Romantic comedies

“Boys only want pork if it’s kosher” is a mishearing of a line from a Taylor Swift song. It makes just as much sense as the real line, though. We live in a culture that is confused and misinformed about love. For generations, poems, books, songs, and movies have distorted the meaning of love. No wonder our culture is trying to redefine marriage, when we cannot distinguish true love from infatuation, romance, or just plain selfishness.

That said, I actually enjoy watching romantic comedies. The late Nora Ephron is one of my favorite movie-makers in the genre, largely because her distortions of love are so over-the-top that they practically serve as satires rather than portrayals of romance. I must add, though, that I would not want my children to watch her movies without a clear warning that true love is nothing like what they will see in Ephron’s movies.

When Harry Met Sally (1989) was written by Nora Ephron and directed by Rob Reiner. It follows two shallow and shabby characters through several years of their lives. The wit of Billy Crystal and the charm of Meg Ryan make the movie entertaining. The most telling quote from the movie comes from the wedding reception of Jess and Marie. Harry and Sally had tried to arrange a blind date in which Harry was matched with Sally’s best friend Marie, and Sally is matched with Harry’s best friend, Jess. Instead, the two best friends become attracted to each other, ignoring Harry and Sally. At the reception, Jess, the groom offers this toast: “To Harry and Sally. If Marie or I had found either of them remotely attractive we would not be here today.” As in all Nora Ephron’s movies, the main characters practice serial fornication without shame, although Sally is affronted by Harry’s casual attitude about his behavior. The movie is packed with clever lines and convincing portrayals of the characters. The interviews with married couples between acts of the story are a nice touch, showing diverse ways that a man and a woman can become a couple. As a love story, though, the movie is sadly lacking any other positive portrayals of true love.

Sleepless in Seattle (1993) was both written and directed by Nora Ephron. Tom Hanks plays a man who was happily and faithfully married, but then his wife dies. Hanks’ portrayal makes Sam likeable and vulnerable, but Sam boasts of fornication with eight different women during his college days, and he seems inclined to return to that lifestyle. Meg Ryan’s Annie is already living with her fiancé, but when she hears Sam’s voice on the radio, she suddenly becomes a stalker who pursues him from across the country and arranges to meet him in New York City on Valentines’ Day (because she and her fiancé will be registering for wedding gifts at the time). Annie’s pursuit of “magic” in a romantic relationship reveals exactly what is wrong with our culture’s understanding of love.

You’ve Got Mail (1998) brings back Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as a romantic team. Nora Ephron wrote, directed, and produced this story, in which Ryan’s Kathleen owns and manages a small book store, specializing in children’s books, while Hanks’ Joe Fox is part of a family which owns and runs a large chain of book stores, the kind of chain that puts stores like Kathleen’s out of business. While the two compete professionally, they are also becoming friends in anonymous email exchanges. (At the same time, they are both living with partners to whom they are not married.) In the latter part of the movie, after Joe has realized that his email partner and business competitor are the same person (and after her shop has closed), he begins a crafty and manipulative pursuit of Kathleen which leads to the expected happy ending. If one of my daughters became involved with a man like Joe Fox, I would urge her to run the opposite direction as quickly as possible.

More recent movies from Nora Ephron include Hanging Up (2000) which she wrote and produced (and which again stars Meg Ryan), and Julie & Julia (2009) which Ephron wrote, directed, and produced. In both movies, the romance in the plot takes second place to other happenings. Hanging Up is about three daughters and their relationship with their aging father. It speaks on several levels about life and death, love and families, and our dependence upon technology. Julie & Julia, starring Amy Adams, is based on a true story of a woman who chooses to blog about her attempt to cook every recipe from a book by Julia Child (portrayed by Meryl Streep) in one year. Both movies benefit from the same clever dialogue and convincing acting as in the other three I have mentioned.

I enjoy Nora Ephron’s movies for their cleverness. I also enjoy the way she portrays holidays with genuine affection for their flavor. Harry and Sally’s Christmas decorations and New Year’s Eve revelation, Sam and Annie’s meeting on Valentines’ Day at the top of the Empire State building, and Kathleen and Joe’s contrasting celebrations of Thanksgiving (both involving singing) are all nice touches in each movie. In fact, the friendships depicted in all of these movies are frequently healthier relationships than the romantic relationships at the center of each plot. J.



Last spring I started writing a short story. After a while, the characters took over the story. They changed their names, and they kept extending the action until the short story became a novella. I was curious to see how it would end, when suddenly they told me they were done. I allowed the story to rest for a while. This week I pulled it out again, dusted it off, and tweaked it one last time. You can now read this novella by clicking on the word “novella” near the top of this page.

