Saturday, September 8, 2012

A Critique of Generational Narratives

If you've ever seen the play, "Into the Woods," then you're aware of its critique of the "happily ever after" narrative of its previous generation's stories. Of course, the original fairy tales it recast weren't "happily ever after" stories for everyone either, but instead reflected more of what I would consider the reality the Bible sets out for us (i.e., the righteous are rewarded and the wicked are punished). But the modern, positivist recast of those stories left everyone with the idea that life in the here and now ends in the happily ever after, and so created an overrealized eschatology, where the reward was not something gained after this temporal struggle with chaos, but rather something to be found within the imminent grasp of the individual. What the play, "Into the Woods," did, therefore, was to demolish that fairy tale world presented in the first half by giving us a dose of reality in the second. The Butcher's wife who always wanted a child got one, but found herself unhappy, had an adulterous affair with the prince who married Cinderella (who herself was not happy with her marriage), and then committed suicide. Cinderella and the prince got a divorce. The witch, who worked so hard to be forever with her daughter, was rejected. Life ends in unhappiness, and this is the postmodern narrative. In short, there is no happily ever after. In the end, all relationships go sour, the money runs out, and we all die.

So the previous generation fell as easy prey for the prosperity gospel that taught that God wants you to have your best life now, that your life can be a fairy tale, that you can have health, wealth, and happiness in the here and now. When things weren't so great, the previous generation tended to ignore those things, since they did not fit into the narrative they wanted to believe. As an aside, I think this best explains a lot of the previous generations looking away from sexual abuse. Every sitcom ended in resolution and happiness, and so the previous generation just thought, "If I only hold on long enough, everybody will be smiling again before the credits start rolling." Our generation doesn't buy it though. In the end, the death rate is still 100% and the world is an ugly place no matter how much rainbow-colored paint we throw on it. It's becoming increasingly more difficult to ignore that fact as our culture exponentially declines in every way.

Instead, our generation falls for a completely opposite lie. We've swung all the way to the other side on this philosophical pendulum. There is no happily ever after at all. This is true, not just for this life, but for all life (temporal or eternal). We, therefore, resonate with "Into the Woods," and all sorts of stories that end in tragedy or remain unresolved. We wallow in the darkness, in the chaos, in the confusion and futility of life. We read Ecclesiastes as all-encompassing of life, rather than life from the finite and fallen perspective, i.e., the perspective from below. We meet every smiling face with skepticism, every beautiful truth with doubt, every love with distrust. After all, there is no happily ever after, so there can be no everlasting truth, no eternal beauty, no objective hope.

What I want you to see, however, is that neither one of these narratives is true. The Bible presents the temporal world much like the postmodern does, but it presents eternity for God's children much like the previous generation. In essence, it does not have an overrealized eschatology that seeks to grasp eternal joy without suffering in the here and now, but it does have an eschatology that seeks to grasp it in eternity based on the sure promises of God through His Son.

What postmoderns are missing is not only an eternal perspective, but an eternal perspective with God within it. In essence, the postmodern narrative is an atheistic one, where God does not exist as the hero of the story. Instead, there's is an overrealized eschatology, in a way, not of heaven, but of hell. Since heaven cannot be realized here, and hell can be, we should just revel in the hell and chaos that is the now. Hence, they emphasize uncertainty and accommodation toward sin, since absolute truth and holiness cannot be realized here.

The Bible, however, communicates that God has broken into the world through His Son, that we are not left to the atheist's vision of the world, but that the chaos in this world, as horrible and hard as it may be, has been overcome and will be overcome, not in this ever disappearing vapor of existence, but in the world to come, the world without end.

The Scripture, therefore, would critique both narratives. That sense that we get that something is not quite right when a play ends in tragedy is the gospel narrative written in our hearts. We know that it does not ultimately end this way for those who love God. But we also know that this joyful ending, this resolution to this great tragedy, is not one that we will see on this side of the great divide.

Instead, we can choose to live in this mess in light of its end, or in the darkness the mess itself has created. We can have that partial presence of God now through His Son's intercession and with the Holy Spirit's help through His Word, or we can live in the hell that is the postmodern narrative. In this way, the previous generation got it wrong, but it was less wrong than we are. It at least understood that some heaven could be experienced now, and so this gave hope and inspiration in this world. Our generation is without hope if this narrative persists. But there should be three parts to "Into the Woods," not two. The question is, "Which one will you live in?"

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