A Better Love Story: Dante and the American Teenager
Tuesdays in college were weird. After a long day of classes and a hurried dinner at a reputable liberal arts school, I would hop in the car for 20 minutes to volunteer at a youth ministry that was not your average church group. We worked with a group of unchurched, unparented, and frequently unshowered middleschoolers in a poor, rural community.
In one of these worlds, I studied the western tradition with the best and brightest minds. In the other, I mentored 6-8th graders, some of whom went from boyfriend to boyfriend or girlfriend to girlfriend on a weekly basis. After three years of seeing this, it occurred to me: maybe there is a connection between a 700 year-old Italian poem we read in class and a group of young teenagers living only to find someone new to make out with.
Dante Alighieri’s famous work “The Divine Comedy” narrates his fictional pilgrimage through the afterlife and represents the soul’s journey toward God. Major theological debates aside, it’s a fantastic poem. During the course of that journey, Dante prominently attacks the sin of lust in the life of a believer. Not far into the depths of the Inferno, he meets Paolo and Francesca, a passionate but adulterous couple. The two spent time reading about Lancelot’s affair with Guinevere before a kiss of their own led them into sin. Francesca’s husband (and Paolo’s brother) soon discovered and killed both of them.
This example Dante gives points to the powerful influence of stories, but the poet goes beyond condemning Paolo and Francesca’s reading selections to offer a solution. When Dante as a pilgrim expresses his desire to speak with them, the epic poet Virgil (his guide) tells him to “entreat them by the love that leads them.” My professor in college, Stephen Smith, gave us his own translation of the Italian which says to “pray to them in the language of their strongest desire.”
Our culture is overly romanticized, yet starves for real companionship and affection. No one ever said that love is evil, or that the sappy love stories flooding our entertainment market today need to be crushed. Though I repeatedly poke fun at One Direction and Taylor Swift songs or Nicholas Sparks novels, I too like the idea of telling that one special girl that she’s beautiful or sitting and watching the sun set over the lake with the person I want to spend the rest of my life with. But there is so much more to love than what you read on cheap paperback pages or see in the theater.
Most of the middleschoolers in my youth group were desperate and focused solely on these shallow aspects of love. They made compromises and suffered heartbreak when the relationship didn’t last or lacked significance. Dante understood that sin is merely a perversion of something good, and he mourned “how many sweet thoughts” and “what great desire” brought Paolo and Francesca to their eternal separation from God. Francesca claims that God was not their friend, yet it was He who created them and made them to love in the first place.
God reveals himself through relationships, and it’s something more than our simple “girl meets boy” narrative. He created Eve as a companion, but he still walked with Adam in the cool of the evening. Good relationships point to some deeper truth and ultimately lead us to God. My friends and I learned this for ourselves in college as we discussed music, poetry, and existential philosophy around the dinner table, or drank tea in my apartment while writing papers all night at the end of the semester. Some of us have dated and have gotten married already. Others of us have yet to do so. But all of us are better people because of the relationships we forged together.
The desire to love, to be loved, and to spend time with those who understand us is God given. Our message needs to go beyond telling teenagers to abstain from sex before marriage and suppressing the need for love need by telling them they’re okay with or without a boyfriend or girlfriend. Those are important things to communicate, but we must tell them a better love story, one so powerful and so deep that it stirs their hearts and encourages them to trust God even through the wilderness seasons of singleness and being lonely. We have a chance to save a generation led astray by their own humanity, but we must “pray to them in the language of their strongest desire” in order to win them back.