September 28, 2020

Romeo Is Better Off Dead

romjul.jpgSome of my BHT posts have me in the usual trouble I get in around Valentine’s Day. Here are a few thoughts that might clarify things….or make them worse. Try to remain calm.

As best I can tell, romance is our poor imitation version of the love of God that is ours in the Gospel; a kind of minor league salvation story for people who need to be “saved” from being alone and unloved. What the love of God in the Final Word, Jesus the messiah and mediator, is for us infinitely and perfect, romance imitates and celebrates imperfectly, and often, tragically.

I have four primary experiences of romance that dominate my own consideration of the topic.

First, there are my own romantic episodes, which range from the sublime to the comic to the desperately wicked. Call it middle-aged cynicism, but for all the wonder that inhabits these chapters of my life, they have left me fearful of their revisitation, and strongly inclined toward an experience of love far different and deeper. It would be easy to say I want romance in my life. I have learned that when I write that script, it stars me and my sins. Now I am praying that I will love as Christ loved us, and it is a greater adventure.

Second, there is romance as it is celebrated in the culture. Being a bit of a literary type, the modern version of romance seems to be a rather pale imitation of the classical version. While I am aware that romance is a trans-cultural aspect of human experience, I associate it with a certain kind of medieval, European feeling of the pursuit of bliss. Shakespeare both captured and critiqued it in Romeo and Juliet (as well as in many other plays, most notably Taming of the Shrew, Othello and Hamlet.) It has produced magnificent contributions to culture, caused wars, destroyed and altered countless lives, and generated unmeasurable amounts of misery and joy.

If I were to be a romantic, I would prefer this version of romanticism to the bastardization of it one hears in today’s hip-hop lyrics or the angst ridden missives of emo rockers. Yet, I will compliment these modern romantics on putting all the cards on the table. Romeo’s soliloquies and Fifty Cents paeans to sex in da club are speaking the same language, but the contemporary version gives a far purer version of what is really going on. When the veneer of piety is removed, the truer version of romance. i.e. the simple politics of pleasure, remains.

Thirdly, there is my own experiences in ministry, particularly two kinds: working with teenagers for thirty years, and doing a fair amount of relationship counseling (much of it referenced against my own marital struggles.) Teenagers are romantics, and it is hard to conceive of them as not being romantics, whether they be suburban teenage girls or young Amish males. The furniture is different, but the room is the same.

It is hard for me to explain what the accumulated experiences of thirty years of listening to teenagers will do for one’s view of romance. Perhaps it is best expressed in what I might say about my own children. I would pray for them the deepest experiences of sacrificial, passionately humanizing love for another person, but I would never, ever wish upon them the kind of intoxication of mind and emotions that could make life, friends, family and all other experiences worthless in comparison to the attentions of the beloved.

It is not a mistake that Romeo and Juliet has been repeatedly remade into a contemporary story of teen romance, including a popular version in the 90’s. Across the years and cultures, there is instant recognition of the promises and perils of romance; it’s insanity and transformative power. For young people who live in a culture where transcendence and truth are despised and denied, romance is the myth that gives salvation.

From the marriage counseling files, my experiences are more complex. Perhaps an illustration would be helpful.

Imagine that a couple in their mid-30’s comes to my office for counseling. Their marriage has been seriously troubled, but they have both admitted their faults and are prepared to make a sincere effort at re-establishing their relationship. They admit that their feelings for one another have been wounded by the battles within the marriage, and whatever attraction and “romance” was present in the beginning of the marriage is now greatly diminished.

What route will my counseling take? I must first have a model of marriage itself. I must have a goal, a standard of health and wholeness. The decisions I will make in counseling will send this couple down a path, and I must be assured that the path is one that will renew their desire to love and be loved.

I am now fairly convinced that, if the couple is typical, many of the reasons they are sitting in my office are because the path of romance will not take them to where they want to go, but will instead reinforce those tendencies and agendas that bear the bitter fruit of a troubled marriage. Even if I were to hand them over to a relationship counselor of the highest order, if he were not a God-centered counselor, there would be cracks in the new foundation.

Further, I believe that if I send them down the path of resurrecting romance as our culture understands it, I will have diminished the greatest capacity for experiencing the joy of marriage: the personal experience of the love of God in the Gospel. I will have signed on to a cultural ritual where Christ is not Lord, and the highest goals are reached with no reference to Jesus. Without Jesus, we do not know if we have climbed a step-ladder or an Alp.

