Rolling in the Deep: Adele and the Argument from Desire
In today's blog, Dr. Tim Muehlhoff discusses pop culture and its influence on the reality of the human desire to want more and encourages Christians to set their desires toward God.
“The main emotion of the adult American who has all the advantages of wealth, education, and culture is disappointment.” 1 John Cheever, novelist
Like many fans of Adele, I tuned into her televised outdoor concert at the scenic Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles (Nov. 14, 2021). With the iconic HOLLYWOOD sign in the background, the 15-time Grammy winner masterfully blended old standards (Rolling in the Deep, Hello, When We Were Young) with the new (Easy on Me). The concert was in anticipation of her fourth album, 30. During a pre-recorded interview with Oprah Winfrey—of which segments were shown in-between musical sets—we learned that her new songs were fueled by a time of deep soul-searching and her divorce. The interview was as riveting as the concert.
Two comments stood out. First, she describes her ex-husband—Simon Konecki—as one of her best friends (he lives across the street from her), a great dad to their nine-year-old son, a source of stability in her life when she needed it most, and a person she trusts with her life. While she loves him, she’s no longer in love with him. When asked by Oprah as to what she’ll eventually tell her son about the divorce, she speculated that her son as a grown man would be angry with her if she stayed in a marriage that didn’t make her happy or help her fully achieve her potential. Second, when asked about the inspiration for her songs she replied it was a mystery where these emotions or lyrics come from. “I’m pulling from somewhere else [and] I don’t know how I access it.”2
Many Christian voices on social media have criticized her for discarding a marriage that didn’t provide total happiness. Adele, herself seems to feel the gravity of what she’s done and is distraught that people would think she’s demeaning marriage. “I’m embarrassed because it [divorce] was so quick.”3 But rather than piling on, I’d like to take a different approach. Perhaps, Adele is articulating a sense of discontent felt—at times—by all of us. Listening to her interview and heart-wrenching songs, I couldn’t help but be reminded of something I’d studied years ago that has stayed with me. The longings expressed by Adele fall under what Christian apologists call, the argument from desire.
The argument from desire has been articulated by some of the giants of Christian thought. In his Confessions Augustine writes, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they can find rest in you.”4 Blaise Pascal notes that our craving is a signal that “we have an idea of happiness but we cannot attain it.”5 The simplest expression comes from the writer of Ecclesiastes who states that without God everything—wisdom, riches, power, love—is “vanity” or chasing after the wind (1:2).
The argument from desire takes many forms. Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft presents it propositionally as follows:
- Every natural, innate desire in us corresponds to some real object that can satisfy that desire.
- But there exists in us a desire which nothing in time, nothing on earth, no creature can satisfy.
- Therefore there must exist something more than time, earth and creatures, which can satisfy this desire.
- This something is what people call “God” and life with God forever.6
Perhaps there is no stronger desire—and greater dissatisfaction—than longing for perfect enduring love. What’s so frustrating about our longing for unblemished romantic love is that we, like Adele, can picture it, and even experience fleeting glimpses of it, but struggle to make it a reality. This can be seen in both our favorite songs and TV sitcoms.
The popular Indie group, Postal Service, explores this search for love in the song, “Clark Gable.” The song starts with the realization from the main character that he has been waiting since birth to find a love like what’s presented in the movies. He’s haunted by Clark Gable movies that present love as something big enough to fill the silver scene. He rents a camera and solicits the help of a former girlfriend to recreate love scenes that would make Gable proud. They spend the entire day shooting. He desperately wants to make his grandiose concept of love a reality. The end result? The song hauntingly ends with the confession that he fears his Clark Gable view of love is merely a lie he tells himself to get by. The same conclusion is drawn by folk singer Gregory Alan Isakov in his song, “Saint Valentine.” He concludes that all of us desperately want to hang our hats in the house of St. Valentine. To feel at home in the wild promises he makes concerning romantic love. Though we try and try we just can’t feel at home in such an idealistic love. Thus, it is St. Valentine who ultimately is the loneliest person in the world—he invites all of us in, but no one can stay.
The Office is perhaps the most popular American television show of all time, as evidenced by the fact that despite being off the air for almost a decade, it was far and away from the most streamed show of 2020.7 Not only did it propel the career of Steve Carell, but introduced us to America’s favorite love-struck couple, Jim and Pam. In Season 1, Jim is immediately smitten with Pam but matters are complicated since she is currently engaged. But Jim never gives up hope and season after season record numbers tuned in to see if Cupid would win and they would get together. In Season 2, Jim steals a kiss from a still engaged Pam and the audience’s anticipation grew. Eventually, Pam ends her engagement and the stage is set. It’s not until Season 5 that Jim finally proposes to Pam outside a gas station during a rainstorm and Season 6 culminates with them getting married!
