I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the stories we tell.
Or more accurately, the stories we hear. The films we watch and the books we read. And If I were to make a monstrous generalization about modern Hollywood’s ideals, it would be summed up in two words: Happy endings.
I touched on this in a recent post, but wanted to expound on this idea of a ‘one-fight life’. Even the best romantic movies fall prey to this outline of a plot: Meet, flirt, fall in love, roll romantic montage, and here is where the drama sets in. A secret from earlier in the film is revealed, or maybe a trait that she wasn’t supposed to see appears. A battle erupts, but peace is eventually restored and they make out.
Take, for instance, one of my favorite films of all time, Beginners. Realistic as it is, it is heavily laden with artistic takes and romantic whimsy. The film reaches a place where the protagonist unravels years of psychological threads; his noncommittal character breaks down and he leaves his beautiful French girl. Without giving away too much, there is a happy ending. A reunion after their singular conflict. The jazzy piano croons on as the last shot gives way to the credits.
And after the credits roll, the audience is left with this vague good feeling because the conflict has been resolved and in our minds, the two romantic leads continue on in their blissful romantic utopia, never to fight again.
In our optimism, we have adopted this repetitive plot into the liturgy of our lives.
What I mean by liturgy is a repeated action or input into our lives that eventually develops certain rhythms within us. For instance, I used to work in the Chicago Juvenile Detention Center and would always ask the guys about their influences. They talked about characters like Lil’ Wayne, who glorifies getting money above all. Right under money was getting girls and shooting their enemies.
Their liturgy was one that glorified money above all, as well as exalting a lifestyle of violence and self-glorification because they repeatedly put those concepts into their minds via Wayne, Eminem or Chief Keef. A lifetime of this liturgy led them to juvy, because it became the entirety of what they hoped for and worked toward. Their end goal fueled their actions. (Of course this is an oversimplification, but you get the concept of how liturgies affect our lives).
My uncle, a Doctorate in Theology, says that we should never take in media with our brains turned off. Always be aware of what your movies and music are saying. Everyone is always saying something, so learn to recognize how your media is affecting your desires, your actions, and your thoughts. There is no neutral ground. It is either orienting you toward God and His grace, or it is pointing you toward yourself, money, sex, pleasure, et cetera.
We often fail to recognize our own liturgies—repetitive actions or thoughts in our lives—because they are less explicit and cloaked in the innocent spirit of rom-coms and love songs. Even commercials promise that this one simple product will be a quick fix for whatever ailments your life has accrued.
We expect every situation in our lives to be resolved simplistically and offer a permanent solution to whatever ache or conflict we are engaged in because that is what our postmodern liturgy has promised us. Especially as Christians, we often associate coming to faith in Jesus with the elimination of our sins, struggles and conflicts.
I wonder if this is why so many marriages end prematurely: We think that when the first winds of conflict stir, it means there is a problem with the person we have chosen. Or when your porn habit simply will not go away, even though you repeatedly pray to Jesus to take it away, you wonder if you’re really saved.
Because there should be a quick fix and a happy ending, right?
Hardships, trials and conflicts will continue as long as sinful people continue to walk the earth. This is why so much of premarital counseling teaches the prenuptials how to fight, rather than how to avoid fighting.
Because in real life, there is more than one fight.
There are a lot more than one fight.
I once was in Florida and this beautiful couple that must have been hovering around 80 years old invited me to dinner. They were cuter than plums on the porch, and I expected to witness a couple that only said kind words to each other with the gentleness of a baby’s rear end.
Instead, I was privy to an ongoing (hilarious) bicker battle between the loving couple. They were still very much in love with each other, and both knew it, but she yelled at him for getting the wrong flavor of ice cream, and he jabbed back that there was too much sauce on the salad. It went on most of the night in the cutest way possible. Like two puppies wrestling.
I was trying so hard not to laugh out loud.
They had learned how to fight well. They did not expect a one-fight marriage followed by a Pax Romana. Rather, they accepted that they would never agree on everything and engaged in a life together in which conflict was an acquired skill.
This doesn’t just apply to relationships either. I feel like every episode of Modern Family offers some kind of pithy moral throughout the course of the plot, as if life change happens over the course of 21 minutes and endures the rest of our lives.
If my life is any indicator, this is clearly not the case.
Because sin is ongoing. My pride and selfishness are ongoing. My fallen human nature creeps up again and again and I find myself falling into the same pit,
and falling in again.
At the end of his life, well-battered and weathered, Brennan manning sat in a chair in his Kansas home and told a camera crew, “Let yourself be loved by God, as you are and not as you should be, because none of us are as we should be…” After struggling with alcoholism for decades and only finding relief in the arms of a gracious God, Manning found only one cure for the repetitive liturgies sung to us in the smoothest voices from Hollywood and television: the love of God.
Repeatedly returning to God reminds us that there is not one solve-all solution for our brokenness and pain. Creating new rhythms that engage with His Word, His body, and His Spirit are what begin to reorient our lives toward what is true. Maybe this is what Paul meant in Romans 12 when he wrote, “Do not conform to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
Yes, you will continue to battle the urges to look at porn, or to lose your temper at your husband. These may be lifelong struggles that take years to eradicate, but implementing new rhythms and liturgies into our lives will help us change; they will help us see God in everything as His Spirit works and moves through the mundane and ordinary things in our lives.
May we be a people who integrate holy rhythms into our lives in order to orient our hearts toward God daily.
Not just once.