One of the many clichés of book titling is the “____ is a verb” trick. It’s supposed to grab your attention, be a little disorienting, and suggest that _____ is full of unexpected action and energy. For example, a quick search shows that “Life is a Verb,” “News is a Verb,” “Friendship is a Verb,” and, somehow, even “Elvis is a Verb.” It’s unclear to me how any of those nouns are supposed to be verbs, and even if “Grammar is a Verb,” those sentences don’t really grammar very well.
On the other hand, since “Verb is a Noun,” the trope grammars in spite of itself.
Apparently it’s supposed to be very exciting that nouns are verbs. That’s why verbing nouns is hot, but nouning verbs is not.
The cliché is clichéing right along in religious circles, too. Here we have been told at various times that “God is a Verb,” “Church is a Verb,” “Worship is a Verb,” and of course, for readers both sacred and secular, “Love is a Verb.”
But it seems to me that, while the Bible is well aware that love is a verb, there’s a lot of good news and good sense in the fact that love is a noun.
For instance, John writes that we should love one another, since love is from God. The noun from God makes the verb from us possible.
Then he goes on to say that whoever loves has been born of God and knows God, and that anybody who doesn’t love doesn’t know God, since God is love. All these verbs, verbing their way right up to The Great Noun Itself, the Noun Above All Nouns, the supersubstantial Substantive and his consubstantial Son. Let us all, indeed, verb to that Noun, that person who is the place of all things.
The key passage, though, in which love’s nounhood is celebrated, is Paul’s rhapsodic chapter thirteen of First Corinthians. Love is something. It is an ample noun from which many adjectives depend, from which a thousand verbs are launched. Look at verses four through seven:
Love is patient and kind;
Love does not envy or boast;
It is not arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way;
It is not irritable or resentful;
It does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love is something in particular, something very concrete and specific. You can paint its portrait, and those who know its face will recognize each of its features. In the context of First Corinthians, love is probably a kind of apocalyptic Christian fellowship that is brought about by the Holy Spirit as he incorporates those unsanctified saints of the First Church of Corinth into the body of the resurrected Messiah. Read at least chapters 12 through 15 all together to get the sense of 13.
But if you want to sharpen your perception of how concrete this noun is, try this simple trick I learned from the young leader of the Methodist Youth Fellowship where I got saved: Replace the word love with the name Jesus:
Jesus is patient and kind;
Jesus does not envy or boast;
He is not arrogant or rude.
He does not insist on his own way;
He is not irritable or resentful;
He does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.
Jesus bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Of course doing this is not the same thing as interpreting the passage! First Corinthians 13:4-7 is not a series of sentences about Jesus, but a series of sentences about what they say they’re about: Love. It’s a trick which should send you right back to the passage as it stands, as a description of the solid reality of love. Running it through the filter of the name of Jesus might make you notice how each statement is true, because with Jesus as the subject, every one of them becomes even more palpably true.
By contrast, try the next trick. Read verses four through seven again, but this time, where it says love, insert your own name and the right pronoun:
_______ is patient and kind;
______ does not envy or boast;
__ is not arrogant or rude.
__ does not insist on ___ own way;
__ is not irritable or resentful;
__ does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.
______ bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Perhaps you noticed that this alteration makes every statement false. That’s because you’re not the noun you’re supposed to be. But love is.