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God and Agape at the Grammys

John Shearer/Invision/AP

Matthew Becklo - published on 02/13/15 - updated on 06/08/17

A funny thing happened at the awards ceremony

The Grammy Awards show this year was, in some respects, very typical. It was hosted by LL Cool J (again). Kanye West got mad and walked on stage in protest (again; and no, apparently it wasn’t a joke), and at over three and half hours, it was insufferably long (again).

But it was also very not typical in others. For one, the vast majority of live performances consisted of slow, acoustic numbers. The whole thing almost had a solemnity – some probably felt sluggishness – to it.

It had something to do, no doubt, with transitioning into (and out of) the video announcement of the “It’s On Us” campaign by President Obama. Shortly after, Brooke Axtell, a victim of domestic violence, stood up and told her story. “Authentic love does not devalue another human being,” she declared. Her voice was as resounding as it was resolute.

But no sooner had she said these words than they were papered over by a whole parade of devaluations. Of course, push it back a stage to the entertainment industry in general, and the situation is about the same. (As a friend commented over social media, the message felt more than a little undercut by the looming theatrical release of Fifty Shades of Grey.) But in music especially, “love” has largely become synonymous with objectification. At worst, this ends in the very “wink and nod” celebrations of domestic violence that made the Grammys ground zero for this battle; at best, it reduces romance to a mutual and mechanistic assertion of self-interest. Ancient philosophers once thought that movements of the sun and the stars were musical. If they heard some of our music, they might have concluded otherwise – or just denied it was music at all.

Which brings us to another curious thing about the 2015 Grammys: the divine was everywhere.

After Axtell spoke, Katy Perry sang the song “By the Grace of God." When he performed “Happy,” Pharrell changed the lyric “happiness is the truth” to “happiness is the Lord,” saying afterward: “I forgot to say it earlier God, but as You can see I’m at Your service, Lord.” Towards the end of the show, Beyoncé performed the Thomas Dorsey gospel standard “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” followed by Common and John Legend’s performance of “Glory,” which ends with the lyric: “Welcome to the story we call victory, coming of the Lord, my eyes have seen the glory.”

These two themes were cast out in such a powerful way, but with no sense of their having ever been related. Their ships passed in the night. Still, for one magic moment, “love” turned away from a kind of flattened pleasure principle toward something more transcendent, and transcendence turned away from some pie-in-the-sky afterthought toward something more existential. The two kissed.

For the early Christians, the connection wasn’t so hard to see. The Greeks before them had given a name to authentic love. Agape was not a fleeting romance, or a bundle of feelings, but the love of mothers for children and husbands for wives; a love that wants someone to flourish for their own sake; in short, a love that sees another human being as a person to be valued and not as an object to be manipulated. Despite the richness of the concept, it wasn’t used that often: in Homer it was mentioned only ten times, and in Euripides only three. But the New Testament mentions “agape” no less than 320 times. God’s love for man became a prototype of this elevating love. Whenever Pope John Paul II talked about “authentic love,” he always had the Nazarene in mind. “Authentic love,” he wrote, “is not a vague sentiment or a blind passion. It is an inner attitude that involves the whole human being. It is looking at others, not to use them, but to serve them…Love, in a word, is the gift of Self.”

Where we do hit on this connection, it’s almost always by inverting the whole picture. When Hozier took the stage with “Take Me to Church,” or Madonna with “Living for Love,” we saw and heard a lot about God and love, but the whole image became a kind of photographic negative. All is possessiveness: God, if he’s there at all, is some vengeful legislator who issues commands; and lovers are aggressive conquerors, striving to master themselves and possess each other. There is no gift of self, on God’s part or ours.

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