The night after Thanksgiving I sat down to watch my first Hallmark Christmas movie of the season. My husband, who was close by in the living room and curious as to what I was watching, was struck by the “perfectness” of the main male and female characters. “Everyone is perfect in this movie! Perfect teeth; perfect hair; perfect skin; perfect body.” For the rest of the movie he teased me for watching such an unrealistic, cheesy movie. Finally he couldn’t hold back the question that was bothering him: Why would you watch such an idealized movie when reality is so different?
I thought about it for a moment. To be sure the characters were nauseatingly good-looking and the plot was super predictable. But my answer to him was simple: escape. What the Hallmark movie did for me was to provide an escape from a world filled with gun violence and radical, tyrannical Islam on one extreme and bad breath, tantrums and a messy toy room on the lesser extreme. It provided a “perfect” world where none of these things existed and I could pretend, too, even if just for a moment that I existed in this “perfect” world. The Hallmark movies are an idealization.
Hallmark has learned how to capitalize on women’s desire for the ideal, specifically for the ideal love and relationship. In fact if you watch enough of these movies, you realize the actors, setting and character names change from move to movie but the plot basically remains the same. Yet it still makes us feel good and warm and fuzzy.
I believe this desire for the ideal is something that God has placed in each of us in order to point to Himself. Living in a sinful, broken world even professing non-Christians idealize their own imagined heaven. Surely this messed up world cannot be all we get! We see this concretized in Hollywood as it has even capitalized on “heaven” movies like What Dreams May Come, City of Angels, and, my favorite, Dogs Go to Heaven.
But these feeble attempts miss the mark and idealize the lesser instead of the greater. The world idealizes what they believe is the ultimate of all relationships and love – romantic love between a man and a woman. This is Hollywood’s and Hallmark’s ideal. But their ideal fails, for as soon as the escape is over we walk into a kitchen with dirty dishes, or go to sleep next to someone who no longer loves us, or walk out to a beat-up old car that puts out more exhaust than it does breathable air, or go home to an empty house that reminds us we are truly alone. The escape they provide lasts momentarily; it doesn’t change our reality. Their idealization is of something that they cannot ever promise we will receive.
And sometimes we reject others’ attempts at idealization and create our own. Christmas-time seems to be the perfect stimulant for idealizations, and we parents are the most susceptible. We want to give our children the same, if not better, idealized Christmases that we remember. Christmas becomes a 6-week long, “magical” event where we become so consumed with creating the ideal Christmas that by the time Christmas is over we and our children experience the biggest let down of the year. Our idealized world has ended.
Small doses of idealization aren’t bad, I believe, as long as we recognize that they aren’t the end in themselves but point beyond themselves to the True Ideal which actually becomes our Reality and is the Ultimate Reality.
In the Incarnation, the Ideal has broken into the Real. Put another way, heaven came to earth. God became flesh and dwelt among us. And this Ideal is God’s ideal as defined by Scripture not our ideal defined by our standards. If it were our ideal, we would have placed Jesus in a castle not in a manger (not to even speak of the crucifixion!). Yet in Christ, we are not only shown an ideal love, the apogee of all loves, a I-lay-down-my-life-for-you kind of love, but it is a love that doesn’t remain on a TV or movie screen. It’s a love that goes with us and transforms us. It is a love that doesn’t make you sick after too much of it, but a love that continues to give you life upon life so that you can never have enough.
Sometimes when we use the word ideal it is a word that describes something that will never become real. This is not true of Jesus, the Incarnation or God’s love for us. The “ideal” is so real, it is even more real than what we call our reality. What we find in Jesus Christ is the ultimate reality.
It strikes me that when Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray, the first thing he tells his disciples to ask of God is for heaven to break into our reality. It is a prayer that asks for this world to mirror and become perfect world of heaven. “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9-13). Heaven is the sphere where God reigns as King and where his will is completely done. Since God is perfect and sinless, good and love, heaven is the place that reflects this majesty and character of God. Jesus tells us to pray for that perfect world to break into our world so that earth will become like heaven.
Until that day comes in full, Jesus promises those who he redeems and who follow him that we enter into the Kingdom of God (also known as the Kingdom of Heaven) partially while on this earth. In Jesus Christ, we have one foot on earth and one foot in heaven. Or, put another way, we have one foot in reality and one foot in the perfect world that is yet to be.
For some of you the following will make your toes curl, but I am guilty of reading the last page or sometimes the last chapter first when I begin a new book. I did this for Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. I can’t help it. I want to know how the story ends before I begin so that when I get to the difficult, scary, they-aren’t-going-to-make-it parts of the book, I can press forward because I know how it will end.
God, who loves us and wants to be known by us as Father, does the same thing for us. He gives us the book of Revelation so that we will know how the story “ends.” We can brave the middle parts; we can preserve during hard reality moments. We can have faith and hope because we know that his ideal will one day become real to us, and that God “will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
After watching two Hallmark Christmas movies this season, I have already had my fill. I can’t take another. But watching them reminded me of my need and desire and longing for that ideal, perfect world. A world that actually began away in a manger where God pitched his tent among us, a world that I taste every time I worship with my church family, pray and read Scripture, and a world that I know is coming, which will be God’s answer to our prayer: let your Kingdom come.