We Know How the Story Ends—An Exploration of Narrative in Film Part 3: Death in the Christian Narrative

Here now is part 3 of "We Know How the Story Ends—An Exploration of Narrative in Film," dealing with 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Christian narrative's response to death. 

You can find Part 1 on Romantic Comedies here and 
part 2 on the work of Quentin Tarantino here.

And here is a link to the podcast referenced in part 1:

Can We Still Be Friends Episode 8: Quentin Tarantino

We Know How the Story Ends—Part 3: 
The Christian Narrative

However, a better option than these two extremes is—for lack of a better title— the Christian Story; a story of God who became man and who is our Savior; who lived and died and came to live again.  The Christian Story evades the doppelganger clichés of sentimentality and unrelenting depravity.  It fully comes to terms with death, which to the Christian means fully accepting and living with its reality, while at the same time denying its finality.  Although our stories will often end in death, death will never be their end, for to Christians death is penultimate.  Essentially they will stare death in the face and remain unafraid.  The characters of our stories may shake and retreat in fear of death, but the stories themselves will deny death's power, even while paying it respect.  

Christian stories will always contain two elements: Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, and in true Christian stories Sunday always comes, even if it is only hinted at through unfulfilled expectation.  To end a story on Good Friday without at least hinting at Resurrection Sunday is to the Christian an untrue and incomplete story.  It simply is not realistic.  In this sense then, even a sentimental film like 13 Going on 30 is a far more “Christian” narrative than any of Tarantino’s films that portray the depravity of reality.*  Whereas Jenna Rink stares her depravity in the face and so chooses to die to her corrupted desires a la Paul’s description of our new life in Christ in Romans chapters 6-8, Tarantino’s characters rarely come to even the hint of a realization of their depraved state. In Kill Bill The Bride continually find herself in a place of utter sorrow and grief, but note how this never effects change in her, it only motivates her to kill again and again until she can exact full justice for the wrongs done to her. Thus, she is no better than her tormenters.

The sole narrative archetype for Christian stories is Christ’s own story, one that refused to end the way we thought or expected it to end, that is, in either tragedy or undiminished happiness.  Through the death and resurrection of Christ we know that “Christian existence is not merely pretty; the beauty of holiness is not without pathos.  Yet the wisdom implied in beauty sees that even suffering has a place, or rather a time, within the broader drama of redemption.”When we take into account Augustine’s quote about Christ, that “He hung therefore on the cross deformed, but his deformity is our beauty,” we come to terms with the fact that our Story centers on death, to be specific, one death in particular.  This death, however, echoes the coming reign of Christ when death shall be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:24-28).  Christ’s death signals the end of death, and therefore any death that appears in a Christian Story must take Christ’s work into account.  Therefore even when our stories acknowledge the “negatives of existence,” or they give a protesting “No” to the corrupted order of this present world, “the confession is that God’s “No” yields its true meaning only in the light of his “Yes”, his unconditional love towards creation, a “Yes” which has found its supreme enactment in the resurrection of Christ from the dead.”2 In Christ’s resurrection we are also “reminded that redemption not only achieves the exposure and rejection of evil, but the transformation of that which has been distorted, a renewal of what is disordered.”

Our stories, therefore, should hope to exemplify the same eschatological transformation Christ is bringing to the world.  As storytellers, we have a “redemptive responsibility” “to fashion a new order out of disorder”; to create art that takes “the form of a re-creation” where “something new is made in such a way that there is also a making up of that which is lacking”. By fashioning stories this way we share in the new order of redeemed creation by being ourselves a part of redeemed creation. This is a great responsibility, for by pointing to the new creation we must also fully address this world’s present disorder.  Just as our legacy in Christ is to be glorified with him as heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:14-17, Phil. 3:20-21, Col. 3:4, 1 Jn. 3:1-2) so must we also “follow where the man from Nazareth led, through all the twists and crannies and depths of the finite.”3 Theologian Jeremy Begbie is right in claiming that “the artist cannot pass lightly over the disorder of the creation without being guilty of colossal self-deception and becoming utterly irrelevant to the needs of a broken and torn world.”
Again, the way then to look this broken world in the face through our narratives is to first look at the perplexing death of Christ.  Here we have a character that is both compelling and confusing.  He did not act as expected, to either the ancient or modern mind.  When it looked like Jesus was going to acknowledge his family, he rejected them and when it seemed like he was going to condemn a promiscuous women, he absolves her.  In the same way, his death was equally perplexing, an event that appeared needless and avoidable, for who would willingly instigate their own demise?  What is even more bizarre is this man proved who he said he was by fulfilling the ridiculous claims he made of himself. 

Our stories then, need to be just as perplexing, with characters who are moving targets that cannot be pinned-down with vague generalizations.  These stories will have beautifully perplexing endings where the tragedy of death leads to new life, where the ending might resolve, giving a sense of completion, but yet refuses to resolve as one expects.  There will be death and life held together in tension, at once rejoiced and mourned over.  Our stories will differ from the supposedly “realistic” stories that are really only a mask for cynicism, for the storyteller’s responsibility is not merely to hold “before our eyes the violent character of contemporary society.”  Instead, Christian Stories take “for its final ‘realistic’ reference-point the raising of the crucified Son of God from the dead,” and our stories “will inevitably resound with an inner joy, even though it may only be a joy won through despair.”The Christian rejoices in a future hope, knowing, to quote John Donne, that “death shall be no more; Death, thou shall die.” This is not escapism, an idealistic naivetè for an eternal hedonistic utopia, but the proper looking forward to the world as it will one day be, when Christ comes and “death shall be no more”.

