Hollywood

A Society of Shawn Spencers

–my latest over at The Mirror 

When Psych aired its last episode ever in 2014, it finished its career as one of the most popular TV shows of the past decade. Following the hyper-observant Shawn Spencer and his friends as he fakes his way around Santa Barbara pretending to be a psychic and solving crime, the show was heavy on the laughs and light on the morals. Predictably, as the central character, Shawn pretty consistently reflected the image of what many modern millennial Americans think of themselves: fun, hip, informal; independent and free-spirited and not bound by the traditional rules of operation; but basically good at heart.

But if that’s the case, then it’s also the case that Shawn Spencer reflects a lot problems common to the modern 25-to-30-something American guy. He comes from a dysfunctional family. He’s immature and struggles to comprehend how to be responsible. He’s scared of commitment. He doesn’t know how to hold a serious conversation with the people he loves. And, in his own words, he totally sucks at relationships. The climax of Psych takes place when Shawn finally brings closure to all of the many broken and problematic relationships in his life; when he takes the time to apologize, to come clean, to admit love, and to propose marriage to the woman he’s cohabitating with.

Other popular shows (from Friends to Burn Notice to How I Met Your Mother) frequently feature characters that share similar personal dysfunctions: broken home life and a terrible track record when it comes to relationships. It seems to be the standard for our generation. Want a character the millenial audience can relate to? Give him a terrible relationship with his (divorced) parents and a crippling inability to commit himself to a loving and fruitful relationship.

This repetitious stereotype of the millennials might have more truth than appears at first glance. Although men often bear the stamp of the stereotype more heavily, the women are typically no better than the men. They often give their boyfriends sex without even introducing the responsibility of fertility or even expecting the commitment of marriage. They vaguely hope for marriage “someday” or tacitly expect that their live-in boyfriends will get more mature with time, but they have no problem inviting them into the bedroom until then.

And why would they? Why would millennials seek or expect a more faithful and permanent kind of love? They simply don’t know a better functioning way to relate to one another.

The popular TV show characters aren’t so much encouraging a stereotype as they are simply reflecting a modern reality. As Shawn in Psych confesses his faults, we get a picture of his generation: a generation that sucks at “the important stuff,” at “engaging,” at relationships; a generation terrified of commitments. Generationally, millennials are putting off serious life commitments further and further or forgoing them altogether—because this generation has “commitment” issues. Hookups and cohabitation are the norm, not because this generation is particularly cowardly or lazy, but because dysfunctional families have become ordinary to them, and they don’t know to expect something better.

The fact is, most millienials have grown up in a world practically devoid of real examples of functioning, successful, committed relationships. They just don’t know at all what it looks like in practice.

Our parents and grandparents’ generations used contraception and divorce to take the responsibility and permanence out of the stable relationships which form the building blocks of society. They took life out of sex and love out of marriage and splintered and fractured the family unit in a million ways. For them, contraception and divorce made sex possible without permanence, without fidelity, and without consequences. Then, as millennial children were left behind to sort through the wreckage of these kinds of relationships, the digital revolution threw another stumbling block in their way. The widespread rise of porn made sexual pleasure possible without human relationship: sexual pleasure without any relationship to another person at all became a cultural standard.

But they know they’re not happy. They know these imperfect, even pathetic attempts at human relationships are not enough. Shawn (and his millennial fans) know the show can’t end without a happily ever after. They want love, and they want stability, and, somewhere in their hearts, they know the two need to go together.

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When You’ve Lost the Culture War

Every day, I walk by the Capitol building in Washington, DC, along with thousands of other busy DC commuters.  On clear days, it stands out sharp and white against the skyline, a thing of beauty. And every day, when I pass it, I hear echoing in my head words from one of my favorite movies, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: “Look, it’s the Capitol Dome!”

(Except you have to say it like Jimmy Stewart, with a slight stutter: “L-look! It’s the C-Capitol Dome!”)

His companions roll their eyes, because it is very easy to lose one’s appreciation for being in the Capitol every day. Rookie Senator Jefferson Smith, played innocently by James Stewart, comes to DC with bright-eyed, eager enthusiasm to serve his country well and do some good in the world. Eager, that is, until he gets kicked in the gut by the gritty reality of politics in Washington. But he chooses to put his idealism into action, even if he loses the battle, rather than abandon it for the ways of the world. What happens to him is not unlike what Chesterton says happened to him in “The Ethics of Elfland.”

They said that I should lose my ideals and begin to believe in the methods of practical politicians. Now, I have not lost my ideals in the least; my faith in fundamentals is exactly what it always was. What I have lost is my old childlike faith in practical politics.

I’ve realized that “practical politicians” here in DC have long abandoned the causes I believe in. When the odd headline queries what GOP leaders will do about gay marriage, I almost laugh. I have little doubt what they will do. The culture is against them, and, fighting for the favor of the culture, they will probably comply. Recently, for the second year in a row of decisions that can only be expected in the current social climate, the Supreme Court, in the old “silence gives consent” method, tacitly legalized gay marriage in a slew of states, including the one in which I live.

What do you do when you’ve lost a cultural war? I know cultures change (at least in the last two centuries) all too quickly for perfectly accurate predictions to be made about where they’re headed or what is or is not inevitable. But during the week I sit in an office building in DC realizing that for miles and miles around me are people who, even on the slim chance they opposed it, could never raise their voices against gay marriage in any public forum without being utterly ridiculed and shouted down.

No matter how we slice it, the cultural tide, at least for now, has definitively decided that anyone who opposes “gay rights” is essentially ignorant, or hateful, and at the very least hopelessly outdated.

