The Theology of Fiona Apple: "A Person Who Loves is a Righteous Person"

Last week I can across this letter written by recording artist Fiona Apple in 2000 to Bill Magee, a gay teen then seeking her support for the gay-straight alliance at his high school.

Though I don't expect all Christians to agree on this, I think Fiona makes a theological argument in the letter that many Christians would deeply resonate with. The handwritten letter via Tumblr (click to enlarge) and the typed out text below:

Hello Bill,
I got your letter a few days ago, but this is the first chance I've had to sit down and write (it's my day off)

Of course, I'd love to help - sign me up. As far as a few sentences go, here's what I've got - I hope it's OK:

It's hard to conjure up some new profound way of commenting on this issue - I'm so tired of it being an issue at all, and I suppose I'm lucky, because I see the truth so clearly. All I know I want my friends to be good people, and when my friends fall in love, I want them to fall in love with other good people. How can you go wrong with two people in love? If a good boy loves a good girl, good. If a good boy loves another good boy, good. And if a good girl loves the goodness in good boys and good girls, then all you have is more goodness, and goodness has nothing to do with sexual orientation. A person who loves is a righteous person, and if someone has the ability and desire to show love another - to someone willing to receive it, then for goodness' sake, let them do it. Hate has no place in the equation; there is no function for it to perform. Love is love, and there will never be too much.

Fiona Apple

P.S. Right on for doing this, Bill

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33 thoughts on “The Theology of Fiona Apple: "A Person Who Loves is a Righteous Person"”

  1. Just because she focuses on love, doesn't make it a theological argument. Love is being played out abstractly with no root in God. If anything, she roots it in humanity which makes it anthropology at best and at worst mythology. I'm not making a statement about the cause, just the methodology you imply with your title.

  2. I see that. My thinking with the title is that if God is love then any comment about love is an attempt at saying something about God, a theological statement. Also, when people are using words like love, truth, righteous, and goodness I feel that they are using theological categories. But to be sure, it's not confessional theology.

  3. But love always is rooted in God and theological arguments in large part in anthropology and mythology. I'll stand with love and Fiona Apple, I believe, rather than endless and in the end largely pointless theologizing.

  4. I wish it were that simple. And I hope that I do not over-complicate a simple matter, but I think it entirely prudent to define love. What are we talking about when we say that we love someone else? And more importantly, is that the same love that Christ compels us to pour out? 

    Because I do not think it overly critical to suggest that love itself can be victim to distortion, perversion, and untruth. If this former statement is in fact a reflection of reality, I really do not think it is as simple as telling everyone just to go out and love everyone. While I don't think this necessarily has to be wrong at all, with the current conflation of selfish/selfless motives and desires in much of our love, a bit more discussion and reflection, I think, may be quite necessary. 

    To be sure, often times when I think I am loving my brother or sister, how very opposite is the reality of my action! The objects of my love may certainly not want my kind of loving and would probably be the better if they weren't loved in that way!

    I think our current bent towards evil or at least the inner struggle between good and evil demands that we examine carefully and honestly what love is and how we can partake in it rightly. 

  5. Sounds like an inclusivist view of salvation to me (think C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce, but I could definitely be off here (I typically am). But for what it's worth, I tend to lean in that direction.

  6. P.S.S. -- Right on for posting this, Dr. Beck.

    Definition of Theology (n) - Bing Dictionary
    1. study of religion:  the study of religion, especially the Christian faith and God's relation to the world;
    2. religious theory:  a religious theory, school of thought, or system of belief.

    Definition of Theology - (1 Cor. 13, The Message) Apostle Paul
    If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don't love, I'm nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.
    I speak God's Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making
    everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain,
    "Jump," and it jumps, but I don't love, I'm nothing.
    I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be
    burned as a martyr, but I don't love, I've gotten nowhere.

    So, no matter
    what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I'm bankrupt without love.

