I think I’m ready to come out and say it. I don’t like stories with happy endings. If you know me, you know I love stories. I really enjoy novels, and movies, and even well-done television series. I have have argued for the indispensable value of stories and defended fiction in many places. Students of the Bible and pastors especially must embrace and enjoy good stories. Stories train us to understand the narrative of the Bible. They stretch our imagination in all kinds of helpful ways. They allow us to live out other people’s lives, to sympathize with other sinners to see and appreciate God’s creation at different levels and from different angles. Stories are good for us.
But I’ve gotten to the place where I’m bored with stories that have happy endings. I don’t mean that you have to agree with me, or that you can’t enjoy them, and I may come back around and find some enjoyment in them some day. Yet for now I’ve come to the conclusion that most of today’s stories that have happy endings are false stories. They don’t picture the world the way it really is. They don’t properly account for the wickedness and the depravity of man. They don’t deal with the depth or the width or the height of God’s mercies because mercy in these stories, when it comes, is trite. Cheap grace is easy and light. It’s never painful, and never demands anything of anyone.
So most happy endings today are not realistic. They give the impression that everything is going to be okay, no matter what. The couple meets, falls in love, goes through some misunderstanding, deal with it in some clever little way, and then that’s the story. Maybe they marry. Maybe they don’t. But they live happily ever after. All the rest is unimportant details. All that is important is they got together, right? Wrong. That is intolerably boring. Because the real story is that no one lives happily ever after. If this is a real couple, they are going to have children who disappoint them. They are going to have financial trouble. They are going to lose their parents. They are going to gain and lose friends. They are going to get sick. One of them is going to die before the other one. That’s where the real stories are. But you tell those stories and someone is bound to say – ooh it’s so depressing, it’s so dark. Yes. Exactly.
I’m speaking generally here and I know that we can probably name dozens of exceptions, but more often than not, it seems that happy endings fail to confront the darkness. While we like to talk about the beauty of the earth and heavens, and all the glorious things God has gifted man to do artistically and culturally, and while we rightly appreciate and give thanks to God for beauty, we can’t forget that we still live in a world full of ugly. We find great delight in the backdrop of the mountains and the stars and the sunsets and the arias and poems and sculptures, but in the foreground we daily witness the heart-breaking cruelty and wickedness of men and we see all the ways that the creation has been twisted and bent by sin. Because even though the heavens declare the glory of God, men do not glorify him as God, nor are they thankful, but become futile in their thoughts and their foolish hearts are darkened. They exchange the truth for a lie.
Even though the darkness is all around us, our popular stories, especially those written for an Evangelical audience, are often nothing more than a flighty, witless escape from the darkness. They avoid the darkness rather than confronting it. Or perhaps at best they are but a momentary distraction from the darkness. It often feels as if Hallmark is writing all the stories.
Now, I should say on the other extreme you have those who don’t confront the darkness, but just stand with mouths gaping at the darkness in an almost pornographic fashion. The ugly reality of human depravity and the depths of human suffering are simply there for amusement or titillation. There are certain directors in Hollywood who just want to show you one ugly thing after another with no real purpose. But neither they, nor the Hallmark writers get the darkness right. The darkness is not to be ignored, but neither are we to be voyeurs. Rather, we are called to go through it. Great stories push you through the darkness, so that any happiness on the other side comes at great expense, usually with some loss along the way.
The happy endings I object to get to the happiness cheaply. You cannot tell a story without some measure of tension or conflict, but what ever conflict is presented in cheap stories is light and easily dispatched. In just about all of the Disney animated movies, the bad guy always dies by some twist that wasn’t entirely the good guy’s fault. He falls off a cliff. Then it stops raining and the the sun comes out. While in reality, you have to learn to live with your enemies and live with the discomfort and the awkwardness that some people bring. You don’t get to throw all the wicked people or everyone who disagrees with you off a cliff. We are most edified by stories which demonstrate how we get to happiness through sacrifice and change and maturity and loss and death to self.
Another reason that most happy endings are boring is because they get there without the gospel. And I’m not suggesting that there has to be a conversion chapter in a book, or an altar call at the end of the film. But I would like to see some greatness achieved by something other than a “triumph of the human spirit” and the idea that you can do anything “when you believe in yourself.” Every few years a film comes along about a white person teaching in an inner city school. They inspire their students to be diligent, and work hard, and be their own unique people. Well I certainly don’t have anything against hard work, but believing in yourself, or being all you can be, is not what changes schools, or cities, or homes. If a story gets to a happy place without the gospel – without death and resurrection – without some form of repentance and transformation through something other power than the strength of the character’s own will, if it gets there without a redeemer, a deliverer, then it’s just a bad story.
Now when I said I do not like stories with happy endings, I know some of you immediately thought – “You don’t like the gospel? It has a happy ending!” Right, and that is exactly the kind of happy story that all happy stories should imitate. But when you tell it, and think on it, it sounds a lot like a dark story. It sounds like what some people might call a depressing story. It is a story that deals with the darkness head on. Jesus doesn’t avoid the demons and the downcast and the dregs. He goes through Hell itself to get to the resurrection. The resurrection doesn’t come cheaply, and even after the resurrection we aren’t left with a “happy ever after” scenario. “Happily ever after” doesn’t accurately summarize the outgrowth of the kingdom from the Resurrection to today and into the age to come. The church is still pushing back the darkness, still confronting it.
Here’s why all of this is important. We and our children are shaped by our stories. If all we expose ourselves to is stories that ignore or distract us from the darkness, and if we live constantly in a sentimental fantasy realm where problems are solved effortlessly then we will start to lose a grip on the reality and the seriousness of sin. Great stories which expose the realities of the human condition and poke around in our own failures keep our eyes open to the evil present all around us.
Remember that important passage in Ephesians: For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord, Walk as children of the light, finding out what is acceptable to the Lord, and have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of those things which are done by them in secret. But all things that are exposed are made manifest by the light, for whatever makes manifest is light. Therefore he says, Awake you who sleep, Arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.
You see there that we are commanded to expose the darkness, to shine the light into it, to show it for what it is. But I’m afraid that our eyes have adjusted to the darkness. We think it is normal to see the way we see and look at things the way we view them. In fact, almost everyone in our society would agree that we are living in the most advanced, most enlightened, brightest time in the history of the world. How can you talk about darkness when we have electricity, and cable, and the internet, and smart phones and fantasy football?
Confronting and exposing the darkness though, reveals to us that this is not an enlightened time we live in. This is a benighted time. We may be a hundred or more years into another dark ages. While there’s more information flying around than ever before, never in the history of Western civilization it seems has real learning and wisdom been so devalued. Though we have access to more information than our ancestors, it all goes away when the power goes out or the batteries die. This is not an enlightened age. This is a day of ignorance and darkness and illiteracy and superstition.
While we have some great Christian men today, great scholars who are doing some incredibly good work, I can’t help but feel that we are living in “in-between times.” The Reformation was great, and there’s something better coming in the future, but right now, we are just trying to keep the flame alive in the darkness. Our present work is to stoke the coals to keep the fire of Biblical literacy burning, with the expectation that one day God will see fit to stir up the nations in revival and that when He does He will find some of our descendants among the faithful remnant.
So I want stories that help me think about how to address the darkness, to inspire me to actually do something about the darkness. I want to somehow shine some light to dispel it. I want badly to come out from the darkness, to recognize it, confront it, to not ignore it, or get used to it, but to embody Paul’s charge in that Ephesians passage, – See then that you walk circumspectly not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time because the days are evil. A steady diet of trite songs, cheap stories and box office drivel don’t help us do that.