Giving up on Being Right: My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend and the Church
A quick note: This was written a few years back when My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend was still new to Netflix. It never found a home.
Mike Birbiglia is more storyteller than comedian. Anyone who is familiar with his first original film, Sleepwalk with Me, knows this. Birbiglia tells his story, not just of dealing with sleepwalking but dealing with life and growing up. It’s a wonderful, depressing, funny and honest look at trying to figure out who you are and what you want to do in life and how that sometimes means things you once desired no long seem appealing, or possible. It’s also clear in this film that marriage is not for Birbiglia. It’s the one thing his girlfriend wants, but it’s the one thing he can’t give her. Not because he can’t get a ring but because Birbiglia doesn’t believe in marriage.
Birbiglia’s cursade against marriage is played out in his most recent one man show streaming now on Netflix, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. The show starts by telling us a harrowing tale of how he gets in a car wreck and is T-boned (which is the culinary way of describing what happens when a car slams head first into the side of your car). He’s rushing to talk to his girlfriend, but instead of telling us what happens next he moves backward, to his first girlfriend. What unfolds for the next hour is all the reasons why Birbiglia doesn’t believe in marriage. He tells us of lying to friends about having a kissed a girl. When he actually has a chance to kiss a girl, she tells everyone how bad of a kisser he is. He tells us of Jenny and how marriage let her down. We’re told of his girlfriend, a girl that he really liked, who invited him to her house only to find out that she still had a boyfriend. And in an odd turn of events, winds up at that boyfriend’s house meeting his parents and hoping he makes a good impression on them. The story always comes back to Jenny, the girlfriend he was rushing to meet when he was T-boned (which is the culinary way of describing what happens when a car slams head first into the side of your car).
Every story brings a new light on why Birbiglia doesn’t believe in marriage. Can’t believe in marriage. Marriage has never looked appealing. His parents have been married for 30 years, but why would anyone want what his parents have? Every relationship Birbiglia tells us about solidifies the notion that marriage is not a positive thing. Girls have hurt him in relationships, why would you want to make being hurt a permanent thing. But, there’s Jenny, who Birbiglia is rushing to meet when he is T-boned (which is the culinary way of describing what happens when a car slams head first into the side of your car). Jenny who Birbiglia realizes that he loves. Jenny who loves Birbiglia even though she knows that he doesn’t want marriage. Jenny who wants marriage, even though it has let her down in the past. And, ultimately, this same Jenny is the one Birbiglia marries. “ Because I (Birbiglia) don’t believe in marriage, but I believe in her and I’ve given up on being right.”
The ending, that last line, is a beautiful moment. I was left speechless. Something had just happened. A truth had just been shared, but not one I was able to grasp completely. So I watched the show again and again, then finally I realized what it is. Birbiglia, in his talk on marriage and his relationship with Jenny, captures what church is for me and many I know. Church has not always been something I liked or enjoyed. I have been hurt by the church. My family has been hurt by the church. My friends have been hurt by the church. From an elder mistreating my father when he was a minister, to a parent not wanting her children to be around my brother because of his influence, to seeing members mistreat friends because of their differences, the church has not always been a positive thing. My own struggles with the church, some petty and some serious, seem to pale in comparison with news that sometimes pours out from churches. Ministers abusing power. Members hiding neglect and abuse. Churches turning a blind eye to the abuse of the very ones they are called to protect. So many wrongs are done and seldom does it seem like anything right happens.
“If you ever find the perfect church, don’t join it. You’ll screw it up.” These are the words of a very wise former professor, mentor, and friend. And they tell us something about the the church that My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend tells us about marriage. The problem, with the church or with marriage, isn’t the institution as it exists. The problem is the people. More specifically the problem is us. We are people and as people we are flawed. We bring those flaws with us. There is no perfect church and no perfect marriage if people are involved. People are more flawed than perfect. People will bring those flaws with them and they will bleed through. But the church is more than just mere people.
This is not a call to turn a blind eye those who might abuse the place they have in the church. But it is a reminder, mostly for me, of what Paul tells us about the church. It is the body of Christ. The church is the bride of Christ. The church is a physical manifestation of the love, grace, mercy, and power of Christ in the world. This is why I can’t quit the church, even though there have been times I’ve wanted to quit. My love for Christ compels me to love his people, even when we’re unlovable. Because I don’t always believe in the church, but I believe in Jesus and I’ve given up on being right.