First Love, Last Love: Courtship Culture and the Teen Cancer Romance

Movies like 'A Walk to Remember,' 'Twilight,' and 'The Fault in Our Stars' have picked up on a key facet of the way we talk about teen romance.
First Love, Last Love: Courtship Culture and the Teen Cancer Romance
Image: Warner Bros.
'A Walk to Remember'
I.

Like acne or an attitude or algebra, Romeo and Juliet is just something that happens to you in high school. Thanks to a long-running cultural positive feedback loop, the concepts “high school play” and “Romeo and Juliet” have become so star-crossed in our collective consciousness that, even if you never had to don a color-coded Capulet or Montague costume in tenth grade, you probably feel like you did.

For teenagers, Romeo and Juliet is supposed to be Shakespeare’s most “relatable” play. Its protagonists are adolescents who rebel against the social order by acting on their overwhelming feelings for one another. Many educators are savvy to the play’s inherent sexiness and use this hook to get students invested in Shakespeare, who is usually considered a tough sell to teens. While lots of students will find themselves fretting and gossiping about who will have to (or get to) kiss whom in the production, the teacher still entertains hopes that they’ll also pick up some iambic pentameter and do a little thinking about systemic violence.

'Romeo + Juliet'
Image: 20th Century Fox

'Romeo + Juliet'

Christian schools and homeschool collectives do Romeo and Juliet too, but tell the story with a different moral. A standard public school production of R & J levels its critique at the “two houses” and shows how tribal pride and prejudice work together to destroy innocent lives. Many a Christian school, on the other hand, will teach Romeo and Juliet as if it were a cautionary tale against young love itself: don’t follow your deceitful, wicked heart, or the consequences could be dire.

But no matter what warning label educators might affix to it, Romeo and Juliet is compelling to teens—and yes, Christian teens—because it puts their romantic and sexual impulses into stirring drama and poetry. And if Christian educators believe that a lavish production of R & J is just the thing for scaring teens straight—and that there will be no giggling or fantasizing backstage—they prove themselves just as naive as the famous lovers they aim to condemn.

II.

Most adults, of course, can recommend a story of torrid, suicidal teen romance to students in good conscience because they trust students to understand the concept of extenuating circumstances. If Romeo and Juliet had met under different circumstances, they might have had a healthy romance and a public marriage. But since swords were drawn and blood had been spilled—it was wartime, essentially—the young lovers had nowhere to go, no sanctioned or appropriate outlet for their desires. Desperate times call for secret weddings and sleeping draughts. Teen readers are meant to understand that the situation in the play is extreme, and that a garden-variety junior high crush is no cause to call up a friar and an apothecary. But the mitigating circumstances in the play allow teen readers to take vicarious pleasure in the romance. They enjoy picturing themselves in a fictional scenario in which no one would blame them for acting on their very non-fictional desires.

Dramas of extenuating circumstances often make for particularly juicy and particularly popular narratives. Of course, historically, the whole purpose of drama has been to show human beings in situations with higher stakes and greater tension than the average person will ever face. Drama usually deals with extreme cases.

But dramas of extenuating circumstances deal with ethical extremes, stories where the standard guidelines for human behavior contradict each other, where the usual precedents don’t seem to apply. Greek tragedies used extenuating circumstances to make their audiences uncomfortable, to provoke horror, moral inquiry, and humility. What if your brother died an enemy of the state: would you bury him and betray your nation, or leave him to rot and betray your family? What if you had to murder your mother to avenge your father? They were chilling thought experiments, drama as a laboratory for ethics.

'Sleepless in Seattle'
Image: TriStar Pictures

'Sleepless in Seattle'

Today’s art film and theater still give us many of these gut-wrenching “what if?” stories, but our most popular modern dramas are more likely to offer fantasy scenarios than nightmare ones.

The popular drama of extenuating circumstances creates a situation where a normally censured action is made acceptable, necessary, or virtuous. Taken is a violent fantasy of extenuating circumstances: what would make it morally permissible for someone like me to hunt, torture, and kill a group of men? What if they had kidnapped my daughter and sold her for sex? War movies are often dramas of extenuating circumstances because war itself is an extenuating circumstance: killing is wrong, except for here. Heist movies often ask: what if it were okay to steal—even good to steal—because the business/casino/institution in question is corrupt? We like these stories. They give us safe outlets for questionable desires.

