How Romantic Comedies are (Still) Destroying the World
Have you ever, even as a Christian, found yourself rooting for people to break God’s commandments and even cheering when they achieve their Satanic aspirations? This is far easier to do, and therefore far more common, than we may realize.
Years ago, my wife and I were watching a very cleverly written, well-acted sitcom. We were cracking up every bit as much as the production team behind it would want us to. Then after a moment’s reflection, she turned to me and said with sadness and a bit of shock, “Do you realize we were just laughing at what God hates?” At the time, I didn’t, of course. But to this day, her words remain like a scar in my heart, a faithful wound from my very best friend. It’s so easy, in the midst of being entertained, for us to enjoy and approve the life-destroying ideas, words and actions which wrecked the world and which cost Christ his life as he gave himself to free us from them.
This past weekend I had the privilege of leading a conference breakout seminar on the topic of holiness and entertainment. The prep work on this difficult and complex topic reminded me of a piece I’d written years ago on the topic, revised and interwoven with new stuff below, focusing on one vehicle of popular entertainment by which our Enemy sends his insidious, life-stealing ideas into our hearts. In keeping with Satan’s historic bloodlust regarding children (Exodus 1:22, Matthew 2:16), he sends this particular vehicle right at them, and so often, we Christian adults are too busy enjoying the ride to notice where it’s headed, and who's about to get hit.
C.S. Lewis opens his brilliant, prophetic series of lectures entitled The Abolition of Man with these words: “I doubt whether we are sufficiently attentive to the importance of elementary text books.” Lewis alerts his audience to particular lessons children in his day were learning about values, ethics and knowledge - lessons which, if uncritically absorbed into our souls, gut our very humanity. How this dehumanizing happens, I’ll not spoil for you – please read the book if you’ve not already! Suffice it to say, Lewis was right. Taking Lewis’ thoughts into our generation, I doubt whether we are sufficiently attentive to films bearing the light-hearted label “romantic comedy,” especially when these “romcoms” involve children.
I’ll concede right away that the genre itself is not at fault, and for me, that’s a very difficult concession to make. I don't generally, i.e. ever, like romcoms. I’m much more into dark comedy, angsty dramas and violent action films. These, of course, have never messed anybody up. But back to my quasi-hypocritical point: humanity-destroying ideas might have an easier time invading and gaining our heart’s approval if they come to us boasting of good things: laughter and love. If we knew that a box in the garage contained loose razor blades, we probably wouldn’t tear into it recklessly like we would a wrapped birthday present. Romcoms promise the gift of harmless fun and heartwarming stories; their soul-cutting content is brightly and benignly packaged, so we’re not as cautious as we should be when our hearts tear into them.
We often decry physically violent movies as destructive and desensitizing – and yes, I freely admit the danger here - especially for young viewers. But we seldom decry media which we might call socially violent, especially if it comes to us relatively innocuously. Some films are “clean” according to typical ratings standards, but they feature carnage of another sort. The casualties in these films are society-sustaining social structures, and the children whom the films prop up as enlightened social commentators, showing us all the moral way forward.
Filmmakers put words expressing their ethics into the mouths of young actors, and seek by force of the child’s cuteness to connect their philosophy with the hearts of their audience. The implicit message is this: kids understand the way the world should work, and grownups need to learn from them.
Think of the romcoms, and sitcoms for that matter, in which children assume the role of parents as the moral compass of the family. Bumbling dad and manic mom are corrected and comforted by their often foul-mouthed progeny. If we’re amused at the vulgar antics of these pint-sized protagonists, we’ve perhaps already bought into the worldview the film is selling. Sometimes, child characters actually encourage the destruction of the relationships in which their identity is formed. Consider the standard fare of the romcom involving kids:
A parent wants romantic happiness beyond his or her current committed relationship. But the parent does not want to traumatize the child whose emotional stability seems dependent upon that relationship’s survival. What is the conscience-stricken parent to do? Typically, the parent decides to be a martyr for the child’s sake, to quell the passionate desires stirred by the outsider of interest. Such suppression is always portrayed as a noble gesture, but is increasingly portrayed as an unnecessary one.
