Building a Love Ethic
It was clear that Dr. Ankenman’s Love Therapy was not his invention. He simply uncovered—or crystallized—what was already splashed across the pages of the Bible. It should be called a “Love Ethic” rather than “Love Therapy.” As a clinician, “Therapy” was appropriate for Dr. Ankenman, but it’s really a lifestyle and an ethical framework clearly explained in the Bible. “Love Ethics” guide us into Christian maturity. As discussed earlier, much of Dr. Ankenman’s principles of Love Therapy are also found outside a purely-biblical framework. Since the Bible teaches the truth about the human condition, Dr. Ankenman noticed the same biblical principles at work in traditional, older cultures we so derisively label Third World (as if they were “third-rate” to our Industrialized World). Are those cultures really so “primitive”? Research from our own scientists can be rattling. America is a world-leader in suicides, broken homes, murders, violent crimes and most other sociological measure of health. The difference is more startling when compared against impoverished countries we pity so much like Bangladesh. What is the source of our social ills? What have we lost that other cultures—even non-Christian cultures—still retain?
What’s Our Problem?
The Bible describes what a truly sick society looks like. It’s a depressing list, but insightful:
But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these. – 2 Timothy 3:1–5
It’s a 2,000 year-old prophecy that reads like yesterday’s news. Never before in human history did all these conditions come together like we now see, and many were impossible until recently. It’s a culture of moral freedom, from one view. But from God’s view it’s a culture where love doesn’t work and people are lonely. Break this passage into its components, and it’s clear how it works in our world today.
Dogmatic Moral Ambiguity
“Unholy, haters of good, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power…”
This describes postmodern rage at biblical Love Ethics. Christians are tired of this ostracism, giving rise to the Emergent church and related movements which shy away from biblical certainties. Certainly the invasion of postmodernism into Christian thought and churches typifies “a form of godliness” that “denied its power.” Unlike modernism which denied the supernatural, postmodernism welcomes spiritual experience but denies the authority of God Almighty and absolute truth. (To be precise—and Postmodernists are sticklers on this—absolute truth exists, perhaps, but cannot be apprehended cognitively because of the limits imposed by language and cultural backgrounds.) Morality is dependent on the question of truth. It’s impossible to know what is wrong or right without knowing what is true or false. “Unholy” describes postmodern ethical confusion. Postmodernism is a phenomena unique to our era. No culture has ever before embraced moral ambiguity as a principle. When Paul wrote about it, such an amoral philosophy would be scandalous. Postmodernists are absolutely dogmatic that no absolutes can be known absolutely. Yes, it is confusing, and it is irrational and novel, but surprisingly it somehow became a universal dogma within a few decades. Most of its believers have no idea where this philosophy came from or how it got there. Postmodern zealots resort to anger to avoid explaining their shallow beliefs, and so “haters of good” describes the unreasonable reactions inflicted against Christian ethics. The near-universal spread of Postmodernism without conquering armies is unparalleled for any historical world view. The unique conditions of the modern era make this possible. These same conditions make it difficult for people to love.
Paul is not the only one to prophesy about a culture of moral uncertainty. Jesus Christ also described it 2,000 years ago:
“Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold.” – Matthew 24:12
The movie “Pleasantville” was a Hollywood lecture on the folly of morality. The lecture said that everyone who embraces morality is trapped in a black-and-white, simple and naive world called Pleasantville. Those who pursue sexual conquest without marriage can escape the chains of Pleasantville and enter a world bursting alive with color! The clear message: morality is not only restrictive, it is unloving. But actually, the opposite is true: we never see the pain inflicted by Pleasantville sex affairs 20 years later! Real love is impossible without morality, according to Jesus. The equation is simple: increased lawlessness equals colder love. Pleasantville actually becomes a cold, cold place, not the colorful world the writers made up. Immorality leaves deep scars on our hearts, it sears the deepest part of our humanity and makes it more difficult to love again:
Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. – 1 Corinthians 6:18
For all its purported sophistication, Postmodern morality has certainly produced a culture where relationships lacks permanence. If the movie were longer, we would see how relationships ended up in the new and colorful Pleasantville: temporary cohabitation and broken homes replacing permanent marriages. Children growing up in such places where love has grown cold will themselves become more pessimistic about love. What happens when people lose faith in morality and love? They fight.
