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by Margaret Jenista
Every great love story has a beginning. Once upon a time, Cinderella didn’t know Prince Charming, but then (several mice, a pumpkin and fairy godmother later) Cinderella is in love. We are instructed to imagine such a love by the words, “happily ever after”–a state of being cemented forever by marriage, several children, even more grandchildren until ol’ Cinders and Charms are rocking their way into retirement on the front porch of their castle. But, the day before Cinderella slipped into those dainty (and quite impractical) glass stilettos, she was like many of us twenty-something single folk: she was trying to hold down a lessthan- ideal job, smooth over rough family relationships, establish friendships, play elaborate games of “what-if,” all the while praying that there is, in fact, a light at the end of the tunnel.
A month ago my seminary’s newspaper attempted to extricate the virtues of lasting and abiding love from the corruption of mass media in an editorial titled “A True Romance.” The author compared the life-long commitment of two residents at a nursing home to the antics portrayed in the number one show on television: Grey’s Anatomy. To this I ask, “Seriously? ” No one I know watches Grey’s Anatomy because they think that false starts, hasty intimacy, and emotional roadblocks are the ideal way to go about finding love. Clearly love in all its romantic, agapic, Christian virtue is far better personified by a faithful octogenarian visiting his bride of fifty years in the Alzheimer’s unit of a nursing home than by anything piped into your home via ABC on Thursday nights at nine. Seriously. It is an open and shut case that such companionship and self-sacrificial love is the fair y tale ending.
I suppose I should stop to acknowledge that I took that article’s criticism almost personally. To say I’m a fan of the show would be a gross understatement of my zeal. Meredith, Izzy, George, Christina, and Alex have become comrades of sorts in my journey toward the pastorate. Fictional, twenty-something, single, surgical interns seem, at times, on a nearly parallel track with real live, twenty-something, single seminary students, struggling with stress, family, and, yes, relationships.
The question Grey’s Anatomy raises, which I find myself echoing, is this: Granting the assumption that fidelity and companionship to the grave is the happily-ever-after, where in the world do twenty-something singles even begin to look for their once-upon-a-time? Meredith, George, Izzy, Christina, and Alex are just trying to find the beginnings of their love stories. And, frankly, the widespread appeal of Grey’s Anatomydemonstrates that the surgical interns at Seattle Grace are hardly alone in this quest.
Of course, it is reasonable to engage in a critique of Grey’s Anatomy. For example, I certainly wouldn’t endorse the show’s sexual ethics as normative, Christian behavior. On the other hand, the show doesn’t shy away from the honesty of natural consequences. You sleep around? You get syphilis. You have sex first, ask questions later, and it turns out the guy’s married. You bring baggage with you into a relationship? It may well blow up in your face. The task of Grey’s Anatomy isn’t to demonstrate the way romantic relationships are supposed to work but, rather, the way they do, in fact, seem to work (or not) much of the time.
In biblical exegesis we talk about descriptive versus prescriptive texts. Some biblical narratives are a recounting of the way things are, while other texts are templates for how things ought to be. The octogenarians holding hands in the retirement home? That’s prescriptive. Twenty-somethings on a quest to define themselves, their careers, and their relationships all at the same time? That’s descriptive. Anyone who has milled about in the world of singletons knows something most smug-marrieds have the luxury of forgetting: scrambling to find the beginning of a love story is real life. We are programmed to celebrate the happilyever- afters, as we should, but don’t miss the fact that all the beauty of patient and loving endurance has to begin somewhere, with a once-upon-a-time. While every happily-ever-after begins with a once-upon-a-time, not every once-upona-time ends in happily-ever-after. Even wrinkled and gray couples who walk around your block hand in hand could tell you now, often with a twinkle in their eye, about their courtship and those moments of gut-churning uncertainty and elation. Grey’s Anatomy depicts the once upon-a-times with engaging, often brutal, honesty.
Some have argued that, as far as medical shows go, E.R. did it much better, which is true if you grant the premise that Grey’s Anatomy is fundamentally about the practice of medicine. It isn’t. So then, is Grey’sanything more than the smut of daytime drama, controlled by the centrality of the romantic/sexual relationships? Indeed it is. Grey’s Anatomy isn’t, first and foremost, concerned with medicine or romantic relationships, although these plotlines may garner plenty of air time. Rather, like many seminary singletons, these surgical interns are trying to figure out how to hone their profession, handle sexuality and the potentiality of romantic relationship, all within the context of what Bridget Jones calls, “the urban family.”
It is the friendships between Izzy and George, Christina, and Meredith, and even Alex in his vulnerable moments, that define and shape them. Grey’s Anatomy is helping a generation put words to the reality that relationship is an umbrella which subsumes far more than the romantic. For twenty-something, single seminarians, just as for their surgical intern counterparts, some of our greatest intimacy and identity don’t come from the fairy tale happily-everafters, they come from our friendships–the friendships in which and for which we fight and make up and disclose our truest selves. We are no longer individuals–and for singletons, that’s a pretty critical realization–we are persons caught within the web of relationships and, if I’m not mistaken, that may be how God designed the whole system. Seriously.