catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 4 :: 2009.02.13 — 2009.02.27


A Love whose name cannot be spoken

Love beyond romance and sexual intimacy

I confess I struggle with romantic love. 

I am happily partnered to a wonderful person who is intelligent, creative, dynamic, sexy, maddening (at times), empathetic and loving.  We have great sex.  We are deeply committed to each other, and that commitment has only deepened the longer we have been together. In the months after we first met-now over twelve years ago-I did fall in love with her, and we did marry a year and nine months later. 

Now, depending on your assumptions or presuppositions, now that I have said “her” and revealed that we are married, you may have a different impression of the opening sentences of this confession.  This is part of my struggle with romantic love or love oriented toward sexual intimacy: the way it plays out in the current struggles around gender, sexual orientation, and identity.  I have my doubts about love because love that is expressed sexually and romantically is seen in our culture as the epitome of love.  No greater love can one have than this, that of romance and sexual intimacy.  If we have not been in love, if we are not sexually intimate with someone, we somehow have not expressed our selves fully as human beings.  This presupposition underlies almost all of our current American/Western cultural discourses surrounding human sexuality. 

I struggle with romance-I who could be said to have reached our culture’s pinnacle of intimacy-because we Christians have unthinkingly accepted this presupposition.  I believe we should examine and question not only this presupposition but also examine the ways in which it affects our discourse surrounding views of sexuality that attempt to be biblical or Christian.

This article is a beginning (a prolegomena, if you will) of an examination of this cultural presupposition through the lens of four cultural artifacts: the song “Bye Bye Love” first performed by the Everly Brothers; the song “Temple of Love” by the band Sisters of Mercy; the film Moulin Rouge, which takes us on a tour of our culture’s view of love and romance; and the film The Fifth Element.  “Bye Bye Love” and “Temple of Love” both deal with a certain disillusionment with love/romance while at the same time reinforcing the sense that such love is the epitome of love. Moulin Rouge teeters between this disillusionment and an idealization of love. The Fifth Element asserts that the “fifth element” essential to life is love-but love expressed romantically and through sexual intimacy.

“Bye Bye Love” was written by Felice and Boudlaux Bryant and released as a single by the Everly Brothers in 1957.  In it, we have both a reaffirmation of the story of romantic love, as well as expression of disillusionment.  The narrator in the song finds disillusionment in romance: a failed romance did not lead to the hoped-for, perfecting relationship because the object of desire fell in love with someone else.  One is left with the distinct impression that outside of a coupled romantic relationship, there is no possibility of happiness and one is left with cold loneliness.  The man (this is a gendered song), though free to wander the world, remains single, unattached to anyone or anything, banished from the land of happiness and companionship.  Now there is an emotional truth in this song.  I remember feeling this way in high school after I fell in love with a girl.  We “dated” briefly (you know: hung out together some and sat next to each other for several weeks in youth group) until she decided to date another guy instead.  I’m sure you remember similar experiences. Yet the problem is that our views of sexuality and intimacy are influenced by this teen confusion over love and the feelings of incompleteness as one wraps too much up into a person with whom one has fallen in love.  This adolescent view of love retains the illusory ideal, even as it seems to give up on it.  The narrator in “Bye Bye Love” does not try to re-conceive the ideal or see through to another possibility of love and intimacy, but rather sees the person without romance as exiled from human fulfillment and companionship.

