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This past Sunday in the “Bookends” back page column of the New York Times Book Review, writers Leslie Jamison and Adam Kirsch pondered some of the ins and outs of why it is so notoriously difficult to write about happiness. The upshot of their reflections is that writing about happy people or happy marriages or happy anything is tough because, to put it bluntly, the happy person is not as interesting as the unhappy one. According to an old writing bromide, it’s not a story until something goes wrong. And so as Jamison puts it, “Happiness works as prelude to sadness or epilogue” but take away the sadness, and the happiness has nothing interesting with which to contrast.
She then quotes a lyric paragraph describing a happy person in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (which famously began with that observation about unhappy families being more interestingly varied than happy ones). In the scene Jamison quotes, true happiness is depicted via a character’s viewing ordinary sights through new eyes. Given the good things that has just happened to him, he saw the dawn, the children in the street, the flying of the doves, the falling of the snowflakes all as magical. But, according to Jamison, even this scene is interesting because the narrator admits he knows such a perspective will never come to him again. The scene “glows with the certainty of that loss,” Jamison claims, and that alone provides the tension to make the happiness interesting.
As a preacher and as a teacher of preaching who is also finishing a book on the use of story in sermons, I find all of this highly intriguing and perhaps a little disconcerting. There are some wider theological ramifications in the air here, too, which I will get to in a moment. But first: most preachers will admit that it is easier to talk about what Paul Scott Wilson calls “Trouble” than Trouble’s happy opposite, “Grace.” Most of us have heard sermons in which all of the sermon’s color and drama ran in the direction of describing life’s difficulties and sorrows. Vivid descriptions of depression or the ache of intense grief are proffered as those situations in our lives where faith is tested and where God’s presence is desperately sought. Yet in some of those same sermons when it comes time to describe how God becomes present in all that sorrow, things start to devolve into vagaries and plastic cliché assurances that “God understands” and “God’s faithfulness is new every day” and the like. Trouble is concrete, Grace abstract.
At Calvin Seminary students regularly talk with John Rottman and me about the challenge of finding what we call “good Page Four stories,” that is, vivid stories of “Grace in the World” that show happiness and shalom descending on people by the hand of God. In preaching it’s not just that sorrow may be more interesting than happiness as the Jamison and Kirsch essays claimed but that for some reason those happy vignettes seem fewer in number compared to the tales of woe that accumulate ankle deep most days before it’s even 9:00am.
Why is it that it’s easier to write sorrow than joy? Why do we find more stories of the former than the latter? Are we too immersed in a sinful world to savor the glorious contours of genuine happiness? And even as Christians and as Christian pastors, are we simply too inattentive to notice the Grace of God active in the world? Are we so accustomed to being passive receivers of the news (where it’s almost always all Trouble but not much Grace) that we are no longer very good at actively seeking those tales of God’s goodness that really do exist?
Finally, though, a broader theological question and it’s one my wife often asks after reading something like the Jamison and Kirsch essays: what will become of art, writing, poetry, and the like in heaven/the New Creation if all of that will be “perfect” in the sense of containing none of the contrasts and tensions provided by sin, suffering, grief? Will we be so transformed ourselves that a novel that describes nothing but happy, stable people doing joyful, fulfilling things across 300 narrative pages will be for us a source of delight? Perhaps. Or will it be possible to recall the sorrows of the old world in ways that will be interesting while yet not re-participating in all that nor getting engulfed in it such that the sorrow would once again become your own via empathy?
Lots of questions, very few answers. And maybe that’s OK. When it all said and done in our Father’s kingdom, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well, as the saying goes, and so we need not fret.
For now, though, there is that question about preaching but also about the Christian life in general: can we be engulfed as fully by happiness as by sorrow? When preachers write sermons, are we trying to make the goodness of God’s kingdom and the Grace of God’s actions in the world right now as vivid and compelling and just as downright interesting as any amount of sad things we might be able to tell stories about?
If it really is harder to make happiness as interesting as sadness, as many writers of fiction claim, is this something the church should combat through language and practices that begin to challenge that? Can we crank up genuine enthusiasm for sustained beauty, for happy people and joyful events, and might doing this not count as a major part of our Christian witness to the Good News in this world filled with so much bad news?
Perhaps these are some questions to which we should seek some answers after all.