Monthly Archives: July 2011

Tolkien and the Eucatastrophe

Whatever happened to happy endings? All children grow up surrounded by stories that have happy endings. In fact, I remember being confused as I grew older, whenever I would encounter a story that did not have one. Isn’t everything supposed to turn out alright in the end? But when children do grow up, the cruelty of life tells them that there are no happy endings, that such things are, in fact, childish. So many modern stories (especially the critically  cclaimed ones that we are all supposed to read) are gritty and wrathful and sad. Happy endings, we are told, are simply not realistic.

In his essay “On Fairy Stories” J.R.R. Tolkien presents an alternative view. He declares that any ‘fairy story’ (what we would term ‘fantasy’) must have a happy ending to be successful. Further, Tolkien says that happy endings in fact do not deny the horrors of the real world. Indeed, such tragedy and evil “is necessary to the joy of deliverance.” Besides, happy endings are what we all really want anyway.  They deny “universal final defeat and… [give] a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

If tragedy is the highest form of drama, then the fairy story with a happy ending is the polar opposite—yet there is not a literary term that fully expresses this, so Tolkien supplies one: eucatastrophe. Happy endings are probably considered the simplest of endings but Tolkien asserts that pulling off a successful eucatastrophe is actually quite difficult. It requires the storyteller to focus much of his tale around the Turn, which Tolkien considers to be one of the highest forms of literary art: the Turn comes with “a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears.”

The entire story acts as the setting for the Turn and when done well, such a Turn puts all the previous terror and evil in perspective and actually “reflects a glory backwards” to use Tolkien’s wonderful phrase. We see this, of course, in Tolkien’s own The Lord of the Rings, wherein the opponents of Sauron fight on despite inevitable failure. The members of the Fellowship seem to move from defeat to defeat throughout the books. Ultimate defeat would have made their efforts futile, but the destruction of the Ring and casting down of Sauron actually reflects glory back upon even tragedy.

And that is the real key to what happy endings are–in The Lord of the Rings, the eucatastrophe is not the journey to the West, or Sam returning to Bag End. Rather, it is the final defeat of Sauron and the casting down of the dark tower. The eucatastrophe is less about the “happily ever after” than it is the Turn, the moment when evil is routed and good begins to triumph; the moment when the glory begins reflecting backwards. So for Tolkien, the happy ending is less about actual happiness than it is about hope and the final victory of goodness.

The desire for eucatastrophe is a basic part of our humanity. We are always waiting for the Turn to come, for the moment when things are made right.  Whenever tragedy strikes or evil is on display in our world, we ask ourselves, in the words of Sam Gamgee. “is everything sad going to come untrue?”

The Christian answers “yes.”

Indeed, for Tolkien the Gospel is the greatest eucatastrophe of all. It is the Turn that gives us hope that happy endings are possible at all. Imagine discovering that your favorite story was actually true—imagine discovering that there really are lightsabers in a galaxy far, far away. Or imagine actually receiving an invitation in the mail to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Discovering that such things were real would send a thrill up your spine; a sense of joy that something so fantastic could actually be true.

Tolkien says that this is why acknowledging the truth of the Gospel produces such great joy. He writes that “There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.”

We convince ourselves that stories that end in sadness, anger, violence, depression, or hopelessness are the truest and closest to reality. The Gospel tells us that this is wrong. The reason the eucatastrophe is a vital part of literature—and a vital part of our very nature—is that, in the midst of a world that is broken and terrible, it holds out the promise of redemption, healing, and the hope of the Great Turn.

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Bored With Hell

One of the more interesting features of the whole Rob Bell, Love Wins controversy was the fact that everything died down rather quickly. Bell’s promotional video was released, Justin Taylor blogged about it, everyone else blogged about Taylor’s blog, Matthew 18 was thoroughly exegeted, but once Bell’s book actually came out, things seemed to die down pretty quickly.

Now that the actual book-length responses are coming out (the newest of which is Francis Chan’s excellent Erasing Hell), many people seem surprised; “What, you’re still talking about this? Didn’t we already do this thing to death?” I’ve read a few posts pointing out the fact that since blogs effectively reviewed the book before it is even released, the work itself ended up being rather anticlimactic once it hit shelves. Which is understandable and it makes sense that people have quickly lost interest in talking about Bell.