This accepting-and-rejecting the mythology of romance is taken further in “Temple of Love,” written by Andrew Eldritch in 1983 and included on the 1992 Sisters of Mercy release Some Girls Wander by Mistake.  “Temple of Love” is a Goth version of this dynamic woven with undertones of politics and suicide.  The spurned narrator sees a romantic couple, one of whom is someone the narrator once loved (this song is less gendered, though it is Andrew Eldritch who sings the song).  The couple are blind to his pain as they take refuge in the Temple of Love.  This “temple” to romantic love and sexual intimacy is not a purely happy place, in contrast to the world created in “Bye Bye Love.” “Temple of Love” describes a place of promised refuge that becomes a place of pain and turmoil.  The song eventually declares that the temple of love is falling down.  The Sisters of Mercy song sees pain and loneliness, not in the loss of love per se but in what is offered and taken away by love-as-romance and sexual intimacy.  Love, Eros, is a fickle god/goddess, whom one can worship when coupled and in love.  But very quickly one is outside looking in, when love is lost and the former lover moves on to another romantic relationship.  The same dynamic of freedom and despair, of failed romance and banishment from sexual intimacy, is at work in this song, but rather than simply seeing the lover as the source of the pain, “Temple of Love” declares that the problem is with the system of romance and sexual intimacy.  The taste of ecstasy offered by Eros is a lie, since the ecstasy will certainty be snatched away by Eros, and one is better off not tasting at all. The song takes a cynical view of love: since love by definition is fleeting, it is ultimately summed up in the one-night stand.  The Temple of Love itself will fall; it crumbles under its own weight.  Eros cannot maintain her own system, and there is no real safety or protection in the Temple of Love.

Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001) is laced with idealism, hope, despair and ruin.   While the pop love songs it uses to tell its story include those that speak to deep despair-as in the above two songs-other songs are full of the hope of romance, full of the sense that we become most fully who we are as people in the experience of romantic love.  We hear that coupled sexual intimacy and romance lift us up out of our common place, and love conquers all.  Yet the story that is told with these songs is more complex. Love (Eros) proves unable to overcome the harsh realities of the Moulin Rouge, and Satine’s obligations-not only as the star, but also as a courtesan-make the love between Satine and Christian fleeting and temporary. In the end, Satine dies immediately upon her reconciliation with Christian and the triumph of their love being publicly acknowledged.  Christian tells this story of falling in love with her and failing to keep her love as death takes her from him.  Christian only recovers from despair through telling the cyclical story of falling in love and losing love, and one is left with the impression that romance/sexual intimacy is this infinite loop: great ecstasy of the moment of falling in love followed by sustained ecstasy of those initial moments of love/romantic relationship, only to have all the hopes one placed in the love-relationship dashed on the rocks of the world which stands in the way of our romantic ideal.  But we can live in the memory of these loves, and this is what our love songs tell us: to live in the pendulum swing between ecstasy and despair.  We cycle through and remember our loves, but they inevitably slip through our fingers.

In Luc Besson’s Fifth Element (1997), we have a more sanguine account of love as romantic love/sexual intimacy.  The great evil that returns to earth every 500 years is threatening to take over Earth and the cosmos.  The adventure and the fight to save Earth by means of the fifth element, as embodied by the beautiful woman Leeloo, is also a story Korben Dallas (played by Bruce Willis) discovering love by falling in love with Leeloo.  In the end, the Fifth Element, the only defense against the great evil, is dying; what saves Leeloo (and thus the world) is that Dallas falls in love and expresses this love through sex, permitting her to come back to life and thereby saving the world. The “moral” of the story couldn’t be clearer: the problem with the world is its loneliness and its lack of true romantic love. 

I chose these four pop culture artifacts out of countless examples because they not only show this lifting-up of romantic love as the essence of love but are also evidence of how, even in the failure of romantic love to fulfill our expectations, we cling to the idea that romance completes us as human beings and that our need for intimacy and love is primarily met by/in romantic and sexual relationships. In our Western pop stories of love, even love which can overcome death and great evil is generally portrayed as Eros. When Christians bring this view to bear on issues of sexual ethics and appropriate intimate relationships, this cultural narrative of love-as-romance informs our thinking and, I argue, clouds our discernment in these matters.  We get caught in exalting marriage as some epitome of being human, or we seek to legitimate as many expressions of love as romance and sexual intimacy as we feel we can.  Some may go as far as to assert that the Christian position on romantic love should be simply to affirm any romantic relationship as long as it is consensual.  All of these positions make sense if the love we speak about as Christians is simply Eros, if Eros is that which saves us and ultimately fulfills our desires as human beings.  I contend that the problem with this myth of Eros is that the love we know from God through Jesus Christ is a love beyond romance and sexual intimacy.

