A Backdrop Church

I noticed it in Sleepless in Seattle: an incredible Baltimore church (Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church) that exists, seemingly, merely to serve as location background to the conversation between Annie (Meg Ryan) and Becky (Rosie O’Donnell). That, in itself, isn’t all that interesting. The church and Baltimore’s Washington Monument function as location markers in the movie in the same way as Chicago’s skyline, the Empire State Building, and the Space Needle.

But after watching four Meg Ryan romantic comedies in the past week for our next episode of Saints and Cinema (why are we doing that? You’ll just have to listen), it strikes me that religion—let alone Christianity—plays no role whatsoever in any of those movies. It’s all the more apparent after we looked at two other ’90s comedies, Drop Dead Gorgeous and Sister Act, in our last episode—both movies that, even at their most stereotypical, revolve around some conception of Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism, respectively.

I don’t know how this works across the majority of ’90s rom-coms (it’s longer ago than it seems!), but I bet that the trend would hold: the church and Christianity are a backdrop to what’s happening, if they are present at all. And yet, mystical religion abounds. It’s most apparent in Sleepless in Seattle, but also present in the other Meg Ryan movies (and no doubt, across the genre), where there is abundant talk of “signs,” of mystical coincidences, and a searching for the love that will provide, finally, the elusive certainty that this person is the one. Repeatedly, people “discover” that the people whom they think they love actually have one or more horrible or annoying traits. Then, by a series of seemingly random events, they are pulled out of those relationships toward the people with whom they were really meant to be.

That, of course, holds its own problems for relationships and especially marriages. It is not a coincidence that all the main characters are either divorced, widowed, or engaged. If it were otherwise, the more serious and inflexible entanglements of marriage would make the stories much messier—that is, more like real life. Of the films we watched, When Harry Met Sally… is perhaps the most realistic in its approach to the main characters’ love.

I’m not against escapism, but stories involving the most fundamental relationships in human life can’t help but have some impact on the way that we view those relationships in the solidity of a life that doesn’t take place on a screen. How many people are not able to “escape” the engagement before the wedding, and only later find their “one true love”? While we don’t often see in romantic comedies the consequences of ultimate trust placed in the jealous god of romantic love, we will certainly see them in real life. Not to put too much weight on a single moment in a frothy rom-com, but idolatry is idolatry. And when you attach the entire significance of your life to “magic” signs and mystical romantic coincidences, it is bound to disappoint, maybe tragically.  

Yes, ’90s romantic comedies contain easily resolved moral dilemmas; yes, there is an apparent lack of any emotional wreckage left in the wakes of the break-ups. And the displacement of Christianity for the religion of romantic love is not a new phenomenon. But that backdrop Methodist cathedral can serve as a symbol for the larger and looming absence of God in modern society. That absence is more like a black hole than something that is simply missing; anything that crosses its event horizon is distorted and drawn toward its center.

Maybe that’s too serious a question to put to movies that aren’t meant to be taken seriously. I’m willing to accept that. But with a backdrop that includes that church, which might as well be a facade, I wonder if the absence of Christianity from these movies reflects the cultural context of the 1990s, or if it’s just a quirk of romantic comedies (although in the same year that Meg Ryan appeared in You’ve Got Mail, she appeared in a movie about angels: City of Angels, Wim Wenders’ American remake of the German Wings of Desire). Either way, it shows the extent to which Christianity in America is largely assumed, rather than understood.

“Movies for Wives: Peak Meg Ryan,” our next episode of Saints and Cinema, should be up Monday at saintsandcinema.com