Except that they haven’t, not really. There are, as far as I can tell, two categories of people who suggest that Rob Bell and his ideas are old hat and not really worth talking about anymore. The first category are obviously Bell supporters (or at least advocates of his brand of theology) who are tired of playing defense. And I get that–it’s understandable that they would rather not have to keep answering whether they think Hitler is in heaven. I imagine they are tired of trying to convince people that Bell is teaching perfectly acceptable orthodox Christianity.

The second group bothers me. These are people who seem to think that the battle has been fought and won. Bell was refuted, his ideas demonstrated to be unorthodox, and we don’t need to trouble ourselves with such things any longer.

We could stand to learn from Athanasius, who won the great theological fight of his day. Until he lost it and was exiled. Until he won again and returned in triumph. Until he lost again and was exiled. Until… you get the point. And the point is that we never stop fighting. Not because we love to fight (well, some of us do) but because the fight is never completely won. Now, I am of the opinion that Love Wins actually was refuted pretty decisively, particularly here. But that isn’t the point. If we convince ourselves that a few book reviews mean that we’ve done our job, we lose.

I don’t think that Bell’s book was popular simply because it presented new(ish) ideas and was controversial. I think it gained traction because of two reasons: 1) It is what an enormous number of people want to believe about God. and 2) It is what most of them already believe anyway. These ideas resonate in a very strong way with my generation (and younger) and if we are not careful, it will come to define their views on heaven, hell, and the Gospel.

The issues that Bell has raised are not going away anytime soon and I am concerned that we in the American Church have largely forgotten how to fight theological battles. Do we really fire just one good salvo and pack it in? Or do we really believe that the rejection of doctrines like hell and the exclusivity of Christ (I don’t care how he tries to package it in his book, Bell does reject it) are important enought to oppose?

In the end, the whole thing makes me feel rather sick–Rob Bell was a significant influence on me while I was in college and at my most cynical. Bell taught me to love the Church again and rekindled in me a sense of wonder for God and a hunger for the Word. Reading Love Wins wasn’t surprising, but it did feel like learning that all the awful rumors you’ve heard about a friend are true. I want to believe Bell is being misinterpreted, I want to believe that he is completely orthodox. More than anything, however, I want to preserve the ancient truths of Christianity for the next generation. Doing that means being willing to fight and willing to remember that the battle is never finally won.

So read the books that come out, educate yourself about the positions in question, and be willing to wait until the fighting flares up again. Because when it does, we need to be prepared to respond.


Non-fiction as Narrative

In my opinion, Robert Caro is the greatest biographer of the last hundred years. Maybe longer. His life’s work is his three (soon to be four) volume series, The Years of Lyndon Johnson. When I read through the books a couple of years ago, I realized that I was reading something extraordinary. A famous author once said that she felt a profound sadness when she finished reading The Lord of the Rings, because there was no more of it and she knew that she would never find anything else like it. That sort of sums up my experience with Caro’s books.

I’m writing this for a reason. In an interview with Kurt Vonnegut years ago, Caro talked about the importance of narrative in non-fiction. He said,

“To my mind, the prose in a non-fiction work that’s going to endure has to be of the same quality as the prose in a work of fiction that endures. And I actually tested this out for myself. I read one hunk of Gibbon ‘s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, then I read a part of War and Peace which is a grand historical novel, right, so I figured that’s the closest to Gibbon. So I would read a part of one then apart of the other. I did this all summer. And the writing in Gibbon is at the same level, you know, they don’t read at the same cadences but it’s at the same intensity and level as in War and Peace. I’ve always felt that no one understands why some books of non-fiction endure and some don’t, because there’s not much understanding among many non-fiction writers that the narrative is terribly important.”

You can read the whole interview here.

The really tremendous thing about Caro’s books is the research. But who cares about that if the writing is crummy? If I can’t get through thirty pages of your book, it doesn’t matter what extraordinary quotes you have, or what startling revelations you share–no one will read it and your book will be forgotten. I think that the real tragedy of historical works is not the occasional inaccuracy; it’s that the majority of historians are poor writers. Conveying truth is important, but cultivating a love for truth in others–that’s the real trick.