    Prophetic witnesses often seem to come from outside of the religious establishment (e.g., Fiona Apple, Lady Gaga, Bono.)  Jesus was most critical of the religious leaders of His day, and operated from outside that "system."  Sad.

  7. Astute observations, sir.

    Ms. Apple asks:  "How can you go wrong with two people in love?"  (Shall we count the ways?)

    But it's a legitimate question, especially if it's being tied to a
    theology.  Love which endures?  Love which involves commitment and
    personal sacrifice?  Love which faces illness and death without fleeing the room?  Love which enables one to place someone else's
    welfare ahead of one's own? 

    We cannot look to Hollywood or most who contribute to our popular culture for lessons in love.  Nor can we look to the 50% of married folks in America who eventually "fall out of love" and divorce.  Or the husbands and wives who murder rather than lose their loved ones.  Surely you will not find such a thing there.

  8. To be clear, I'm not commenting in any way in regards to homosexuality. My point and concern would be an apparent naivety towards the ways in which we "love" and a seemingly almost instant acceptance of all things we decide to label "love."

  9. I'm pretty sure I like Fiona Apple :)

    That infamous speech she gave way back at the awards ceremony in 1996 wasn't trolling -- it was truth.

  10. I see it as love being the call to repentence against bullying. There are so many ways to bully, and so many excuses given to justify it.

  11. High school teens who commit themselves to making gay-straight alliance groups work are living out the Gospel, whether they know it or not. Churches and schools that make it difficult for these groups to operate need to think deeply and seriously about why they oppose them. Perhaps someone could start documenting how these groups can be a lifesaver to young people, and how they enable both straight and gay youth to communicate and collaborate positively and to their mutual benefit.

    Gay-Straight Alliance groups  will break down barriers that are still clearly evident amongst people of my generation (50+) - they give me hope for a more inclusive future, in our society and even more importantly, in our churches.

  12. @ Stephen - I completely agree with you that we very often - TOO often - delude ourselves & even justify harmful Behaviour by calling it "love" - but I love what Fiona Apple is saying - because if it is truly only about love (& I believe it is) then it is no longer about any of our social conventions, political leanings, or even doctrinal beliefs. It becomes entirely a matter of learning to give ourselves for " the other" - no matter how " different" they may be.

  13. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:46-48 ESV)

    It seems to me that Jesus here is acknowledging the love between two tax collectors, or two Gentiles as "genuine", and yet...they are still sinners. Love between two people doesn't make them righteous...just like two people can't live off one apple simply because they share it. Love defined by the gosepel is not simply two people who love each other; rather it is loving out being loved by God. (1 John 4:19)

  14. My take on Matthew 5 is that Jesus isn't, in fact, talking about love. The "greeting" we give to in-group members isn't love but a form of tribalism.

  15. That makes perfect sense. That verse has bothered me, but in the context of tribalism/in-group, it makes so much sense. And also as a call against Othering.

  16. I agree with some of your contours here. It's just that we easily abstract who God is and what love is. When someone says, "I don't believe in God." Then we need to talk about which God we are discussing (and they usually are not talking about God in Jesus Christ). When we talk of love, there are distinctions of agape and phileo and eros and so forth. Even these have many shades of meaning and I am not convinced that she means the agape love of God.

    Still the letter and the argument are worth considering. Thank you for sharing it.

  17. I had never heard of that speech at all so I youtubed it since you mentioned it. That took some balls. Great speech.

  18. My problem is that this comes too close to equating love with sex. Love is always good. Sex sometimes isn't.

    Even if homosexual relationships are biblical and wonderful, it simply isn't true that anybody whom it is right for us to "love" is right for us to "have sex with." 

    Imagine some of these sentences--if a good brother and a good sister love each other, good. If a good group of five good people love each other, good. If a good 50 year old loves a good 5 year old, good. . . . 

    All of these sentences should ring true for Christians. None of these speak to the question of sex, or marriage, in any way.

