Last year, I watched The Notebook for the first time. For nearly 25 years, it has epitomized Hollywood romance, with stills of Allie (Rachel McAdams) cupping Noah’s (Ryan Gosling) face as they passionately kiss in the rain serving as a pop culture shorthand for love and destiny.

The Notebook is also a story of infidelity. The story toggles between the present, where an elderly Noah comforts an Alzheimer’s-afflicted Allie, and the 1940s, where Allie cheats on and ultimately leaves her fiancé to reunite with Noah after years apart. In the modern scenes, Noah models faithfulness despite its difficulty, but in the earlier part of their timeline, Allie’s unfaithfulness is presented as the peak of romance.

The 2023 film Past Lives, which was nominated for five Golden Globes and Academy Awards including best picture, subversively shows the extent to which that impermanent perspective has permeated our thinking about life and love. Nora (Greta Lee) lies in bed with her husband Arthur (John Magaro), who is processing his feelings about an upcoming visit from his wife’s former love interest, Hae Sung (Teo Yoo):

Arthur: I was just thinking a lot about what a good story this is.

Nora: The story of Hae Sung and me?

Arthur: Yeah, I just can’t compete.

Nora: What do you mean?

Arthur: Childhood sweethearts who reconnect 20 years later only to realize they were meant for each other.

Nora: We’re not meant for each other.

Arthur: In the story I would be the evil white American husband standing in the way of destiny.

“I’m the guy you’re leaving,” Arthur reiterates later, “when your ex-lover comes to take you away.”

Arthur’s confession surely echoes the inner narrative of many of the film’s viewers: We’ve been conditioned to expect the rejection of limits modeled in The Notebook. We meet characters with settled lives, then watch approvingly as they break commitments to expand their own possibilities and find peace, enlightenment, or even personal destiny. When our heroes’ relationships become collateral damage along their journeys, we might find it painful but accept it as necessary.

Past Lives doesn’t accept that damage. It asks if a more meaningful and beautiful life might be made by accepting our finitude, keeping commitments, and paring down possibilities. For Christians, of course, the answer is yes.

Like all of us, Nora lives a life shaped by a combination of choices made by others and those she has made herself. As a middle-schooler growing up in Seoul, she shared a sweet, mutual crush on her classmate Hae Sung. But when her family immigrated to Canada, the relationship came to an abrupt halt.

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Nora first reconnects with Hae Sung as a young adult pursuing her lifelong dream of making it as a writer in New York. While aspects of their dynamic seemingly delight Nora, she eventually calls for a break. She wants to pursue her New York life, and it’s evident that this phone and video call relationship is a distraction. Though she assures Hae Sung the pause won’t last forever, Nora soon moves on, falling for and marrying Arthur.

Years later, when Hae Sung announces his visit to New York, Nora has built a successful career as a playwright and remains happily married. But as Arthur unravels—and Past Lives portrays Hae Sung sympathetically enough that we may begin to expect the pattern of The Notebook to repeat—Nora doesn’t waver.

“This is my life,” she assures Arthur, “and I’m living it with you.” She seems to intuitively understand what behavioral scientists have documented: that limiting your choices can give you a more satisfying life.

Nora’s countercultural embrace of limits and self-denial is also reminiscent of a biblical motif that begins in the creation account with God’s instructions to Adam and Eve about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2–3). Immediately after violating God’s one mandate for them, we see the first humans begin to struggle with their own identities, losing their intimacy with God. They gained options, yes, but at far too high a cost.

That pattern of bucking God’s limits—and coming to regret it—repeats throughout the Old Testament, from the Israelites’ pleading with God for a king (1 Sam. 8) to Israelite men taking foreign wives (Ezra 10). Those who don’t follow this pattern flourish, like when Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego set themselves apart by foregoing the rich royal diet of Babylon (Dan. 1).

Refusal to stray beyond good limits in our lives is not something that happens by chance. “If you’re not gonna get taken in to the ways of Babylon, you have to have resolve not to do it,” Beth Moore has taught. She goes on to say:

Resolve means a decision that is made in advance, that you’ve already answered it, that you don’t make that decision … at the moment of decision. That decision was already made. That’s resolved. I already know in advance I’m not going to do it. … There are so many things, so many temptations, that come to us that are in the heat of that moment, and we cry out to God, and he says he’s promised to always give us a way of escape. But resolve is when we go, “There are certain things, I’ve just already made my mind up in advance.”

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“This is where we ended up. This is where I’m supposed to be,” Nora tells her spiraling husband. She has already resolved to be faithful, to abide by the limits of the marriage she has chosen. Perhaps for Nora, her marriage to Arthur is never in question. But those of us raised on mottoes like What If and Follow Your Heart tend to question our loyalty to the choices we’ve made.

One of Past Lives’ most significant elements, then, is how it gives viewers a word for resolve cloaked in destiny. In Nora’s first meeting with Arthur, she tells him about the Korean concept of inyeon. It’s like providence or fate, she explains, which comes from supposed connections in past lives.

At that point, Nora jokes that the concept is just a Korean seduction device and goes on to kiss Arthur. But she later uses it to gently rebuff Hae Sung. As they banter in animated Korean at a bar, shortly before he leaves New York, the camera’s close shot on their profiles, the dim lighting, and the way they lean toward each other suggest they may yet follow The Notebook’s infidelity.

But Nora is not leaving her husband here; she is rejecting her childhood crush. She uses inyeon, appropriating and inverting the language of destiny, to say that though Hae Sung may feel a beautiful connection, pursuing the relationship is not for her.

Past Lives describes inyeon as a Buddhist concept, which may limit its application for Christians. Yet there is something worthwhile in Nora’s use of it to acknowledge that her connection to Hae Sung doesn’t abrogate her commitment to Arthur. For Christians, it can be a reminder that our resolve to reject faithlessness is part of a bigger story—not of destiny but of God, the author of our lives.

Morgan Lee is the global managing editor at Christianity Today.

[ This article is also available in Português and 한국어. ]