Romances of extenuating circumstances are generally aimed at adult women, because they generally feature a variation on infidelity (generally an adult problem). In Sleepless in Seattle, it’s okay that Meg Ryan leaves her fiancé after carrying on an emotional affair with a man she’s never met—the extenuating circumstances being that her fiancé is kind of lame, and that fate itself keeps pushing her across the country towards Tom Hanks. In Titanic, it’s okay that spoken-for Kate Winslet tumbles into the arms of charming pauper Leo DiCaprio, because her parents have forced her into an engagement to an awful toff. In The Bridges of Madison County, Meryl Streep is married to a withholding man who doesn’t understand her, so it’s forgivable that she has an affair with deep, kind Clint Eastwood.

And Nicholas Sparks is the reigning king of the extenuating circumstance romance. Whether it’s spousal abuse or war or illness—or, when all else fails, “fate”—his characters always find the reasons that they must be together.

Christian women have a harder time buying into the romance of extenuating circumstances, at least publicly, because Christian culture tends to be more absolutist about ethics. Many Christians feel that ethical inquiry into rare outlier scenarios needlessly muddies the clear messages of Scripture, and that focusing on exceptions is a distraction from the more important general rules. (For example, some Christians believe it’s God’s will that all couples have children. Others counter with the point that many happy, loving couples are infertile, so the procreation of children cannot be considered a defining characteristic of godly marriage. A typical response to this point is that infertility is an unfortunate reality for some couples, but that this furnishes no argument against the general principle that fertile Christian couples ought to be procreating.)

The extenuating circumstance in a romance needs to be incredibly convincing for a Christian woman to buy into it, because otherwise she’d be taking secondhand pleasure in a character’s sin—a guilty pleasure indeed. A Christian woman is advised instead to enjoy romances in which a couple needs no mitigating circumstances to legitimize their relationship.

Christian teenagers, on the other hand, have almost no romance stories about characters their age that they can enjoy with impunity. This is because American Christianity has no good place to put the idea of first love and has, at least in my lifetime, lacked a narrative and pastoral language for addressing teen relationships in anything but deeply cautious terms. This can be attributed in part to the rise of what I am going to call courtship culture.

III.

Courtship entered the mainstream conversation in Christian culture in 1997, when Joshua Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye took Christian bookstores by storm, followed soon after by When God Writes Your Love Story by Leslie and Eric Ludy and Her Hand in Marriage by Douglas Wilson. These books sounded an alarm: dating is dangerous. The souls of our congregants are on the line when we let them spend time alone with potential partners, as traditional dating encourages. Instead, we ought to be practicing (so-called) “biblical courting,” where a young man spends measured time getting to know a young woman with her family’s supervision and seeks the approval of her family (specifically, her father) to wed her.

'I Kissed Dating Goodbye'

'I Kissed Dating Goodbye'

Courtship advocates tend to make a two-pronged argument. The first prong is a reminder that someday, your prince or princess will come. Courtship literature encourages young people to imagine their future spouse as a real, embodied being, out there in the world waiting for them, whenever they need motivation to stay on the straight and narrow—a sort of Ghost of Marriage Yet to Come who warns against self-gratifying flings, or an enticing houri who promises rewards for chastity.

Joshua Harris opens I Kissed Dating Goodbye with a nightmare that his girlfriend shared with him: what if, on their wedding day, all of his former lovers showed up at the altar, too? In the nightmare, the girlfriend weeps, saying, “I thought your heart was mine.” Dream Joshua Harris pleads, “It is, it is. Everything that’s left is yours.” Courtship advocates conceive of a finite reserve of selfhood that can be given to a spouse and that can be diminished if given to any partners other than that spouse. Leslie Ludy writes of protecting a woman’s “precious pearl of her purity so it would become a sparkling, glistening, and untarnished gem for her husband.”

Such metaphors abound. In Restoring the Lost Petal, Danielle Tate compares a woman’s purity to a flower, with petals that are plucked away by each intimate encounter before marriage. At Femina Girls, a blog for Christian women, Rebekah Merkle compares a woman giving her heart away to trying to use a piece of tape too many times—eventually it loses its stickiness and “you find yourself with nothing more than a dirty, linty piece of cellophane.” Courtship urges us to protect the self we are meant to offer to a future spouse—to keep the gift of your heart and body whole and intact.

The second prong of courtship advocacy proposes another kind of protection: protection from pain. In Her Hand in Marriage, Douglas Wilson describes dating as a drift into “the zone of vulnerability”—“the place where one cannot leave the relationship without being hurt.” He conceives of marriage as a “fence of protection” so that a couple can safely enter the zone of vulnerability together without risking a divorce-like pain upon separating.

