How Progressives Co-Opt ‘Love’ to Take Charge Even Over Jesus

By Tom Gilson Published on September 9, 2023

The Stream‘s John Zmirak wrote recently about a Vatican insider, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, who thinks he knows what love means better than Jesus. I saw it and my shot straight back to a line I’d heard a day or two earlier: “The difference between me and you is you use scripture to determine what loves means and I use love to determine what scripture means.” The line comes from man wearing a robe and a crown of thorns in a cartoon penned by David, “The Naked Pastor.” (David has no last name that I can find. At least he’s wearing clothes in all his photos.)

Both of them think they know better than the Bible. Fr. Spadaro scolds Jesus for words he thinks are unloving. David has “Jesus” scolding people for believing the Bible’s words. (And David will probably want to scold me for taking “Naked” too literally. He need not worry. I know what he means by it.)

Fr. Spadaro’s message is more extreme, David’s is insidious. Fr. Spadaro’s view is obviously anti-Christ, David’s looks … almost commendable. Fr. Spadaro is religion on strung out on crack, David offers seemingly delightful gateway drug to start people out on the deadly addiction.

The Meaning of Love

David says we should use love to determine what scripture means. You can’t do that without first deciding what love means. David tells us, on the same page as the cartoon,

If you have a shallow and restrictive understanding of love, you will find your small understanding of love confirmed in the Bible. You will find verses that permit you to limit and even withhold love. And then to humbly subject ourselves to what it actually says to the best of our understanding.

But if you have a love that tries to appreciate and include everyone, then you will find verses that confirm you are endeavoring to love as you believe God loves: universally and unconditionally.

We all bring to the text our own minds (open or closed) and our own hearts (hard or soft) and will read into the text our own predispositions.

This bit about a “shallow,” “restrictive,” “small” view of love — no doubt that’s everyone who doesn’t support “LGBTQ+” like he does, unsurprisingly. His love is warm and expansive. Our love is stunted, and it stinks. (How appreciative of him to say so.)

Except … his love might not have such a nice smell to it after all.

Where Does That Even Come From?

The cartoon isn’t so much about love, anyway, it’s about authority, about who or what it is that decides what’s true.

Conservative Christians believe the Scriptures are the word of God, so therefore what they say, they say with God’s authority. We seek to understand what the scriptures themselves say and what they mean. That includes understanding how to love others as God calls us to love them. David says we start with our opinions, and “find verses” to confirm it. Admittedly that’s very possible, since confirmation bias afflicts everyone. But the Scriptures still have authority, so it’s up to us to correct ourselves accordingly.

David turns that around: Love determines what scripture means. I want to ask whose love — and I will — but first, let’s be clear where the authority lies: in “love.” Love decides. Love has the authority.

So where does it get that authority from? David mentions God, but don’t miss these key words: “endeavoring to love as you believe God loves.”

There’s a snarky old saying, “Who died and made you God?” David’s cartoon makes me wonder, “Who died and put him in charge of the world’s ethics?”

God doesn’t tell you how He loves. Sure, there’s a book you can read (the Bible) with hints in it, but you don’t read it to know what it says about love. You start by knowing what love is, and you read the parts of the book that agree with you. You pick verses that “confirm” it. And I don’t see David hesitating one moment over this bias-driving proof-texting. Love can’t be in charge without it.

Make mistake, though, it’s not some abstract “love” that decides. It’s your view of love. You’re in charge, you’re the authority.

You’d better agree with David, though, otherwise you’re “shallow, restrictive, … small.” There’s a snarky old saying, “Who died and made you God?” David’s cartoon makes me wonder, “Who died and put him in charge of the world’s ethics?”

To Humbly Decide Your Truth is the Bible’s Truth

Indeed, who is David? He’s Jesus! At least he is in this cartoon. This cartoon Jesus, standing there saying we should use “love” to define what Scripture means, is also standing atop David’s commentary there on the web page, defining love in David’s own terms. So the Bible isn’t the authority. Jesus Himself isn’t in charge. It’s David who decides.

Whoa. Take a deep breath. David? Just David? No, of course not. It’s not just David, it’s a community, a culture, an ethos that surrounds us all. But don’t feel too relieved when I say that. We’re still talking about “love” holding authority, we’re still talking about what that love means and who defines it. And even if David is just some individual serving as a symbol for the whole, the whole still has the same problem: Who gave it this authority? Who took it away from individuals who (supposedly) get to choose their own ethics?

And why did David say “you,” and say it in a way that sounds like a singular “you,” not some group/collective/community plural “you”? So it isn’t just David. It’s everyone, individually, each person making their own decision based on their own beliefs about how God loves.

Cartoon “Jesus” Looks to David for Wisdom

But David is still one of them. He has his own belief about God’s love, and his cartoon Jesus is telling people they should use David’s beliefs about love to decide what the Bible means. That includes everything the Bible says about Jesus. Cartoon “Jesus” is saying, “What do I think about love? I think what David thinks!”

And this isn’t only about some silly (albeit sacrilegious) “cartoon Jesus.” This is about how we ought to understand Jesus Himself, in the Bible itself. What does Jesus in the Bible want to teach us about love? Whatever David’s “love” says Jesus would teach us!

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For those of us who believe in Jesus, that’s a travesty. Does David care? I don’t know. He should, though. Even if he doesn’t care about Jesus, even if he doesn’t care that he doesn’t care about Jesus, he still should have a problem with spouting self-contradictory, self-deceiving nonsense. Which he does, as proved a bit further down the page where he writes, “So, it comes down to the personal internal work of self-awareness, humility, and a willingness to learn and grow.”

Humility? Putting his love in charge of Jesus’ teachings is humility? If that’s what he thinks, then that “self-awareness” work of his has a ways to go yet. And I have to wonder whether he can even see the glaring flaw this reveals in his view of love, Scripture, Jesus, and even himself — and be “willing to learn and grow from it.”

Or To Humbly Learn and Grow

Or could it be that I’m the one who’s wrong, who needs correction? (One of us is, that’s for sure.) If so, I’d be more than willing to humbly learn and be corrected. Explain my error, and I will retract any or all points on which I may have erred. You’ll have to do more than scold me over it, as the cartoon’s false Jesus scolds his listeners. You’ll need have to explain where and how I got it wrong. Do that and I will listen and respond, as truth and humility require.

For now, though, I have to call it as I see it, and what I see is sad to me. More than anything, I suspect it’s self-deception. I don’t think anyone could decide intentionally to be so arrogant as to think Jesus would look to him to tell him what love means. Well, there’s Fr. Spadaro. Maybe there’s David, too. I’d just rather not think so.

It isn’t just David, anyway. It’s a picture of progressive Christianity. (I don’t see him calling himself a progressive Christian, but it fits regardless.) It’s about deciding for yourself what you think is “loving,” finding a church that supports it, and picking scriptures to support the church that supports it.

You know, if there’s one thing I like about David’s cartoon here, it’s how it shows what’s going on there. Anyone can get the Bible wrong. Anyone can read their own opinion into Scripture. We all have that in common. The difference is, David and his tribe think relying on their bias is a great idea. They don’t see how prideful that really is.

Conservatives know that true humility means submitting to truth. We don’t always succeed in overcoming our biases. But we don’t publish cartoons saying it’s better not to try.


Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the highly acclaimed Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.

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