    So I love Fiona and I love good boys and I love good girls--shoot, I even love bad boys and bad girls! But I don't think Fiona has shed any particular light on how Christians, or anyone else, can or should order sexual relations. In fact, read shallowly, does Fiona's letter contribute to the fuzzy thinking in which no sexual standards are appropriate for any community because, hey, sex is love and love is good?

  19. Many Christians, especially those at the conservative end of the theological spectrum, automatically equate sex and love, or such has been my experience, bless their hearts.

  20. If you want a prooftext, a form of the word "sex" was in Fiona's letter. More generally, do you think the references to "falling in love" (which Fiona seemed to conflate with love) were nonsexual? Are you trying to tell me that Fiona, and the gay-straight alliance Brian is trying to start, are talking about purely Platonic relationships? Do you really think Fiona is saying that we shouldn't look down on guys who love other guys non-sexually, or girls who love other girls non-sexually? Nobody could disagree with that!!

    Are you pretending to be naive, or do you really think that the whole conversation isn't about how we agree or disagree about "approved" and "non-approved" sexual attraction and sexual intimacy?

  21.  Bless your heart, but I don't hear anybody but conservative Christians suggesting that we can love people while exercising strict sexual self-control. Isn't this the precise position, right or wrong, that conservatives take toward homosexuality, premarital sex, and general marital fidelity?

    It is liberals, and only liberals, who argue that the fact that I love someone is in itself a proof that I should be able to have sex with that person. Conservatives, stupid as their blessed hearts may be, have never made that particular stupid mistake. Do you really think otherwise? I'm curious.

  22. It's interesting how you jumped right to sex, when there are so many other facets to relationships. Regardless, you seem to be arguing against gay sex (isn't it interesting how much non-gay people think about gay sex?). I'd like to address that with two flavors of argument.

    Secular: If there is informed, uncoerced consent on all sides, where's the harm? Children and animals cannot give informed consent. Birth control can prevent defects from certain unions. If all sides union are freely and intelligently consenting to an act, who suffers? (This is a secular argument, so souls and sins have no impact here)

    Christian: Let he who is without sin throw the first stone. First remove the plank from your eye before addressing the splinter in someone else's. All sins are equal under the Lord.

    Allowing gay people to freely love, marry, and yes, have sex causes no harm and creates a lot of good.

  23. Interesting that you assumed I was arguing against gay sex. I challenge you to find one statement that said anything of the sort. I was arguing that the use of the word "love" to authorize all relationships of all kinds is meaningless--especially when those relationships are based on sexual attraction ("falling in love") rather than selfless service. Heterosexual people try it all the time. It's still meaningless.

    Now that you've brought it up, I have plenty of sin. Maybe that's why I'm not casting any stones. I'm working on the plank in my own eye, and it drives me crazy when someone else, in an attempt to justify the splinter in his eye, makes some kind of stupid meaningless statement like, "Wood in eyes is always a good thing." Which makes about as much sense as "Whenever good people fall in love, any and all actions/ relationships based on this sexual attraction are good, because they are under the rubric 'love.'"If by "love" Fiona, or Brian, or the gay-straight alliance, meant washing the feet of the poor, then there wouldn't be a debate, now would there? Love is wonderful. Serving the poor is wonderful. Sex is sometimes wonderful, sometimes not. I have no real interest in gay sex. I am interested in debunking both of the two arguments you use in favor of gay sex--one, that informed uncoerced sex is always good, and two, that because all sins are equal therefore all sex is righteous. By the way, your first argument kind of makes sense if you're a nonChristian. The second just leaves me scratching my head. I suppose if this were a question about who were the worse sinner, a homosexual or me, your "argument" would be valid (but I already kind of assume that I'm a far worse sinner than any homosexual). If, however, the argument is that Fiona was right, how do you get from "all sin is equal" to "all sexual attraction is good"? It's a bit of a non sequitur, don't you think?

