Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale

I think I am going to use the same conceptual approach to the gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ that Frederick Buechner did in his book Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. My ideas will differ from his as he was writing to preachers and I am writing to everybody, Christian or non-Christian. Buechner’s categories stuck me as strange at first but as I read his book I realized he was writing what I wanted to say in a different idiom than that to which I was accustomed.

The Good News as Tragedy

The central tragedy in the good news of Jesus Christ is his crucifixion. Never has a human being suffered more in the way of injustice, humiliation, physical pain, and psychological agony, and in the end God his Father turns his face away from him. It is fashionable among people who do not believe in God to cite the crucifixion as an example of God’s cruelty. How would they know, since they know nothing of God? Not even that that he exists. If they had looked up the verse in the New Testament John 3:16  that frequently shows up at sporting events, they would see that the Apostle John, who was there when it happened, came to regard the crucifixion as the ultimate sign of God’s love for humanity.

The crucifixion of Jesus was the first step in providing a remedy for another tragedy, the almost entire absence of communication with God. This second step occurred on the third day after the crucifixion. It was the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and his talking with his disciples on that first Easter. Ever since Adam and Eve were ejected from the Garden of Eden communication between people and God was rare and awkward. When God sent angels to speak to people, the first words of the angels are always “Do not be afraid.” When God talked face-to-face with special people such as Moses and Elijah, mountains shook. Since that first day of Jesus’ new life, the lines of communication between God and believers in Christ have been open.

Full-bore atheists and happy hedonists may be content with the absence of communication with God. To tell the truth, most of the rest of us, Christians included, are somewhat comfortable with the absence of direct messages from God. We prefer to have the message mediated by a religious institution. But this is just part of the tragedy of the good news. Most of humanity will not accept the offer of a partial return to the days of Eden and the loving relationship with God that existed way back when. God offers us the ability to be brothers and sisters of Christ and share in the love of God the Father for God the Son and yet most people reject the offer. It is an ever-growing tragedy that most people will live and die without ever experiencing the good news of Jesus Christ as a personal experience.

The Good News as Comedy

Buechner tells us tragedy is inevitable, even though we wish it were not. On the other hand he writes that comedy is the unforeseen. We are not used to finding comedy in the good news of Jesus Christ but it is there. This is because much of what Jesus did and taught during his three years of ministry was 180 degrees away from the common thinking of the Jewish people. And much of his thinking is still radical, though not in the way many people think. Jesus told Pilate his kingdom was not of this world, so all the attempts to turn him into a political leader or social activist fail to encompass the spiritual reality of his commandments to us to love God and other people.

Comedy results from turning normal things upside down. Jesus told us that in the kingdom of heaven the least of those who believed in him would be the greatest and the greatest would be the servants of all. This turns our world of status and position on its head and makes a joke of our ambitions and achievements. The underachievers who believe in him like little children are the ones who will receive the most from their faith, and will be still joyful at the end of their lives, while the high achievers, who have the most from this world, will learn at their final breath that everything in this world is nothing.

At first the reactions to the things Jesus said was shock and then, I think, came laughter. Think of the reaction when Jesus told the people walking with him through a grain field that the Sabbath was made for people and not people for the Sabbath. Fifteen hundred years of Sabbath rule-making was turned on its head so that Sabbath observance could be a joy and not a burden. Some of the people whose lives were made freer by his teaching must have laughed at the joke.

Not all comedy provokes laughter. Think of the woman with her “female problem” working her way through the crowd so she could touch Jesus’ cloak and be healed. Think of her faith, think of her persistence, think of her shyness, think of her embarrassment when Jesus turned and said, “Who touched me?” It is a funny story—of the kind that can bring tears. Perhaps most of the stories of the people who come to true faith in Jesus Christ are stories much like this. They are stories of hesitation, resistance, discomfort, of coming closer and drawing back, until finally the voice of Jesus speaks and the healing comes.

The Good News as Fairy Tale

The new life that comes to us through faith in Jesus is like the kind of transformation that comes in fairy tales. The frog does not just become a better, happier frog; he is transformed into a prince, an entirely different kind of creature. Buechner uses the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as one of his illustrations. The wardrobe is the doorway to a different existence. Jesus used an earthy image to convey the same idea. He told Nicodemas that to get into the kingdom of heaven he would have to be born again. Nicodemas was shocked but did not laugh. Instead he raised a logical objection. “How can I return to my mother’s womb?” It was then that Jesus told him the beginning of the good news as fairy tale. He would have to be blown into a new life by the breath of the Holy Spirit.

Fairy tales tell of both personal transformations and of entries into different realms. The good news tells the same kind of story. In fairy tales a powerful extra-human person typically provides the transformation. New worlds are entered through various types of portals, such as Alice’s looking glass. The inhabitants of the new place are like humans but not quite. Fairy tales only have the power to energize our imaginations. The good news has the power to make us immortal beings. That is why it is not wise to regard the good news of Jesus Christ as something people have invented, even though Buechner and I have opened that option in trying to describe things outside our normal existence.

