Thursday, August 06, 2015

Frozen III, or More on stories: epic, tragedy, comedy

(Possible parish magazine item for October 2015)

I am either stuck in a rut or on a roll with these articles – I’ll let you decide. Two months ago, as I have done before, I wrote about stories and how the story of the Disney film, Frozen, reflects the story of our world and how God means to save it. I argued then that there is only one real story – God’s. All other stories reflect that story, or revolt against it. Our storytelling is part of the story God is telling and we’d do well to get with the programme!

Last month I tackled this a little more philosophically. In particular, I took on Postmodernism, which can be characterised as a rejection of over-arching narratives. To insist on my story or God’s story can seem to some like a sinister power play. Truth claims are a means of control. There are lots of stories – your truth and mine, and they may be mutually incompatible. Who is to say What Is Truth? I dared to suggest that all our stories have some “given-ness”. Jesus, I believe, is the Truth.

This month I want to say something a little more about the stories we tell. I argued previously that all stories go something like: Creation, Fall, Redemption. In other words, we set the scene, something goes wrong, it gets sorted out (and probably made even better) and we all live happily ever after. That is the basic story arc and the arc of the universe: life, death, resurrection life – good, bad, better. But if we think about it in a little more detail, we know that it is not always so. Sometimes the author disappoints or infuriates or surprises us, or something, by killing off the hero on the last page and leaving it all a mess. That’s still a comment on the classic story, I’d argue, but admittedly it’s a bit different.

I want this month to comment on three types of stories as identified by The Revd Dr Michael Jensen (an Australian pastor and theologian who had the good sense to come to Oxford for his doctoral studies). Below I plagiarise a lecture, ‘The Human Story’, he gave on 10th August in Oz:

First, there is the Epic. Epics are all about human mortality and the hunger for immortality. These stories are a super-human quest for greatness. They tell us about heroism and significance, but often that the prize is not fully within our grasp. It gets complicated when, to some, John Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost can begin to seem like the real hero of the work. Is there really meaning and greatness and immortality? Will the true Hero please stand up! No prizes for guessing who I think He is. For that we’d need to turn to Paradise Regained.

Second, there is the Tragedy. This is the kind of story where everyone ends up dead. King Lear stupidly puts his wicked daughters in charge and lives (for a while) to regret it. He can’t see who the good and true hearted characters are and he therefore rejects those who might have rescued him before it was too late. It’s madness and confusion. “Tragedy tells us that paradoxically we are the agents and the victims of our own condition”. Here is another profound comment on the fallen, sinful human state. We did this to ourselves but we cannot help ourselves. Who will save us from this body of death?

And third, the Comedy. As anyone who has studied Shakespeare knows, Comedies in this technical sense don’t necessarily concern gags – or at least not good ones, we might say. These are the Rom-Coms of the literary world. Typically they end in a wedding, as the Bible does. The prince kills the dragon and gets the girl and they all like happily ever after. We know this is not quite our world as we see it, but it reminds us that we long to live in a moral universe where the good triumphs and the baddies get their comeuppance.   

Again, we might say that the Bible is an epic tragi-comedy. But in the end comedy wins. Silly old Man is mortal and only immortal because of the hero, Jesus – only in him is there true meaning and a happily ever after. The tragedy of death gives way to the comedy of resurrection and the feast which celebrates it. Jesus fulfilled his epic quest. Love won. Death died. Winter is over. Summer has come – and welcome! He bids you to come, share his meat, toast his victory, sit and eat. Will you come?

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