The ringing of the sound, the death knell, echoes far too frequently. The sound of the sonorous bells roll over the hills and into the valleys again and again. It seems as if we are on the beach and the idea of grief rolls in far too quickly. Right now, it feels like those moments where you are too deep in the ocean, your toes barely scraping the bottom, and the waves pick up pace suddenly, seemingly all too willing to crush you. The waves of this powerful grief keep bearing down on all of us who live on the beach and have nowhere else to run.
I was so tired, so sad, to read of the news from Nice. And Minnesota. And Baghdad. And and and. A friend asked if the world is getting worse or we are just truly seeing. And I think it’s both, for us in the West. Things seem more violent, more angry, more sad, but much of the rest of the world is simply welcoming us to the grind of history. For too long, we’ve thought the depravity of humanity could not touch us in its darkest form. The rest of the world has looked to the West and coveted our wealth, our naiveté. But our exemption has passed. The shadow looms over us, too.
Last night and this morning, I have choked back the tears. My children will grow up in this world. Bloodshed like this may very well be normal for them than it has been for me. The thought makes me so, so sad for them.
Insane Islamic radicals happily, gleefully sow mayhem and terror, using guns and bombs and dump trucks. The response is too reach for weapons in kind and believe that, somehow, we can bomb this violence out of existence, as if it is not a virus floating in the air of centuries of grudges and animosity. Or we, the most educated people of all time, believe we can merely educate our way, ignoring the fact that this violence is reaching new kinds of genius in our day, this information age.
Our politicians in America, our presidential candidates, are two of the most despised presidential nominees of all time. People in both parties have called their own candidates corrupt and liars, at best. One has acted foolishly with sensitive information, somehow escaping these specific charges, amongst many other moral charges that have been leveled against her. That candidate, somehow, seems more sane than the other. An orange demagogue who boasts in immorality, aims for war crimes, swears to defend religious freedom while proposing a religious test for being able to stay in this country; the worst kind of fool in the book of Proverbs: a loud one. And one that many Christians are clinging to in hope. “Dumpster fire” really is the best description. One of these two will be the next “leader of the free world” while everything burns down, at home and abroad.
I’ll be honest and say that the body count at home and abroad is more than unsettling and grievous. It is a challenge to people of faith. How can it not be? The natural question is, “Where is God?” If God is real and he is good, then where is he? How long will violence win? How long will the blood flow? Because, let’s be honest, this feels worse (and in some ways for us, IS worse) than anything before, but history is full of bloody times. More bloody than this. No one is stacking up heads by the city gates in numbers like we have seen in times past. But we’re talking about thousands of years of destruction. One of the most preposterous articles of faith these days is the near-universal belief that humans are basically good. We have thousands of years of data that very loudly says, “HAHAHA… no.” So many positive things in the human story, but bloodshed is the near universal, ubiquitous plot theme. Evil runs rampant through our veins. Evil is everywhere.
And so where is God? It’s natural to ask this question. The question shakes us. Of course it does. How can you not hear doubt scoffing in the face of all the funerals?
It’s times like this, questions like these, that make me more thankful for Lord of the Rings than ever before. Yes. Hobbits.
Lord of the Rings was meant to be read as one large book. I know that most people read them as three overly long movies. But it’s a book. It’s a long, wonderful book. Tolkien is devoted to mythology and myth-making, so the book can seem full off way too much detail. I have to be honest and tell you that, though he loved them, I’m often prone to skim through the songs. There’s too many songs!
But the weight of all of that helps the reader to feel the weight of the plight of Middle Earth. The forces of Mount Doom are unconquerably large. The position of Men, Elves, and Dwarves is hopelessly compromised. Even the return of human royalty is not enough. The forces of good are hopelessly outnumbered. A noble death is all that’s left. And you can read the weight of depression as you move through the book. Darkness is not brushed over. It is meditated on. There is a blackness in Lord of the Rings that drags your soul down with it. Hope is kept alive as a living coal, but it is set against a very dark night.
