Tuesday, February 22, 2005

It's Time to Dethrone Romance

The songs are in your eyes
I see them when you smile
I've had enough of romantic love
I'd give it up, yeah, I'd give it up
For a miracle, a miracle drug, a miracle drug
-U2, from their song, Miracle Drug

I'm a sucker for chick flicks and have been since the prime time of Doris Day. In my prepubescent imagination, as I watched her and suitors like Rock Hudson--and who knew how great an actor he was?--in their cinematic romances, no prospect seemed more wonderful to me than finding the right girl, falling in love, and living "happily ever after."

It's a story that's been told time and again, sometimes well (ie, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in both Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail) and sometimes poorly (ie, anything with Jennifer Lopez).

Knowing my weakness for romance movies, my twenty-something daughter often invites me to view them with her. That happened a few weeks ago, when she excitedly asked me to watch The Notebook, a chick flick based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks. I loved the movie adaptation of an earlier Sparks novel, A Walk to Remember. And while I considered his A Bend in the Road predictable to the point of my knowing how it would turn out almost from the first page, I decided to watch The Notebook. Mostly, I did so because I was intrigued to learn how James Garner, another one of Day's co-stars, figured in the movie.

If you haven't yet seen The Notebook and don't want me to ruin it, you might want to skip the next paragraph or so.

The movie begins with an elderly man (played by Garner) and an elderly woman (played by director Nick Cassavetes' mother, Gina Rowlands), each residents of a nursing home. She is suffering from dementia and he seems as spry as a thirty year old. From a notebook, the man reads the story of a young love, capably portrayed by Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams.

As the two stories--that of the young couple's love and that of these two nursing home residents sharing the contents of a notebook--unfold, we learn, predictably, that the main characters in each are the same. The woman, now aged, is occasionally "brought back" from her dementia by hearing the story of how she and her husband of many years fell in love.

It's in such a moment of lucidity at the end of the film that Rowlands' character asks Garner's if he believes that their love is so strong that it can make anything possible. With credal certainty, he affirms that as his belief. They lie down in each other's arms and are found later, both of them dead, by an attending nurse. Somehow, their love for one another was such that they beat Alzheimer's and left this world together.

It was a good little flick, I guess. Harmless probably.

Yet, for me, The Notebook caused something to snap. For generations, our popular culture has fed us on the Gospel of Romance, making an idol of the notion that two people may have such a fiery, inevitable, and eternal attraction for one another that their love can weather any storm and conquer any obstacle, even death.

Truth be told, this Gospel of Romance is applied to more than just romantic or erotic love. There is in our culture a widespread Man of LaMancha-notion that, deep down, we all are pure, wise, and good and that the whole world should bend to our ideals, ideas, and wills.

It's romance straight out of the Enlightenment, each of us seen as basically good beings who can be gods unto ourselves, make our own choices irrespective of others, and let the rest of the world be hanged.

The problem with the Gospel of Romance, of course, is that it's all rot. Sometime after the honeymoon, she wakes up and sees that the man of her dreams drools on his pillow, leaves his empties to make water-rings on the end table, and doesn't have a clue as to how to fix a radiator. He notes that her hair looks like a dried-out and matted wash cloth in the morning, she crunches her corn flakes way too loudly, and she only stops nagging him long enough to remind him of his latest failures.

None of these flaws should be grounds for divorce, of course. At a rational level, we all know that we are human beings. But what happens to a culture subliminally schooled by the idea that she should be Reese Witherspoon or Paris Hilton and he should be Ben Affleck or Brad Pitt?

How do these same adherents to the Gospel of Romance react when real problems develop? When his stubborn streak makes him hard to be around? When she can't seem to handle the pressures of life? When a job is lost and the finances go down the tubes? When the difficulties of life, to which we're all susceptible, come along?

If the statistics on divorce are any indication, people just bug out.

The Gospel of Romance, the doggedly deathless notion that we can live "happily ever after" with ourselves and "that special someone," is a terrible set-up. Its adherents place expectations on life and on others that nothing on this planet can possibly deliver to us! It's not only unrealistic, it's unfair to lovers, family members, friends, and neighbors!

