STORIES OF ROMANCE
THE ORIGINAL LOVE STORY
Our culture has a fascination with love stories. Tim Keller writes, “The human longing for true love has always been celebrated in song and story, but in our contemporary culture it has been magnified to an astonishing degree.” Even action movies often prominently display tales of romance (a surprising example is the 2018 film Venom, in which the romantic relationship plays an important role in the narrative arc). But from where does the allurement of such stories come? Why do we find them so captivating and compelling?
“This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” (Gen. 2:23)
Genesis 2:23 is the first song in the Bible, and it is a love song. It was sung by Adam when he first caught sight of his bride, Eve. It is an interesting picture of longing even in the midst of paradise. In Genesis 2:15 we are told that after God created Adam, he “took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” Soon after, however, God makes a surprising statement: “It is not good that the man should be alone…” God looked out at all that he had made, and he found something less than ideal: man by himself. So, God determined that he would rectify the situation, saying, “I will make him a helper fit for him” (vs. 18).
But God did not enact his solution immediately, instead he took the man through a process, which is described in verse 19: “Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” Adam went on to name all the livestock, birds, and beasts. After surveying every living thing that God had made, he did not find a suitable companion. It was only after causing Adam to endure what would have been a grueling course, that God finally gave Adam what he needed. In verses 21-22 we read: “21 So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22 And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.”
At this point, I think it is fair to ask, why? Why take Adam through all of this rigmarole? In his book The Stories We Tell, Mike Cosper posits:
“I think the answer is this: the story mattered. It was better, for Adam, to go on a journey to find his bride. By searching through the garden and cataloging every creature, Adam went through a sort of courtship with creation. He experienced a longing that went, for an unknown period of time (long enough, at least, to catalog the animals), unfulfilled. Ultimately, to meet the one he would love, he had to give something of himself. So God put him to sleep, took his rib, and made Eve.”
When that longing was finally satisfied, he burst into song! The anticipation made the fulfillment that much sweeter. When we speak of romance, we tend to tell similar stories of love and longing. Cosper writes: “In many ways, our journey is like Adam’s: we search the world for the one our hearts long for… but in our fallen world, it’s riddled with pitfalls and land mines.” But, he continues, “I think… this longing for love and companionship is hard-wired into creation—it’s part of the actual design of the world…” This, perhaps, is why romance plays a central role in so many of the stories we tell.
TURNING GOOD THINGS INTO ULTIMATE THINGS
Unfortunately, human beings have a tendency to take good things and turn them into ultimate things, to the point that they become destructive. We have most certainly done this with romantic relationships. Back in 1973 the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker introduced the term apocalyptic romance. He believed that as the West became increasingly secular, in order to fill the void left by God, people would turn to romance. He wrote: “The love partner becomes the divine ideal within which to fulfill one’s life. All spiritual and moral needs now become focused in one individual. Spirituality, which once referred to another dimension of things, is now brought down to this earth and given form in another individual human being.” He warned, however, that this will inevitably lead to disappointment since, “No human relationship can bear the burden of godhood, and the attempt has to take its toll in some way on both parties.” Keller describes some of those negative effects writing:
“Making an idol out of love may mean allowing the lover to exploit and abuse you, or it may cause terrible blindness to the pathologies in the relationship. An idolatrous attachment can lead you to break any promise, rationalize any indiscretion, or betray any other allegiance, in order to hold on to it. It may drive you to violate all good and proper boundaries. To practice idolatry is to be a slave.”
To a point, it makes sense that romantic love has so captured our hearts and imaginations. According to David Zahl, “it is the closest most of us will get to transcendence in this life and, as such, [it] is the single best approximation of salvation available to the human creature.” But, he warns, “The more pressure we put on our relationships to provide transcendence, the less they will be able to deliver.” As David Foster Wallace has said, if we worship something other than God, that thing “will eat you alive.”
THE STORIES WE TELL ABOUT LOVE
The longing for transcendence in the love partner is readily apparent in many of the stories that our culture tells about romance. “As Saint Jerry of Maguire famously opines to his estranged wife, ‘You. Complete. Me.’” Even romantic comedies share the same general form as the gospel narrative. Mike Cosper writes:
“Romantic comedies usually begin with some kind of “spark”—a romantic possibility between two people. This is followed by an original sin—a problem that stands between the two people ever getting together. The couple then has to find their way to redemption, and the movie ends with the two drifting off into the sunset, happy ever after.”
Consider the following examples:
It is interesting that so many of our culture’s love stories end moments after a wedding. There is the assumption that after the couple finally commits themselves to one another, they will go on to live happily ever after. But this assumption requires “a suspension of reality.” As Cosper writes, “we’re well aware that love does not ultimately satisfy the needs of our broken hearts.” This is evidenced by the seemingly ever-increasing divorce rate in our country.
This has led to some newer reactionary narratives of despair. A clear example of this can be seen in the song Bored in the USA, by the artist Father John Misty, in which he opines: “How many people rise and think ‘Oh good, the stranger's body's still here, our arrangement hasn't changed?’”
Another example can be seen in the newly released Netflix movie, Marriage Story. This film, which is expected to be nominated for several Academy Awards, tells the story of a stage director and his actor wife as they struggle through a grueling divorce that pushes them to extremes. The story portrays an overall disillusionment with the notion that love can bring the satisfaction that we all crave. In a powerful scene toward the end of the movie, the two main characters, Nicole and Charlie (played by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver) sing their favorite Stephen Sonheim songs from his show Company. Nicole, her mother, and her sister sing “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” while Charlie sings “Being Alive.” One writer comments, “Charlie’s scene rips a hole in the viewer’s heart as we see him realize everything he’s lost in his divorce: someone to hold him too close, to need him too much, to let him come through, as frightened as him, and give him support for being alive.”
WHAT OUR STORIES LACK
At the end of the day, the stories that we tell lack two things, the first being: reality. As Becker and others have warned, no person is able to take on the mantle of godhead. When the “love partner becomes the divine ideal within which to fulfill one’s life” everyone loses. We can and should affirm love and marriage as good and wonderful gifts. But it is only that in so far as it points us to the giver.
The second major quality that our love stories lack is grace. This is painfully obvious in narratives like Marriage Story, but it also comes through in sappy romcoms. Even though we established that they follow the narrative arc of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, the redemption that is demonstrated is an earned redemption. The hardship is always overcome through the effort of the problem party (usually the male). What then sustains a love relationship? The same thing that sustains our relationship with God: grace. Jesus demonstrates what it means to be a true husband to his bride the church. “In our unfaithful marriage to him, his final word is always grace.”
 Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods: the Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters (New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2011), 22.
 Mike Cosper, The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), Chapter 4, Kindle.
 Eernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York, NY: Free Press, 1973), 160.
 Ibid, 166.
 Keller, 22-23.
 David Zahl, Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do About It (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2019), Chapter 2, Kindle.
 David Foster Wallace, This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion about Living a Compassionate Life (New York, NY: Little, Brown, 2009), 102.
 Zahl, Chapter 2, Kindle.
 Cosper, Chapter 1, Kindle.
 Ibid, Chapter 4, Kindle.
 According to the OC Register, the divorce rate in Orange County is now at 60%: https://www.ocregister.com/2012/06/25/oc-divorce-rate-one-of-highest-in-nation/
 Benjamin Y. Goff, “What's Missing in Marriage Story,” Mockingbird (Mockingbird Ministries, December 2, 2019), https://mbird.com/2019/12/whats-missing-in-marriage-story/.
 Zahl, Chapter 2, Kindle.
 Goff, “What's Missing in Marriage Story.”