The Agape Undercurrent of Modern Love

Johnathan Kana

There’s nothing subtle about Modern Love. From start to finish, Amazon’s romantic-comedy anthology series dials up the schmaltz and goes right for the tear ducts, offering highly bingeable stories of (mostly) ordinary people overcoming improbable odds to discover their own version of “happily ever after.” With its tidy idealism, polished urban cinematography, and maudlin score, the series almost feels like an extended public service announcement. But in a world saturated with stories of hate and malice, perhaps a shameless infomercial for human kindness isn’t such a bad thing.

It helps that Modern Love’s loosely autobiographical dispatches, based on essays originally published in the weekly New York Timescolumn of the same name, center around genuinely likable characters brought to life by an impressive cast (Dev Patel, Tina Fey, Andy Garcia, and Catherine Keener, among others). It also helps that these characters face some rather interesting personal dilemmas. In one of the more memorable episodes, Anne Hathaway stars as an outwardly charming woman who privately struggles with bipolar disorder, which plays a part in her string of failed relationships and career setbacks. After a cinematically riveting glance into the workings of her manic-depressive mind, viewers come to appreciate why her path to love begins with self-acceptance and courageous vulnerability.

The real strength of Modern Love, though, comes when it resists giving in to rhapsodic montages and facile happy endings. Certain relationships prevail not so much because of some mystical romantic “spark,” but because partners choose to pursue one another through mutual vulnerability and hard work. Much of the onscreen conflict derives from situations in which people are adversarially “keeping score” with each other, or where gestures of care are beholden to an unspoken transactional arrangement whereby parties extend or withhold affection based on what’s in it for them. By contrast, the series’ most poignant moments revolve around characters’ growth toward selfless humility, privileging others’ needs above their own. Kind words heal long-festering wounds. A sincere apology opens the door for reconciliation. Guileless acts of service—a canceled business meeting, a trip to the museum, a gentle ministry of presence at a funeral home—register with inspirational force. It’s as if the series aims to lure viewers in with self-aware romantic tropes, only to switch things up by pointing us toward a kind of love that isn’t strictly romantic at all, one that exists as its own reward and is worth pursuing for its own sake, regardless of the cost.

If all of this sounds familiar, perhaps that’s because one of the most famous passages of Scripture, a favorite at weddings, tells us about this kind of love. It’s patient and kind. It isn’t easily angered and it keeps no record of wrongs. It doesn’t envy because it isn’t self-seeking. It rejoices in the truth, but it isn’t boastful or rude. It always protects and it never fails. The Bible calls it agape, claiming that even when every other gift of God has exhausted its usefulness in this world, this love will still remain.

This kind of love isn’t natural, though. It’s divine. The only reason any of us are able to comprehend it is because God loved us first. Agape is what compelled Jesus to jealously pursue his heavenly bride, the church, even to the point of death. And in Christ, God continues to pursue his beloved, even when she plays hard-to-get or seeks comfort in the arms of an idolatrous “old flame.” In so doing, God alone models the unconditional, long-suffering, self-sacrificial love that Jesus commanded us to show one another.

If this sounds familiar, perhaps that’s because Scripture tells us about this kind of love.

Perhaps that’s why Modern Love will seem hopelessly idealistic to some viewers, no matter how inspiring its real-life stories might be. Since the show places humanity at its center rather than God, its expansive vision of love sits tantalizingly outside the realm of common experience. The simple fact is that people don’t generally take care of one another “just because.” We long to believe that we’re capable of such a thing, but the closer we peer into our depraved hearts, the more we discover vestiges of self-seeking motives at work behind the scenes. I’m reminded of the episode in which when Yasmine (Sofia Boutella) reluctantly admits that her real reason for staying up all night with Rob (John Gallagher, Jr.) in the emergency room on their awkward second date was so that she could livecast her magnanimity on social media.

The best stories on Modern Love proceed to a happy ending involving mutual contrition and genuine selflessness. For cynical viewers, that may be where real life ends and the fairytale begins. But for Christians, the fairytale isn’t necessarily so far-fetched. After all, the Bible says that when we’re fully yielded to the Holy Spirit, God enables us to love others the way we’ve been loved by God.

So here’s my suggestion: Go ahead and watch Modern Love on its own terms. Let the schmaltz have its way. Laugh. Cry. Be inspired. But then read 1 Corinthians 13 and watch it again, remembering that love like this does indeed exist, and that there’s nothing “modern” about it. It's as timeless as the Love that first loved us.

Topics: TV