MPAA Rating: Not rated at the time of this review
USCCB Rating: Not rated at the time of this review
Reel Rating: 4 out of 5 reels
Moments after my wife and I first met on May 1st, 2010, I inquired about her favorite television show. She mentioned Mystery Science Theater 3000, an obscure and nerdy late night program about a janitor and two robots trapped on a spaceship and forced to watch bad science fiction movies. It was also my favorite show—and eight years later, we have a house, a dog, three beautiful children, and a decent collection of MST3K DVDs.
Alas, our happy experience is increasingly rare. Most Millennials—Catholic and otherwise—spend their twenties and even thirties aimlessly wandering through a series of frequent and short relationships; many of them want to settle down and even get married, but have trouble finding “the one”. There may be “plenty of fish in the sea” but there is such a thing as too many fish, not to mention flawed expectations about love, fear of commitment, and poor understandings of marriage.
The Dating Project, a documentary that is a joint effort of both PureFlix and Paulist Productions, does a wonderful job summing up these problems and then offering some practical, easy-to-follow solutions.
The documentary follows the lives of five single Christians over the course of a year as they attempt to find love in a culture that seems completely unable to define its terms. “The word ‘hook-up’ is great,” states Professor Kerry Cornin, “because it perfectly describes the vagueness of what these young adults experience. It can mean anything from meeting for coffee to making out to casual sex.” It’s clear from the experiences of these young adults that the Sexual Revolution was a colossal failure, as Pope Paul VI, in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, indicated it would be.
Simply put, there’s plenty of sex but no genuine love, commitment, or connection. Rasheeda, a television producer in thirties, recalled that after a few outings, she asked her man if they were dating. “Why do we have to use a label?” was his confused answer. The statistics are staggering: for the first time in U.S. history, more than half the population is unmarried. The problem has become so bad that it has led to new terminology for those who have altogether given up on romance, some of whom prefer to call themselves “asexual” or “non-binary.”
Cornin suggests a radical alternative: dating. This might seem counter-intuitive, but in a culture so sexualized the idea of a guy taking a girl out on a date just to get to know her in an interactive activity is somewhat revolutionary. In her philosophy class, Cornin (who has become known as “the dating professor”) requires every student to go on a date as an assignment. Her rules are simple but impressive:
1. You ask, you pay. And you ask in person, not via text.
2. The date cannot last any longer than 60 minutes, or 90 minutes if the date is going well.
3. Nothing more intimate than an A-frame hug or side-hug.
Her students are caught off guard at how freeing these “rules” allow them to be. Others are uncomfortable because the lack of sexual contact actually makes them feel more vulnerable. Cecilia, a Spanish immigrant in her late twenties, begins to cry after recounting how good it felt just have a guy stroke her arm. “I miss that touch,” she says through tears.
What really makes The Dating Project succeed as a film is not Cornin’s technique but the five young people who emerge as unlikely victims in a society gone wrong. Besides Rasheeda and Cecilia, there’s Matt and Shanzi, both of them students in Cornin’s class. Matt is attractive but painfully aloof to romance. Shanzi is a stereotypical, chatty post-Millennial who posts every latte on Instagram and admits she feels totally inadequate around men. Christopher, an actor in his early 40s, struggles with being both Catholic and relevant in cutthroat Hollywood. “I’m not stocking what I’m selling,” he finally admits in a moment of clarity. Not all of them may find their true love, but by being honest and holy in their romantic lives, they can find clarity and peace.
As the Washington Post reported, Cornin has gotten “pushback” from various quarters, “from super-Catholics, from super-feminists and from students who’d rather focus on getting a job than getting a date. Her defense? ‘Not everybody is called to romantic relationship, not everyone is called to marriage …. But everybody’s called to relationships — that what it means to be human.'” In a culture that has, in many ways, lost a sense of genuine humanity, some Christians are suggesting a return to courting (or even, in some cases, to arranged marriages) as a solution to world’s romance woes. While there are arguments presented for such approaches, Cornin’s practical, clear advice has potential for tremendous good. The problem isn’t dating itself but its detachment from marriage. “It’s crazy,” Cornin wonders. “We don’t sit a bar waiting for someone to come offer us a job, we actively search for it. Why would searching for our spouse be any less?”
In other words, dating is discernment and the goal of dating is marriage. Who knew a date could be so counter-cultural?