Leslie Ludy testifies about moving from the pain of dating to the joy of a courtship-like model: “I had come from a place of heartbreak, confusion, and compromise in relationships to a dream come true.” The only way to guarantee that a relationship does not cause pain and damage is to come to it when both parties are ready to actively move toward marriage.

A person’s first love is ideally—and, by implication, ought to be—also a person’s last love.

While the practice of “biblical courtship” itself did not penetrate to Christian culture at large, the messages underlying it soon became ubiquitous. Courtship proper—in which a young man pursues a young woman under the strict supervision and guidance of her fathers, earthly and heavenly—was (and is) practiced by a small, passionate core of very traditionalist Christians. It was unapologetically archaic, easy to write off as eccentric, and not something that the average evangelical family was ready to buy wholesale.

But the books that courtship advocates wrote became a phenomenon in Christian culture at large, exerting enough pressure to profoundly shift evangelical discourse about young men, women, and relationships. Thus courtship culture ascended.

It was, and still is, everywhere: the exaltation of purity (both physical and emotional), the rhetoric of danger and fear, the hyper-vigilance, the protective posture, the intensification of traditional gender roles. A quick scan of the love and marriage racks at a Christian bookstore offers more than enough titles that prove this paradigm’s staying power. A sampling: Sex Has a Price Tag. Waiting for Your Prince: A Message for the Young Lady in Waiting. True Purity: More than Just Saying ‘No’ to You-Know-What. Eyes Wide Open: Avoiding the Heartbreak of Emotional Promiscuity. Every Young Woman’s Battle: Guarding Your Mind, Heart, and Body in a Sex-Saturated World.

The general atmosphere has been and remains one of guarding, waiting, protecting, avoiding, battling, danger. The only safe way to engage in romance is in the context of impending marriage.

Today, both psychology and experience have made it more or less common sense that most teenagers are not prepared to pledge their lives to anyone. And so Christian culture at large tends to look on teen romance with suspicion and fear.

Tim Stafford, advice columnist to Christian teens at Ignite Your Faith, compares it to having a learner’s permit to drive a car: “You’re just figuring out how to deal with something that can easily get out of control.” In this atmosphere, crushes are seen as a distraction at best and a sin at worst. Young Christians are advised to put off romance until a time when they’re ready for marriage and to redirect their desire for each other toward a desire for God.

But teen desire is not that easily dispelled or sublimated. Some way or another, it will out, whether that means projecting onto Juliet and Romeo or furtively kissing in the youth group hallway.

And teens not only desire romances of their own, but stories about such romances—to see their experience reflected in narrative, to see people like them dealing with feelings like theirs.

Most tales of first love involve too much sin for Christian teens to enjoy them without guilt. But there is one kind of story that has captured the imagination of teens in courtship culture: a romance of extenuating circumstances that allows for teenagers to experience a kind of marriage.

It’s not that these teenage readers and viewers actually want to get married right away. They just want to experience first love, but they have internalized the ideal that marriage is the only acceptable context for this experience. The teen-marriage-of-extenuating-circumstances plot is a mini-genre with reliable appeal to teenagers in courtship culture.

We can see this in the success of three novels-turned-films-turned-pop-culture-phenomena: A Walk to Remember, the Twilight series, and most recently, The Fault in Our Stars. All three are stories where first love meets last love.

IV.
'A Walk to Remember'
Image: Warner Bros.

'A Walk to Remember'

A Walk to Remember swept through the nation’s youth groups in 2002, when Nicholas Sparks’ 1999 novel was adapted into a film starring Mandy Moore and Shane West. Despite being widely panned by critics, it went on to become a modest box-office success; Christianity Todayran a piece in 2002 identifying it as “a hit with American evangelical audiences.”

Nearly every female student at my Christian college cherished fond memories of A Walk to Remember. It tells the story of pious high schooler Jamie Sullivan (Moore), the incarnation of everything Christian girls were told to be: kind, unassuming, unflappable in the face of ridicule, bold in asserting her faith—and a radiant beauty, of course. Jamie Sullivan sure knows how to work an ankle-length jumper, and her winsome Christianity looks so good on her that she is able to lure in a hot bad boy.

What then unfolds is a kind of twisted best-case scenario for an infatuated Christian high schooler, because Jamie has a whopper of an extenuating circumstance: leukemia. With only a year or two left to live, she is allowed the luxury of her own emotions: “I think God wants me to be happy.” Her boyfriend, in his passion, converts to Christianity and asks her to marry him, since marriage is the only way for them to legitimize and consummate their relationship.

