Many Christian works, or at least those in that genre known as “Christian Fiction,” are happy. Not necessarily comedies in the technical sense, but stories where good happens to good people and bad happens to bad people, and everything is great at the end, hooray! There is much to be said for this kind of work. After all, it is popular, and who can really disagree with what the populous finds enjoyable? (You’re having fun wrong, stop it!)
Some have that heresy so well-called the Health and Wealth doctrine, where anything bad that happens is simply a obstacle, whence, having unconditionally trusted in God, the obstacle is immediately removed and fortune restored. I have yet to see such a work where an obstacle remains permanently as a cross for a faithful character to bear until death. Such a work, dare say, might become a tragedy.
And yet there are so few good tragedies in Christian literature, which would at first seem natural to a religion of hope. After all, Dante’s masterpiece is called the Divine Comedy. When I was younger, having my personal tastes tend to the dark, I disliked most Christian fiction for its very lack of tragedy. But I believe now that the entire emotional palette is stronger, sweet or sour, in the Christian world.
But first, what of non-Christian tragedies?
Pagan tragedies rely on the implacable determinations of Fate. The oracle foretells doom, therefore there must be doom, and the very things that would ward away Fate only serve to further her decree. The stories told this way are fine examples of story-telling: show the coin that will be taken with one hand, and while the audience watches that hand closely snatch it away with the other hand.
But critically, the fates of heroes and gods are Fate. Baldur may be inevitably slain by Loki, but Loki will inevitably be punished for the treachery. In Ragnarok, the gods will die, but so will their foes. Fate may be arbitrary, but she is fair in her own ultimate equation.
This is not sufficient for modern stories, where science has slain Fate and mounted her taxidermied head upon the walls of distaste for coincidence. If the universe is purely mechanical, then the universal machine must be just for justice to prevail. If is not, then what?
The various comsodicies required to explain the ups and downs of human life without anyone at the helm of reality, and the subsequent dissatisfaction, has, I believe, led to the current crop of dark, gritty, “realistic” fiction–but not tragedies. I put “realistic” in quotes, because that primary attribute seems to mean being like other dark, gritty, “realistic” fiction, in turn like others of its pack. An explanation is easy once we have wiped away the amnesia of the modern age: ever since Christianity so forcefully showed the existence of original sin, no one has gotten away with ignoring it. Utopian works are now only popular to the utopianist, and decried as impossible by everyone of a different mindset. Dystopias, on the other hand, are mutually satisfactory, because few disagree that things can’t be terrible. The modern tragedy loses its taste, for what does it matter if Romeo and Juliet are separated when Venice has been conquered by space aliens?
But this is not the only difficulty to modern tragedians.
Consequentialism is the grease behind the modern fiction’s slide into increasing malodorous swamps. A story starts with torturing the villain to save the orphanage, and then the next story by torturing the innocent bystander to save the orphanage, until eventually someone ends up torturing the orphanage to save the villain. Each dark story must one-down the story before it to remain edgy as the edge keeps expanding farther into the darkness. When the innocent are no longer innocent, evil happening to them no longer seems unjust.
But assuming the creator finds the most innocent-ish characters and the most unjust-ish fates to combine, they encounter the third, fatal, difficulty: it cannot go far enough.
The audience, as weary as the endless stream of horrors can make it, must have some reward. But if the world is all there is, then the protagonist (“hero” being too much to ask for) cannot sacrifice everything, lest there be no protagonist left. If he throws himself on the nuclear bomb to stop it with his life, it must save the world. Or missile launch tube must jam, and the protagonist survive. It cannot be that the protagonist dies and the world ends. Some worldly hope must not be lost, or the displeased audience will leave short of being held captive.
But what of Christian Tragedies?
Far from being made impossible by hope, they are only possible because of an extraworldly hope. The hero may sacrifice, and the world still be lost, but both hero and world are not beyond the power of God to restore for the sake of the hero. The Two Trees may be lost, but the Silmarils remain. Indeed, the Christian writer can be all the darker, and grittier, and actually realistic, because the Christian need not pull on the reins of his world so that it does not destroy itself. The longing for absent justice may be left all the stronger, knowing that it will not remain absent forever.
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I have found, at least in Catholic fiction that tragedy serves as a medium for the transmission of Grace. Graham Green was particularly good at it. His ‘The End of the Affair’ and ‘The Power and the Glory’ are examples that readily spring to mind. The tragic circumstances of these two very different novels are suffused with grace which some characters accept and others reject. Accepting the prodding of Providence doesn’t always work out well on earth for Greene’s characters though. They usually come to a ‘sticky end,’ but not without winning their souls.
I have found that Flannery O’Conner (in the few stories I’ve read) does something very similar, though more obscurely. Walker Percy, my favorite Catholic writer, would have us face tragedy, the end of the world even, with our manners intact and a stiff cocktail in hand.
That’s advice I can heartily commend.
Which Christian tragedies did you have in mind when you wrote this?
The biggest example I could think of were J.R.R. Tolkein’s tragedies of middle earth, Beren and Luthien in particular. In more modern literature, the end of the first Odd Thomas book. In actuality, the main (counter)-example I was thinking of while writing this was the web serial Worm, which, despite its darkness, seems to repeatedly shy away from a final hopelessness.