Culture and Goodness (7)
“Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” John 15.13
And hardly a drop to drink
I don’t think you’d get an argument if you suggested that culture can be a powerful vehicle for communicating ideas about love. For many people, when they think about culture, they think pop culture, and pop culture is filled with songs and films and TV programs extolling the virtues of love.
But the form of love presented in pop culture reminds me of the ancient mariner’s lament: “Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.” What passes for love in much of pop culture is an adulterated, debased, and corrupted form of the love that exists within the divine Trinity. The love celebrated in pop culture tends to be self-centered, sensual, and only fleetingly satisfying. We don’t hear much in pop culture about the kind of love that leads someone to lay down his life for his friends, much less for his enemies (Rom. 5.10).
In the culture with which most people are familiar, a kind of Gresham’s Law of love has become established. Just as bad money tends to drive out good money, leaving the currency debased and the economy weak and vulnerable, so bad forms of love have nearly driven out the kind of self-denying love that refracts the love of God and brings His goodness to light in the land of the living. Consequently, ours has become a world of narcissists and pragmatists who will stop at almost nothing to get the “love” to which they consider themselves entitled.
But just as culture can corrupt our understanding of love, so it can renew that understanding as well. And when it does, contrary to what we might expect, the appeal can be enormous.
Exhibit 1: Les Miserables
Consider the musical Les Miserables, which premiered in Paris in 1980, and continues drawing sell-out audiences in venues all around the world. Victor Hugo’s story of tragic love during a revolutionary period in 19th century France provides a powerful example of how culture can encourage a true understanding and practice of love.
In Les Mis, the kind of “love” celebrated in much of contemporary pop culture – sensual and self-centered – is depicted in scenes that are dark, dreary, and even deadly. Also, as at the inn of the Thenardiers, their love is shown to be grasping, greedy, and frankly, gross, although it is robed in the garments of hilarity.
Similarly, Javert, the antagonist in the plot, is so devoted to principle, and to his own view of what is right, that he is haughty and ruthless, and is ultimately self-destroying. All forms of self-love, merely sensual love, and “love” that preys on or takes advantage of others are resoundingly denounced in Les Mis, especially against the backdrop of the more God-like forms of love Hugo’s story portrays.
The primary story lines in Les Mis present a truer and more desirable picture of love – that which ennobles and edifies others, even at the cost of one’s own wellbeing. Such self-denying love is God-like and forgiving (as seen in the priest and Valjean), risks one’s own security and wellbeing to do what is right for others, and can lead to happiness in marital love, and the hope of eternal blessedness. In one scene, as Valjean sings a prayer, pleading for God to spare the life of a young man, his voice strains to the highest points in the register, reaching up to God – Who in the film version, looks upon Valjean, in an overhead painting of the all-seeing eye. As Valjean lies dying, he is visited by Fantine, who has preceded him into glory, and who sings reassuringly, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
Les Mis overwhelms us with its wholesome and edifying statement of what it means to love another person truly, selflessly, and enduringly. Audiences can’t get enough of its beautiful music, powerful characters, and tragic but ultimately transcendent story. It is the all-time, highest grossing, musical production, and shows us that, when we use culture to pluck the chords of God’s image in the souls of those around us, people respond favorably, and will look to us for more.
Give a cup of love
There is a lesson here for all of us in the power of culture to affect the people in our lives. To the extent that we are able to show the love of God in our cultural activities, we may expect to find receptive souls, happy for a touch of selflessness, compassion, concern, and care. The love of God can come through our conversations, hospitality, generosity, and work. It will glow in the ways we relate to others, make time for their concerns, and put our own interests second to those of everyone else.
“Love never fails,” the apostle Paul reminds us (1 Cor. 13.8). But it doesn’t just happen. Loving others through our use of culture does not come naturally to us. We must look to Jesus to see love in action and to learn how we, learning Jesus, can show Jesus’ love to the people around us in all we do (Eph. 4.17-24; 1 Jn. 2.1-6).
What passes for “love” in the minds of many people does not slake the thirst for real love that pleads for satisfaction from the depths of their souls. The world needs great draughts of the kind of love that exists within the Godhead, and this is evident by the way it clamors to drink of depictions of such love through various forms of culture.
Each of us has a cup of love that we can extend to the people around us (Matt. 10.42). The more consistent we are in offering this refreshing draught, the more opportunities we will have to tell others about that Fount of Every Blessing Who causes rivers of living water to overflow from our souls to theirs (Jn. 7.37-39).
1. Have you seen or read Les Miserables? What examples of self-denying love come most to your mind from this work?
2. Meditate on 1 Corinthians 10.31. How can a meal be a platform for sharing the love of Jesus with others?
3. What are the greatest obstacles to your using the culture of life to show Jesus’ love to others?
Next steps – Transformation: Be alert to the opportunities for discerning God’s love in other aspects of culture. Can you think of some examples? How might you use one such example to begin a conversation about the love of God?
T. M. Moore
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.