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.




2 thoughts on “Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale

  1. A few things occur to me – one is that jesus did not suffer more than anyone ever suffered – crucifixion was an extremely common way to kill people in that time and place, so much so that jesus died next to more than one person who was being executed the same day in the same town, at least according to scripture. To puff it up as this rare singular thing is just theatricality.

    As for dying for humanity I have never in my life found any sense in this and have asked countless christians how this could possibly make sense and have never gotten an answer beyond being ignored or condescended to. A father who can’t forgive me for something that happened before I was born that he set into motion and could’ve prevented unless someone else (again before I was born and which I had no hand in) brutally murdered his son. That contradicts ever notion of morality I have ever accepted in my life. Both vicarious guilt and vicarious redemption are evil in my opinion, and any father that would be more inclined to forgive someone after they brutally murdered his son than before would be considered by you, me and most people as being totally insane. Yes if someone died for me it would be profound (even if it didn’t make sense), but the plot of any science fiction story would be profound if it were true, as would the claims of any religion. The problem for me is that nobody has established to begin with that the claims are true.

    The idea that x religion or x god or x philosophy can not only make you happy but is the one and only thing that can fulfill you and make you happy is very common across many religions, political beliefs and cults. Scientologists are desperate to ascend the ranks because they’re convinced that it’s not talking out painful memories that is therapeutic, but that getting “audited” and having evil alien souls removed from you is the only way to make you feel better. There is in this exclusive attitude toward happiness an air of desperation. I have experienced my share of pain and sadness in life and nearly ever day I discover new things about myself and about what it means to be a person and a man and what makes me happy or sad or depressed. So I can understand the appeal of thinking that there is one singular thing that can make everything better – and even the placebo effect this belief might have in actually raising one’s spirits. But the people I’ve met who believe this way to me do not seem particularly happy, or any less prone to feeling sad or unloved or unhappy than any atheist I have ever met (which is to say that we all feel unhappy, not that atheists do moreso than anyone else which I do not believe is the case). I am by no means an expert in human happiness or the mind, nor do I make any claims about the soul if such a thing exists, but to me the idea of a “god-shaped hole” in one’s heart that only god can fill is like saying there’s a pizza shaped hole in your stomach that only pizza can fill. Someone who was once hungry, his mouth full of delicious pizza, might easily become convinced of this fallacy. But as far as I know the human mind is more complicated than that, and while we may be able to count the basic emotions we can feel on one hand the things that can evoke them are innumerable. The idea that only one thing can make you happy or content is as absurd as the idea that only one thing can make you afraid. We’re just not built that way. And this kind of “our religion has a monopoly on meaning, morality, truth, happiness, etc” sort of thinking to me is a shackle that enslaves people rather than a truth that enlightens them.

    As for communication with god, as I have said we are complicated beings full of conscious and unconscious thoughts and impulses and instincts and motivators and behaviors and someone who is told a god is communicating with them can easily look inside themselves and find something to label “god” and confirm the claim. God sent me my dream last night, when I read the bible and ideas pour into my head that’s god sending them. When I see someone hurting and want to help them that’s god nudging me toward the right path. Whereas someone in the KKK who feels something very different and comes up with different conclusions when they read the scripture believes they are being similarly guided. And an atheist when they read a secular text and are moved by it or feel compelled to do something sees it as their own inner workings, the various aspects of their own psychology. I am sympathetic to the latter view if for no other reason that these inner workings can be shown to exist in other species and can be shown to lead people in many different directions under different circumstances. Is god talking to you but the head of the klu klux clan is mistaken or lying when he says something simliar? What about a christian from your own church who prays about the meaning of a passage and feels god is giving them a different interpretation? Some people are lying when they claim to be in communication with god, con men exist and we all know this. But most people are not lying, they genuinely believe. And most of them hold to a different theology to everyone else based on that belief. So are we communicating with god, or talking to ourselves? I have for a few years now wanted to perform an experiment – take a thousand catholics and a thousand protestants of one sect or another, and ask them all to go home and earnestly pray and ask god if their sect is the true sect, if the other sect is, or if neither sect is. Then have them come back the next day and anonymously write the answer they feel god guided them toward on a piece of paper. If say catholicism was the true religion would they all spontaneously become catholic? And if god is communicating with people why hasn’t something like that happened already? Wouldn’t everyone just be catholic or not be catholic. Are all catholics or all non-catholics lying when they say they feel god’s influence?

    I just don’t buy it. This is an internal, subjective reality that does not map out into the objective world.

    I could probably continue but I may have already overstayed my welcome. Please know that it is not my intention to offend you or even to steer you toward one belief or another, but I act rather out of a general view that we should question our beliefs, whatever they are, and seek truth, whatever it may be.

  2. Thank you for reading my post and providing a very thoughtful comment. I think I will start my reply with your dislike of vicarious guilt and redemption. If we give vicarious guilt its old name, Original Sin, then your rejection of it is common to that of many Christians and Jews. And it does seem unfair. However I subscribe to The Economist newsmagazine and I find the most logical explanation as to why elites act the ways they do, that is in ways harmful to their best interests (as readily seen by the Economist writers), is that they are fundamentally flawed and so their defects do map out into an objective world.

    As for vicarious redemption, that is simply someone doing something we cannot do ourselves. When you were a baby someone changed your diaper and cleaned you up. This is a good analogy to what is done to us when we receive vicarious atonement through Christ. We cannot make ourselves presentable to God by our own efforts. Like vicarious guilt it may not be seem fair but that is the way it is. The whole vicarious thing flies in the face of our desire for autonomy and independence, and is definitely countercultural in a society where everybody is supposed to be good enough however they are.

    Happiness and all the other things you mention are good things but contentment is better. Happiness and the rest depend on circumstances, contentment endures regardless of what occurs. People who promise good things are practicing deception, as you point out. Contentment is a vicarious thing in that it has to come from God. It cannot be obtained by ritual or mass consensus.

    You are correct in pointing out that Christians have a wide variety of opinions. You should be happy with that. If there was only one Christian way of thinking, you would find it far harder to come up with objections to being a Christian. You are, of course, aware that people have a range of opinions on any subject, including subjects on which you are fond of your own opinions. Christians, when exercising their freedom in Christ, do not have to adhere to a party line. That is the situation Marxists and people who are politically correct find themselves in.

    You raised some other issues but this, I think, is enough for now.

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