Saturday, March 9, 2013

Comedy and Tragedy in Christian Writing

In response to my last post, The Christian Writer and Conflict, a facebook friend asked:

Does every Christian work of literature have to be a "comedy" in the literary sense (a story that ends well for the protagonist)? Or can a Christian writer write a "tragedy" in the literary sense (a story that doesn't end well for the protagonist)?

A very good question and worthy of an article itself.

The Comedy as a story of humor did not come to us until relatively recently, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Originally, comedy was a drama played out in ancient Athens during the Dionysia festivals. They were loud, rowdy, inebriated events. Later in the middle ages and the Renaissance, the Comedy came to mean what my inquirer meant by it, where the main characters averted certain disaster and came to a happy end.[1]

Aristotle’s Poetics is a work in which the ancient Greek philosopher spelled out not only the formal elements of a Tragedy, [2] but also the purpose of Tragedy. Aristotle saw tragedy as an imitation of what goes on in life, and its distinctive mark is to excite fear and pity, though he seems to also consider the satisfaction of our moral sense as integral as well. However shocking a story might be, if it does not cause the audience to emote fear and pity, it is not truly tragedy. A villain might come to a horrible demise that is repulsive to our instincts, but after all, it is what he deserves. That is not tragedy. However, one who works his way out of poverty into a wealthy estate by honest hard work, intelligence, and selflessness, only to be betrayed and swindled out of everything he has and sent to prison through the machinations of his dearest friend, that evokes pity. Fear as well – it could happen to us to some degree or another.

Such tragedy is played out as an imitation of life because it is just that, a part of life. We don’t have to restrict ourselves to Aristotle’s narrow requisites for tragedy. Anything that can be understood as good, wholesome, virtuous, and praiseworthy and through some treacherous means is turned into cruel loss and suffering, is tragic. The extermination of six-million Jews is tragic. As are murder, torture, rape, ravaging disease, exploitation, etc.

For the Christian, we must understand these tragic things in the context of human history. Anything that qualifies as tragedy is a result of that single tragic event, the fall of man.

I would like to interject an excerpt from my (revised and as yet, unpublished) fantasy novel that hopefully gives a sense of what the tragic import of the fall really is. The excerpt is from chapter fifteen, The Most Tragic Thing. The scene takes place on a planet called Eskathoer in a dining room called the Blueberry Room at the end of a meal attended by three earth-siblings, Caleb, Josie, and their little brother Matt. They were summoned to the planet by Lord Bigsley and transported through the help of his close friend, Amos Buckwalter. Lord Bigsley is speaking.

“You see, our Creator made many worlds inhabited by creatures in the likeness of his image. All of these worlds are interconnected so to speak. We can freely travel from one world to another, with one exception. Only by special permission and for extremely rare and unusual circumstances are we allowed to venture into that world. The exception of which I am speaking is none other than your world, the planet Earth.”
Caleb raised his hand. Lord Bigsley was delighted to see this.
“Ahhh, yes, yes, I see that this has piqued your interest my friend.” The governor nodded for Caleb to ask his question.
Caleb paused and seemed unsure of what to say, but then Matt spoke up, “Why are we off-limits?”
“Yes,” Caleb said, giving Matt a look as though he stole something, “that’s what I was wondering, too.”
“That is an excellent question,” the governor said sitting back a bit, and smiling at Matt, “but if you thought about it I think you would see that you already know the answer. Let me ask you a question. What is the most tragic thing that ever happened in the history of your planet?”
Matt spoke up again. “The two world wars? We had that in history this year.”
“The Great Flood of Noah’s time,” Josie said. “The whole world was covered with water; everything was destroyed. No one survived except Noah and his family. That sounds pretty tragic to me.”
Lord Bigsley nodded agreeably. “Indeed that was tragic, but there is something that was far more tragic.”
“The fall of man,” Caleb said in little more than a whisper. More loudly, he explained, “When Adam and Eve sinned. If it hadn’t been for that there would have been no flood and no world wars.”
“Ahhh, there you go.” said Lord Bigsley. “The fall of Earth-man. But I don’t think you fully understand how tragic that single event was. You see, before Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit, a pomegranate I think it was....” a quick look at Amos said he wasn’t sure either, “....while they were enjoying the garden and daily fellowship with the Creator, there were millions of other worlds whose first parents were likewise blessed. But when Adam and Eve ate the fruit and disobeyed, it was not simply that sin entered your world.”
The governor’s expression sombered, and he eyed each one.
“No indeed, the matter is much darker than that. Their sin affected the whole universe. Everything was cursed, not only your planet, but our planet as well. There is not a single world that has not been touched by the curse of Adam’s sin.”
“Eskathoer is a fallen world? Has every world fallen?”
Lord Bigsley mused over Caleb’s question and took a deep breath as he considered how to respond.
“Yes and no,” he began. “Before the first man and woman of your world disobeyed the Creator, all men of all worlds enjoyed fellowship with Him. Life and labor itself were enjoyable. All was perfect peace and harmony. But with Adam’s sin, no longer did we have access to the Creator. And the universe itself changed. Because of that we suffer from many things just as you do. Hunger, cold, disease, and pain. Nature, as in your world, struggles for survival. Things wear out. Plans go awry. Ultimately there is death.”
Oddly, Lord Bigsley smiled.
“Indeed we suffer under the effects of the curse of your first parents’ sin, but things are not as desperate here as in your world. Though the curse of Adam’s sin affected even the remotest planet of the universe, it did not reach the hearts of the inhabitants as it did on Earth.”

The Pelagian would probably rejoice at this point, but I must remind him, this is speculative fiction, and it’s not the earthling’s heart Lord Bigsley is talking about. However, if God did create other worlds, and made other beings in his image, we would have to ask the question, How does the fall of man affect them seeing that the whole creation groans (Rom 8:22)? The novel is in some sense an answer to that question. But in doing that, it points back to home, our world, and its tragic predicament – not only the physical world, but the condition of the inner man in all of us.

This is why tragedy is so commonplace. Only because of God’s grace (both saving and common) is this world not a literal hell on earth, and there is much that is sweet about it.

Which leads us to the next point. This world may be a Tragedy, but it is also a Comedy, in the classic sense. And the most poignant observation is that both comes to pass according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will (Eph 1:11).

We Christian writers seek to create a story-world that is analogous to the real world, even in our speculations of fantasy. At bottom, it is a conflict of good and evil, and because of that there is Comedy and Tragedy.

Now to answer the question posed at the beginning, that is, should our stories be comedies or tragedies as those are defined classically.

If as writers, and especially as Christian writers, we want to be true to what really goes on in the world, I think we must include both, but always from a Christian world-view. That world-view ultimately is based on the blessing and cursing of God – blessing for the repentant sinner, cursing for all the rest. But we must be careful, because such blessing and cursing is experienced in this world by both saint and sinner temporally and pre-eschatologically. Job is an example of the cursing of the saint in his suffering from the curse upon Adam and the world in Genesis 1. Job is a tragedy. But it is also a Comedy – blessing came in the end.

Comedy and Tragedy are not merely acceptable motifs, but they are the only motifs for the Christian writer seeing that they are more or less synonymous with the themes of good and evil. As Christian writers we must keep in mind that there is purpose behind both tragedy and comedy, and it is our job to develop the story along those lines and to ensure that God, whose purpose it is, is glorified in it.

[2]Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality- namely, Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Song.” (Poetics VI.4)


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