Thursday, January 24, 2008

Whole Lotta Talk About Love

I've said it before, and I'll say it again, but it's way past time that the Christian church had a conversation about love.

What prompted my latest outburst? Well, I watched the movie Juno, which is about a teen who gets pregnant, and decides to give the baby up for adoption. At the end of the movie, Juno's child is adopted by a loving and infertile woman who is convinced she was born to be a mother, and Juno ends up happily in a relationship with the child's father. There's no guilt, no unhappiness, and surprisingly few negative consequences to her pregnancy.

The surprising thing about the movie (to me at least) has been the astonishingly mixed reaction from the church (where by 'church' I mean the SBC). There have been some reactions of 'good, she didn't get an abortion', but just as many reactions of 'That slut!' or 'That film is unrealistic for not portraying the many negative consequences of pregnancy!". In mainstream culture, the movie has been embraced, and has been nominated for four Oscars. Many review have noted that, contrary to the Evangelical 'it's unrealistic!' meme, the film is fairly unflinching at the undesirable aspects of pregnancy (physical changes, concerns about the worthiness of potential adoptive families, etc).

Which brings me to the topic of this post. I recently ran across an article on Girl With Pen from a noted sex researcher, who talks about Juno. She's not interested in the sex, though, or in the portrayal of pregnancy. She's interested in the portrayal of love, and specifically teenage love. She points out that a lot of objections to the film came from an interesting source: the belief that it's not realistic for a teenager to find real romantic love. The fact is, our (American) culture doesn't talk that much about the possibility of love for teens. Subtly, there's a pervasive message that teenagers can't really fall in love, that somehow one needs more life experience or something in order to be validated in one's emotions, or capable of commitment. Parents tell their daughters not to sleep with their boyfriends, because regardless of the way that the girl feels, she can't really be in love.

And to some degree that's true. More life experience does in some ways deepen emotions or emotional commitment. But I think that it's true to a far lesser degree than many people suppose. Greater life experience also omplicates emotions and emotional commitments, and often those complications can make it more difficult for a couple to remain committed, not less. How quickly we forget that the great love stories of all time took place between teenagers. Romeo and Juliet (however ill-fated) were probably eighteen and fifteen respectively. Mary and Joseph were likewise probably in their teens. History is filled with the stories of teens who fell in love, got married, and lived happily ever after.

Our era, however, looks in askance on a twenty-year old who gets married. 'She's too young', people say, 'She doesn't know her own mind'. There's a certain element of patronization to this statement, especially since many parents were in their late teens or early twenties themselves when they were married. But there's also an assumption, which I don't think that many people realize that they're making: teens aren't capable of valid emotions, because of their age. I think that teens are capable of a lot more than society gives them credit for, personally.

But my personal opinions aside, what implications does this have for the church? Well, for one thing, it makes the whole 'abstinence until marriage' thing more difficult than it ever was before. Even fifty years ago, many couples were married before the age of twenty. Is it so surprising that many place the average age of first sexual experience now at nineteen? The average age of first sex hasn't changed, it's just that the average age of marriage has risen sharply.

Abstinence isn't the only thing that gets complicated when we implicitly tell teenagers that their emotions aren't valid, though. Many people make commitments to religion based on an emotional state, on the feeling of experiencing God. Over the past five or so years, it's been a growing concern among SBC churches that youth ministries are shrinking, and that it's harder to draw teens and youth to church. Most of the literature within the denomination that I've seen attributes this to the supposed evils of secular culture, but I think that's got far less to do with the problem than a more organic cause: it's difficult to keep teens involved in church when the church constantly sends an implicit message that their emotions and feelings aren't valid. From stories of 'summer camp romance', which are winked at patronizingly by adults in the youth group to bombardments of 'wait for marriage, and wait to marry until you're old enough' messaging in literature, teens are assailed by the idea that their judgment isn't good enough when it comes to their own emotions. And I think that this may be the single largest, and single least-acknowledged, factor in the attrition that most churches experience once their devout children become teenagers.

I think that it is time for the church to have a talk about love. And this time, amybe it will include all its members.


Monkay said...

This is peripheral to your theme of love, yet relevant I think, and quite readable: The gift : imagination and the erotic life of property / Lewis Hyde.
Also, thanks for linking to "they fight crime", that is great!

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