On Valentine’s Day, it’s worth pondering which love story exercises the most influence on students today.
St Valentine Baptizing St Lucilla, by Jacopo Bassano
In a week or two, many Australian students will begin their academic year at university. While on campus, they’ll no doubt encounter a set of assumptions—often in the form of an implicit narrative—about the nature of love and sex. Whether this narrative is articulated directly or acquired “under the radar” by simply observing others, it will help to shape expectations about dating, marriage, and romantic relationships.
We should care deeply about the particular love story that captures students' imaginations, for nothing has the power to elicit more joy or produce more pain than assumptions about sex and marriage.
The romantic narrative that dominates modern culture is primarily about the freedom for individuals to express themselves as they wish. Here love is understood as a feeling of intimacy, and sex is seen as either a form of erotic play or a means of fostering intimate connection. Consequently, marriage is assumed to be based in felt emotional connection; "first comes love, then comes marriage." When saying their vows, some couples now promise marriage "for as long as we both shall love"--i.e., as long as the feeling lasts.
According to this narrative, Valentine’s Day celebrates the gushy emotions we experience with Mr or Ms Right (if we’re lucky enough to have found them).
But there’s a problem with this story: it doesn’t make sense of what so many people long for and promise each other upon getting married. That is, it cannot explain a marital commitment to unconditional love, exclusivity, permanence, and children. If marriage is based on feelings of love, and if sex expresses those feelings, what happens when a husband or wife “falls in love” with someone else? In that case, what compelling reason does the dominant story provide for staying married?
The dominant story also doesn’t account for the conviction held by many Christians against premarital sex. If sex is essentially a means of expressing trust and intimacy, why would two people who feel deeply for each other, and safe with each other, wait until marriage to express it?
Students heading to university need a better story.
I've written a new book that attempts to offer one. In Love: The Larger Story of Sex and Marriage (available from Connor Court Publishing and Amazon.com), points to the ancient Jewish betrothal process as providing resources for the way we enter and progress through relationships today. Not only does this story raise questions about the way we approach engagements and weddings, but it also invites couples to situate their own marriages within Christ’s relationship to the church.
Have you ever thought about your relationship with God in terms of a divine marriage?
In the book, I explain the influence that this story had on my wife and me:
The Jewish Betrothal Story changed the way we talked (we gave up using phrases like “fall in love” and “love at first sight”). It changed the way we approached our engagement (in college we fasted once a week for our relationship and went through pre-engagement counselling). It changed the way we approached issues of sex (we began rethinking contraception) and it deepened our view of marriage. Most importantly, it broadened our understanding and appreciation of the biblical story and of God’s relationship with His people.
In short, the world of romantic love and sexual ethics looks different when seen through the lens of this narrative. For example, the kind of love that St. Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13 (a.k.a. “the love chapter”) isn’t merely a feeling. It’s an action, not just an attraction. And marriage isn’t based primarily on love as a feeling; it’s anchored, instead, in covenant faithfulness. Thus, rather than "first comes love, then comes marriage," love is an active habit that couples learn by persevering through the ups and downs of married life. And all this has big implications for the way we understand the purpose of sex!
What Valentine’s Day celebrates from this perspective is a different vision of love--the kind of love that romantic feelings and sexual urges are meant to point towards: self-giving, life-long covenant union. This is the kind of love God has for us, and spouses are called to reflect it in their marriages.
Interestingly, according to some accounts, the third-century Christian priest St. Valentine was martyred upon being caught performing marriage ceremonies against the Emperor’s command. In a culture where boys drew from a box the names of girls for acts of sexual promiscuity, St. Valentine promoted a better and more liberating vision: life-long fidelity to one covenant spouse. Tradition holds that his last letter was written to his jailer’s daughter (whom he healed of blindness), and that he signed it, “from your Valentine.”
In a world of confusion and brokenness, we, like St. Valentine, can offer our students a better story—one that's not only beautiful but practical, one that's able to capture their imaginations, and one that points beyond themselves to a larger reality. That’s perhaps one of the best Valentines we can offer!