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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.
Scott, don't you think it's because happy people don't notice themselves so much? Happiness doesn't notice itself. Happiness, it seems to me, is other-directed. I was just reading again the Lord of the Rings, and happiness in those books is generally expressed in terms of the local flowers that can be noticed, the species of trees along the road, the taste of the beer, the texture of the bread, the smell of butter. I know that it's a particular genre, and a bit Romantic, but I know in my own life (and I recognize this is conditioned by my extroversion) my happiness is experienced in my enjoyment of the world outside my person. I think the etymology of the words itself signals this: "hap-" as in perhaps and mayhap and happenstance and happen, suggests a connection with what one experiences outside oneself and one's control.
Please say something about that "absent grace".
Daniel: As Arte Feldman used to say on the old "Laugh-In" show: "Verrrry interesting . . .!" I think what you wrote here is correct. I seem to recall that Neal Plantinga also speculated that in the New Creation we'd take as much delight in good news (about others) as we now sometimes find grim fascination in the bad news of the day (who's not enthralled with the mystery of the Malaysian airplane right now?). We would also NOT react with envy in case we hear of the success and joy of others, the way we all-too-often do now. And if I think of people I have regarded as truly happy–my father-in-law, Ike Apol, who died 11 months ago is a prime example–their happiness is the greatest when they can just be with the family, drinking in the grandkids and the like. Of course, it's still a good question why it's hard to make that as interesting in a novel as those who are in pain but . . . well, lots of good stuff to ponder here! Be well!
To Marilyn: I think perhaps you mean when I said grace is often "abstract." By that I mean that sometimes in sermons, although the preacher was very specific in naming hurts and challenges in life, the sermon gets a bit vague when it comes to being equally specific about how and when and where God shows up in the midst of all that pain. If a sermon does a really good job at describing the deep hollowness of a major depression, that is a vivid way to evoke one of life's challenges. It's a concrete example of human struggle. But too often in sermons I have read or heard, when it comes time to finish the sermon with a word of hope and grace, the preacher does not manage to get much more specific than "But God is good. He's there for us." That's absolutely true. But . . . is it possible to tell a story, share a testimony, provide a specific and concrete vignette of what that goodness and presence of God can actually LOOK like and feel like to a person in depression? Absent that kind of specificity on the Grace side of the equation, it is difficult for the average listener to know what this divine intervention would look like if they ever saw it. If I tell you, "My friend Jane is a good person," your logical response might be, "How so? How is Jane good?" And you'd expect me to be able to back up my claim to Jane's goodness with a story or two of Jane's goodness in action. So also in preaching: if the preacher says (especially following a vignette of human sorrow) "But God is good," it is legitimate for listeners to ask in their hearts, "How so? How is God good?" and hope the preacher can provide an example.
If it's hard to provide concrete examples of Grace, maybe it's because the church has been withholding it instead of embodying it? The Story of the Life and Light of the Church should be nothing but! Maybe there would be fewer painful stories if Grace were made concrete in each one. There can be a perfectly scintillating sermon without any expectation whatsoever that we congregants will actually go out and "do thou likewise." Why do we keep preaching… and preaching…. and preaching…. without any expectation of maturing in Christ and the Spirit and embodying that Word? Any specific expectations of what we should go out and DO in our own lives? Forgive a sin? Restore a relationship? Reconcile with a brother in Christ?
I think Scott is right on in that answer he gives. And I think that's why people flocked to hear Norman Vincent Peale. We used to castigate him as an embarrassment to the Reformed Church, but he knew that people were looking for a real story in a real life that could signal hope. I had a good friend who had worked with Peale, who told me that Peale was a fully orthodox evangelical Christian, and that the desire to communicate the good news was at the core of his preaching. I can't preach like that, it's not my gift, and it doesn't interest me, but I don't want to negate the real power it had for people.
This stirs an old memory, not especially "theological," but it felt funny at the time. I was donating blood back in the day when the intake interview was still done personally, by a staff person from the blood bank. The litany of confidential questions about risky and vulnerable behavior was long. Had I ever used intravenous drugs? Had I ever spent time in prison? Had I ever–even once–paid for sex? After a string of many, many consecutive "no's," I said to the staff person, "I guess I lead a very dull life."I was expecting her to disagree and tell me how admirable I was. Instead, she replied with no humor, no twinkle, just straight-faced and serious, "Yes, but I guess at least it's safe."
This is a provocative and important post, Scott. I've long been a fan of the Martin Seligman school of positive psychology that is more bent on discovering what factors seem to be consistent with human flourishing (read: happiness) than on figuring out why people are miserable. And I do a fist pump when they figure out that being grateful and generous are two of the most important predictors of happiness! Of course, Christians knew this all along!
I'm also so happy to hear you're writing a book on the power of story in sermons. Amen. Like me, you have visited 89 year old saints in a nursing home who remember a sermon preached when they were 15–because they remember a story. I'm 61 and my life was changed by a story in a sermon by Lugene Bazuin at the Story City Bible Camp when I was 16. I cringe when I see young preachers posting a video on Facebook that they used in a sermon. Most of the time I think, And what saint will remember that 70 years from now?
Thanks for all your good thinking about preaching and for your good preaching as well! You're a blessing.
What I say may sound like a cliche, but this has been what I have experienced: When what is going on your life determines happiness, then, yes, happiness can be dull. Why? Because happiness is shallow. However, when happiness is based on the cross, or proper attitudes (such as godliness with contentment or making our requests known to God with thanksgiving), then you have gone beyond happiness and extended into joy.