The Last Impossibility

Death is the great universal fact of life, as universal as birth. It rings down the curtain on every human play, sends everyone home in the end. We all know this; we are all overshadowed by what G.K. Chesterton called the last impossibility. It’s curious that we don’t take death more seriously than we do. Our popular culture overflows with glib platitudes, all catalogued in our books and movies.

You know the platitudes. He lives in your heart. She lives in your memory. The departed is – well, take your pick: inside you, inside all of us, around us, in the love or legacy or memory she left behind. The dead are anywhere but gone. Our culture, as manifested in popular books and movies, does not look to the blazing dawn of the first Easter, but usually it is equally unwilling to look at the cold finality and ultimate aloneness of the body in the tomb. What we end with is a popular culture that will face neither the darkness nor the light.

I would not recommend, as a curative, that every instance of death in our fiction be expanded to contain the fullness of Christian doctrine on the subject. There is certainly no reason to constantly elide the Resurrection; its riches are too rarely mined, even among Christians. But not every story has space for the doctrine or the riches, and such things are not to be forced. I wouldn’t ask that every story with death be a story about Easter. But I would like to see more books and movies get beyond the standard Hollywood cant.

It is possible to catch some rays of light, to hint at hope or even just mystery. J.R.R. Tolkien hinted at hope when Aragorn, in the face of death, offered this consolation: “In sorrow we must go, but not in despair.” Not that we need such exalted contexts as Lord of the Rings to find the hope and the mystery; they are possible everywhere. Emily Blunt’s “Where the Lost Things Go” dreams of an unknown place, maybe behind the moon, where lost things might be found. Gone, yes, the song concedes, but gone where? – and that hard question is more comforting than the glib answers.

If a story is not to have the light, I would take even a measure of darkness over artificiality. Honest sadness is better than false comfort. I’ve heard the cliches so many times that all I can think, when a book or movie trots them out again, is that nobody wants the people they love to be Inside Of Them. The greatness of love is that it gets you outside of yourself, that it brings you into contact with another soul in this huge universe. No one wants a memory, an image, an echo. It’s not the same and it’s not enough. We want a real, living person.

We don’t need courage to face the darkness. We need hope. Christ’s Resurrection teaches us that death is not to be accepted or dreaded. As we absorb that reality into our hearts, so may it be reflected in our stories. We are not to be driven to the pale ghosts that haunt our hearts for comfort, nor must we pretend that death is not hideous. For Death is an enemy, but a conquered enemy.

Coming Back, Going Forward

Of all the good old literary games, one of the most well-respected is Find the Archetype. It consists of taking a character, proving that he is like other characters who filled similar roles in their own stories, and declaring him an Archetype. It’s a simple game – there are only about six stories ever told, and you learn to see through the masks pretty quick – but it can be entertaining and may even see you through college English.

There is a special version of Find the Archetype played by Christians. Its purpose is to find the Messiah Archetype or, more casually, the Jesus-figure. One of the first proofs of the Messiah Archetype is a return from the dead. Returning from the dead is a common trope, from fairy tales to fantasy and from folk tales to science fiction; it’s a far easier commonality to find than, say, the Virgin Birth. (Not that this is impossible. Star Wars did it. It was stupid, but they did do it.) And because the Resurrection makes the Gospel the Gospel, and “He is risen!” was more significant than “He is born,” rising from the dead is the most important commonality to find, too.

Yet I am struck more by the difference between Christ’s Resurrection and the return of Aslan (Gandalf, Harry Potter …) than I am by the similarity. The apostles spoke of the Resurrection as a singular event; to take one example – from Acts 26 – Paul calls Jesus the first to rise from the dead. And we need to remember – Paul certainly would not have forgotten – that in the Gospels alone we have the raising of Lazarus, the synagogue ruler’s daughter, the widow’s son, and the “holy people” on Good Friday. Long before the time of Jesus, Elijah and Elisha also raised the dead.

And yet Jesus is the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep,” the firstfruits of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15). The difference to be drawn here is this: The raising of Lazarus and the others was the reversal of death, a return to the life (and body) that we all have known; the raising of Christ was the resurrection from death – the body raised in glory, an onward journey into a life of which we have not even dreamed. “For the trumpet will sound,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”

We find some illustration of the change in the Gospels; Jesus famously declared that “the children of the resurrection” do not marry and cannot die (Luke 20). And there is a suggestion, however nebulous, of the nature of the resurrection in the Easter accounts. In an odd way, there is more continuity between the natural body and the resurrected body than might be imagined. Jesus invited Thomas to touch the nail marks in His hands and put his hand into His side; His wounds were healed but visible still. There may be others who will not lose their scars, or want to.

In a larger, and even stranger, way, there is less continuity than would be easily supposed. One of the mysteries of the Resurrection is the persistent trouble Christ’s followers had in recognizing Him. Mary Magdalene didn’t know Him at first, and neither did the men on the road to Emmaus, and there is something halting and almost fearful in the disciples’ recognition of Jesus by the Sea of Tiberius. As a final point, Christ ate after He was resurrected. And I know this sounds boring, but it means that all that talk about feasts in the kingdom of God wasn’t metaphorical, and I dare any of you to tell me that you don’t care.

The reversal of death is very different from resurrection. To come back from death is not the same as going forward from it. All the Messiah archetypes I know of are returns, not the forging of bright frontiers beyond death and merely natural life. Speculative fiction is bound only by imagination, but even artists have trouble imagining resurrection. And this resurrection, almost blinding in its glory – it is Christ’s triumph, and our hope.