Jesus’s redemptive, incarnate work is the true and real “happily ever after,” which is why films like You’ve Got Mail have an epic quality to them.
Dial up to the internet and order your Starbucks: it’s You’ve Got Mail Week at All Things New. The classic rom-com starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan turns 20 on December 18. To celebrate, we’ll be reflecting on what the late 90s can teach us about love, community (both the online and offline varieties), identity, and trusting God’s plan for our lives.
INT. MOVIE THEATER — TICKET LOBBY — DAY
In a two-screen movie theater in Greeley, Colorado, in late December, 1998, a young couple stands waiting in line to buy tickets to see a movie.
ANGIE COLGATE, head-over-heels in love, 21, and wearing a shiny, new engagement ring, nervously glances at her fiancé.
Are you sure you’re okay watching You’ve Got Mail? It looks super cute, and it’s got Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, but it is a romantic comedy, so it may not be all that interesting to you.
JEFF SHOEMAKER, devastatingly handsome yet emotionally unaware, 19, smiles at his date.
No, it looks great. I know it seems weird, but I actually like these kinds of movies. Besides, we’ve never watched a movie together in a theater, and this is one I think we’ll both like.
INT. MOVIE THEATER — AUDITORIUM — FOURTH ROW FROM THE FRONT
JEFF and ANGIE gaze at the flickering screen, holding hands and grinning in a twitter-pated stupor.
FADE TO BLACK
Twenty years ago, Jeff and I had been engaged for only one month when we went to see You’ve Got Mail. As we chatted about the film on our way back to Jeff’s car, I was happy to discover that he hadn’t just endured watching the chick flick; he had enjoyed it. Of course, it’s hard not to love watching the on-screen chemistry between Meg Ryan (as Kathleen Kelly) and Tom Hanks (as Joe Fox). Add to that chemistry a time-tested plot formula (strong, mutual disdain transforms into true love), solid screenwriting, the modern technology of email and instant messaging, and it’s no wonder that the movie continues to show up on lists that rank the best romantic comedies of all time.
When the movie was released in late 1998, email was still somewhat novel. During my college years (1993-1997), professors included a phone number and their office hours so we students could contact them, but never an email address. Forms did not have blanks for email addresses in the personal information section along with name, address and phone number. I received few emails, and the ones that I did were all written by actual people. In fact, my first spam mail didn’t hit my inbox until nearly two years later.
I embraced the new technology with all the enthusiasm of the young. I preferred to use my work email to communicate with my co-workers rather than going to their classrooms to speak to them in person. I spent hours playing games on my local BBS. I was a regular in several online chat rooms. As a young, single woman, I was careful not to give out either my physical or email address to anyone I didn’t know personally. So when a complete stranger started emailing me in the first few weeks of 1999, I was confused. His name, he told me, was Scott McConnell.
Scott seemed friendly, but I didn’t know him, and it seemed weird that he’d just started emailing me out of the blue. I was polite but aloof in my replies. He didn’t seem to notice or care that I wasn’t enthusiastic about connecting with him. Over the next few weeks, his emails started to feel pushy, on the verge of demanding a closeness or trust that I had never offered. He didn’t seem to take any of my hints that I would rather not continue communicating with him. I decided to ask my fiancé for advice. I laid out the whole story to Jeff, expecting him to help me figure out how to tell my new pal in a nice but firm way to please leave me alone. Jeff’s response took me by surprise.
I wish I could remember what his actual advice was. What lingers in my memory is how grumpy, even angry, Jeff was. It seemed completely irrational and out of proportion to the situation. It was also definitely out of character; the Jeff I knew was easy-going when it came to social situations. It made no sense that he would feel so vexed with me. After some digging, Jeff confessed that HE was actually Scott McConnell. (For the first 24 hours of his life, Jeff was named Scott. Jeff’s mom’s maiden name is McConnell. I didn’t know either of these facts at the time.) Feeling inspired by You’ve Got Mail, he set up a Yahoo! mail account shortly after we watched the movie together. He planned to recreate its romantic magic by wooing me via email. He was irritated that his brilliant efforts had failed to win my heart.
Twenty years later, we now laugh at his misguided attempt to romance me. His Scott McConnell ploy is one of many tales that we recount illustrating how ignorant 19-year-old males can be when it comes to matters of the heart.
Echoes of the Real Story
Although not many people may seek to emulate a movie’s plot line so closely, Jeff is not the only person whose imagination has been captured by a movie. Movies like Braveheart or Gladiator speak deeply to the hearts of many men (and some women!), stirring in them the desire to devote their lives to a cause that is bigger than they are. Larger-than-life love stories like Titanic or The Notebook elicit wild popularity among women, revealing a hunger to be swept up in a story where they are cherished and pursued and deeply loved. Epic sagas like the Lord of the Rings trilogy touch on our deep yearnings for fellowship and mission; they celebrate the ability of ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things. Part of the allure of the Marvel movies is that they beckon us to be part of something big, something heroic, something that makes a difference in people’s lives for good.
Truly, movies are not the only things that move us in this way. Books, poems, paintings, songs—they can all have that effect on us. Something inside us resonates with story in all its various forms. In his essay “On Fairy Stories,” author J.R.R. Tolkien explains that writers who weave convincing tales (and I would extend that to include all artists whose works connect to that something deeper inside us) do so because their story provides a glimpse of an underlying reality or truth. Superhero stories, then, reveal our need for the Hero God who can crush enemies (sin and death) that we are powerless to defeat (1 Corinthians 15:54-57). Love stories whisper to us that there is a Person whose steadfast love endures forever (Lamentations 3:22; Psalm 136). Hobbit stories remind us that there is an all-powerful being who chooses weak, lowly and powerless people to accomplish his purposes (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).
God, Tolkien reminds us, is telling the most true, the most real story of all. His story has intersected history. The gospel tells us “a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy stories.” In Jesus, the truest story became flesh and redeemed our broken tales. The story God writes is a supremely joyous one that climaxes in the life, death and resurrection of his Son.
Since God’s story is the greatest story, does that mean that movies like You’ve Got Mail are ultimately pointless? Tolkien would argue to the contrary. “. . . in God’s kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on.” The good news of the gospel doesn’t nullify our art and literature; it elevates them to something much greater than we could ever conceive.
It’s easy to identify with Kathleen Kelly when she writes to NY152: “Sometimes I wonder about my life. I lead a small life—well, valuable, but small—and sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it or because I haven’t been brave? So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, when shouldn’t it be the other way around?” We do not have to leave that question unanswered as Kelly is content to do, though. God’s story—his supreme, joyous, real and true story—echoes in our books, art, movies and lives. Knowing that his narrative is our inheritance, we can live our lives confidently, eager to embody the part he has written for us in his tale.