Jamie is married at 18 and dies months later—and with her dies the chance that their relationship might ever soured, changed, or matured. Jamie is permitted to pursue her first love because it is, by necessity, also her last and only love. And so Christian teens were given permission to fantasize about a first love of their own— so long as marriage is part of the fantasy.

'Twilight: Breaking Dawn'
Image: Summit Entertainment

'Twilight: Breaking Dawn'

The Twilight series was less overtly Christian and less publicly celebrated in Christian circles, but nevertheless exerted a tremendous pull on young Christian women from the first book's release in 2005 to the last film's premiere in 2012. Twilight is, above all, serious about sex and romance. In Twilight, dating is every bit as dangerous as Joshua Harris says it is. Edward Cullen is constantly reminding Bella that he’s a threat to her, that they must cool their passions, be deliberate and cautious. There’s an in-universe explanation for this (he’s a vampire), but the Christian teen audience looks at Edward and Bella’s tortured, lip-biting longsuffering and sees a mirror—only a slight exaggeration of the kinds of conversations that young Christians in relationships have all the time.

The word “forever” is intoned over and over again in the Twilight franchise: whispered, growled, sighed. Bella is “unconditionally and irrevocably” in love with Edward. And as in courtship culture, marriage is part of the discussion from very early on. Twilight allows the adolescent audience to invest in a passionate, urgent relationship between teenage characters with extenuating circumstances that force them to marry.

But that supernaturally immortal “marriage” merely crystallizes them at a moment of perfect youth and passion and sexual appetite. The average love-struck teenager might not know how to conceive of marriage as anything beyond permanent sexual and romantic gratification.

And Twilight doesn’t ask her to. “And then we continued blissfully into this small but perfect piece of our forever,” goes the final line of the novel Breaking Dawn. For young people who have been taught that marriage is the only paradigm for young love, Twilight mixes the intensity of teen desire and the solemnity of marriage into an addictive cocktail.

The Fault in Our Stars is our most recent courtship culture hit. The novel by John Green was already a bestseller before the 2014 film adaptation established characters Hazel Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) and Augustus Waters (Ansel Egort) as the newest pop culture icons of young love. The Fault in Our Stars is a teen romance of extenuating circumstances—cancer, again. And like Jamie Sullivan or Edward Cullen, protagonist Hazel warns her potential lover that a relationship could be dangerous and painful: “I’m a grenade,” she says to would-be boyfriend Augustus Waters.

But from there, the tone of The Fault in Our Stars shifts from that of A Walk to Remember or Twilight. Hazel is eager to protect Augustus from pain in the same way she wants to protect her parents. Since her cancer diagnosis, she is highly sensitive to the things in the world that are painful and broken and passing away. But because both Hazel and Augustus have cancer, they are able to consider and discuss the wisdom of starting something they know can’t last.

'The Fault in Our Stars'
Image: 20th Century Fox

'The Fault in Our Stars'

There is another teen couple in The Fault in Our Stars, a foil for Hazel and Augustus, who go over the top with both physical and verbal affection. They make out furiously and repeat the histrionic refrain “always!” back and forth to one another in the Twilight mode. Hazel and Augustus are careful not to say “always,” because they know, for them, that “always” isn’t possible. Instead, their affectionate sign-off is merely the word “okay,” uttered low and sweet. It’s restrained and unresolved, an affirmation with a reservation, a rational nod to their predicament with passion rippling below the surface.

Neither Hazel nor Augustus is likely to live to a prudent marrying age. With that in mind, the courtship ideal of saving everything for one’s future spouse doesn’t really apply—in all likelihood, there won’t be a future for either of them. When they decide to embark upon first love together, it is a de facto decision to embark upon their last love—the one love of their lives.

Their relationship is, then, a kind of marriage, though the two are too practical to go through with an actual ceremony. The Christian viewer is thus inclined to give them a pass for their declarations of devotion and even for premarital sex. The upshot is that Christian teens get to see what a working, loving, intimate relationship between people their age might look like, and they get to revel in that relationship unashamedly because of its elevation to quasi-marital status.

Hazel and Augustus share their first kiss in the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam, which seems crass until you remember that Anne Frank was no stranger to teen romance in desperate circumstances. Her crush on and budding relationship with fellow refugee Peter Van Pels was the thing that gave her great hope and joy in her time in the secret annex. The Fault in Our Stars is about the choice to pursue joy and intimacy with the guarantee of future suffering.

