Happy St. Valentine’s Day

I stopped by Walmart on my way home from teaching last night. I had to chuckle as I walked past the Valentine cards; three white-haired men were inspecting the cards, all standing in front of the “Wife” selections. There’s nothing like last-minute shopping for romantic gestures.

Every Leap Year I read the works of Soren Kierkegaard as part of my daily devotions. I just happen to be halfway through Stages on Life’s Way, which is very appropriate for St. Valentine’s Day. For those unfamiliar with Kierkegaard, he was a theologian in the Danish church (therefore Lutheran), although he never served a congregation. Instead, he published (at his own expense) essays on philosophy, theology, and life in general. Many of his books were written under pseudonyms, which gave Kierkegaard the freedom to pursue lines of thought that were not his own. That’s why it’s risky to quote Kierkegaard—you can never be sure that he meant what he wrote, that he wasn’t setting up a straw man through his pseudonym.

Stages on Life’s Way presents itself as a series of works found in a bookbinder’s shop and published by the bookbinder because he had no idea what had happened to the author. The first work is based on Plato’s Symposium: five men gather for a banquet, and each delivers a speech about love. The second work is a scholarly discussion of love and marriage, attributed to a certain Judge William. The third, “Guilty? Not Guilty?” is a diary supposedly fished out of a Danish lake. The diarist writes in the morning, recalling a love affair/engagement of a year before; then he writes at midnight about his sense of guilt for having broken the engagement. Since Kierkegaard had done exactly that—been engaged and broke the engagement—one might suspect that the diary is somewhat autobiographical. In actuality, the work is an exploration of romance, anxiety, depression, worry, and the like. Great reading for Valentine’s Day!

Kierkegaard is sometimes blamed for the Existentialist movement in modern philosophy. He actually was a defender of traditional Biblical Christianity. Kierkegaard insisted that faith must be subjective, but he didn’t mean that in a post-modern sense of “believe whatever you choose to believe.” Instead, he meant that theological statements must be deeply personal to have any value. A list of proofs for the existence of God is helpful to hardly anyone: the believer already believes without the proofs, and the unbeliever already rejects all the proofs that are presented.

Which brings me back to the white-haired men searching for a preprinted card that will express their love for their wife—and doing so long after the most suitable cards have already been purchased. Wouldn’t a handwritten message be more suitable than a Walmart greeting card? Or have these men run out of ways to say, “I love you”? Flowers and chocolate are nice, but nothing is more endearing than a piece of paper that has been handled and rejected by countless husbands over the past three weeks before it finally leaves the store in the hands of a desperate man a few short hours before midnight on February 13. Or so it struck me last night. J.

Ash Wednesday is St. Valentine’s Day

This winter contains several odd conjunctions. January ended with a Super/Blue/Blood moon. February has no full moon, something which happens roughly every seventeen years. March will have a blue moon. And in the middle of February, St. Valentine’s Day will fall on Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent.

At least two, and possibly three, Christian martyrs named Valentine are remembered on February 14. Popular tradition associates one of them with messages about God’s love, but evidence of such letters does not exist. Probably the romantic aspect of St. Valentine’s Day reflects preChristian celebrations in Europe. Already in midFebruary the new life of spring can be felt or anticipated. Birds gather to migrate north. Early flowers begin to sprout through the snow. Spring training camps open to get ready for the baseball season. No matter what the groundhog said on February 2, by the 14th the world is ready for spring.

From early times, Christians have used the last weeks of winter as a time to prepare for the observance of Good Friday and the celebration of Easter. The season of Lent consists of forty days plus six Sundays—each Sunday being a weekly reminder of the resurrection and so not counted among the forty days of Lent. Traditional churches treat Lent as a time of somber reflection and repentance. Christians remember that Jesus suffered and died on a cross to pay for our sins. Thinking about his sacrifice and our sins during Lent, traditional Christians change even Sunday worship. Praise songs are replaced with Lenten hymns. Flowers on the altar and other decorations are eliminated or reduced. Additional services are added to the schedule, often with a theme that prepares for the coming of Holy Week.

Many Christians choose to fast during Lent. They voluntarily surrender some usual pleasure during the forty days and six Sundays of Lent. Some give up candy. Some give up alcohol. Some give up video games. Fasting is not intended for self-improvement in a worldly sense, although giving up certain foods and beverages might have that effect. Fasting does not force God to provide blessings that he has withheld. Instead, fasting shows dedication to God. It provides evidence that God is more important than worldly pleasures. Fasting teaches self-control. When a Christian can say no to candy or video games for six-and-a-half weeks, that Christian is made stronger, able to say no to temptations to sin. Fasting also teaches compassion. When we go without luxuries, we understand how it feels to live without those luxuries because of poverty rather than choice.

The sinful world can take even the most noble customs of the church and pervert them into something twisted and strange. Plans to fast during Lent lead to a desire to use up the luxury before it is forbidden. What was once a simple matter of eating the last butter and eggs in the kitchen, or having one last piece of candy or one last martini, has become Mardi Gras and Carnival—riotous celebrations of worldliness that have more to do with darkness than with light. Perhaps those people who take part in Mardi Gras are more inclined to repent when they awaken on Ash Wednesday than their sober neighbors. All the same, a day and a season focused on repentance is not intended to encourage greater sin in advance, even if that does offer more reason to repent.

Setting aside the excesses of Mardi Gras, the odd conjunction of February 14 leads to a dilemma. Should one offer candy and other goodies to one’s family and one’s coworkers to honor St. Valentine’s Day, or should one consider the possibility that a person might be starting a fast on that day, choosing not to eat sweets until Easter? The Valentine treats should probably be shared earlier, to avoid the risk of undermining a time of fasting at its very beginning.

And, speaking of odd conjunctions, Easter Sunday this year will be observed on April Fools’ Day. J.

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.