The Greatest of Good Catastrophes

08 Apr

Although Aristotle criticized its use, Horace was the first to coin a term for this somewhat unfortunate dramatic device–the deus ex machina (“god out of the machine”). Even without the Latin term, however, Aristotle made his opinion quite clear. Apparently he had gotten tired of Euripedes’ plots (Euripedes, the Greek dramatist, used the deus ex machina to resolve over half of his plays). Aristotle, while granting Euripedes some grace for his skillfulness in using this dramatic device, disagreed that it was appropriate in tragic drama. He held that the solution to a drama’s conflict should come from plot elements already at work, not elements introduced when all other hopes have failed. “There should be nothing improbable,” Aristotle argued, “in the incidents; otherwise it should be outside the tragedy.”

Last spring I was able to witness a first-hand example of what Aristotle meant when I attended a performance of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. When the statue of the (supposedly dead) Hermione came to life–I left the play rather bewildered. I enjoy Shakespeare, but such an abruptly happy ending was more than a little disconcerting.

“Disconcerted” would be one way to describe Christ’s followers on the morning of the Resurrection. (I prefer the more descriptive, if less sophisticated, term “running around like chickens with their heads cut off.” Read all four gospel accounts of the Resurrection in the same sitting, and you’ll see what I mean.) If I did not believe the truth of the gospel narratives, I would be inclined to consider the Resurrection as yet another deus ex machina. Coming back from the dead? Really?

J.R.R. Tolkien would have strongly disagreed with labeling the Resurrection as a deus ex machina, however. He had a different term for it, which he introduces in his essay “On Fairy-Stories”eucatastrophe (from the Greek, meaning “good catastrophe”). He described it this way:

“It is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

For Tolkien, all of the higher fairy stories include eucatastrophic moments–moments when a likely doom is averted, not by a “god” being swung onstage by a crane (as in Greek drama), but by elements already at work in the story. Perhaps the most familiar example of eucatastrophe in Tolkien’s own writing is the moment in The Lord of the Rings when Gollum bites off Frodo’s finger and falls into Mount Doom. Gollum has been mentioned in the story nearly since the beginning; he has betrayed Frodo before, and we expect him to return for Frodo again. What we don’t necessarily expect is that he will provide the solution to Frodo’s collapsed willpower on Mount Doom. Gollum is no deus ex machina, but his actions on Mount Doom are certainly a eucatastrophe–an unexpected turning of the story for the good of all (excluding Sauron and friends) involved.

Tolkien considered the Incarnation to be a moment when myth became fact in the person of Jesus Christ. The stories many peoples had told of a god who came to earth, lived, and died suddenly became real. Being real, our accounts of the Incarnation don’t read like myth, as C.S. Lewis noted in Mere Christianity. They are “true myth,” as Tolkien and Lewis both conceived of it: and they have a eucatastrophic moment all their own, when hints of what might be suddenly became real in the Resurrection.

Christ’s Resurrection is hinted at as far back as Genesis. “He shall bruise your head,” God told the serpent, “and you shall bruise his heel” (ESV). The promised “offspring of the woman” would fatally crush the serpent, while the serpent’s attack on him, while painful, would not be fatal. David prophesied further of the Resurrection: “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption” (ESV). Jesus repeatedly told His disciples, among others, that He would be killed, but would rise again after three days. No one, it seems, took Him seriously, even though they saw the power He had over death, particularly in the raising of Lazarus.

Christ’s Resurrection was no deus ex machina. Prophesied long beforehand, it should have been obvious to anyone paying attention to His statements and Old Testament writings that His death and Resurrection had been intended from the beginning. Christ’s response to the depression of Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus indicates His frustration with their lack of understanding: “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (ESV).

Christ’s Resurrection should not have been unexpected; yet it was. In any case, Christ’s Resurrection was certainly a turn of story that almost never happens–a eucatastrophe of the best kind. It ensured our salvation. “And if Christ has not been raised,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “your faith is futile and you are still in your sins…. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead…. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (ESV).

Thank God for the Resurrection, the greatest of all good catastrophes.

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Posted by on April 8, 2012 in Devotional, Holy Days


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