This is a failure to understand the place that the romance and intimacy symbolized by Eros has in the story of God’s salvific work to restore creation.  To those who argue that to deny intimacy to some certain group of persons is not only unjust, but cruel: I would say I agree. To banish someone to the realm of loneliness and isolation simply because they don’t fit our definitions of gender or because they fall in love with the wrong people is incompatible with the proclamation of the Gospel.  Having said this, we need to be aware of how both Scripture and tradition (I am thinking specifically of the monastic tradition of the church) point us beyond the claim that marriage or sexual intimacy complete us as human beings. 

Take for example the infamous Ephesians passage (5:21-33) on marriage. The entire epistle is a reflection on the nature of the Church.  The author of Ephesians is placing the marital relationship (of whatever cultural stripe, but in Ephesians the pater familias) as a relationship subordinated to the relationship of the body of Christ; thus marriage is ultimately defined by and should be representative of the Gospel. I argue that one misunderstands the whole sequence of exhortation to husband’s and wives if one ignores that it is given in the context of an exhortation to mutual submission of the members of Christ’s body the church.  Husbands and wives are first members of Christ’s body, and secondly husband and a wife to each other.  The marriage relationship only proclaims the Gospel if it is a marriage whose members are already also members of the Church.  Paul’s exhortation subordinates marriage to the reality of the community that is the body of Christ, and thus lifts marriage out of being simply an economic or biological or sexual reality and makes the relationship a proclamation of the gospel.  Also, if we keep the Ephesians passage in conversation with Paul’s advice to remain outside of marriage and Jesus’ saying that some become eunuchs for the Kingdom of God, we can begin to see that coupling and marriage are not for everyone and that marriage itself, even when based on Scripture, can be a barrier to living out a life committed to the Gospel.  According to these views and the witness of the monastic tradition, romance/sexual intimacy is not the epitome of intimacy, nor does it fulfill us as human beings.  In a sense, what is offered to us in Jesus Christ and in the body of Christ is an intimacy, a community, beyond coupling and sexual intimacy.  If marriage has been lifted up, it is because Ephesians attempts to rescue a social institution from oppression and mere economy and begins to lift it up as an image of Christ’s relation to the church, which is then based on the relationship between Adam and Eve before the fall.   The pre-fall created order is affirmed but also relativized, both by both what marriage becomes after the fall and by the reality of the coming and present Kingdom of God, which calls us beyond human understandings of love, romance and marriage.

I see Love as something that is beyond the regime of romantic love.  True, I say this as one who has benefited from the regime, even in its strictest form of heterosexism.  But if I say this, I say it because the relationship I have with my wife is not based on love as romance and sexual intimacy. Rather, the basis of our relationship and commitment is based in another love, a love whose name we cannot speak.  This is a love that we cannot grasp and own.  This love possesses us in far more profound ways than “falling in love”-though romance and falling in love are useful metaphors to give us an insight into this love that is beyond name.  This love is summed up in the words of Jesus Christ, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down one’s own life for a friend.”  In truth, romance and sexual intimacy in and of themselves do not lead to self-sacrifice for the other.  For bound up in romantic love is one’s own need to be affirmed by the other, and what one receives from the other.  If there is self-sacrifice in romance, it is because it is but a shadow of this higher love that is God.  The truth of romance is that it is a derivative love.

If I seek to critique this pop mythology of romantic love and sexual intimacy it is because true love, the love that is beyond name, is a love that is available to all and requires neither romance nor sexual intimacy.  This love is truly available to all without sex and regardless of gender or sexual orientation.  It is a boundless love that knows no limits, for it is God and it binds the whole universe together and all human community and friendship and family, and yes, even romance.  But all those things, if they are to be true, must admit from whence they come, and that they only point us to that which is higher and truer than they.

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