My strategy will be to ask these two persons to undertake a journey toward believing, trusting and imitating the love of God as seen in Jesus Christ. At the root of this will be the ability to accept love as a gift of grace, and not as a right or an expectation. I will seek to awaken in them the two-fold experience of understanding that love must be given freely and received graciously. In this approach, I will declare war on all the “games” and manipulations that infest romantic relationships, and I will seek to rewrite the story of the marriage as the story of two people who choose to love one another as an expression of their own quest for joy in God. In marriage, two people seek their own joy in the joy of another. They practice covenant-love, Gospel-love for the sake of a new kind of joy which is not “romantic,” but is an expression of the Trinity.

At this point, I pause to acknowledge the angry mob that has gathered outside my door. Yes….I see you and I hear you. If you will put down your rocks and clubs, I will answer your questions.

Thank you.

Isn’t the Bible full of romance?

The Bible is full of people who love one another passionately, deeply, sacrificially and in covenant/Gospel love. The whole story of the Bible moves to an image of love in marriage and love within a family. I think you are on the right track to talk about love, but I’d be careful when we talk about romance. I think you can fall into a well pretty easily if you aren’t careful.

The Bible has great love stories, but the light they shine isn’t the light of secularized romance, but the light of the love of Christ, which is a brighter light that illuminates more satisfying treasures.

What about the Song of Solomon?

Yeah. That is a problem. Of course, the whole presence of that book is a problem when you have a Christ-centered approach to the Bible, but also a respect for the literature God uses to tell the story. Letting the book be what it is solves and raises lots of problems.

This isn’t a post on Song of Solomon, so I’ll make it short: I believe the Song is a critique of Solomon’s approach to romance, contrasted with a true love story between the girl and the shepherd boy. There is plenty of love-talk in that book, but I don’t agree that it is all an endorsement of romance. I think it is a contrast between love that is, and isn’t, like the love of God in Christ.

Calvin Seerveld’s interpretation of the book really sealed this for me.

But remember this: If you hear me saying I am against love, feeling, passion, poetry, intensity, pursuit, etc….that’s not the case. What I am against is the idea of salvation apart from God’s love in and through Jesus.

Then you are playing a word game. You are so annoying.

No. I’m asking you if you understand the difference between Romeo and Juliet and Ephesians 5. Do you understand the difference between love that is premised on unholy selfishness and love that is, itself, holy selfishness of the highest order? I am asking if you know the difference between the tower of Babel and Jacob’s ladder. I am asking if you know the difference between the passion of adultery and the passion of marriage.

Uh….one of your main guys- Capon- uses romantic images a lot to talk about the Gospel. So do Piper, Don Miller, Manning etc. Are you smarter than they are?

The images and vocabulary of romance aren’t useless. When Capon used an adulterous affair to describe grace in Between Noon and Three, the purpose was shock therapy, not an endorsement of adultery. The whole point was the pathetic excuse for love this serial adulterous professor lived by, and the contrast with the purity of the grace-filled love of his lover.

When Piper or Capon says, for example, that the Trinity can be described as a marriage bed, I hope- really, really hope- that you aren’t making the mistake of saying that justifies romance as a mirror of the love of God. Better to say that romance is a rip-off of the love of God seen in holy matrimony/covenant love/ Jesus’ love for the church.

So romance is simply a lesser version of real love?

Romance is an imitation of real love that exiles the primary lover- Jesus- from the story. If you want to let Jesus into your love story, that’s idolatry, because the only way he gets into your story is for it to become his story. So romance is the worldly version of the love God wants all of us to know, in some measure, in earthly experience, and perfectly in eternity, but it has been surgically altered so that it fits into the world as we know it, and not the world as God is remaking it.

So if you want to rip off the better aspects of romance and bring them as gifts to Christ, I would be glad to help you do that. Just be sure that you are stealing and remaking, and not bringing romance into God’s covenant-love operation and demanding that that this become the new way of doing things. That’s what seems to be happening with modern worship music, by the way, and I’ve written about that elsewhere (before I saw the Seerveld Song of Songs, by the way.)

Are sad that you aren’t romantic? Are you bitter and unhappy? Do you believe sex is evil? Are you a guilt-ridden fundamentalist trying to be more religious than God?

Have a coke. Calm down.