In fairy tales someone takes notice of somebody. The good news tells us that the God who exists in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, will, if we seek him, take note of us and bring us into a new form of existence and eventually to a new place where we will live in bliss forever. This is not the situation if we only have the universe as our home. Buechner uses a short poem that Stephen Crane, the author of The Red Badge of Courage, wrote in 1899 to illustrate what it is like for people without the good news of Jesus Christ. It goes as follows: A man said to the universe:/“Sir, I exist!”/”However,” replied the universe,/”The fact has not created in me/A sense of obligation.”

It is better for us to accept the love shown in the reality of the fairy tale God has written for us than to accept ideologies that exclude God. All they can promise us is a short life that at its best is filled with an emptiness that only the good news can fill and at its worst is nasty and brutish. It is far better for us to receive the new life Jesus spoke about with Nicodemus. As we seek it, it will come to us through the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. Then we can live forever in the good news of Jesus Christ.

 

 

Self-Actualization or Creation

I think the two choices for explanations of physical reality boil down to self-actualization or creation. The people who argue for self-actualization (and do they argue) assume that the universe contains in itself properties that caused all that has happened in it since its very beginning. This brings us to the initial difficulty.

The initial difficulty is that before the universe came into being it had no existence we can recognize, at least in terms of something observable or measurable, in other words something subject to science. Some people get around the initial difficulty by postulating an oscillating universe, one that expands and contracts but that is nevertheless self-existent. In this view, the Big Bang was the beginning of the current phase of expansion. Again, there is nothing left from past oscillations for scientists to measure or observe.

One argument for self-actualization that was new to me was the suggestion that what we call the positive part of the universe is balanced exactly by the dark energy and matter that exists so the universe is a net nothing. The person who wrote this possibly was unaware that both traditional Jews and Christians believe that the universe was created out of nothing. If in fact this suggestion were shown to be true, it would be a vindication of some religious beliefs, and undoubtedly require a major expansion of astrophysical knowledge.

Before the Big Bang was accepted as the correct explanation for the beginning of the universe, scientists and philosophers all the way back to the early Greeks had thought the universe to be static and self-existent in its attributes. This thinking is still carried over into present-day understandings. For example, one person dodged the issue of the origin of life by stating that it had nothing to do with the validity of the theory of evolution. For that person evolution was an explanation of almost all of life. The trouble with this older mode of thinking is that science has made our knowledge of everything physical far more complex.

In mathematics, solutions to problems generally begin with a set of initial conditions. It is just these initial conditions that pose more of a problem for science and philosophy than the working out of answers to how physical reality operates. This is because the initial conditions are established by one-time unobservable events. This results in sometimes conflicting ideas. For instance, we are told that all life on earth came from an original biological event. We are also told by some biologists that life will arise in the universe anytime conditions are right. You can probably see the contradiction. Since life has emerged on the earth the conditions are obviously right. So, how come it only happened once in five- billion years.

The space-time continuum is also a great mystery. It would seem to be in a chicken-and-egg relationship with the energy and matter that constitutes the universe. So, did it exist before the Big Bang or was there something in the Big Bang that brought it into existence? And how is it a property of the space-time continuum that it is almost infinitely elastic and that this elasticity produces what we call the force of gravity as a result of the space-time continuum being deformed by matter? The same kind of question applies to the weak force and the strong force. Where were they when no particles existed? Did they exist before particles or were they brought into exist by the formation of particles?

There are more questions for physics, and we have not even reached biology. Where did the properties of quantum mechanics come from? What formed the particular atoms that we arrange into the Periodic Table. Now we can go to biology. Why are there right-handed and left-handed molecules and why are organic molecules shaped in particular ways for specific functions? How did it come about that a genetic code was necessary for life and how did that code come into existence?

The idea of self-actualization becomes even more unlikely as we consider the things that make us uniquely human, such as culture, speech, music, art, abstract thought, technology, agriculture, imagination, conceptualizing and so forth. So why does self-actualization seem very attractive to many people. I think it has to do with two things: ego and rebellion. Our egos are another of our immaterial characteristics. We all seem to have one of either smaller or larger size. It seems to be that people who strongly believe in one of the various forms of self-actualization are people with large egos. I think that one such type, atheists, have egos so large they think they can push God clear out of the universe. That being the case, they typically are sure they are more intelligent than people who believe in creation.

Rebellion comes into the picture as a result of certain temperaments encountering authority figures, normally in their family or in a church where they were taken as children. One way of resistance for such people is to adopt contrary views. When this resistance meets with support in peer groups or educational institutions, it brings ego gratification and a source of identity that is hard to forego. That being the case, it is hard for people in this situation to abandon the idea of self-actualization despite the fact it requires the acceptance of large improbabilities. Self-actualization is in truth a harder belief than faith in creation. This is evidenced by the fact that the vast majority of the human race has always accepted that there was some spiritual entity that brought them and everything else into existence.

