Yesterday I was reading Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes while my son sat across the table munching away on a late breakfast. It’s a magnificent book that tracks the journey of an African girl who gets taken from her home, sold into slavery, and spends the bulk of her lifetime in conditions of appalling cruelty and inhumanity a world away from her home. It is a beautifully told tale of an incredibly strong, courageous, and good woman, but it is also a story of unspeakable suffering, depravity, and loss. It is a story that does not shrink from laying bare the evil of which human beings are capable.
“What’s that book about?” N. asked me, as he inspected his bowl of Cheerios. I told him that there was once a time when human beings of one colour treated human beings of another colour worse than animals, about how they bought and sold them like property, about how human beings find it easy to judge others based on external appearances, and about the great sadness and suffering this caused and causes for so many people. N. looked at me quizzically but didn’t say anything. “It’s pretty sad isn’t it?” I asked him, hoping to gain a bit of a window into how an eight year-old brain processes such things. He nodded and then had this question for me: “So why do you read about it?”
N.’s question caught me off guard and I’ve been thinking about it off and on for the last day or so. I thought about it last night as we watched Revolutionary Road—another sad story about the collapse of dreams and relationships, another story with no happy ending. I thought about it again this morning as I finished The Book of Negroes. Why do we read/watch sad stories? Why do I? In a world with more than enough tragedy, heartache, and pain why choose to listen to stories with no happy endings? Why not simply extract whatever pleasure, humour, and happiness we can from our stories as move through the ambiguous mixture of good and evil that colours our days?
Well there are obviously many good answers to my son’s question about why we listen to sad stories. We listen so we don’t forget those who have suffered. We listen because understanding evil—especially through the eyes and ears of those who experience it firsthand—is necessary in order to prevent it in the future. We listen because we want to understand and experience life honestly and realistically. These are just a few of the many reasons we would listen to sad stories that come to mind.
But that’s not the main reason I read sad stories. While I think all of the reasons above (and others, no doubt) are perfectly legitimate and admirable, the main reason I gravitate toward sad stories is because they serve as both a reminder and a promise. Sad stories remind me that despite the ease and comfort of my life thus far, this world is not a safe or comfortable place for so many of my brothers and sisters on this planet. Sad stories remind me that though I live in a privileged little corner of creation, there are many areas where evil and injustice run rampant and that the God I serve wants to see shalom in these places every bit as much as he does in Canada. Sad stories remind me of my calling as a follower of Jesus to be a part, however small, of God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven and of how often I fail to do what I ought to do. Sad stories remind me that I not a detached observer of evil; they uncover the dark shadows within myself that I try to ignore; they reveal how the line between good and evil really does, as Solzhenitsyn famously said, run right down the middle of the human heart.
But sad stories speak of a promise as well—the promise that the Lord of Creation will not forever abandon us to our dark ways and that a bigger and better story is being written and that this story can and does break into our sad stories. Ultimately the promise is that all the sad stories we read and watch and hear and live through—all the grief and pain and tragedy we experience and contribute to—will one day be finally healed and find their place in the big story of redemption in which all of God’s children live and move and have their being.
The big story does have a happy ending, but like all the little stories that are a part of it, there is sadness and pain as well. The Storyteller himself has suffered. The happy ending does not come without a cost either for us or for the Storyteller. Sad stories, it seems, are a non-negotiable part of the package. There is no way to get to the happy ending without finding our way through them.
Of course the ultimate happy ending of our sad stories is yet to come. And while we wait for the Storyteller to make his way to the final chapter, we will continue to have our sad stories—stories of slaves being bought and sold and mistreated, of friends getting cancer, of dreams withering, of relationships dying, of faith, hope, and love faltering. And we will continue to need to hear these sad stories, to learn from them, to help each other through them, and to offer them up to the only one who can make something good and beautiful out of them, to the one who is faithful to his creation, to the one who will, ultimately, do what is just and right with all of our sad stories.
excellent post Ryan
As I write this I am sitting out on my deck watching/listening to a thunderstorm roll in. I am nervous to let my 16 year old drive out in this impending storm. Beside me neighbors are scrambling to take their long planned birthday party inside (for a woman who might die tomorrow). And yesterday I talked to a dryland farmer who couldn’t be more pleased at the forecast. I am reminded that from so many varied perspectives the circumstances of life leave us with such a varied response. That’s where the idea of ‘happy endings’ starts to churn inside me. Is it my idea of happy ending that is coming? And why does it the ‘happy’ part have to happen in the end? Maybe if I just changed my idea of what happy was…Then again, I’d never wish suffering and injustice on anyone – – so maybe I’m stuck…but I have to admit the lightening is pretty cool…
Thanks Dale. I think the question of whose definition of “happy” gets to describe our ending is always one worth asking, but I think there is enough common ground to go on. The biblical concept of shalom seems like a fairly broad and capacious term to me, encompassing peace, wholeness, harmony, justice, etc. I don’t think our lack of precise knowledge about exactly how our ending will be happy ought to dull our longing for it in any way. In the end, our hope is grounded in God’s fidelity to what he has made and to his character not in a specific state of affairs that must come about.