My life project is to love my wife as Christ loves me and loves her. Whatever I do for her, it is in imitation of Jesus. I do this for her joy and for mine. I pursue great things in this quest to love her, but I do not pursue what it cannot give, nor do I deceive her to believe so. (And men/women have great powers of deception which romance approves of using. Don’t ever forget that. In romance, lying is quite acceptable.)

The verse that says husbands should love their wives as Christ loves the church breaks me on the rocks of my own humanity and selfishness. If I traded this verse for “Love her like Romeo,” things would get easier because I would have permission to be as selfish as I wanted as long as I made her the center of my universe.

If you believe imitating the covenant-love of God and the gospel-love of Jesus isn’t romantic enough for candles, poetry and a holy pursuit of the beloved, then what can I say?

But we have to be careful. Romance puts women on pedestals and says that men should worship them. That’s wrong about twenty different ways. So the fight is to love God, to be graciously loved by God and to live with that love transforming my life and marriage. If all I had to do was spend money, hand out compliments and come up with nice surprises, it would be an entirely different journey.

UPDATE: This is a very frustrating subject for me. It seems to be one of the few things that Christians are reluctant to examine in the light of Christ’s Lordship over all things.

Maybe this will help. A parable on Romance:

Once upon a time there was a flood of counterfeit money throughout the land. There was so much of it, and it became so common, that the public began using it as regular currency. At first, merchants refused the counterfeit currency, but eventually, so many people accepted it that the merchants and banks said, “OK. Who are we to disagree with the public?”

The counterfeit bills were easily distinquished from real currency- IF a person bothered to look closely. Even a child could tell the difference. But the counterfeits were a pleasure to look at. The counterfeit bills were works of art that earned the praise of engravers and artists. They were popular with everyone.

The federal government agency that produced real money wondered what they should do. Some wanted to make their money more like the counterfeit bills, but others insisted that real money should be as different as possible. The first group won out, and soon real money began to be indistinquishable from counterfeit, and no one really cared about the difference any more.

So should we be all that surprised that one day, someone came to the mint and complained about a genuine $20 bill being fake?


  1. I understand the concerns you express and the problems you have seen with regards to the idolization of romance. However, romance is simply the expression of eros—a form of human love, not to be confused with simple lust or sexual desire. Hip hop music and many rock songs are purely about sex—they are not in any way shape or form about romance. Yes, eros is related to sexual desire–but as C.S. Lewis pointed out in his book, The Four Loves, sexual desire wants the act, itself, eros wants the beloved.

    There are other forms of human love such as storge (affection) and phileo (brotherly love or friendship). All forms of human love are gifts from God. But, like any gift from above, they can be twisted, used for evil, and become idols. However, they are not intrinsically cheap, human substitutes–but merely imperfect reflections of the Perfect—Agape Love. Yes, they can be used as cheap substitutes & counterfeits–that is idolatry. But that is not the inevitable consequence of celebrating and enjoying God’s gifts. Romance, like any other gift can be a sanctified expression of love between a husband and wife–reflecting the passion our God has for us. And the tender care of a mother for her child (while never taking the place of agape) can be a beautiful and sanctified reflection of our God’s love and care for us. Our wonderful experiences of phileo give us glimpses of the Joy of friendship with God.

    Yes, romance and even just plain ol’ lust have become idols in our culture. I’m not sure I would call most teenage love I have seen very romantic–obsession, infatuation, and lust are more what I have seen passing for ‘relationship’ between the immature. Romeo and Juliet contains romance and some very beautiful romantic soliloquies—but we classify the play as a tragedy, not a romance. Without God, anything and everything can become an idol and lead to destruction.

    God has given us many things as dim reflections, imperfect copies of the Perfect, in order that we might have a better understanding of the Perfect towards which we are straining, and for which we are longing. This beautiful earth is but a dim reflection of the beauty of Heaven–but many idolize it and attempt to make it Heaven. Does that make the earth a cheap substitute? Only in the mind of the idolator who has made it so.

    These things are beautiful gifts which can be used by the Holy Spirit to worship God. A beautiful sunset, hugs from a small child, a wonderful day spent with a friend, and passion and poetry shared between a husband and wife, can all include God. As we experience these little imperfect reflections of the Love and Joy of the Lord, that we will one day know perfectly, we worship and give thanks to Him.

