Hooray for Hollywood!

I’m happy to sing the song. I enjoy good movies and TV. And I tend to be optimistic about the potential of local believers to make a difference in the media. I’m more than a little proud when I see something good come out of our city’s studios — and prouder still when I can say I know someone who appears in the credits.

So I don’t want to be numbered among the naysaying cultural critics who make a habit of trash-talking pop culture.

But I do wish we could do a better job of portraying love.

By love I mean not only romantic love, but also friendship, and family life, and even the bond that you and I have with our neighbors and co-workers.

Romantic love, of course, gets the most attention in our entertainment media. It’s the stuff of most popular music. It’s an essential element in the plots of most TV and film. And it’s often portrayed as clever banter between pretty people who occasionally take breaks to roll around in bed. Between the banter and the bed, there may be a car chase, a gun battle, or a series of unfortunate events. But things always wrap up neatly and resolve perfectly in time for the closing theme, when the couple is usually heading back to bed.

I understand that it’s entertainment and not reality. And I know that only so much can transpire in the time slots allotted by the networks and the theatres. And I recognize that the events are stylized.

But I also know, as a pastor of souls, that many people today have unrealistic ideas about love. They expect love to be a strong feeling — just like in the movies — a steady high that starts early and lasts forever. And they’re genuinely surprised to find out it’s not. When life hits a rough patch, they assume it’s time to break up the family or walk out of the friendship. So they do, and then they feel more miserable.

I wish I could somehow make it clear to them that the rough patch isn’t the end of love. It’s the test of love. It’s the real path to lasting love and happiness.

The truth is that love doesn’t look much like the movie version. For a Christian, love looks a lot like the crucifix. It looks like one person laying down life, and not counting the cost. Dorothy Day, the modern American apostle, once wrote: “all love means suffering, the sufferings of parting, separation, and loss; and of course the suffering because all relationships are not as they ought to be.”

We live in an imperfect world. If we don’t learn to live with one another’s imperfections — and even love them — we’ll never learn to love.

More than a thousand years ago, a saint named Maximus wrote a book about love. In a hundred chapters, he described something that looks nothing like the Hollywood story line. He didn’t focus on pretty people saying clever things to other pretty people. Instead he wrote about ordinary folks making the decision to be kind to neighbors who are difficult. He wrote about the challenge of loving family members who refuse to love us back. He taught us how to show respect to co-workers who have done little to earn anyone’s respect.

I suspect St. Maximus was on to something. He was describing people who love the way Jesus loves. He was describing people who love their persecutors and do good to those who hate them. He was describing people who had made the decision to keep on loving, no matter what.

I sometimes wish I knew some other way to be happy in life, but I don’t. Our choice is between a life of sacrificial love and a life of selfishness. There is no third way.

I know of a woman with a severely challenged and challenging son. He is her only child, adopted decades ago, and she still lavishes attention on him. But he will never feel gratitude for it. Fetal alcohol syndrome left him with no capacity to return her affection. He will never care that she cares.

She says that she has learned the joy of loving without expectations. It would be pointless for her to place conditions on love, so she loves unconditionally.

May we all pray for that grace. May we all learn to overcome whatever expectations we’ve picked up from romcoms, sitcoms, and bromances. We’re made for so much more than that. We’re made to love as God loves.