The question is whether Christians ought to regard that choice as positive, neutral, or negative.

V.

Much of the language of courtship culture has to do with guarding, with protection. Joshua Harris writes of protecting your future spouse from pain by avoiding romantic entanglements with anyone else. Douglas Wilson asserts that “[God’s] word naturally provides the protection against the kind of damage which proceeds from disobedience.” This damage could happen any time a young couple enters the “zone of vulnerability,” “that place where one cannot leave the relationship without being hurt.”

I’m reminded of an exchange from Michael Mann’s 1995 crime-thriller Heat between bank robber Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino):

Neil: Guy told me one time, don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner. Now, if you’re on me, and you gotta move when I move, how do you expect to keep a marriage?

Vincent: That’s an interesting point. What are you, a monk?

Neil: I have a woman

Vincent: What do you tell her?

Neil: I tell her I’m a salesman.

Vincent: So then if you spot me coming around that corner, you just gonna walk out on this woman? Not say goodbye?

Neil: That's the discipline.

Vincent: That’s pretty vacant, you know.

There is, to be sure, a scriptural basis for this protective attitude—Proverbs 4:23’s oft-quoted exhortation to “guard your heart,” or Song of Solomon’s refrain advising “not to awaken love until it so desires.” But the assertion that God has arranged romantic and sexual ethics solely or primarily in order to prevent pain seems suspect to me—first, because we can only ever speculate about God’s reasons for doing anything; second, because we live in a world where people can live righteous lives and still suffer immensely; and finally, because God’s love for us and Christ’s willingness to suffer are inextricably linked in Christian theology.

'The Fault in Our Stars'
Image: 20th Century Fox

'The Fault in Our Stars'

The Fault in Our Stars puts a finger on a problem in the courtship paradigm: the language of courtship culture leaves little room for contingencies, for life’s tendency not to go as planned. In When God Writes Your Love Story, Leslie Ludy writes of a model young woman who chose to “guard her heart, her emotions, her physical purity, and everything she was, for the man she would one day marry.” This ideal woman would be able “to offer herself fully and completely, with no excess baggage, to her husband someday.”

The rhetoric of courtship culture, with its exhortations to offer “everything,” your “whole self,” “unblemished” and “baggage free” to the “one great love of your life,” has nothing to say to the widower, or the woman abused or abandoned by her spouse, or to the couple who jumped into commitment at the urging of their culture despite a fundamental incompatibility. If, say, a widow wants to remarry, but she has internalized the message that she has already given the one thing she had to give to the one person she was allowed to give it to, how can she possibly be equipped to enter into a healthy relationship again? And yet the church has always blessed and welcomed remarriage after the death of a spouse.

The rhetoric we offer young people pre-marriage does not match the doctrine and practice towards people post-marriage, after living full and complex lives.

The Bible certainly expresses the idea that marriage is a special, binding covenant, but it is under no illusions about the temporal, contingent nature of that covenant, nor is it ambiguous about the dissolution of that covenant after death. When Christ was asked about which husband a widow would have in heaven if she had remarried after her husband’s death, Christ thought they were missing the point: there would be no marriage in heaven. Marriage isn’t a higher spiritual plane, and it isn’t—not truly—“forever.” It is an earthly gift.

Hazel and Augustus know their relationship is doomed, that their love is terminal. But their illness—which seems to make their love an exception—actually reveals a universal rule: all love is terminal, in every earthly iteration. Even after the marriage vows, we can’t possible know how long we have with our spouse.

And in my (still) limited experience, marriage is far from a protection from pain. In fact, it’s more of a guarantee of it. Marriage shines a light on the ugly parts of yourself you’d have preferred to keep safely hidden away. Forging two things into one thing requires heat and pressure and force.

But it’s a pain you choose, because you believe it’s worth it. It’s the kind of suffering that transforms and clarifies and heals.

Hazel and Augustus speak openly about choosing this healing, holy pain in The Fault in Our Stars. Augustus writes in a eulogy for Hazel: “I’m so lucky to love her. You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, but you do get to choose who hurts you, and I like my choices. I hope she likes hers.” Her response, the final line of the novel, consecrates their happily doomed marriage: “I do.”

The Fault in Our Stars forces Christian audiences to grapple with the meaning of earthly joy in the face of things that end. The last words of Gerard Manley Hopkins were said to be, “I am so happy. I am so happy. I loved my life.” Hopkins, a priest and poet who wrote of a “world charged with the grandeur of God,” chose to look back on his life with joy, even as he was leaving for the next.

