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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Love Is Not Enough

One of my favourite recordings ever is a tune Todd Rundgren wrote for his band Utopia’s 1977 album, the last song on the record. Like many pop tunes, it failed to chart or make waves (or money) until a folksy American duo covered it in 1979 and people started to listen:
“I’ve looked high and low, I’ve been from shore to shore to shore.
If there’s a shortcut, I’d have found it. But there’s no easy way around it:
Light of the world, shine on me, love is the answer.”
To me the more successful England Dan & John Ford Coley version misses the point. It’s got all the same words, but none of the intensity. They sing it sweetly, harmoniously and entirely without giving the impression that it matters. It’s full of breezy sax fills, bright keyboard figures and strings. Even the choir in the hit version is subdued. And without intensity, the hippified cliché of the title comes across corny and trite (that’s my take anyway, though ‘corny and trite’ outsold ‘intense’, so what do I know). But Rundgren’s vocal on his original has none of that flat, overproduced perfection. He positively rips it, especially toward the gospel-inflected end of the song where the choir kicks in with serious intent.

If it didn’t mean something to him at the time, you certainly could’ve fooled me.

What it meant to him is debatable, because Rundgren is not, to my knowledge, a believer, Love is the Answer is not a Christian song and there’s no indication it was specifically intended to evoke Christ — other than the phrase “Light of the world, shine on me” and a couple of “Lord” references in the final chorus. But plenty of Christians have since recorded cover versions.

Because it’s just so … well, true. Love is the answer, to absolutely everything.

The apostle Paul taught that the whole law is fulfilled in one word: the word is love. He was so sure of it that he said it to the Romans and the Galatians. It was a major theme of his epistles.

But the teaching originates with the Lord himself, and it turns the majority Jewish understanding of their law upside down:
“Jesus answered, ‘The most important is, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The second is this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ ” (Mark 12:29-31)
The scribe who asked the Lord the question that prompted this particular answer almost seems a tad patronizing in his response: “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” But aside from the presumption involved in the “you have truly said …” [of course he “truly said”], the scribe was essentially correct in his assessment.

But here’s where it went south for him: The Lord responds, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

Not far? This is a guy who is a respected teacher of the Law and he has just been checked for accuracy by an upstart young rabbi. Not far? If this scribe didn’t qualify for the kingdom, who did? No wonder after that no one dared to ask the Lord any more questions.

Because love is the answer, but love is not enough by itself. Entrance into the kingdom demands coming by the door God has made, not through the Law alone, even if you completely fulfill it by being the most God-loving, people-loving person in the history of humanity.

Nobody who is not obedient can ever learn to truly love God or his neighbour. The touchy-feely sentiment that just wants to make the world a better place in the absence of bowing the knee to the Lord Jesus Christ is not really love. It’s just words. Nice words, but dissociated from what God really requires and wholly inadequate to the task of healing the damage sin has caused to the family, the neighbourhood, the nation and the planet. You might like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony, but good luck with that unless you first humble yourself before God and do it his way.

When the crowd asked Jesus, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

Love is the answer. Love God, love your neighbour. That’s the whole thing right there.

But obedience is so inextricably entwined with genuine love that one can barely distinguish cause from effect: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”.

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