Individualistic Romance Leads to Legalism

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My generation, which came of age in the 1980s and 1990s, was inducted into the idolatry of love through romantic movies and love songs. The film The Princess Bride captured the vibe. It’s a sarcastic fairy tale, but it’s a fairy tale. Picture two blond and beautiful individuals, detached from all family and meaningful relations, alone in the world, beset by misfortune, yet trading ironic quips and saving themselves by the power of “true love.”

Or maybe you saw the teen-bop romance movie Say Anything. If so, you remember the magical moment when the lead character holds a boom box above his head, arms outstretched, outside the second-story bedroom of the girl he loves—a Gen-X version of a damsel in distress needing rescue by her knight. She’s restless in her room, imprisoned by an angry father. The music reverberates upward as the singer proclaims himself “complete in your eyes” in a way he could not be through “a thousand churches” and “fruitless searches.” The hero’s message couldn’t be clearer: Our salvation isn’t in the church. It’s in each other. We “complete” each other.

Though these pop-culture references are dated, you can pick your generation—millennial, Xers, boomers, all the way back to the generation of The Scarlet Letter and before that—and each has its version of the same story. It’s the story of individualism and individualist conceptions of love.

Individualism and Love

Love stories have existed for millennia. Yet, in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, a new conception of romantic love began to arise amid a flurry of poetry and novels. Romanticism offered a vision of love decidedly set against the structures, hierarchies, and traditions of the past. According to this view, romantic love involves not just sexual attraction. It involves finding someone who “completes me” (Giddens, 44–45). It starts with looking inside myself: “Never mind father’s expectations, mother’s list of duties, or the vicar’s sermons. Who am I, and what do I need? How do I feel about this other person? Does she understand me? Will she help me become everything I’m supposed to be?” Self-discovery then gives way to self-realization and expression: “This is who I am, father. I will pursue her.

On the American side of the Atlantic, one might think of The Scarlet Letter, where love defies the laws of religion. Similarly, Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby tries to divorce himself from the past, rewrite who he is, and enjoy love with an upper-class married woman. His obsessive love battles not against religion but against the laws of old money and class. So it was in book after book on the British side of the pond, like Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights or the salacious work of D. H. Lawrence.

Every relationship is a contract that can be ripped up. What’s nonnegotiable is whatever my individual heart tells me is true.

The original Romantics were intentionally reacting against the cold rationalism of the Enlightenment. They wanted to be guided by love rather than structure, internal desire rather than external constraint, spontaneous impulse rather than rational deduction, beauty and freedom rather than efficiency and order. But they remained Enlightenment heirs. They were just as individualistic as those whom they reacted against. In the landscape of the novels, what matters isn’t who people are in relation to their families or trades or religion. These age-old structures don’t define them. What matters is who they are in themselves—what they want, what they feel. Every relationship is a contract that can be ripped up. What’s nonnegotiable is whatever my individual heart tells me is true.

Yet what is intentional in these older novels becomes unintentional and assumed in the popular films of my adolescence. Movie after movie presents handsome teenagers throwing off the oppressive hand of parents and teachers who “just don’t get it.” This is the story of The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Dead Poets Society and Dirty Dancing and on and on. Each offers a vision of love that looks brave and attractive in its defiance. It’s awake simultaneously to the inner self and also to the mystical glory of love, like a soul in harmony with the cosmos. It courageously casts off all encumbrances in pursuit of its prize, while maintaining an impenetrable moral justification: “I act in the name of love.”

Who would dare go against that?

Legalistic and Isolated Love

These days, our world seems to take for granted this view of love—a love rooted in self-discovery and self-expression that justifies breaking every rule. Over dinner, a friend who is my age said to me and my wife, “If two people really love each other, they should be able to be happy. We shouldn’t stop them.” I knew any direct challenge to her claim would be futile. The claim depended on a set of moral intuitions developed in culture through decades and even centuries of morality tales. These intuitions were the unquestioned “of course” that needs no argument.

Notice how romantic love in this tradition becomes the perfect vehicle for sinful human beings to get everything they want: self-absorption and companionship; self-expression and moral approval; self-rule and the blessing of heaven; pleasure and an easy conscience.

We’re happier and less demanding of our spouses when we don’t ask them to play God for us.

Ironically, the individualist’s love story becomes legalistic. Salvation belongs to those who follow the demands of romantic love. Opponents to anything called love are judged and vanquished. If you’re a baker who refuses to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding, for instance, you might find yourself in court. If you’re a high-school student who says that sex, love, and marital commitment belong together, you’ll find yourself excommunicated from the circle of cool kids.

Yet Romanticism’s priests will refuse to call it moralism. They call it pleasure and happiness. Their story culminates in a bed, after all, two lovers embracing one another, having cast off the world, enjoying all the delights of togetherness, staring into one another’s eyes. The camera need not turn to parents or to children, as it never does in The Princess Bride. The couple is the center of the universe. It’s Wesley and Princess Buttercup happily ever after, like in most romance movies.

Could you ask for anything more?

Generative and Fruitful Love

Well, yes, in fact. The biblical teaching on love also includes a bed. But it places that bed in a garden, where the couple’s union ultimately yields a flourishing world of rose bushes and apple orchards and a mess of children’s shoes by the front door and swing-sets and skyscrapers. Biblical love creates a far, far bigger universe. It’s not stagnant like a bed all by itself. It has forward motion and a story to follow. It’s generative. It’s fruitful.

Not only that, but the biblical story of love also makes more room for friendships. No one human being can meet all of another person’s emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs. C. S. Lewis wisely remarked: “In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets.” I often remind young married couples of this, particularly when they are jealous for one another’s time. Wives should encourage their husbands to find good male friendship, and husbands should encourage their wives to form healthy female friendships. We’re happier and less demanding of our spouses when we don’t ask them to play God for us.

Sure enough, every part of the body needs every other part, Paul says about the church (1 Cor. 12). And how many parts does a body have? To truly experience love, we need far more than what a romantic partner can give us.


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Editors’ note: 

This is an adapted excerpt from The Rule of Love: How the Local Church Should Reflect God’s Love and Authority (Crossway, 2018).

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