I also appreciate the warning about pushing all the “happy stuff” to the end. I think this can be (and has been) used as an excuse for not bothering to do anything to change the present. Obviously I would not go in this direction. I think Christians are called to live “proleptically” (to use a fancy theological word I learned at Regent!)—to live now, according to what we believe will one day be a reality. Whatever we believe is our destiny as human beings ought to inform how we live in the present.
Thanks for this.
I wasn’t even necessarily talking about ‘the beyond’. It is just interesting for how we say to people who have just lost a close friend or relative – “Things will get better”. The better stuff is always seems designed for later on. The better ‘stuff’ seems deferred to a time when it is not as urgently needed and it is held out as the balm for what ails us in the present. Maybe that is how it should be but I just find it interesting…
Sorry about that last comment I hit submit before I should have…;)
I wasn’t even necessarily talking about ‘the beyond’. It is just interesting how we say to people who have just lost a close friend or relative – “Things will get better”. The better stuff always seems designed for later on. The better ’stuff’ seems deferred to a time when it is not as urgently needed and it is held out as the balm for what ails us in the present. Maybe that is how it should be…
Great post Ryan. It made me think of some of my favorite music… music that introduces a dissonance in the melody and then leaves the listener in anticipation of the dissonance being made harmonious once more. Maybe similar to what you’re talking about (sad stories – musical dissonance)?
Thank you Jessica. Very nice (and accurate) analogy.
“The big story does have a happy ending…” Maybe, according to some parts of the Bible. I think it is also important to note that some parts of the Bible do not offer the same hope of everything being set right in the end.
Ecclesiastes 3:19-20 For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust.
But man dies, and is laid low;
man breathes his last, and where is he?
As waters fail from a lake,
and a river wastes away and dries up,
so man lies down and rises not again;
till the heavens are no more he will not awake,
or be aroused out of his sleep.
Psalm 146:3-4 Do not trust in princes, In mortal man, in whom there is no salvation. His spirit departs, he returns to the earth;
In that very day his thoughts perish.
As a Christian, I think all parts of Scripture must be read through the lens of Jesus Christ and how he represents the turning point in the story of the world and the means by which our ultimate hope is secured. There is certainly a discernible “concretization” of hope that can be traced from the earlier parts of the story to the later ones, but I think Jesus changes how earlier parts of the story are best read and understood.
Having said that, I don’t think that hope for a happy ending is absent in the OT. To cite just one example, Job himself seems to have a fairly unshakable hope in the character of God—and this comes before his fortunes are restored:
Awesome post. Aristotle in his Poetics mentions that tragedies should be based on real events. This allows the viewer, reader, etc. to understand what can happen in reality. Maybe a possible answer here, as he might have been hinting at, is that we are attracted to sad or tragic tales because it allows to to experience a reality that we know can be true based on what we find within ourselves. If we know what occurs in a tale is possible we can relate to that tale much easier.
As for the happy ending, does it really matter? As you suggested Ryan it takes away from the now. Maybe we just want – or maybe even need – the happy ending to makes us feel better about what has happened or is happening.
Thanks Tyler. I think Aristotle is certainly correct about the pedagogical value of tragedy, but I wonder if being able to relate to a reality or know that it is possible is enough. It seems to me that we need more than just clear-sighted self-knowledge or the ability to relate to tragedy; we need a vision for overcoming tragedy. We need hope. In that sense, I suppose, I think the happy ending really does matter.
I don’t think this needs to take away from our obligations to one another and to our world in the present (although for some, it does). Of course it’s also true that the happy ending may just give some a way to feel better about out tragedies or to get through them, but it can also make us more bold and committed in the present as well. It can give us good grounds (existential and intellectual) to resist those elements in our sad stories that are within our power to change.
I have not read this book, only the reviews at Amazon.
My impression from the reviews is that her life was heroic. The courage and quest for freedom represented by her life stands against the sadness of life.
