Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
In the long-running USA comedy series Psych (2006–2014), Shawn Spencer—the grown, hyper-observant son of a police detective—uses skills ingrained in him by his father to fool the Santa Barbara police department into believing he’s a psychic. Shawn (played by James Roday) is both amateur and immature, and alone in his antics, he would fail as a protagonist. Liars are not usually very endearing, so the audience of Psych needs a sympathetic window through which to view him. We get this via Burton “Gus” Guster (Dulé Hill), Shawn’s lifelong best friend. Thanks to Gus, we get to see Shawn through the eyes of someone who knows him well enough to challenge him at his worst and support him at his best. Furthermore, Gus reveals to the audience that Shawn is not as self-seeking as he seems and does, in fact, have a great capacity for love. The friendship between Shawn and Gus forms the backbone of Psych, a show that could easily have worn out its formula long before eight seasons was up. But one thing became clear over the course of those seasons: the very real affection Shawn and Gus have for each other as devoted friends.
Depictions of close friendship in stories are important to our souls and to our culture, and I think sometimes we forget that friendship itself is a vital, pure, and beautiful form of love all on its own. The cultivation of friendship not only helps hold sacred the other bonds of love in our lives, but it also helps us safeguard ourselves against temptation. If we ran after every tug of affection on our hearts and minds (or eyes, for that matter), we would be wayward people, incapable of maintaining meaningful relationships in any of life’s arenas.These friendship stories—in giving us fantastic scenarios—demonstrate how in God’s economy friendship is far from cheap.
We are a people in love with love—a culture obsessed with the wilder and baser aspects of it. Friendship can seem boring by compare, but friendship is love, too, and it holds just as powerful depth of meaning as the other forms, even though we have a bad habit of devaluing it in our pursuit of the idol of sex. What we call friendship, the Greeks called an aspect of phileo, or brotherly love. It is not easy to succinctly define any of the aspects of love, but phileo is the sort of non-romantic affection one feels for a person with whom your soul connects. It is the love that C. S. Lewis expressed to Arthur Greeves when, as children exchanging letters, they found they both admired Norse mythology. A sort of, “You too?” connection that bonds one to another, and it is as compelling and steadfast as other relational loves, if in more platonic ways. Sometimes phileo love naturally progresses into eros love—that wild love of the senses—but when we try to force eros love out of every example of phileo love we find in stories, we run the risk of devaluing the real, good, and unique power that is the friendship bond. Friendship love must exist—in stories and in real life.
Friendship offers us unique opportunities to walk away from hard relationships or to stick around. In this, it tests our character. We choose our friends—we do not choose our family. In phileo love, there is no bond of blood, no vows exchanged (beyond the blood oaths of youth whispered in secret in treehouse ceremonies or pacts declaring soulmates for life), there is only the connection between two people who have decided they will share life experiences together. No earthly relationship is guaranteed to us—even the bonds of parent and child can be severed by abandonment, abuse, or death. And certainly not everyone will get married. But in friendship—in phileo—everyone has an opportunity to share in deep relational love. We know in Scripture God uses marriage and fatherhood as a means of demonstrating his relationship with us. But when he came incarnate, no relationships were more sacred to him than those he shared with his disciples—with his friends.
A beautiful thing about phileo love is that it can lead to agape love within the framework and natural bounds of platonic friendship—especially when that friendship is a close one. Agape love is that love which is self-sacrificial—that places others ahead of yourself. When Jesus said to his disciples, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends,” the word for love in the passage is agapēn (from agape), and the word for friends is philōn. In close friendships, phileo and agape are often intertwined, producing people—and characters in stories—willing to sacrifice everything for the other as surely as if they were bonded by eros.
We see this in stories like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, after Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) discovers the famed assassin the Winter Soldier is his old friend James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan). Steve stops at nothing to try to save Bucky from himself—an act of redemption that has Steve reminding Bucky, even as Bucky tries to kill him, “I’m with you to the end of the line.” Steve’s phileo love for Bucky has transcended to the agape, his faith in Bucky’s redemption something Steve is willing to give his own life for.
In The Lord of the Rings, Samwise Gamgee is the most faithful of friends to Frodo Baggins, not only staying by his side all the way to the slopes of Mount Doom, but also picking his friend up and carrying his “Mr. Frodo” when Frodo cannot take another step on his own to destroy the Ring of Power.
“[Frodo] raised his eyes with difficulty to the dark slopes of Mount Doom towering above him, and then pitifully he began to crawl forward on his hands.
“Sam looked at him and wept in his heart, but no tears came to his dry and stinging eyes. ‘I said I’d carry him, if it broke my back,’ he muttered, ‘and I will!’
“‘Come, Mr. Frodo!’ he cried. ‘I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well. So up you get! Come on, Mr. Frodo dear!’”
Without their friends, where would these characters be? Although fake psychic detectives and super soldiers and hobbits are all fantastic examples to pull from, the spirit of friendship that is alive and well—displayed in the affection between the main characters—is far from abstract or absurd. It is phileo, and it is agape, and these stories—in giving us fantastic scenarios—demonstrates how in God’s economy friendship is far from cheap. It was because of friendship that Jesus asked John, the disciple he loved, to take care of his mother in his greatest moment of agony. It was because of friendship that Jonathan betrayed his own father, Saul, to protect his best friend, David, when Saul wanted to kill him. We are commanded to love one another to enter into communion with God and be called his friends. Friendship is itself an aspect of Trinitarian affection.
Whether it’s supporting each other in weakness, like Sam and Frodo, being “with you to the end of the line” like Steve and Bucky, or bearing witness to one’s true character like Gus and Shawn, stories of deep friendship will always be stories of love. I am thankful for the narratives that work to remind our culture that friendship is vital, life-sustaining, and unique, because these stories reflect the goodness of the work of God. May we cherish our friends with as much zeal as Leslie Knope on Galentine’s Day, because friendship is a good gift from God, who desires love for us and designed us as communal beings.
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