    Don’t fault romance, the expression of the desire for spiritual, as well as physical, union with the beloved. Fault a lost culture that can’t tell the difference between a reflection or imitation and the real thing. Counterfeits are bad because they try to pass themselves off as the Real Thing. Substitutes are bad because they attempt to replace the Real Thing. Reflections are good because they attempt to mirror (albeit imperfectly) the Real Thing. Even imitations can be good– we are told to be imitators of Christ. So the imitation of Agape love as expressed in romantic eros, warm storge affection and stimulating phileo friendship, while not the Real Thing, can increase our desire for the Real Thing as we think “If this is the imitation, how wonderful must be the Original!”

  2. chris coleman says

    After experiencing eros/romance with my ex-girlfriend, it seems that I want to have that same experience again. But, I don’t think I want to experience eros/romance with anyone in particular, I just want to experience it again. Is this idolitry? Have I made an idol out of the eros/romantic experience?

    I think I have matured in my understanding of love since my relationship with my ex. Love is sacrificial, it is more concerned with the others well being than my own. This post was really helpful, can you recommend any books that deal with a biblical view of eros/romance. Thanks.

  3. Chris, I think you have given a perfect example of how good things can be twisted by the Enemy into idolatry and/or addiction. I am not saying you have necessarily reached that point–your’s is a natural reaction. That’s why there’s what’s called ‘falling in love’ on the ‘rebound’. Feelings like you describe can lead to much trouble if not recognized and checked.

    There is great danger in becoming romantically involved (emotionally and/or physically) outside of the confines of marriage. Romance and eros for believers should be celebrations of a covenant, life-long love between a man and a woman.

    Since I think you were addressing IM and not me–I now conclude my additional unsolicited 2 cents. 🙂

    Praying for you.

  4. I know exactly what you are saying – and I completely agree. Realizing this totally revolutionized my marriage – I wish more of your readers could “get” it. But I thought I’d post and let you know not everyone is screaming for your head.

  5. This is a wonderful post, Michael! I may direct some of the kids in our youth group this way in the near future (like, say, tomorrow).

  6. Denise Spencer says

    Readers may be interested to know that after writing this big essay in general and speaking out against the worship of women in particular, and after I told him he’d better not do much for Valentine’s Day, and after all I got for him were a cutesy e-card and a handful of Valentine’s chocolates, the IMonk gave me a lovey-dovey card, a dozen gorgeous roses (peach-colored) AND he’s cooking a romantic dinner tonight. I guess sometimes it’s just kind of hard to practice what you preach. 😉

  7. Histrion (Jay H) says

    Michael, I’m really with you on this one.

    In fact, I’ll go further. I’ve long complained (just ask my friends 😉 ) that one of the chief corruptions of the modern church is its overemphasis on marriage and children. Both Paul (in several places) and Jesus (in Matthew 19) make it clear that, in their opinions, staying unentangled in romantic relationships and family concerns is the better way to go. Yet for centuries the church, perhaps reading a false application into some Old Testament passages, promoted large families. Now we’ve arrived in the 21st Century and the “Family Values” era, where public policy is made based not on right or wrong, ethical or unethical, consistent or inconsistent application of core principles, but whether it makes it easier or harder to raise the kids.

  8. Great post, Michael!
    You generated lots of discussion around here, and I am passing along comments to me from a non-blogging friend, who was in my wedding:

    1) Spencer wants to purge us from all the wrong and goofy things of “Romance” that have so infiltrated our thinking and lives – I agree.

    2) Spencer wants to encourage us to know and increase in “Covenant love” for one another – I agree.

    3) Spencer wants “Covenant love” to be the foundation/reason people get married to each other – I disagree (After all, I too am supposed to love [your wife] with “Covenant love,” even “Covenant love” that is fervent and abundant.)

    I think people should get married for the reason stated in Genesis about why God created marriage [“For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh”]. I think that human earthly institution can be an image/imitation of some greater heavenly reality without being mistaken for that reality. Spencer wants to replace the corrupted earthly with the heavenly. I want to replace the corrupted earthly with the God-created-and-intended earthly (which I think is an image of the heavenly).

  9. I think eros is great. But I also think Neil Gaiman books are great. And films by Hayao Miyazaki. And The Beatles. And Monty Python re-runs. Oh, and mediations by Alan Wattts . . .

    All these things are wonderful parts of life, but they’re nothing to live for. People are constantly boiling it all down to finding “that one special person”. Their attachment to that ideal without considering all the infinate aspects of life and even infinate aspects of love: of God, family, neighbors, complete strangers what have you, is as frivolous as narrowing down a rationalization for existance to be Monty Python.