Human Tragedy or Divine Comedy? image

Human Tragedy or Divine Comedy?

I just read Glen Scrivener's marvellous little book Divine Comedy, which is the kind of book you can read in an hour, but will have you thinking for a year, or even a decade. Glen's central question is delightfully simple: is life a tragedy, or a comedy? Is it shaped like a frown, like a Shakespearian tragedy (up in the middle, into prosperity and apparent success, then down into the pit)? Or is it shaped like a smile, like a Shakespearian comedy (down in the middle, as you descend into difficulty and apparent darkness, then up into everlasting joy)? This clever image then sets up a pithy, crisp and witty comparison between secular materialism and Christian hope.

Here’s his very insightful summary of the former:

We are the flotsam of a cosmic explosion, biological survival machines — wet robots — clinging to an insignificant rock, hurtling through a meaningless universe towards eternal extinction. But still, the new flavored latte from Starbucks is incredible. And have you tried hot yoga? And we’re renovating the kitchen. So, you know. That’s nice… As the annihilating tsunami of time bears down on us we obsess over our sand castles — the promotion, the holiday, the new gadget — and we dare not look up.

Life is a tragedy and this dismal tale is sold to us in every magazine and paperback: The thousand books you must read before you die; The ten must-see destinations for your bucket list. The shape of the story is up then down and the advertisers are primed to sell you the uppiest up that money can buy because the down really is a downer. The photographs are glossy, but they mask an unutterable tragedy. Life, according to the wisdom of the age, is about enjoying our brief ‘moment in the sun.’ We clamber upwards, grab for ourselves all the achievements, experiences and pleasures that we can and then, so soon, we are ‘over the hill’ and the grave awaits. It’s up then down. The frowny face. The tragedy.

If you want proof that our culture tells a tragic tale about life, witness its obsession with youth. Since our story’s ending is so bleak we focus on the beginning. On billboards we emblazon images of 17 year old models who look like 12 year old girls who tell us how to fight the seven signs of ageing. Undeniably we have a cult of youth while at the same time we keep the elderly and the dying out of sight, out of mind. On my social media feeds the only time I hear of the elderly is when they act like young people. So, occasionally, there’s the story of the 70 year old marathon runner, or the 80 year old break dancer or the 90 year olds into speed dating. And we say “Aren’t these old people inspiring…?” What we fail to add, (but what we undeniably mean), is “...when they act like 20 year olds.” We don’t prize the elderly for the qualities traditionally associated with them: wisdom and experience. No, but when they muster up the vigor to ape our youthful trends, then we’ll pay attention. Briefly.

We are constantly being distracted — and constantly distracting ourselves — from the end of our life’s story. We are certain that life is a tragedy and so we focus on the beginning as much as possible. All the while though we are marching, inevitably, towards a “miserable ever after.”

Then — against all the odds and in distinction to all its competitors — the Bible comes along and dares to tell a different story.

Divine Comedy has been written as an Easter giveaway, although I think it’s a book that Christians and pastors would do well to read anyway. You can get it here.

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