A collective smile crossed the faces of viewers nationwide. So, it is possible to have a Clark Gable kind of love described by The Postal Service! Not so fast. In Season 9 we start to see cracks in the relationship with Jim starting a business in a different state, stress at work, and eventually marital counseling. In one riveting scene, Jim is once again leaving Pam with an infant to go on a business trip. He waves goodbye, but Pam is too hurt to respond. Realizing he forgot his umbrella she runs it out to him as he climbs into a taxi. While he attempts to hug her she simply can’t reciprocate. We then witness a flashback to their wedding where I Cor. 13 is being read: “Love is patient, love is kind . . . love endures all things.” The scene ends with her forcing herself to return the hug. It seems that Pam and Jim couldn’t match the idealistic expectations we projected onto them. In the end, even these fictive characters desired more.
It’s no wonder that a steady diet of viewing romantic sitcoms and movies sets us up to be disappointed with the imperfect love of spouses or family. That’s the conclusion lead researcher Kimberly Johnson came to after exploring the influence romantic comedies have on us. Johnson and her researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh sought to determine if romantic comedies influenced how we view love, sex, and marriage. They specifically examined 40 box office hits between 1995 and 2005, such as Runaway Bride, Notting Hill, You’ve Got Mail, Maid in Manhattan, and While You Were Sleeping. Her conclusion was that watching these films ruin your love life by creating wildly unrealistic expectations. Her advice hauntingly echoes the claims of the argument from desire: while we may want a perfect soul mate that completes us, no person can fulfill that desire.8
Adele is not the first larger-than-life personality to voice disappointment and a desire for more. During his intellectual heyday, Jean-Paul Sartre was a revered voice of existentialism (a term he created), successful playwright, and author. A post-war Europe hung on his every word. Yet, in a moment of transparency, Sartre ponders, “There comes a time when one asks, even of Shakespeare, even of Beethoven, ‘Is that all there is?’”9 It’s not that he doesn’t enjoy or appreciate Beethoven, but he, like Adele, wanted more.
Adele admits she is pulling from deep emotions and longings that are even a mystery to her. What if God placed within the human soul a homing signal that points us beyond mere earthly pleasures toward him? The more we study animals the more researchers are amazed at what appears to be a built-in homing signal. The bar-tailed godwit grows up in northern Alaska. Soon after birth, the parents leave to fly to New Zealand. When the young birds mature and start to migrate something wired in them directs them to fly 6,800 miles to New Zealand. The same homing signal that guides them over treacherous waters to New Zealand also navigates them back to their parents. Like the bar-tailed godwit, is it possible that God has created in us an inner spiritual GPS that steers us past our present location and desires toward him? The Scriptures seem to suggest such a homing signal. Just as a deer pants for water, our souls thirst for God (Ps. 42:1). Solomon reminds us that in the midst of everyday tasks we are drawn toward a sense of eternity that God has set in the human heart (Eccl. 3:11).
Advice from Lewis
If C. S. Lewis could have had the opportunity to speak to Adele, or anyone who struggles with wanting more, what would he advise? Based on his writings, I suspect he would communicate the following. First, earthly pleasures such as relationships, fine art or music, or a career are never meant to fully satisfy us. Rather, they are only meant to arouse in us a desire for the real thing. This longing is found in careers we find meaningful, art we appreciate, and even in the best of marriages. Second, some address this discontentment by putting the blame squarely on the other person, job, or relationship. “He goes on all his life thinking that if only he tried another woman, or went for a more expensive holiday, or whatever it is, then, this time, he really would catch the mysterious something we are all after.”10 In other words, it’s not marriage per se that lets me down; it’s this particular spouse that’s lacking. Find another relationship and elusive happiness is still possible.
What solution might Lewis offer? “I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage.”11 If short, if we expect a human relationship (the echo) to fully satisfy our desire for God’s love (the source), then we will surely be disappointed. There are some desires—perfect love, lasting peace, transcendent meaning—that only God can satisfy. While not abandoning our commitment to marriage, we should be appreciative to Adele for eloquently voicing what many of us feel on a regular basis—without God, even good, or stable relationships can disappoint.
Parts of this essay are taken from Tim’s book, The God Conversation: Using Stories and Illustrations to Explain Your Faith (IVP).
- ]http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/films/reviews/view/18712/revolutionary-road [accessed May 12, 2016]
- Augustine. Confessions, translated by Rex Warner (New York: Mentor, 1963).
- Blaise Pascal, Pensees (New York: Penguin Books, 1966), 65.
- Peter Kreeft & Ronald Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 78.
- news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/Scotland/Edinburgh_and_east/7784366.stm [accessed May 16, 2016]
- Kreeft & Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, 80.
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1960), 120
- Lewis, Mere Christianity. 121.
Tim is a professor of communication at Biola University in La Mirada, CA, and is the co-director of the Winsome Conviction Project which seeks to reintroduce humility, civility, and compassion back into our public disagreements. He is the co-host of the Winsome Conviction Podcast and his latest book is, Winsome Conviction: Disagreeing without Dividing the Church (IVP)