The Gospel According to William Shakespeare: Loving God on Valentine’s Day
A post by Leigh from a simple life
One Valentine’s Day, while I was living in England, I gave out little cards and gifts to people at my work. I thought my peers would appreciate the gesture, but instead of gratitude what I got in return were looks of awkward confusion. As it turns out, in England Valentines Day is exclusively celebrated among couples. Translation: I had inadvertently hit on every one of my coworkers.
It seems to me Valentines Day has become a rather divisive holiday. A day once meant to spread the message of universal love, is now increasingly limited to people in romantic relationships. This has not gone over well with militant singles that annually come out in protest of V-day — wearing all black, and replacing romcom movie nights with stomach turning horror flicks.
While I feel boycotting Valentine’s Day (or Single’s Awareness Day, if you like) is an over-reaction, I do think something must be said about our cultures affinity to elevate romantic love above every other kind of affection.
A number of years ago, I heard a fascinating talk called “Your story and the Gospel of Jesus,” wherein author Donald Miller argues: “If we take Christian theology out of the context of love story, they die.” Further, he says our love stories don’t even make sense without first understanding God’s love towards us —or as scripture puts it, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 14:19, nrsv). It is impossible, the bible says, to experience love outside of its very source: God. Therefore shouldn’t love for God be included in our February 14th celebration?
One of the greatest love stories in English literature is the Shakespearian play Romeo and Juliet. In the aforementioned talk, Miller compares R&J to the Christian gospel. His theory is that the classic balcony scene is actually Shakespeare’s illustration of Christian conversion: meaning, being “born again” is as much like falling in love as it is making a conscious decision.
The tension of R&J centers on a bitter conflict between two warring aristocratic families, the Montague’s and the Capulet’s, in Verona, Italy. Romeo, a Montague, sneaks into the Capulet’s party and falls in love at first sight with the youngest girl, Juliet. She likewise falls in love with Romeo, but the star-crossed lovers know they can never be together unless they cut themselves off from their families. In Act II Scene II, Juliet walks out onto her balcony and says:
O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I'll no longer be a Capulet.
What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title.
Juliet acknowledges if it were not for Romeo’s connection to his family (his name) they could be united. She understand the enmity between their families is too great. The only way to be together is the total rejection of their identities. Therefore she promises to reject her family if he will do likewise:
Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.
Unaware Romeo is hidden below the balcony listening, he quietly responds, saying:
I take thee at thy word:
Call me but love, and I'll be new baptized;
Henceforth I never will be Romeo.
In the Bible, names are often synonymous with a person’s nature. When a character experiences a fundamental shift in identity they are given a new name to mark the transformation (eg. Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel, Simon to Peter, etc…). The character has to give up their old nature to fully embrace a new one. Thus, what does it mean when Romeo says he’ll be new baptized? Essentially Romeo is experiencing conversion. He is laying down his identity in order to be unified with the one he loves. In that process he will become someone new. Jesus essentially asks the same thing when he commands:
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26, nrsv).
When we consider R&J denying their families to be with one another we think ‘what a beautiful example of true love!’ However, when we hear Jesus demand this of his disciple’s we think, “Isn’t Jesus asking a little much here?” Yet it is essentially the same command. This is what happens when we read the bible outside the lens of a love story.
Jesus explains that to be united to him we have to deny every other allegiance, this is what the apostle Paul means when he says, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2: 20a). When you become a Christian it’s a transformation that utterly rejects identification with sin. Through baptism we’re united to Christ, who becomes our sole identity.
Later in the play, Juliet asks Romeo who he is, to which he responds:
Later in the play, Juliet asks Romeo who he is, to which he responds:
By a name
I know not how to tell thee who I am:
My name, dear saint, is hateful to myself,
Because it is an enemy to thee;
Had I it written, I would tear the word.
Shakespeare uses Romeo to show the need for repentance. To become one with our bridegroom Jesus, we have to totally renounce sin, because sin is what separates us from God. Jesus is a jealous lover who desires fidelity. Similarly, Romeo cannot even stand to think about his old family name because it separated him from Juliet.
Unlike most of our contemporary love stories, Shakespeare’s does not end with the lovers vow of commitment to one another. Because of their circumstances, R&J can only truly be together in death —and so they commit suicide. We see a reflection of this in Romans 6,
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
True love between God and us requires our death: thankfully, this time it is metaphorical. When we reject our sinful nature it is a sort of death of self. The good news is God promises our death will lead to a resurrection.
“For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God… And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:19-20).
Just as R&J commit an act of mutual destruction for love’s sake, Jesus gives his life for us and invites us to do the same.
The bible describes what it looks like to radically love God in this manner, when Jesus commands us to love the least of these. How can you love God this Valentines Day? Well, it can also be said this way: how can you love the homeless folks in your city? Or the children in title 1 schools? Or the person whose been rejected because of their sexual orientation? Author/Pastor Rob Bell says, “How you love God is how you love others.”
May you remember your first love this Valentine’s Day, realizing every relationship is a picture of this grander reality. May this recognition lead you to serve the least of these. And may you be but sworn by love.