C. S. Lewis wrote at length on the sorrow of losing—and then the joy of having loved—his departed wife in his memoir A Grief Observed. He imagined God saying of their marriage: “This had reached its proper perfection. This had become what it had in it to be. […] Good; you have mastered that exercise. I am very pleased with it. And now you are ready to go onto the next.”

'Twilight: Breaking Dawn'
Image: Summit Entertainment

'Twilight: Breaking Dawn'

If the institutions and language of our faith do not make room for contingencies—for death, loss, pain, mistakes, confusion, misunderstanding, quirks of psychological makeup, growing pains, baggage, or any other of the million things that make our lives textured and imperfect and human—then they betray the open-hearted spirit of a God who would choose to enter into the mess of human life.

The story of the Bible can be (and has been) understood as a romance between God and humanity. The God of the Hebrew Scriptures is a God who has decided to love and pursue his people relentlessly, even imprudently. Because his people so often stray and betray him and reject his love, God has loved and been let down countless times—and yet he continues to love even in the face of certain heartbreak. The book of Hosea offers a scandalous metaphor for God’s doomed, unrequited love for humanity, personified in his prophet’s unfaithful wife.

And while the church is meant to be Christ’s faithful bride, the history of the human race at large has been a sordid harlequin novel of God’s painful breakups, eager first dates, humiliating rejections, missed connections, unreturned calls—enough bad romances to put Dream Joshua Harris’ harem to shame.

Christ’s entrance into the world was a deliberate move into the zone of vulnerability, a fully informed decision to let his heart be broken, to suffer for love. We call his final hours his passion.

VI.

Good pastoral care springs from an equally clear-eyed understanding of two realities: the revealed truth of God’s will for the world, and the empirical facts of the human brain and body.

The empirical human fact is that first love happens. Humans on the cusp of sexual maturation are going to keep finding ways to forge connections and attachments—they always have, as our literature and history testify. Another fact: this first love rarely has the ingredients to make for a lifelong commitment. Prefrontal cortexes are developing, identities are being formed, tastes are shifting. First love rarely endures to become last love.

'A Walk to Remember'
Image: Warner Bros.

'A Walk to Remember'

The consequent fact: most lifetimes are going to involve more than one experience of romantic love. But people still need a way to process that first experience, to make sense of the connection that broke—to grieve, to reflect, to appreciate, to forgive.

To deny young people a language for describing first love can make teenagers anxious, confused, self-hating, socially uncomfortable, and emotionally stunted. To pretend that every teen’s romantic passions can be redirected towards hobbies, sublimated into piety, or put on ice and postponed indefinitely is naïve. But on the other hand, while some very young couples do live to be happy ever after, encouraging teens to parlay their early attractions into early marriage often ends in disaster.

We need to account for these realities, and allowing first love to happen—and allowing first love to fail—may actually be the best policy available to us. And if that’s true, then we need better theological and pastoral language to address the experience of first love—both while it’s happening and after the fact.

Right now, too many Christian teens going through their first feelings of love lack frank, empathetic counsel from their families and communities. These teens may seek out literature and cinema to see their own experiences reflected, clarified, known, and rightly so—this is what the arts are for. But if a romantic book or movie rigs an obviously contrived marriage for its young characters to justify their first love, teens can only glimpse a reflection of their own situation obliquely, furtively, and distortedly.

I’m not suggesting we stop talking about prudence or boundaries. But we need to start giving young people frameworks for understanding the value of close spiritual friendship, and the many meanings of intimacy and communion. We need to help them celebrate connections that help them to grow into loving, mature adults.

And we need to help them grapple with the fractured communication, the hurt feelings, and the grief that comes with loss. I believe there is room in Christianity for a redemptive theology of first love. Because Christianity, at its best, keeps us clear-eyed about this life’s brokenness while maintaining boundless gratitude for the graces God affords us—even when we know those earthly graces will pass away.

And if young people in love need better theology and pastoral care, they need better stories, too. They won’t find them in A Walk to Remember or Twilight, which offer a fantasy world where teenagers can legitimize and act on their infatuation only within the bounds of a sanctioned but shallow teen marriage. The Fault in Our Stars, on the other hand, calls us to consider the idea of saying yes to love, even when it means saying yes to pain and risk and even guaranteed loss.

Because that’s all any of us is ever doing.

Lauren Wilford has a degree in Aesthetics and Narrative Studies from Seattle Pacific University. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where she works as a barista in specialty coffee.

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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First Love, Last Love: Courtship Culture and the ...