Let’s be perfectly clear about this: to continue to oppose the normalization of gay “marriage” in our culture is to take a stance which requires no little courage and will certainly rub some people (including well-intentioned loved ones) the wrong way. It will mean rejection and mockery. It will mean being branded as a proponent of hate despite the fact that all we want to do is help our culture seek authentic love above misguided acquiescence to gut passions.

I don’t know if there is anything we can compare this to. The rise of contraception? Maybe. But even that one is far more open to public debate in Catholic and secular circles alike. I think that this particular war is a war we have, for the most part, lost at this point in our cultural evolution. How do you battle something operating (falsely, a wolf in sheep’s clothing) under the banner of love? We simply don’t have a ready response.

All the arguers are now tired. They’ve run out of ways of repeating themselves to deaf ears. Like the disillusioned Jefferson Smith, we realize that no one is listening no matter how hard we fight. How do we change this? What will turn the tide?

The lucky thing about tides, I suppose, is that they always change. October 7th was the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, a commemoration of the Battle of Lepanto, which took place at a time when the tides were similarly lined up heavily against the kingdom of Christ. Christendom was splintering interiorly, with the Protestant Revolt, and was battered from without by Muslim forces–a situation not unlike today. But against all odds, despite the predictions of all the pundits of the day, something happened. The Battle of Lepanto was won by the Christians, armed primarily by the power of prayer. And for that era, Christian Europe was saved from utter destruction.

The consolation of living in the kingdom of Christ is that this kingdom is not my kingdom. It’s His. And He is no fool as a ruler. Ultimately, whatever is happening, however dire the situation appears to one who hopes for Heaven, we know that nothing will happen without His Providence directing it to serve a role in His ultimate plan of redemption.

So, what do you do when you’ve lost a cultural war? You keep fighting. In whatever way you can, in whatever means reason and faith dictate—and especially by prayer—you keep fighting. Speak the truth in love, even if you are met with hate. Even when it seems like a lost cause.

Because, after all, “Maybe lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for, Mr. Paine.”

 

Mrs. Mike

~This post first appeared over at The Mirror Magazine.~

“It is the possibility of loss that makes love tender.”

I’ll be honest: I anticipated something much less intense than what this slim, chick-flick-ish novella cover disguises. In fact, I expected a quaint romance with a little adventure thrown in and possibly a love triangle or something, but ending with the standard romantic proposal and happily ever after.

I was wrong.

Published in 1947, this little gem of a book was highly recommended to me by a friend, as a romance based on a true story–-“But I’m pretty sure it’s out of print now,” she added dolefully. Intrigued, I began begging everyone who I knew lived within 50 miles of used book stores to start searching the shelves to see if they could find me a copy. I ended up with two, miraculously, and eagerly began delving into its pages.

The cover bills Mrs. Mike as a “heartwarming classic story about the girl who married a rugged Canadian Mountie,” but unlike the conventional romance setup, the real love story does not end in a wedding but begins with it. Sixty pages in, 16-year-old Katherine Mary has already wed handsome Mountie Mike Flannigan, and I asked incredulously: “But, where is the story going to GO from here?!”

Authors Benedict and Nancy Freedman, a married couple themselves, clearly utilized their experiential insight into the “feel” of a marital relationship, it’s struggles and tensions, it’s highs and lows, and what it means for two people wedded to each other to cope with adversity, suffering, and loss.

The story traces Katherine and Mike through years upon years–-making this a real story of their love and their marriage, not just of their (admittedly loving and tender) romance. And that makes it particularly unusual in a world where popular romance lit is dominated by porn-fests like Fifty Shades of Grey.

Neither Mike nor Katherine is perfect. Katherine has a hot temper and a tendency to daydream her way out of the struggles of daily life in the Canadian frontier, pushing away her husband’s affection through her escapism. Mike, in turn, withdraws into his shell when faced with marital stress and personal grief, thus isolating his wife when she most needs his help to heal.

Besides the romantic content, a word should be said for the fairly unusual setting of the story: the Canadian wilderness (two words I’ve rarely heard put together, and never encountered as the stage for a story before now). From the snow and frozen rivers to unbearably mosquito-infested summers (who knew?!), from the dangers of fur-trapping to vivid native culture, the Freedmans bring both the beauty and the danger of this stunning setting to life–a backdrop fitting to the passionate and unpredictable love of Kathy and Mike.When I learned that the authors were Hollywood scriptwriters from the 1940s, I imagined an idealized version of pioneer life in Canada, a la Little House on the Prairie. However, while the Freedmans definitely spend plenty of page time praising the natural beauty of the Albertan wilderness, the portrait of Flannigans’ life is punctuated by the all-too-gritty details of pioneer hardships. Ignorance, mental illness, misogyny, abortion, violence, petty thievery, and disease far away from the comforts of civilization, all play prominent roles in the tale. Death, especially, recurs as a theme again and again with grim inevitability. The authors don’t shy away from tragedies that provoke the deep, heart-searching questions: “Why? Why did this have to happen to me, or to you?”

In the end, Mrs. Mike is fundamentally a romantic adventure, with a stingingly realistic twist; it offers significant insight into the workings of human relationships and the role of Providence in the pattern of a human life. It’s not exactly Brideshead Revisited, and perhaps doesn’t plumb the answers as deeply as it could, but if you’re looking for page turner that still has substance, and a tender look at the intricacies of the human heart, Mrs. Mike is well worth the read– and a masterful alternative to trash like Fifty Shades of Grey.