, our response to “lovey” should be, “stop telling me how loving you are. This is a ‘show’ not ‘tell’ world.”
“Lovey” is counterfeit love that tries to pass itself off as the real thing and because it is fake, it ends up competing with Love itself, that unique person, the only one who is literally love incarnate. When John the beloved, writes that “God is love”, “lovey” makes the mistake of reading it backwards, “Love is God.” When the God that IS love is confused with the “lovey” program, love is reduced to a human trait or a principle for us to practice or a goal for us to achieve.
The gospel according to “lovey” is nothing more than a looped recording, which says in mantra fashion, “Just love!” The “lovey gospel” would have us believe that the harrowing shortage of love in the world is something that can easily be transcended with more bumper sticker reminders, positive feelings, and a little more (read, “never enough”) effort! In effect “lovey” says to the world, “I have unabated love ‘on tap’, and so should you!” But eventually the “lovey potion,” wears off and the program is seen for what it is, sentimentalism, and idealism. It reminds me of that statement in Jeremiah where God says, “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.” Our ad campaign for some time now has been, “Friends don’t let friends go ‘lovey'”!
Yeah, “lovey” can be relentless and you need to protect yourself. As I look back now, I can see how, in order to defend myself from “lovey”, I had to create a persona for myself called, “tough guy.” So now we have the tough, angry, guy, and the sweet benevolent, saintly, lovey, locked in a binary opposition. The thing we don’t realize about the personas that we create is that we end up getting lost in them and eventually we forget why we created them in the first place. Like you said, these personas are “residual” – they are not “real.” And because these personas are not “real” they cannot truly love, at least not by themselves. Even our best experiences with what we call love has a shelf-life. We get glimpses of the sublime, and sometimes an entire movement will start from one mere “glimpse” but inevitably the movement runs out of gas and one generation tries to put their dead movement onto the next and there is resentment there.
Now we’ve talked a lot about Bonhoeffer over the years, especially his statement, “Christ came for the ‘real man.’” The problem, of course, is once you get used to living as a ‘persona’, you forget what it means to be “real.” The message that I hear from Christ is that we never really had what we fear we may have lost. Like Pinocchio, the real hope and the promise of the gospel is that we might become what we have never truly been. This would mean that Christ is the first “real boy” among us, the only one with intimate, abiding knowledge of Love Itself. And when this “real boy” speaks to us he says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” And that sounds good until you realize that he is saying this to us in the midst of our bondage, with the Pharisees on one side and the Romans on the other. Only today, we have “lovey” self-righteous one one side and “tough guy” cynicism on the other. I think it interesting that Christ himself was caught between great expectations on one side and bitter disappointments on the other, and when those realities collided, he was snuffed out. Now here is a question, has Christ been able to escape all of the images that people have tried to put on him for thousands of years? (see video)