Hollywood Love Confusion

A young man at the last Psychedelics and Faith Discussion Group recommended the film Everything Everywhere All At Once, citing it as a psychedelic masterpiece, so I duly took my partner and one of my children to the local cinema to watch it. It was very entertaining and I thoroughly enjoyed it. However, it stands as another cinematic monument to Hollywood Love Confusion.

The basic story arc is classic Hollywood: an exciting but confusing struggle against a misguided nihilistic teenage villain, including a healthy dose of hot pursuit and cool fighting. In the end, however, the only way to defeat the villain is not by fighting, but by loving. Love, somewhat predictably, wins the day.

The love that defeats cynicism is the protagonist’s rediscovered love for her daughter (the nihilist) and her husband, and compassion for everyone else. In terms of The Four Loves (C.S. Lewis), this is basically the loves storge, filia and agape.

Filia mean friendship. Storge is usually translated as affection – the “pipe and slippers” type of familial love, domestic, homely, comforting. Toward the end of the film, the husband produces a kind of paean to storge, presenting his kindness and apparent weakness as a kind of strength, his way of “fighting” the dark forces of nihilism.

Agape can by translated as unconditional love or compassion, but as C.S. Lewis makes clear in is book, this is not a human love, but the love that flows down from God, the unconditional divine love that rains on the just and the unjust. In his words, it is “the love of God”.

However, for a secular people, there is no such thing as God. Ergo, there is no such thing as the love of God. In a godless multiverse where “nothing matters” because “everything is possible”, the only way of not falling into the black hole of cynicism and despair (a black bagel in this case) is human love – the kindness-affection of storge and a kind of human version of agape.

This is where the Hollywood Love Confusion kicks in. The Hollywood version of agape is a kind of unconditional love, yes, but one understood on a human level as licentiousness. In other words, everyone should be given licence to satisfy their desires and do what they want. This inevitably ends up being all about the third of the four loves, namely, eros, or sexual love. And it inevitably ends up being about letting everyone satisfy their erotic drives however they like.

Hence the BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism) and the LGBTQ+ (lesbian, bisexual, gay, transsexual, queer, etc.). Unconditional love ends up meaning little more than “let the kids have their fun”. Through the secular prism, agape becomes something like hyper liberalism – summed up as “anything goes” – which is the optimistic complement of the pessimistic secular belief that “nothing matters”.

At the end of the film, the previously hostile and violent characters hell-bent on destroying the protagonist are, through the magical fulfillment of their personal, idiosyncratic erotic proclivities, as she showers them with her new-found agape, completely neutralized as they lie around sucking, licking and being spanked, each in his, her or their own private reverie.

Is this what Saint Augustine meant when he said “love and do what you will”? Was he a hyper liberal? Obviously not. The key difference is this: Augustine is talking about spiritual agape, the love of God, not the human idea of it. The human idea is purely logical – unconditional love should logically imply total permissive acceptance – “anything goes”. However, spiritual agape is a living force, energy, power, not just a mental idea or attitude.

If you are filled with love of God, you are filled with the Holy Spirit, which is to say, you are filled with holy love-energy. What Augustine is saying is that if you are filled with holy love-energy, whatever you do will be good, so there’s no need to worry about working out what you should or shouldn’t do or why you should or shouldn’t do it. Agape, the love of God, will flow through you so that you do the right thing.

Which doesn’t mean that you will do anything or that anything goes. You will do those things which the holy love-energy moves you to do. In other words, the “do what you will” part doesn’t mean “do what you want”, it means “act freely in accordance with the dictates of your will when your will is perfectly aligned with the will of God in the fullness of His love”.

The redeeming love that the film (and secular humanism) offers to the problem of teenage nihilism is the unconditional love of a mother for her daughter. However, the natural love of a parent for a child (storge) is not really unconditional unless it is underwritten by the supernatural love of God (agape). There are always strings attached.

Equally, the rational answer that the film (and secular humanism) gives to the problem of teenage nihilism, “we must cherish those rare moments that actually make sense”, just like the humanist sop, “you must make your own meaning”, has no foundation without the possibility of non-contingent truth. Accidental sense in a nonsensical multiverse and arbitrary meaning in a meaningless one is too close to nihilism to stop at least half the teenage Joys from diving straight into the black bagel.

Either you believe in love or you believe in evolutionary adaptations, the survival advantages of which are to nurture helpless infants (storge), to bond in tribal groups in order to gain a competitive edge over other groups (philia) and to reproduce (eros). Either you believe in “natural” love or you believe in “supernatural” love (agape). If you believe in the latter, not only do you have a romantic sensibility, you also have a religious one.

Belief in love is the gateway drug to belief in truth, belief in goodness, belief in beauty and ultimately belief in God. God is love. This is what will set you free, not the half-arsed stoicism and sentimentalism of secular humanism or the confused love of Hollywood.

For more on The Four Loves, see my blog post Love in Babylon