The parent tells the child of the sacrifice made. But then comes the shocking plot turn we’ve come to expect, a twist made of Hollywood magic: To the parent’s great surprise and delight, the remarkably circumspect child says exactly what the parent wants to hear but didn’t dare believe could be in the child’s best interest: “I love you, and I want you to be happy. Follow your heart, and I’ll be right behind you.”
Poof!! Dilemma solved! Conscience cleansed! Cue the swelling soundtrack and the quick cab to the airport to catch the rejected romantic partner before it’s too late. The stunned, beaming couple embraces while the airplane which would have separated them forever flies off into the sunset. Meanwhile, back at home, the child gazes knowingly at the same rosy sky, wearing a satisfied, sagacious smile. Sighing at the endearing ignorance of the parent, the child is glad to have taught the lesson we all need to learn: We must have the courage to pursue our personal happiness, however we want to define it. If someone truly loves us, they’ll be happy for us to do so, and we’ll all be happier in the end. Even if the particular plotline is unfamiliar, its basic message is indeed the moral of many a story today. As usual, when adults live self-centeredly, children suffer profoundly.
Well told fiction creates a desire for reality to reflect the morality it promotes. If the film applies the common romcom elements of rocky relationships, burgeoning romance and cute kids effectively enough, it can get us to hope for an outcome predicated upon the violation of principles we’d otherwise hold dear: fidelity, honesty, and a selfless parental love for children. The children in these films are meant to be adorable emissaries of the filmmaker’s ideal world: a world wherein relationships are revolving doors, wherein commitments are entirely conditional, and wherein even children are ultimately unharmed by an adult’s pursuit of self-satisfaction as life’s greatest good. Such children are truly works of fiction.
A much more realistic expression of a child’s heart comes from a song by the band Everclear. Not known for its family friendly lyrics, the band is brutally and refreshingly honest as it expresses the heart of a child whose family is falling apart due to his parents going their separate ways. The song is called “Wonderful.” Here are a few lines:
“I don’t wanna hear you say, that I will understand some day – no, no, no! … I don’t wanna meet your friends, and I don’t wanna start over again. I just want my life to be the same, just like it used to be. Some days I hate everything, everyone and everything … Please don’t tell me everything is wonderful now.”
Children’s hearts are crafted by the eternally faithful God whose image we all bear, and for whom it is impossible to lie (Hebrews 6:18). As such, children have an innate desire for relationships which express the immutable, holy, relentlessly faithful love essential to God’s being (1 John 4; Matthew 22:37-40). Children therefore have wisdom seemingly beyond their years – not the pseudo-smarts of socially relevant sass, written by adults who want children to speak in crass detail of situations and relationships for which kids are nowhere near ready, and which even the most mature, level-headed and open-hearted adults have an awfully hard time navigating. It’s a form of child abuse which our society accepts because it makes us laugh.
We see the true genius of children in (among other attributes) their skill at spotting hypocrisy; in their passionate desire for justice; in their loving to be loved unconditionally; and in their craving for compassionate consistency to mark the social structures in which they are reared.
Though far wiser than we adults typically realize, children need what all people need, God’s saving grace and forgiveness and the Spirit-led renewing of their minds. God’s grace enables us to live with increasing fidelity according to his life-affirming, God and humanity-honoring, relationship-preserving law (Exodus 20; I John).
As children grow by God’s grace to know and love Him, the relational instincts they have as image bearers begin to flourish, especially when they see Christ’s character radiant in the relationships surrounding them. The “me first” mentality driving so many romcoms and destroying so many right relationships and their rightful beneficiaries, is increasingly put off in favor of Christ-like humility, fidelity and selfless love.
We must, with affections and vision formed by Scripture, recognize and redress Satanically subtle forms of child abuse in our day. The depth of these evils is evident when children are made the affable advocates of the very ideas which destroy them. May the abolition of man in our day cease, and may children no longer be used as sacrificial pawns in society's arbitrarily defined pursuit of social progress. May we see instead more people and relationships made new by the gospel (Romans 12:1-2; 2 Corinthians 5:17), and hear from the mouths of our children words which give life rather than stealing it from them, words which they can speak with unique eloquence, wisdom and vitality: the powerful praise of the living God (Psalm 8:2).