The happy ending

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I first remember the tension while watching Battle of the Planets as a small boy. To those who were spared such torments or denied such pleasures (depending on your take), and especially to those who just read that Wikipedia entry and wondered what kind of existence I led, to the infant mind these cartoons were little more than space adventures in which a team of fighters defended Earth against the bad guy.

What irked me as episode succeeded episode were the unfailingly complete endings to every story, often with some sappy moralism tagged on. By the end of each episode, as I remember it, the main protagonists were enjoying a hearty laugh together as yet another dastardly plot was entirely foiled, nobody but the bad guys hurt or even slightly put out. I do not think I was an unusually melancholy infant, but even by this age I was persuaded that this was spectacularly unrealistic. It was, given the way things were, simply an unsatisfactory happy ending.

As I grew and read and watched, I continued to find problems with the endings of things. These, as I think about them, can be organised into at least three categories, although there is often a degree of overlap. Depending on your tastes, you can organise them by film (or film type), superhero, literary genre, or whatever else tickles your fancy.

The first is where the world is viewed through rose-tinted spectacles. These stories end - often with that sickening dose of mere moralism - with all the loose ends tied off, all the bad guys defeated, all wrongs righted, and the rising dawn of a new day about to illuminate a brave new world in which, one might be led to believe, nothing would ever go wrong again. Quite apart from the utterly crass neatness of the perspective, it takes very little imagination to see the problems that will arise if only you there were another ten pages to the book, or what would happen ten minutes after the credits have finished rolling. The ending is dissatisfying because it is not real enough.

The second is the mirrored-sunglasses perspectives: the achingly cool (anti-)hero who dispassionately dispatches the bad guys, giving them a taste of their own medicine. But often our hero is little or no better than the bad guys themselves. He or she is as miserable, twisted and ultimately unfulfilled as those he or she stands against. And when the last punch has landed, when the last gunshot has rung out, when the last bad guy has fallen, the world may be on one level a less bad place, but it is not much of a better place. Justice has been done, but it has been unjustly done: it is justice at any price, at too high a price. There is something that remains out of place, and the victor has besmirched himself in the very act of victory, and the ending is dissatisfying because it is not right enough.

The third is the entirely shadowed view, life viewed through black lenses. In these versions, sometimes no-one is left standing. Sometimes, the bad guy or guys are the ones who get away. And you might mournfully nod and say, yes, that is the way things are, but you know it is not the way things should be. The bad guys do seem to get away with murder, they do seem to evade justice, they do appear to live and die in peace, and that leaves the observer with a sense of grief or resentment. Often things peter out in openness and emptiness, without resolution. The ending is dissatisfying because it is too real and not right.

So whether it is a matter of ill-grounded optimism, jaded realism, or radical pessimism, the observer is left with a sense of emptiness or disappointment. Even the great epics can leave the spectator with a lingering sense of something left undone, of something incomplete or unsure.

What are we waiting for?

I wonder if we are waiting for the happy ending, the only truly happy ending that there will ever be. It is the ending in which a righteous King comes forth conquering and to conquer. The one left standing is the one who should and must stand. And his judgements are perfectly right and just, and his blessings altogether merciful and beyond calculation, and his punishments perfectly proportioned and entirely deserved. None of the bad guys get away with anything, and there is mercy shown to multitudes who repented and were forgiven. He does all things well - no slur attaches to his name, nothing about him disappoints, and the new order which he establishes is one in which there is no sin and in which no unrighteousness can find a home. His world is one populated by those remade in his own sinless image, in which our appetites are perfectly honed and entirely satisfied, and there is no lingering sense of dissatisfaction, no sense that this is not real and reliable, no possibility of the beauties being once more wrecked by sin. It is a place of true and lasting peace, pure and perfect justice, absolute and entire goodness.

Then, and only then, our desires for reality and righteousness are altogether satisfied. Resolution and redemption are both full and complete.

I have wondered if there is something distinctively Christian in this appetite for a happy ending. Clearly, the specific contours sketched above are distinctively Christian. But, while the answer is Christian, I think the appetite is not. That is, perhaps, why there are so many stories and so many attempts at happy endings and so many acknowledgements of sad ones. We are creatures made in the image of God. Our hopes and fears are designed to be resolved in his rule, and there is a yearning - often twisted or misguided, but real - for happy endings, and a miserable recognition of unhappy endings. As Augustine said, our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.

And so we will always be dissatisfied by anything less than the only happy ending that ties up all the loose ends in a real and right way. There and only there will we find both redemption and resolution. And, in the face of so many stories and so many endings, Christians must insist on the one tale most worth the telling, and the one ending that alone will satisfy every longing heart.
Posted April 3, 2012 @ 4:01 AM by Jeremy Walker
TOPICS: Jesus Christ

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