And after the Gospel of Romance proves to be a lie, more awful things often happen. Few experiences are worse for we human beings than learning that a long-worshiped god--romance, money, sex, power, popularity, looks, perks, stuff, the great job--doesn't cause us to live happily ever after. We still have to take out the trash. The lawn still needs to be mowed. And if we're to share our lives with one another, we'll need to compromise.

After the disillusionment that comes from discovering that the Gospel of Romance is rot, many people buy into an alternative idol and ideology. They become cynics, adopting an attitude that says, "There's no such thing as love. My life is just about using you and throwing you away. I'm all about me." It's the prevailing ideology of rap music and sadly, a good portion of contemporary youth culture. (But who can blame the kids? Many of them have never seen a marriage in which two people actually care for one another through thick and thin. Lots of them are products of marriages in which the partners decided to end their unions when they hit rough patches, making a mockery of the vow, "till death does us part.")

This past weekend, while perusing the magazines and books at the local Target store, I was surprised to see that Sylvester Stallone, now fifty-eight years old, has put his name (and repeatedly, his face and body) to a new magazine, humbly titled, Sly. It's an absolute paean to "being good to yourself" and includes an interview with a porn star, advice on how to get her to do what you want sexually, and tips on how to get your wife to agree to making that big purchase you want. Sly is the expression of total cynical selfishness that takes over for many people when one has found the Gospel of Romance to be wanting. While I expect Stallone's magazine to go the way of Rosie, it no doubt expresses a huge thread of thought in our culture.

So, am I saying that romance is altogether bad? Not at all. I agree with C.S. Lewis who said that romance is a great way to get the engine of love started and it ought to be present throughout a relationship between a man and a woman. But, as I've pointed out before, after you've started the engine of a car, you don't usually turn the key again.

The love that sustains relationships isn't necessarily pretty. It may entail cleaning up after your beloved when they've become ill. It can mean doing the tough work of compromising and resolving conflicts that arise. It means forgiving and moving on. That doesn't make for a good movie plot line. But it can make for a wonderful life.

In the New Testament portion of the Bible, there's this description of love:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or
rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all
things, believes all things, endures all things. [First Corinthians 13:4-7]

Whenever I read that passage, I have two reactions. First, I think, that is what real love is like--tough and charitable, resilient and forgiving. Love like that can be the fuel for keeping a love going. In fact, I feel certain that love like that is essential if our relationships, whether with spouses, friends, children, or colleagues, are going to work.

The next thing I think is, I am incapable of loving like that. I know myself well enough to know that I can be impatient, unkind, envious, boastful, rude, and all the rest.

For the past twenty-five years or so, I've been an importer. I've been importing the love of which I'm incapable from an outside source: the tough, resilient love of God granted to all with faith in Jesus Christ.

The Bible's word for God's love in the New Testament Greek is agape. It's a love commitment so great that one is willing to die for the beloved. It's that sort of love we need. It's that sort of love that we are incapable of mustering on our own. That's why I import that kind of love from God.

Sometimes, I don't import nearly enough. I forget to pray. I forget to take time to soak up God's counsel as found in His Word, the Bible. I fail to shut up and ask God for His guidance.

The result is predictable. I begin to operate on "E" or more dangerously, on my own finite capacities for love (or even good judgment). That's when I blow up over small nuisances, say things I later regret, or develop amnesia over how much I've been blessed.

But when by faith, I download the love God makes available to us through Christ, God fuels me to new heights of love, real love, the kind of love that incorporates not only the primary people in my life, but the world.

Love is less something that you fall into than something that you will to give and to share. Love is a decision; but we cannot make that decision stick when we rely only on ourselves.

When we let Christ into the center of our lives, we can make good on the love we will to share with others.

God I need your help tonight
Beneath the noise
Below the din
I hear a voice
It's whispering
In science and in medicine
"I was a stranger
"You took me in"

The songs are in your eyes
I see them when you smile
I've had enough of romantic love
I'd give it up, yeah, I'd give it up
For a miracle drug...
--U2, Miracle Drug

The word, gospel, means good news. The Gospel of Romance can't fill us with a love that vaults even past death. Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ can do that. It's time to dethrone romance, put it in its proper place, and let Christ reign in our lives.

[If you haven't yet heard the new U2 LP, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, from which the song, Miracle Drug, comes, go out and buy it right now. It's fantastic...great music and full of thought-provoking lyrics!]

1 comment:

Spencer Troxell said...

This is a great post.