When Yippie political agitator Abbie Hoffman was asked his position on women’s rights, he answered with a glib, “missionary.” The pop culture understanding of love seemed, and seems, to exist completely in the binary between a vague, featureless, unrooted, and ultimately meaningless catchphrase (think The Beatles “All You Need Is Love”) and the gratification of physical craving.

Love is best understood within a taxonomy, and what Hoffman reveals in his casual aside is the sixties counterculture’s overemphasis on eros, or sensual love. When you think of eros, think of Mick Jagger mincing around on stage singing “I’m no schoolboy but I know what I like.” Eros is sex. It’s love as sensual passion, a force that runs invisibly through physical reality like air currents or electricity—mysterious, but decidedly natural.

This is what Paul referred to in 1 Corinthians 7:9 as the passion one should cultivate within marriage rather than be consumed by. Alice von Hildebrand describes eros as “response to value,” meaning that it is an acquisitive form of love, one in which we wish to sort of attain, in our fumbling way, the qualities of the other that hypnotizes us. It’s no wonder then that eros is so often used as a marketing strategy to sell soda, jeans, and cosmetics.

More Elevated Loves

Other popular Baby Boomer musicians sang about loves more elevated than eros:

When I lit out from Reno

I was trailed by twenty hounds

So begins the Grateful Dead’s masterly “Friend of the Devil,” music by Jerry Garcia and lyrics by Robert Hunter. It’s an oddly titled song to use as an example of love, but it’s a fantastic representative of something the Grateful Dead did well and did often: speak on behalf of the marginalized sinner.

I can hear some of you sighing right now, but bear with me. The unnamed narrator is a man on the run from the law (“the sheriff’s on my trail / and if he catches up with me I’ll spend my life in jail”) in a dream-like version of the American West, vibrating with mythic energy, full of caves, levees, hounds, and lawmen.

The themes are vast (sin, guilt, and redemption) but the story is simple: A man is on the run from his obligations. He has a wife and also a lover with whom he probably has a child. The sheriff is on a quest to bring him in. He needs to borrow money for unspecified, though surely dubious reasons (when Garcia sang this song in the eighties, in the throes of his own heroin addiction, you knew exactly what the money was for) from, of course, the Devil.

We’re naturally repulsed by the deeds of the narrator. He’s a selfish and cowardly nihilist. But when the Grateful Dead wear his mask, so to speak, and channel his plaintive voice, his desperation and suffering, something almost miraculous happens: you feel love for him.

This sense doesn’t come naturally. Naturally, people who abandon their children repulse us. But the Grateful Dead's songs manifested a specific and unique kind of love: Agape, the highest form of love.

Why is this love agape? Let’s refer back to the taxonomy of types of love. This isn’t eros. That would be sex with groupies. This isn’t storge, or familial love. That would be the love the band had for their children and wives. And this isn’t philia, brotherly love. That would be the love the bandmates had for each other.

This love was channeled through lyrics, the spoken word, or logos prophorikos, in a communal setting (either a live performance or recorded performance with a similarly implied relationship between speaker and listener) that suggestively evokes the term agape in the sense that Augustine used it: a feast for the poor. Who are the poor? We all are. What is being served? Charity for the conventionally disdained.

The Dead’s Agape

My own personal definition of agape would be something like: sharing in God’s love for His creation, because agape is a particularistic love. It revels in the details. Its expression is filled with descriptions of real things, populated with actual objects and people in physical space. Our hearts need to find purchase on specific shapes in order to love.

The Dead’s lot of agape tunes thrum with the voices of marginalized outsiders stuck in the actual world: alcoholic confessions, rings stolen from murdered night watchmen, shallow graves being dug. They’re often dark and sad tales of fellow sinners living a pathetic existence on the margin (one song is titled “Loser”), and yet their lives aren’t glamorized.

These are sad songs. The stories make us feel uncomfortable. And yet somehow, through the cracked kaleidoscope of their sordid realities, we as listeners are touched by a non-self-interested love: for the emotionally absent young man who kills his uncle in “Me And My Uncle,” for the eponymous “Loser” begging a woman for “ten gold dollars,” for “Jack Straw” who “shot his buddy down,” for the narrator of “Mexicali Blues” who kills a man on behalf of a woman he just met, the harried husband of “Cold Rain And Snow” who is talking himself up to leave his wife.

Agape isn’t natural. It’s supernatural. In the New Testament the word usually refers to God’s love or the love of man for God. Pope Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, begins with words from 1 John: "'God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him." To come at it from a different angle, Simone Weil wrote that “To love human beings in so far as they are nothing. That is to love them as God does.”

As the singer tells the homeless beggar in the song “Wharf Rat”: “I got no dime / but I got some time to hear your story.” And so do we. During the course of the song of August West (we get a name this time), we hear an alcoholic’s confession of fear and hope about his idealized woman, Pearly Baker (a sort of drunkard’s Dulcinea del Toboso), years and miles away, and the hope against hope that she’s remained “true to me,” despite his having spent half his life in jail and the other half “stumbling around drunk on burgundy wine.”

Moved Beyond Ourselves

These songs move us beyond ourselves. A love is channeled that transcends the ignominious circumstances of the songs themselves because we sense the need for it. Agape is necessary, especially where it is least obviously present.

The Grateful Dead were not a Christian band. Their bric-a-brac spirituality was never formalized. They equated that informality with creative freedom. And yet their art intersected with the transcendent, which presents a chicken and egg question: Do a handful of Grateful Dead songs channel agape, or does being a Christian make one sensitive to instances of agape seemingly shrouded in secular context?

C. S. Lewis’ words on enjoying nature in The Four Loves might help us answer that question: “Say your prayers in a garden early, ignoring steadfastly the dew, the birds and the flowers, and you will come away overwhelmed by its freshness and joy; go there in order to be overwhelmed and, after a certain age, nine times out of ten nothing will happen to you.”

Agape is of a different order than the appreciation of nature, but the logic holds: The opportunities to express agape are ever present, but we prepare ourselves to recognize it for what it is.