Someone once said that the first words to every story are “what if?” In this case, the story began this way: what if a young pastor was asked by his old flame to give counseling to her and her husband? I could imagine any number of possibilities, and it was interesting to toy with them as the story developed. Please believe the disclaimer at the start of the novella: Any resemblance to real people or real situations is unintended and purely coincidental. I would not want any reader to think either that this story is autobiographical or that it betrays confidences.

I hope you enjoy my novella. J.

Obsession, or seven of my favorite rock ‘n’ roll songs

I can’t speak for you, but I always learn the most interesting things while researching something else. For example, yesterday, in a bit of mild curiosity, I wanted to know which group sang the song “Obsession” in the early to middle 1980s. (The answer is Animotion; it was their first and biggest hit.) Along with the answer to that question, I also found several interesting internet lists about popular songs related to the feeling or condition of obsession.

Earlier this month I posted an essay about the meaning of love. Three of the points I made were that love cares more about the other than about the self, that the opposite of love is selfishness, and that popular culture tends to confuse the two, expressing selfish thoughts and feelings as if they were love. I now wish that I had used the theme of obsession to show the difference between selfishness and true love. After all, obsession cares more about “what I want” and “how I feel” than it cares about “what you want” and “how you feel.”

Last night and this morning I started examining my favorite popular songs for themes of obsession. I did this because several of my favorite songs appeared on those lists of songs about obsession. About fifteen years ago I made a list of my favorite songs. Some preferences have changed over the years, but the top of the list has remained remarkably stable.

My favorite rock ‘n’ roll song for much more than fifteen years is “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys (1966). I have always loved this song for its harmony and polyphony, and the actual words have never been as important as the sound. In this anthem to love, the singer mentions a few details about the appearance and scent of his beloved, but the bulk of the song is dedicated to the good feelings and “excitations” he is experiencing. One might gather that she feels the same way about him, if the two of them have good vibrations, but from the lyrics alone it does not seem to matter to him whether she truly likes him or not.

A strong second favorite song is “Hey Jude” by the Beatles (1968). Hard-core Beatles fans know that Paul McCartney wrote this song to comfort Julian (“Jules”) Lennon on the divorce of his parents, John and Cynthia Lennon, and John’s on-going romance with Yoko Ono. Some of the song directly mentions the sorrow of the boy (“Take a sad song and make it better.”), and other lines seem to encourage him to accept his father’s second wife (“Let her into your heart.”). As Paul filled out the lyrics, though, he seemed to add just a touch of obsessive “love.” (“You have found her. Now go and get her.”) Neither of my two favorite songs made the lists of songs about obsession, but they contain elements of the feeling.

My solid third favorite song is “Cherish” by the Association (1966). This song was featured on every list of songs about obsession. “Cherish is the word I use to describe all the feeling that I have right in here for your inside.” The singer sings about how she makes him feel and laments the fact that she has no interest in him. Writers of these lists comment how strange it is that this song is sometimes featured at weddings, even though it describes unrequited love. I agree. The song seems more suited to the sad and lonely guy at the back of the church than to the happy bride and groom.

After this, my favorites clump as a group, so I will list them in chronological order. “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Elvis Presley (1960) is a simple love long about a man who is helpless in the face of love. Elvis had already sung about the symptoms of love, making them sound much like a panic attack, in “All Shook Up.” Now Elvis sings more calmly about those feelings, but again the singer does not seem to care whether or not she feels the same way about him.

The most obvious song on this list of obsession songs is “Every Breath You Take” by the Police (1983). Sting even wrote this song to portray the thoughts of a stalker, and, according to interviews, he remains astounded by its popularity. Like many other people, though, I have been drawn to this song since the first time I heard it. Its simple tune and beat describe a feeling that might well be mistaken for love, even though the singer is so obsessed that he sings, “Oh, can’t you see you belong to me,” without even stopping to ask whether or not she wants to be with him.

“We Belong” by Pat Benatar is a much gentler song about love, but seen in this light it may be just as demanding as “Every Breath You Take.” Although the song is about us instead of me, unlike most of the songs on this list, the singer takes for granted that “we belong together.” One wonders if the song is being sung because the beloved has suggested a bit more distance between the two of them might be healthy.

I was surprised to see the deeply romantic “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere” by the Moody Blues (1988) on the list of songs about obsession. This song would appear to be one of the healthiest expressions of true love on my list of favorites, with reminders of “the promise that we made each other” and, “My arms will close around you and protect you with the truth.” On the other hand, the singer is obsessed with someone who is not present at this time. He remembers the past and he hopes for the future, but his love has no reality right now. He sings, then, only about his obsession, not about a love that the two of them share.

Here, then, is a challenge: how many popular songs from the last sixty years actually sing about true love—love in which the beloved matters more than the lover—and not merely about how the lover feels toward the beloved? Are there many love songs from this era that really express love rather than an addiction to the feeling of love or a desire to own and control the beloved? Let me know what popular love songs you like that actually express true love.