Everything turns on the fulfillment of an impossible question: destroy the One Ring. Destroy it in the very heart of evil. Avoid succumbing to its power and throw it into the only place hot enough to melt it down. And tiny, forgotten, blundering, weak Hobbits are the bearer of the task. Ultimately, Frodo cannot resist the power of the ring. He, himself, in the face of final victory, ultimately bows to the power of evil and decides to turn around and keep power for himself. It is only the ravenous hunger of evil itself that free Frodo as the ring is literally bitten off of his hand and tumbles into Mount Doom. Frodo and Sam wait to die at the completion of their task when unforeseen rescue descends on them. Only at the last of Lord of the Rings does the sun rise in full. It is unexpected deliverance.
I feel as if I am in the middle of Lord of the Rings. Human powers on “my” side tell us we should use the ring of power for our own ends, even if it is wedded to evil. The forces of darkness are clearly everywhere and murderous in intent but difficult to pin down until it’s too late. At this point in our collective story, do we have some reason to believe that hope might yet win out? Frankly, I find the solutions of more warfare or more education or more (undefined) love to be ludicrous, a mockery of the evil around us. Our longings seem unable to be fulfilled, empty dreams.
And for that reason, I can’t get away from Jesus. Jesus’ story is the only one that makes sense of both what we hate about what we see and the longing we have for something better. Generic “hope” and “change” and “love” leave us empty. Look at the despair of Bernie Sanders’ supporters who pinned their hopes on his revolution and cannot understand his pragmatic support of the woman he derided as being unfit for the office. All the hope tied into that one plane: dashed. And we can go round and round and point out the weaker, false hopes. They all day, they all fail. Yet somewhere in our guts is a longing, a knowing that things should not be as they are.
And Jesus is the only one that explains it all. Yes, I am “arrogant” and “foolish” enough to claim that Christianity is different from and better than every other religion (and non-religion) in the world. Not because our story is cleaner or our people smarter. Simply by virtue of Jesus himself. I cannot get around his story. His own story is that he goes into the deepest of despairs, walks willingly into the grave of all joy. He enters the depression of certain of death with us.
And then, somehow, unexpectedly, he walks out the other side. It is the greatest eucatastrophe in history.
Tolkien, who invented that term “eucatastrophe,” famously said in On Fairy-Stories:
But the ‘consolation’ of fairy-tales has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it. At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite — I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophictale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’, nor ‘fugitive’. In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium [Gospel/good news], giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.
Jesus’ story is the greatest and truest Fairy Story we’ve ever known. I cannot escape from the belief that it is unshakably true, both historically and morally.
So when I look at the body count going up and I see the anger, the mistrust, the fear, the sadness rolling down these hills, I do cry for my children. I do hate that this may be their normal. But I am also reminded to fervently, persistently pull them close and whisper to them the promise of a different story in the world: the story of Hope. I must hold their hands and look them in the eye, though tears may rest on our cheeks, and I have to tell them the truth:
Hope is not dead because Jesus is not dead.
How can we stick around? Jesus asked his followers if they would leave him when things started to go poorly. They looked around at each other and said, “Where else can we go? Only you have the words of life.”
This is precisely how I feel. Where else can we go in the world? Who will be our Savior? Where can we find a better story? Will we give ourselves over to the brutal meaninglessness of the world? Is that all that we are? Avoid the violence until it consumes each and every one of us? Or do we hope for something more because we were meant to hope for something more?
Where else can we go in days like this, except to Jesus? Where else can we go?
In days of death and heartbreak, who else has the words of life? Where else can we find “Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief?”
So we say what we Christians have been saying for two thousand years, the same prayer of hope, of desperation, of confidence: Come, Lord Jesus. Come soon. Come turn the story on its head. Come wipe the tears from our eyes.
Come bring the joyous happy ending, the resolution, the wholeness, the shalom, the relief that all of mankind wants to believe is coming. Come, Lord Jesus. Come soon.