Perhaps Tarantino was too easy of a target.  Perhaps it would be better to look at stories that have much more at stake; stories that in many senses are being told better than Christian Stories.  A prime example is Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Using limited dialogue and stunning visual imagery, this film manages to create a myth which suggests humanity’s origins and thus a replacement of the Christian Story as the dominant narrative of our culture.  This work is not a fiction; it is the religion of our time.  Working in the vaccum created by the death of God, Kubrick and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke developed a story that gives us the only plausible answer to the question of where we came from other than the inscrutable absurdity of an impenetrable sublime (that is, a God-less universe).  Since God has long since been taken out of the picture in Kubrick's and Clarke's universe, space aliens are left to fill the void.  Represented by a black monolith, these aliens, according to the film, are responsible for causing our species to evolve. Using some vaguely shown extra-sensory means projecting from the monolith, we are shown how they taught us in the distant past to kill our food, defend our territories, and, as seen at the end of the film, to reach the next stage of our human progression.  

In many ways Kubrick’s film parallels the Christian Story, a fact that raises some serious concerns about Kubrick’s and Clarke’s narrative.  Ironically, in 2001, humanity’s greatest achievement was their greatest failing, for the beginning of the film depicts the ape-men evolving into present day humanity by simultaneously learning how to kill for their food and kill their fellow ape-men.  How can we rejoice that this evolutionary milestone in our history was just as much the moment of our demise?  In Christianity this event is signified as our fall from grace, but in 2001 it is the inauguration of our advancement as a species.  

The very second we attained more knowledge and power—signified in the film by the use of bones as a weapon and tool—was also the very second we became corrupted by it.  Kubrick’s vision of our history takes up a home today in his cinematic offspring like Paul Thomas Anderson, who, in his 2007 film There Will Be Blood, depicts his protagonist beating to death his rival with a bowling pin in the final scene that chillingly recalls the ape-men’s moment-of-discovery scene at the beginning of 2001.  What these stories are telling us is that just as we took up arms against each other in the beginning, so we are still destroying each other to this very day.  This narrative is flawed to its core, for it has ontologized violence.  

At the end of 2001 we see the “Star-Child”, the supposed first generation of the new man, the next stage in our evolutionary progression.  And even though 2001 ends very optimistically, with our hope for the future fixed on the “Star-Child”, nothing in the story signals that the present evolution of our species will be any less violent than our previous evolutions.  The tragedy in this ending is that Kubrick has missed the inauguration of the true “Star-Child”, which is the resurrected Christ, the first born of the new race of humanity.  Jesus is the new way to be human.  He is the firstborn over all creation, the first fruits of the resurrection of the dead (Colossians 1:15, 1 Corinthians 15:20-21).  Our species need not waste any hope in a further stage of evolution, but should instead expect the coming of our Savior who will make all things new.  We do not need a better model of ourselves; we need entirely new selves.  Instead of cold, impersonal aliens directing our destiny, we have the incarnate Christ who in his resurrected spiritual body testifies to our life to come in him and that death is not final.
The ultimate tragedy of 2001 is that a story has been told so well that is ultimately so false.  The hand of God at work in history has been denied, replaced instead by some seemingly benevolent extra-terrestrial benefactors.  I do not blame Kubrick and Clarke, but only mourn the fact that something so beautiful is a lie.  More than that, the existence of such films as 2001 should act as a clarion call for Christians to learn the discipline of telling stories well, so that ultimately the myths of these films will seem trite and grossly incompetent.  

We must speak of a world filled not with alien-overseers but with the almighty and ever-present God who brings life to, cares for, and redeems his creation.  The good news is not that we are evolving to something greater but that we already have been and yet one day will be made entirely new, and this not of our own effort but as a pure gift from God.  If anything, Christian stories must make clear that it is human effort that has led to death.  We must expose the lie that the human spirit will prevail, that we are progressing onward to a bright future.  No, we are decaying; our sweater is unraveling and we were the ones who first pulled the string.  No, the human spirit will not triumph but only the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father.  This, in humility and with great care, is what our stories must bear witness to.

Read on in "We Know How the Story Ends"
Part 1 on Romantic Comedies and 
Part 2 on the work of Quentin Tarantino.


*Out of all his films, none points more to the possibility of the redemption and transformation of its characters than Pulp Fiction (and perhaps Jackie Brown), but looking back this film seems to be a strange anomaly, as Tarantion cannot seem to shake the bloodlust of his revenge stories out of his mind. _________________________________________________________________


1 Vanhoozer, Kevin J. "Praising in Song: Beauty and the Arts." In The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, edited by Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells. Blackwell Companions to Religion. (Malden, Massachussets: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 119, and next two quotes as well, 118, 115.

2 Begbie, Jeremy S. Voicing Creations Praise: Towards a Theology of the Arts. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1991),next 3 quotes 214, 212, 213.

3 Harned, David Bailey. In Begbie (1991), 213.

4 Begbie, 214

5 Donne, John. "Holy Sonnet 10." In The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Sixteenth Century the Early Seventeenth Century, vol. Vol. 1B, edited by George M. Logan, 1270. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000). First published 1633.

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1 comment:

Pam Richards said...

Thoughtful series, Christopher.
I like your conclusions. Thanks for the inspiration!