Romantic Pagans, True Religion, and True Love

“I have nothing, nothing, nothing
If I don’t have you…”

I was listening to the radio the other evening when Whitney Houston’s 1993 hit “I Have Nothing” came on. I would gladly listen to Whitney Houston sing “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” so I always smile to hear her voice come through the speaker, but I could not help being struck as the singer’s amazing voice soared out the chorus, “I have nothing, nothing, nothing / If I don’t have you…”

It’s a line that could have come from a million different songs, movies, and books in a world where romance is one of our favorite idols. How many movies have you watched where the essential struggle and the key to lasting happiness is whether he ends up with she? How many songs mourn lost love, celebrate new love, or narrate the search for love?

Now, a good romantic story is a wonderful thing, but even a good thing can turn unhealthy. The lines in Whitney Houston’s ballad caught me because they hint at the sad, cold side of Hollywood-style romance: I have nothing if I don’t have you. I don’t want to read too much into a lyric that does capture well the breathless and passionate single-mindedness of being in love, but I wonder if the songwriter didn’t accidentally capture something else too—the grey emptiness of being out of love when romance is your god.

Human beings are made for relationship and love, but today, perhaps more than any other time in history, society offers little meaningful connection apart from romance. Religion certainly can’t help. In a secular world, there is no hope of a loving God who “will never leave you nor forsake you.” As far as we are concerned, Nietzsche was right when he declared that God is dead. But people need a god, and, once you’ve gotten rid of the supernatural, romantic love is perhaps the most divine feeling that we experience; so, for many Americans, the tremulous transcendence of romance is the closest they’ve ever come to worship. But religion isn’t the only spiritual need which romance tries to fill. Even on the horizontal plane, our relationships with one another have never been weaker. Mobility and electricity have torn the bonds of family and neighborhood until many of us have coworkers, acquaintances, but no true friends. Without community, it can feel like the only way to find someone to talk to is to find someone to sleep with.

So we bring our hopes of purpose and joy and connection, all wrapped up in a desperation which feels like everything that makes life worth living is slipping away unless we can find the right one, and we dump all that into every new relationship. And when time wears away the golden sheen of our idol and we find just an ordinary guy or gal underneath, it’s on to the next romance, wondering why we never seem to find what we are looking for. (Isn’t it odd that the entertainers who do so much to shape our appetites and ideas about love never seem to be able to hold onto it for themselves?)

Our culture’s idolatry of romance offers a few lessons for us as Christians. First, we ought to be thankful. There are more kinds of idols than those made with wood and stone, and we have been saved from all of them. There are very real, practical advantages to knowing God and seeing the world with the eyes of faith, and one joyous benefit is that true religion rescues romance, letting it be what it is without frantically trying to fill other spiritual voids. The lovers in the Song of Solomon can sing, “My beloved is mine, and I am his… You have captivated my heart with one glance of your eyes,” and know they are enjoying a gift, not worshiping a god. There is freedom in a romance which is allowed to fill its proper place.

A second lesson is to guard and cultivate all our loves. The lure of romantic passion is strong enough, especially in a world that worships it, to tempt even Christians who know better. How many moral compromises, unwise marriages, or extramarital affairs have been sparked by the fear that “I have nothing if I don’t have you”? It is easy to react by trying to tamp down romance, but we ought to be doing precisely the opposite. The answer to a love which threatens to grow disproportionate is to grow all the other loves that surround it. The healthier our loves of God, our family, and our community, the more absurd the romantic idol will seem when it demands we sacrifice all else for it.

A third and final lesson is this: We as Christians should know flavors of love and fellowship which unbelievers have never experienced. We should abide in the love of our Father in heaven, the God who died for us, lives in us, and promises “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). Furthermore, Jesus told his followers, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). As our culture watches their romantic idol go to pieces under the pressure to be something it is not, our love should be a testimony and a beacon. Let the lost see our love of God, our love for one another, and yes, even our romances, breathing free in a world which is larger than they are.

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