    By the way, you comment on how non-gay people "assume" things. I find it interesting, and troubling, that when I argue that not all sex (or sexual attraction, or falling in love) is particularly good, you immediately assume I'm critiquing homosexuality. I haven't even hinted at my own view of homosexuality--unless you assume that the ONLY justification for homosexuality is that all love/ attraction/ falling in love between "good" people is always and everywhere a good thing.

  24. ahem

    "My problem is that this comes too close to equating love with sex. Love is always good. Sex sometimes isn't.
    Even if homosexual relationships are biblical and wonderful, it simply isn't true that anybody whom it is right for us to "love" is right for us to "have sex with." "

  25. I have a sense that her sentiment is right, even if her specific example isn't, necessarily.

  26. What is diminished by gay love? Perhaps nothing, perhaps a lot; I simply am not interested in exploring the question. As I said, perhaps homosexual relationships are biblical and wonderful. If you are interested in exploring this question, find someone else who wants to explore it with you--but I hope you explore it with a fair mind. I have nothing to say about it.

    All I am saying is that the word "love" is simply being used dishonestly here, as though in forbidding my 13-year-old daughter from dating a 23-year-old man on parole I am forbidding her to "love" prisoners, as though in discouraging a married man from having a mistress I am discouraging him to "love" women, as though people called to singleness are thereby called to "love" less.

    Homosexuality and heterosexuality have little to do with my point--except that I find, rather curiously, that many people (and I am afraid Richard and you are among them) are willing to be dishonest and silly about using the word "love" whenever you want to support homosexuality. 

    Again, I have no desire to discuss homosexuality. But I do have reason, from exploring heterosexual sin over decades, to think that many times, it is a very bad thing for a "good" boy and a "good" girl to date each other, have sex with each other, or even express their sexual attraction for each other. Why? Because dating/ sex/ attraction are one particular type of relationship, sometimes appropriate and sometimes not; only agape love is always appropriate.

    And when pro-gay arguments ignore this basic distinction between "love" and "dating/ sex/ attraction," when pro-gay arguments act as though all relationships are always appropriate, those PARTICULAR pro-gay arguments undercut everything the church (or any sensible community) has ever said about dating/ sex/ attraction (including what it has said to heterosexuals).

  27. I don't think I'm "willing to be dishonest." I might be confused or wrong, but not willfully dishonest. That's a cheap shot.

    I do agree that, when the conversation gets more specific, that "love" has to be operationalized. For my, part, it involves two interrelated ideas one form the OT and the other from the NT: convental faithfulness and kenostic cruciformity. When I see those two things--in any sort of relationship--I label that "love." And it's my assessment that gay marriages can display love like that.

  28. Sorry, Richard. I didn't intend a cheap shot. I think "I am afraid" expresses my position--I really am afraid that, in service of some ideas you like, you are willing to make statements that (in another context) you would recognize as silly, and perhaps dishonest.

    I have zero experience with homosexuality and its potential goodness (or potential badness??), but I have lots of experience with heterosexual dating, attraction, affairs, etc. I think "covenant faithfulness" and "kenostic cruciformity" are certainly good guidelines to start with, although I am not sure that they are the ONLY guidelines we need for this complex discernment process. That would be a discussion worth having.

    But endorsing the view that "when good people love good people it's always good," implying that there should be no discernment process and that all communities everywhere have been wrong-headed in making guidelines for dating/ attraction/ marriage, is in my view so wrong-headed that I find it hard to believe you really mean it. And this is the situation I've seen a few times when you are trying to stand up for the oppressed--you'll say things that (I'm afraid) you know aren't true, because you seem to think that doing so will serve the (worthy) cause of helping Christians accept people.

    "Dishonsty" may be a harsh word for this practice. "Letting your rhetoric run away with you" might be a kinder way to put it.

  29. I know, my statement in the post--"Though I don't expect all Christians to agree on this, I think Fiona
    makes a theological argument in the letter that many Christians would
    deeply resonate with."
    --is just completely over the top.

    I do let me rhetoric run away with me...

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