What’s Wrong With Happy Endings?

Editor’s note: the following sermon by Professor Emeritus Francis “Rev” Rossow was published in the July 1977 issue of the Concordia Journal (volume 3, issue 4). The sermon was originally preached in the Concordia Seminary chapel on April 15, 1977.

When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory (Colossians 3:4).

Some time ago I ran across this conclusion about the Book of Job in a work entitled The Spirit of Tragedy by Herbert J. Muller:

Then somebody added the Hollywood ending in which Job is given twice as much property as he had had before, and a second set of children, thereby proving that virtue is always rewarded—and missing the whole point of the original book.

Here we see a scholar not only adhering to the critical principle that happy endings are aesthetically inferior to unhappy endings but even determining the authorship of a Biblical book on the basis of that principle. Mr. Muller, of course, has the utmost respect for the literary quality of Job. But then there’s this inexplicable ending, so disappointing, and so disappointing precisely because it’s so happy. Apparently, the only way to account for it, in Mr. Muller’s opinion, is to hypothesize another author, an author much more limited in intelligence and critical taste than the original one.

Now, relax: the authorship of Job is not the subject of my sermon this morning—it would hardly be an appropriate theme. But I do want to talk about the critical assumption behind Mr. Muller’s conclusion: the assumption that the more tragic a work of art is the better it is.

One runs across the same assumption in Shakespearean criticism, particularly in recent Shakespearean criticism. Generally, Shakespeare’s comedies are held to be inferior to his tragedies. Various reasons are given for this conclusion, some of them legitimate, but the most common one I find is that comedy just is not as accurate a reflection of the human condition as is tragedy. The human condition, it is implied, is blood, sweat, and tears. Life is complex. Life is hard. Life is tragic. And unless comedy can somehow capture this gloomy spirit in a variety of sick jokes or actually be a serious comment on life simply disguised as comedy, it is automatically doomed to aesthetic mediocrity. And turning to the tragedies, which is the greatest? Predictably, King Lear! Now I believe that a good case can be made for Lear: its superb structure; its universal questions; its rich language. But what is the most common reason given? The fact that it’s so intensely tragic and pessimistic: no cheap, tawdry ending; no compromise; and Cordelia’s gratuitous death thrown in for good measure. For once, it seems, Shakespeare has succeeded in holding up the mirror to nature.

And it is precisely this view of nature that I as a committed Christian take sharp issue with. Is life basically tragic? Is it only blood, sweat, and tears? Because I believe that Christ has redeemed me and all creatures, I say “No.” Because I believe that Christ rose again from the dead, I say “No.” Because I believe that I too shall rise from death and live eternally with my risen Lord (as our text this morning reminds us), I say, “No, life is not basically tragic. It is not only blood, sweat, and tears.”

Oh, I hate Mickey Mouse approaches and soap opera endings as much as you do. I think Kojak would rise in my estimation considerably if he’d occasionally lose a case. And these so-called Christians who sit around twiddling their thumbs and winking an eye at social ills while they chant, “God’s in His heaven; all’s right with the world,” annoy me as much as they annoy anyone. Must we eternally bask in sweetness and light and forever fare on a diet of sugar and syrup? To conclude every story with a happy ending is an obvious oversimplification. Certainly, any approach to life must cope with its sin-caused complexities, its unanswerable riddles, and its all too frequent pain and agony.

But isn’t it just as much an oversimplification to conclude every story with an unhappy ending? After all, even in real life somebody does occasionally strike it rich, problems are sometimes solved, and every so often couples marry and do live happily ever after.

But let us not settle the matter on the basis of merely empirical data. Let us settle it in terms of the resurrection. You see, there’s really the answer. The whole business does have a happy ending! Death is not the last word. Life is, eternal life. There is a rainbow’s end. We can live happily ever after. All because Christ rose from death. Hence to portray life purely in terms of tragedy is not only an oversimplification — it is a ghastly error.

Ironically, this very resurrection has itself been the victim of the sort of critical approach we are decrying this morning. “How pedestrian,” some say, “for an otherwise good story to end in this fashion. Christ crucified? Ah, yes, there was a story with possibilities. An idealistic young man cut off prematurely in his prime, loyal to his convictions, uncompromising, misunderstood by all, seeking answers but finding none. Here lay the true spirit of tragedy. But Christ risen? Ugh! Too bad someone had to slap on that Hollywood ending and spoil it all.”

You see, we’ve come a long way since Peter. It was of the crucifixion that Peter mistakenly said, “Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee.” But it is of the resurrection that we today mistakenly say, “Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee.” Peter didn’t want to be sad. We don’t want to be happy. There’s twenty centuries of progress for you!

Not wanting to be happy! Can you imagine a more tragic tragic flaw? To be offered happiness and to refuse it because one thinks happiness is mediocrity. To be handed the meaning of life and to spurn it because of the mistaken aesthetic notion that life should have no meaning. Can you imagine a number of the damned on Judgment Day sulking their way into hell, disappointed that the universe did have a happy ending after all—at least for a number of people—and still insisting that they’ll be damned before they’ll go along with anything so cheap and tawdry? And won’t there be literary societies and coffee talks in hell?

Which leads me to my final point. It is apparent by now, in spite of a misleading introduction, that what we’ve been talking about this morning is more than a matter of literary criticism. It is a matter of life and death. Each of us here has been confronted with the Good News, “He is risen. He is not here.” We can accept this and be happy and live. Or we can tilt our nose and raise our eyebrows and be of all men most miserable and die. Even more, each of us here is dedicating his life to the proclamation of this Good News to others. Let’s be sure to proclaim it. Let’s not be ashamed of it. “Misery loves company,” but let’s make sure that we don’t practice this adage in our ministry, out of a false sense of maturity and sophistication emasculating the Gospel of its joyous content and landing both ourselves and our listeners in that outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Except we become as little children, we can in no wise—and our listeners can in no
wise—enter into the kingdom of heaven. Hell may well be for the sophisticated, but heaven is for just such children.

Francis C. Rossow

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