That narrative is one that an existentialist or, perhaps, even a liberationist can identify with. That implies that the book was written for readers in the middle class who do not buy into the normal middle class life, but instead have other aims in life, spiritual aims, perhaps, heroic aims for sure.
As much as my own leanings in theology are towards existentialism, I hear a different narrative in Christian and Hebrew scriptures. I don’t think the message of scripture is to live heroically. It is, instead, to wait for God, to anticipate the kingdom, something that God, not humanity, will bring about. It is only through recycling that narrative, changing it, that we can see heroism as an expression of faith. Passages like an anonymous reader posted here are helpful to this recycling process.
The message of Scripture may not be to live heroically, but it certainly isn’t to live passively either. I agree that the theme of “waiting” on God is present throughout, but many of the very people who were instrumental in abolishing the slave trade that led to so much suffering for the protagonist in Hill’s book were Christians who based their objections upon the inherent dignity of all human life that they saw in Scripture.
Yes, waiting for God in scripture is not passivity in the face of injustice and cruelty.
Although the theology that I inherited from my parents and still embrace is founded in a tragic view of life in which a heroic response lies at the core of human dignity and freedom, I think that scriptures represent a different view of life. I think we have recycled the Hebraic or Christian view and have changed it.
Most of humanity seems incapable of a heroic response (or does not see it as the solution.) Most, as Thoreau put it, respond with “quiet desperation.” His expression is, of course, that of one who sees life as tragedy and responds heroically.
There are other ways to see life, humanity and human dignity. Other responses, besides acting heroically, make sense within those other ways. The Hebraic and Christian scriptures offer such a way.
I think the Christian abolitionists are interesting. (My impression is that my ancestors were among them.) I think that there is more to their story than concern for human dignity. Edmund Wilson’s book, Patriotic Gore, stands out in my mind for what it revealed about the theology of abolitionists. I think in their minds the South was Edom – a people repugnant to God and his kingdom. No human dignity there.
Yes, human actions and motivations are rarely unambiguously holy and pure. Even in this book, there was a good deal of self-interest involved in the abolition movement. And of course there was no shortage of religious rhetoric from the other side as well. The Bible has certainly proved to be a malleable book throughout history… Still, I don’t think that the religious beliefs of at least some of the abolitionists was merely incidental.
What I wonder about, without reading the book, is whether it is really plausible to present the historical events in a kind of heroic narrative. The heroic narrative seems likely to appeal to a contemporary middle class reader who has some objections to the normal middle class values (which are not heroic.) It seems that it is unlikely to be the narrative of the abolitionists or the slaves.
As for myself, I think about the difference between the heroic narrative and the Biblical narrative, which is not heroic, because a heroic narrative, the existentialist one, figures so much in my life.
I think the narrative of the abolitionists was Biblical, or, at least, more Biblical than the heroic narrative. After all, hatred of Edomites is biblical. I think the allusions to Isaiah in Revelation suggest that Jesus returns drenched in blood because he has just slain the Edomites. Edmund Wilson observed that at the end of the Civil War, Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, wrote that he associated the South with Judah – meaning that the South was being punished for not being faithful to God (by holding slaves) but that hope remained for the South if it would turn back to God. Each side saw its actions in Biblical terms. The North saw the South as Edom. The South saw itself as Judah.
I don’t have quite as cynical a view of the book or its author’s motives (or intended audience). Was he trying to create a heroic figure? Probably. Did heroes such as Aminata Diallo exist during the years of the slave trade? It certainly seems plausible. I don’t see any good reason to rule out the possibility that at least some slaves and abolitionists might have construed their story in this way.
I’m not quite sure what to make of the Edomites bit. Needless to say, I don’t think hatred of Edomites (or any other race) is “biblical.” There are obviously lots of things described in the Bible that I do not consider worthy of moral emulation (nor do I think that they are in the Bible for this reason). The Biblical narrative has certainly proven to be a “flexible” story over the years.
I think you are hearing a cynicism that I am not intending, that I don’t have here. It is not cynical to say that the intended reader is someone in the contemporary middle class who has some objections to normal middle class values.
Do you think of yourself as Biblical? On what basis do you decide what is inspired, or moral, in the Bible and what is not? What is the ultimate authority for your theology?
For example, do you believe the prayers, as in the Psalms, that God will curse the enemies of Israel, such as Edom, are inspired or moral? What do you do with them theologically?