American Christianity after Its Reformation

It is easier, I think, to criticize than to provide useful means of improving a given situation. It is easier to tear down than to build up, easier to find fault than to overlook minor errors. With this in mind, while my post “The Reformation of American Christianity” could be expanded into a book if I had the time and interest, I think I should present some ways American Christianity after its reformation should differ from the present version.

A friend once told me his church’s doctrines rested on a three-legged stool. One leg was Scripture, another tradition, and the last, reason. I refrained from telling him his denomination had knocked all three legs out from under the stool and in its present version rested on egos and opinions. A truly reformed (note the lower case r) American Christianity must stand on a renewed and higher view of Scripture than is presently held almost anywhere. Traditions, meaning common practices or supposedly authoritative interpretations, must be looked upon as nonessential differences. And the mind we bring to understanding Jesus Christ must contain the whole potentiality God has given us—not just reason but imagination, intuition, emotion, empathy and all the other facets of grace-fueled thinking.

It is evident that a renewed understanding of Christianity will require new theology. Theology at present is essentially philosophy. An early Christian, Lactantius (who tutored the Emperor Constantine’s children), noted that philosophers all had different opinions and spent their time arguing with each other. He thought Christians should not bother arguing with them. His advice would seem to apply to us today. Theologians of the reformed American Christianity should be mining a corrected view of Scripture to tell us ordinary Christians all that we can understand about the nature of Christ, how we can become more like him (in his human nature), and how we can come to live, think, and act in ways that glorify God.

Our reformed Christianity will have a difficult time returning to the original proclamation of Christianity “Repent of your sins and believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” The most difficult part will be convincing contemporary people they have any sins of which to repent. Sins, both physical and mental, have been sanitized by the secular world, and by many Christians, through lowering standards of behavior (while being totally intolerant of those who are politically incorrect). The idea behind this attitude is that if some unfortunate attitude or behavior cannot be eliminated by prohibition then it can be legalized and thus made no longer a problem. This fits right in with the advocacy of social chaos and personal dysfunction so prominent in our culture.

The apostle Paul had to speak across a huge cultural divide such as we face when he preached to the Athenians in the Areopagus. Hughes Oliphant Old, in volume 1 of his series The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures, described the situation, after the sermon Paul preached in Acts 17:22–31, in these words. “Polite apologetic has been put aside here. There was nothing diplomatic about telling the Athenians, of all people, that they were ignorant. To threaten the day of judgment was to reveal oneself as being hopelessly beyond the pale of humanism, and to affirm the resurrection was to kiss enlightenment a fond farewell.”

Unless reformed American Christianity is totally convinced of the truth of the Word of God, it will not be able to change minds that are immersed in a secularized society. The goal should be to bring people who are confused by all the godless ideas of our time to the point where they will say, as George MacDonald had a woman redeemed by the Holy Spirit say in his book The Curate’s Awakening. “I would like to be loved as an immortal woman, the child of a living God, and not as a helpless—a helpless bastard of Nature!” MacDonald back in 1876 saw the issue clearly. People could be children of God or the fatherless products of nature. He had Helen Lingard make the choice we can hope more and more people make as a result of a clear proclamation that there is a choice to be made.

It would probably not be enough to make an impact on our culture if our renewed Christianity only resulted in a spiritual unity. It would probably not be enough for us. We are, at this stage of our existence, physical creatures and we receive many benefits from being together in groups of various sizes. God knew this and so provided in the Mosaic Law for three national one-week feasts each year. These gatherings are called the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover), the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles. Through all sorts of circumstances these feasts kept the Israelite people united in their corporate identity, even when they did not have their own nation.

We Christians do not have any instructions on how and when and where and for how long we are to be gathered. Yet we probably have a need for doing so and are actually told in the book Hebrews not to forsake doing it. Christians coming together began before the Day of Pentecost and continues to this day, not only in weekly services, but in such events as processions, retreats and on many other occasions. A renewed Christianity would find in the leading of the Holy Spirit, and as a result of the love of Christians for other Christians, ways to express their unity in events of various styles and purposes.

The message of a renewed Christianity will include the kingdom of God as a focus of loyalty. The present diverse and diffused Christianity is neither centered on Jesus or on his kingdom. Renewed churches will see their role as servants of Christians and not as their “owners.” There is enough work for renewed churches to do in proclaiming the gospel, healing damaged Christians, leading in the sharing of resources, and so forth so there will be no need for them to try to limit the unity of the Body of Christ and/or oppose allegiance to the kingdom of God.

The Protestant Reformation produced a variety of new understandings of Christianity and also continuing divisions. Nevertheless, these different ideas of what was right, working together in ways not planned by humans, lit a flame in Europe that, although it is now close to burning out, changed the lives of individuals, the shape of cultures, the destiny of nations and has now spread virtually all over the world. We can only hope that a reformed American Christianity will light in us a fire that will illuminate our darkened world.