by Amber Belldene
Several years ago, back before video on demand, my husband and I found ourselves with a stack of unwatched DVDs from Netflix. They were dramas, foreign films, Oscar winners—things I thought we were supposed to like. Months worth of dust had settled on them where they languished on the DVD player. Because the truth is, my husband and I don’t like to watch movies like that.
Back then, I thought that in order to be the emotionally deep and intelligent kind of priest I aspired to be, I had to appreciate gritty, realistic art and literature.
Thank God I grew out of that smug notion. Now I am convinced that genres with happy endings are not superficial, but profoundly hopeful and spiritual. They train us to believe in redemption and look for possibility. I like hard-boiled detectives like Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko, who tenaciously fights for justice yet never achieves it, even though he always solves the mystery. And I love romance—historicals, vampire stories, anything with a tortured hero—because they unequivocally promise a happily ever after.
The rules of these genres comfort me as a reader. They assure me that no matter what happens to the characters I have come to love, some satisfying ending will be reached, even if I can’t possibly see how halfway through.
Narrative is a powerful force—it’s a way we make sense of things, and find meaning, and recount our memories. Words make our lives, just the way God spoke the creation into existence in the first place. Religions themselves develop out of stories, the welling up of narrative within a community to describe what God has done. The transcendent mystery of God becomes real and concrete in those stories—a child is promised to Abraham and Sarah, a nation is born, its people become slaves and then are delivered into freedom, the law is engraved in stone, things go awry, and the prophets promise a better future.
And, like genre fiction, these Bible stories promise a happy ending for creation—they all point to a future of peace, of well-being or even paradise, and an eternal life in union with God. The promise of this future gives us hope, and lets us rest in the comfort of God’s care for the world, even when we suffer.
We writers call the moment of worst possible calamity in a novel the major black moment. Sometimes when I reach it in a book I’m reading, I give up, overwhelmed by emotion and my intense care for the characters. I throw my e-reader aside, abandoning the hero or heroine in their suffering. But because it’s a mystery, or a romance, I always come back when I’ve found the strength to feel their pain, so that I can rejoice in their happy ending.
In the story of Jesus, Good Friday is the heartbreaking turn. But there is a way that, for the church, Advent is an annual black moment. This is the time of year when the days grow short and dark, and we look around, noticing all the ways the world is not yet the kingdom of God, that the wolves are still eating the lambs, and we are still making more swords than plowshares. It’s the time we slow down and ask, how can I make the world better? And we are forced to recognize our own human limits—that sometimes all we can do is wait for the part of the story that is in God’s hands alone. On some deep level we recognize that if we flip pages, skipping ahead to the happy ending without honoring the real and present darkness, our joy will not be complete.
Several years ago, after struggling a long time to conceive, I became pregnant with twins and then miscarried them both. On the heels of so much joy, the loss was devastating. It was nearly impossible to believe that wasn’t the end of the story, and that I’d ever become a mother. Then my stepmother said something surprising–that when I died and went to be with God, I would meet those babies there, grown into the fullness of what God had intended for them. If I had been wearing my theological hat, or my political hat, I might have argued or laughed. Instead, I was a grieving woman, trying to make sense of a terrible loss. And the promise of that future comforted me through many sad months, until I became pregnant again and my children were born.
That part of my story did have a happy ending, but if you asked me today to read a novel about a woman who experienced a miscarriage, I would say, “Hell, no.” That is, unless it had a man with an incredibly muscular bare chest embracing her on the cover, and trying to rip open her bodice.
And I don’t feel even a little guilty about it.
Every sexy love story I read helps me believe in the future the Bible promises. Every story about good triumphing over evil, or someone’s hard-won redemption, or a couple overcoming fierce obstacles to be together—every one I read is a prayer that justice, love, and life will prevail. And I believe it. It keeps me reaching for my own happy endings.
God began this story we are living by speaking words into the void. It’s a story of promise, a story about a future on a scale so much bigger than our individual lives and personal tragedies, and perhaps even bigger than our human social crises. In Advent, we remember that God does not abandon us to the darkness, believing that when God finally says, “The End,” it will only be after the sentence “And all of creation lived happily ever after.”
Post Script: I am grateful to Episcopal Café for publishing this little essay. You may think it’s strange that I don’t mention the shooting at Sandy Hook a week ago. I wrote this piece before that tragic event. (more from Amber in comments)