I guess I just have a tendency to resist deconstructions of tragic stories where people suffer so much. That’s not to say that it’s inappropriate or anything, just that I don’t naturally gravitate that way. I suppose I tend to identify too closely with characters I am sympathetic towards; in that head space, I’m not really interested in which audience the author may or may not be targeting or what existential itch he might be trying to scratch. I suppose I’m just a sucker for a good story.
The word “biblical” is another one of those terms that can be made to say any number of things, so I’m not all that eager to latch on to it. Having said that, I do try to live under the authority of Scripture. I think that all of Scripture is “inspired” but that doesn’t mean it is all normative. There are descriptive and prescriptive texts; there are passages that I think must be interpreted differently in light of where the story of God has gone.
Ultimately, I think that all of Scripture must be interpreted through the lens of Jesus Christ, the story’s focal point and the fulfillment of the hope of Israel. So if I read about commands to wipe out Edomites (or Canaanites, or any other “ites”) I put those in the “earlier part of the story” category and look at what Jesus says: Love your enemies, pray for them. If I read an imprecatory Psalm, I consider it to be an “inspired” example of someone honestly bringing their rage before God in prayer. Maybe that’s not a very sophisticated hermeneutic, but it’s the one I try to employ.
I sympathize with your resistance to deconstructing tragic stories. I have the same resistance, even though I proposed it here. My own existentialist narrative is a tragic narrative. It is particularly hard to touch suffering with a deconstruction probe.
A theology professor once offered the idea that evangelical theology begins with the Bible, liberal theology with human experience and neo-orthodoxy with Christ. It is a useful heuristic device, but I think it has its limits. I think another way to look at it is to see that all theologies begin with a crisis. Evangelicalism, neo-orthodoxy and liberalism, for example, all began as reactions to the crisis represented by the enlightenment. If we look at the Bible as theology, or theologies, the crisis on which it is founded was the Babylonian exile. The Bible’s literary antecedents were formed around other crises, which can still be seen (the agricultural revolution, for example, or the Davidic monarchy replacing the older tribal system) but the Babylonian exile is the one that gave shape to the book we know. The New Testament claim that Jesus is the messiah first makes sense in that context. The crisis that led to the New Testament appears to be that Jesus did not return and establish the kingdom in the lives of the apostles as they expected. And, of course, the destruction of the temple in the first century figured into that crisis too.
I think our theologies today have many beginnings – those in the Bible and many others ancient and modern. I think to some extent we can trace our theology to Homer as well as to the Bible, for example, when we see life as a journey or odyssey. I think the existential theology of our day has a particularly strong tie to Homer – life as a heroic event or journey, an inward journey as well as an outward one. Even before existential theology one can see this in western literature and theology, even such famous religious literature and theology as Pilgrim’s Progress.
When I just look at the Bible, I see a different narrative – one in which hatred of Edomites makes sense, even in the New Testament, in spite of the long history of Christian thought that says it does not. I know that this is not part of your theology, nor is it part of mine. I only submit that reading the Bible on its own terms reveals a difference between the theology it contains and ours, a theology that we may even abhor.
Nevertheless, as Christians, and even as Westerners, we still lead lives and see the world in a kind of accordance with the Bible, whether we think of it as having authority or not – a limited accordance, perhaps, but still important.
Ultimately, I don’t think deconstructing our theologies, or the Bible, or narratives about suffering causes harm. It is a way to find reality, or realities, in a pluralistic age. I think something transcendent remains, even though it cannot be named. I know this idea fights with the purity of Derrida’s use of the word deconstruction, but, then, postmodernity, the crisis of his era, is marked by impurity.
I think that even if evangelicals would say that their theology begins with the Bible it begins in some form of crisis as well. At some level, we all begin with human experience—some are just more up front about it than others (and, perhaps, less willing to allow their experience to be reinterpreted in the categories Scripture offers). I’m not sure we can ever get enough distance from ourselves to start somewhere else and even if we could, questions about why we would choose a different starting point would remain. And these would lead us right back to our experience of the world with all of its crises.
Good story how true as we try to help others all we have to do is see our own heart and it’s struggle to do what is right Without the Holy Ghost ( Jesus ) we are all doomed
My superpower is that I feel things in a big way. I can’t take in too many sad stories or I’m not able to function. I don’t watch the news. I only know what’s happening in the world when other people tell me. If I do hear of a particularly sad story or watch a sad movie, sometimes my mind is disturbed and my heart aches for days. I know this all sounds terrible. I could be praying for the world, but I’ve chosen to close my eyes to it. I’m a little too fragile. I’ll have to talk to God about this. 🙂