What were your favorite stories as a kid? What kind of stories do you enjoy now? If bestselling books and blockbuster movies are any indication, we tend to like redemptive and uplifting tales of every kind. The heroes and heroines of our stories, of course, are expected to suffer, sometimes greatly; but we want them to overcome their suffering, to triumph by the end of the tale. Indeed, the expectation of a happy ending is so great that writers sometimes make use of that expectation to surprise us. They bait us into thinking we’re going to get a happy ending, then pull the narrative rug out from under us in the last few pages.
So: what kind of story is the gospel? Is it a tragedy? A comedy? A fairy tale?
Novelist Frederick Buechner, who died last year at the age of 96, once argued for viewing the gospel as all three.
In his book Telling the Truth, Buechner suggested that at different points, the gospel has a tragic, comic, or fairy tale trajectory. Simply put, a tragic story is one in which the protagonist starts off well but meets a bad end, often due to some character flaw like arrogance. In a comedy, there is also a loss or series of challenges, but then a reversal of fortune that leads to a good end. Romantic comedies, for example, often follow a predictable narrative formula. First, boy meets girl. Then, often through a misunderstanding or the interference of a third party, boy loses girl. By the end, however, boy and girl must reunite. And often, there is an implied fairy tale ending: they live happily ever after.
How, then, is the gospel simultaneously tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale? Think of it this way. Imagine yourself as one of the Twelve, being interviewed by a reporter from the Jerusalem Times. Wouldn’t you tell the story of Jesus very differently on Good Friday than you would on Easter Sunday? And wouldn’t the story change even more after the Ascension or Pentecost?
Imagine the hopeful, heroic story the disciples would have told as Jesus’ star was rising, miracle by miracle. Astonished by his power, they became ever more convinced that he was the one who would oust the Romans and restore the fortunes of God’s people. It seems clear that even though Jesus tried to tell them several times that he would be arrested, beaten, and crucified — then raised to life by the Father! — they couldn’t hear any of it. This wasn’t the story they wanted to tell. But Good Friday forced them to face the grim reality of Jesus’ humiliating death, turning their story to tragedy.
Then, the reversal. Though they should have expected it, the resurrection caught the disciples by surprise. So steeped were they in their tragic loss that they couldn’t even accept the good news at first, doubting the women, not trusting their own senses, and still not remembering what Jesus himself had told them.
Eventually, they got it. But Jesus had another surprise in store. The disciples seemed to expect that the resurrected Jesus would now bring the kingdom of God in its fullness, as if the crucifixion and resurrection were just a puzzling detour: Now that you’re back, are you going to do what you came to do? But Jesus’ response was to ascend to the Father, promise his Spirit, and leave them in charge of the whole kingdom enterprise. Sorry, fellas. It’s not time for happily-ever-after just yet. But I’ll be back.
Tragedy, comedy, fairy tale. We hear it in the words of Paul, as he retells the story of Jesus. Addressing potential problems of disunity and a lack of humility among them, he counsels them to have the same mindset as Jesus:
who, though he existed in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
assuming human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a human,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (Phil 2:6-8, NRSVUE)
That’s the tragic arc of the story. Paul doesn’t mention the comic reversal of the resurrection and ascension. But then comes the fairy tale element:
Therefore God exalted him even more highly
and gave him the name
that is above every other name,
so that at the name given to Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (vss. 9-11)
We’ll spend some time exploring these words, which some believe are actually the lyrics to an early Christian hymn. But to understand what Paul is saying requires that we get our priorities the right way around. Remember, Paul is trying to teach the Philippians humility, and in that context using the story of Jesus to drive the lesson home. He is not saying that everything tragic about our own stories will have its reversal. And the only happily-ever-after that matters is the ending of Jesus‘ story, not the story of what happens to us in this lifetime.
We must begin, in other words, to see ourselves less as the heroes and heroines of our own stories, and more as supportive characters in the story of Jesus. More on that in coming posts.