“Irreconcilable, malicious gossips, brutal, revilers, ungrateful, unloving” all describe people too willing to fight and divide. It’s love-grown-cold with attitude: enter the era of disposable relationships. Always changing, moving on relationships means love without a home, love without deep roots. The concept of a village or community always anchored relationships, but modern community is a heartless system built around City Hall—and nobody can fight City Hall! Today’s village is described in Hillary Clinton’s famous book “It Takes a Village” as a national entity. Politics aside, it’s a remote and cold village, and it means diffuse relationships.
Substitutes for Love
“Lovers of self, lovers of money, without self-control, reckless, lovers of pleasure” all describe a culture obsessed with “the pursuit of happiness” like the West. Wealth, technology and entertainment industries provide unparalleled stimulation to keep us distracted from facing the intolerable loneliness aching inside. More significant is the opportunity to pursue personal wealth. Materialism is a lifestyle never available for the masses before the appearance of consumerism. The availability of cheap consumer goods means a lifestyle of acquisition. The educational system mass-produces consumer-oriented thinkers too, and kids are trained for 12 years to think profession as their destiny. Choosing the right profession promises fulfillment and purpose, kids are taught, but adults stuck in the professional world usually know better. Taken together, these symptoms describe a deeply confused and narcissistic culture. Relationships will not work in this world—at least, not for long. Americans live fractured emotional lives as they bounce from relationship to relationship. It’s a diffuse lifestyle energized with superficial stimulations like consumerism, professional pursuits or passing pleasures, but it’s an empty lifestyle because love relationships don’t work and don’t last. Still there remains one more great damage incurred in the modern era.
The Parent Trap
“Disobedient to parents” has the greatest impact on relationships. It isn’t being “naughty” like it sounds to our jaded modern minds, but it’s a breakdown of the parent-child relationship. It’s a casting-aside by children of their parent’s role in their lives. For thousands of years in agrarian (farming) societies it would be reprehensible and impossible for children to cast aside their parents. Parents carried an almost autocratic authority, as they do still in Third World countries. Not so in modern western culture. “The Simpsons” was controversial when it first aired because the cartoon format might attract smaller kids to Bart’s delinquencies and to the ridicule of brain-dead parents. Fox network dismissed the concerns because the show aired after kids were in bed, and soon the controversy settled down. But who noticed when it crept into prime time viewing a few years later? “The Family Guy” cartoon depicts a father more foolish than Homer, which is an achievement. Dense parents and savvy kids are now commonplace, from the cartoon “Jimmy Neutron” to “That 70s Show”. Gone forever are the days of “Father Knows Best” from the simpler, more naive era of the 1950s. We can argue about the impact of TV programs on kids, but who can dispute how they reflect a modern culture where “disobedient to parents” is not so absurd? In Third World cultures where parents are respected and still carry authority, such characters like Bart Simpson make little sense.
This is where Dr. Ankenman found the greatest disparity between Bangladesh and his experience working in the American ghetto. The family unit was intact among the Bangladese, and the people he worked with carried a tremendous ability to endure greater levels of suffering than the American ghetto sees. Even though these people knew nothing about the Bible, they were often more emotionally mature and stable than many Christians he treated in America. The vital role parents play in the emotional development of children is well-established by scientific research. Emotional problems are first developed in the home. These formative relationships run deep and impact a lifetime because it is impossible to simply walk away from our emotional inheritance. We carry it wherever we go, even into adulthood and marriage. Movies and poetry cast a fairy-tale aura around love, turning it into a mysterious force which magically appears and works perfectly if the right person appears. But love is not so mysterious. It’s old, weather-worn and deeply embedded in our past—especially in our parental relationships.
The First Commandment
The Bible is clear how vital it is for a child to establish a successful and honorable relationship with parents:
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”–which is the first commandment with a promise—”that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” – Ephesians 6:1–3
The point is simple: your problems with home will impact the rest of your life. American novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote a book titled, “You can’t go home again.” God wrote a book that said, “You really can’t leave home.” Wolfe’s novel appropriately captures the transience of our modern lifestyles. God’s book reminds us that transience will never bring escape. At the heart of a biblical Love Ethic is the importance of establishing a healthy, honorable, loving relationship with parents: they are the foundation of an emotional life. This is true even after the child becomes an adult. It’s “the first commandment with a promise,” the Bible says, and it always pays emotional dividends to go back and heal that primary relationship. For most Americans, home life was highly dysfunctional, and its requires serious work and deliberate effort to go back and turn it around. How is it possible to change a relationship with parents unwilling to change it? Next up: how to convert failure into victory.
- The Crux of Church Growth
- The Layman’s Challenge and Legacy of Love