What is this thing called love?

“Love” is a simple word, yet the idea of love is among the most complicated and confusing ideas known to men and women. What is this thing called love? What good is it? And who really needs it, anyhow? I do not pretend to be an expert on the topic of love (or on much of anything else, for that matter), but in my years of living and learning, I have discovered certain truths about love.

First: love is central to the Maker of the universe, which means it is a central power of the universe as well. The Bible never says that God is power or that God is knowledge, although it does say that God possesses all power and all knowledge. Yet in I John 4 the Bible says twice that God is love. Love is at the very center of the reality that is God. God does not merely love the things that he created; outside of space and time, God still is love. No Unitarian believer in God could comprehend this truth, but the eternal and unchanging love among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are essential to the true nature of God. The universe could be regarded, in a way, as a gift of love from the Father and to the Son.

One consequence of that reality is that, since men and women are created in the image of God, men and women are created for love. We already know that we are commanded to love God more than anything else and to love our neighbors as ourselves; but this understanding makes those two commandments more than just requirements. The entire reason and purpose for the existence of each and every one of us is love.

Second: love is defined by the fact that the Lover cares more about the Beloved than about its self. True love always puts the Beloved first. Poets and songwriters and movie makers have largely missed the boat on this fact. The culture around us trains us to think of love as the good feeling we have that is caused by another person. He makes me feel good, so I must be in love. I no longer feel good around her; we must have lost that loving feeling. The opposite of love is not hatred, as many people assume; nor is it apathy, as some have suggested. The opposite of love is selfishness. Whenever I use a person and my relationship with that person to make myself feel good, I am selfish; I am not in love. When I care about that person and want that person to be happy, even at some cost to myself, then I truly love that person.

Here is an example: parents do not change the diapers of their babies because they like changing diapers. No one likes changing diapers; changing diapers is a disgusting experience. Parents change the diapers of their babies because they love their babies. The comfort and well-being of their babies matter more to the parents than does their own happiness.

Third: love makes the Lover vulnerable. Once one cares more about the Beloved than about the self, the Beloved is able to hurt the Lover. That hurt may come through total rejection, through thoughtlessness, or through various other shortcomings. The Lover does not stop caring about the Beloved, even when the Beloved hurts the Lover. The Lover is willing to forgive, because the Lover cares deeply about the Beloved. The Lover is willing to make sacrifices on behalf of the Beloved, whether or not the Beloved deserves the love and the sacrifice of the Lover.

I suspect that the devil rebelled against God because he did not understand love. He understood power, and he understood justice, but he saw love and mercy as weaknesses of the Creator. The devil thought he could run the universe better than its Creator was running it precisely because the devil planned to stick to power as the guiding force of the universe. The devil never realized that power and even justice could be overcome by love and by sacrifice.

I know that when one of us hurts because of a rejected love, we share the pain God feels when the people he loves rebel against him. God could spare us that pain, but he chooses to let us experience that pain so we will sense the love he has for each of us. Whether one grieves over a broken relationship on the first day or the one-thousandth day, one is in tune with the heart of God.

Fourth: love is the focus of an appetite that all people have, but love is not the appetite. Children need the love of their parents, and husbands and wives crave the love of their spouses. God created us with an appetite for love, just as he created us to hunger and thirst for nourishment of our bodies. These appetites can become twisted and can be used to lead us into sin. Hunger can be twisted into a craving for unhealthy food, or it can motivate a person to steal food that person cannot afford. So the appetite to be loved can drive people into many thoughts and actions that are not healthy.

The arts in our civilization cannot discern the difference between true love and the appetite for love. Often the poems and songs and novels and movies of our culture picture only the craving for love and its satisfaction without ever showing true love. It is not wrong to want to be loved. This desire is healthy; it is part of the good plan of our Creator.

Fifth: love comes in many forms. Parents love their children and children love their parents, but that love is not the same. Romantic love draws two people together, perhaps producing a marriage and a family. The love of two friends for one another can be even stronger and more meaningful than romantic love. People love their pet cats or dogs, they love pizza or chocolate, they love their hometown and their country, and they love God. All of these loves are good, but they are not all the same.

Even the President of the United States and the Supreme Court have become confused about the different kinds of love. Love is good; nothing is better than love. I never want to love my cat the way I love a pepperoni and onion pizza. Many teens and young adults cannot distinguish the difference between a close friendship and a romantic attachment. They are still learning who they are, and they are easily confused. The answer to their confusion does not come from hate, nor does it come from repeating God’s commandments over and over. The answer to their confusion comes from love: loving them, and modeling for them in appropriate ways the beauty of love in all its forms.

Truly, love makes the world go ‘round. What the world needs now is love, sweet love; all you need is love. May each of us find it where and when God pleases to grant it to us.