Blindly Hoping for a Punchline?
“What is life: a tragedy or a comedy?”
So begins this excellent little evangelistic book from writer/speaker/poet/creative genius Glen Scrivener, well suited to Easter outreach events. He takes the Shakespearean definition of a tragedy/comedy, i.e. a smile-shaped comedy always has a happy ending, whereas although a frown-shaped tragedy may have plenty of mirth, it ultimately ends. Using this lens he persuades us that Christianity is unique in offering us the comedy we all long for; “this isn’t a question of whether life is hilarious (mostly it’s not), but whether life is hopeful”.
I thought one of the real strengths of this hook is the way it exposes a god-less worldview as simply “distracting ourselves from the end of our life’s story”:
“We are the flotsam of a cosmic explosion and biological survival machines… clinging to an insignificant rock, hurtling through a meaningless universe towards eternal extinction. Still, all that being said, the new flavoured latte from Starbucks is incredible. And have you tried hot yoga. We’re renovating the kitchen too. So, you know, that’s nice…”
So having convinced us that we’re living out a tragedy, Glen argues that Christianity is unique in “having the audacity to be a comedy”. Going back to Shakespeare’s definitions, he means that the Christian faith alone has the plot twist that “holds out dazzling and eternal hope”. And of course this all hangs on the events of that first Easter, a story that is “uniquely hopeful,” as well as “uniquely credible”.
The Cross Is What It Looks Like When God Shows Up
The bulk of the book then riffs on the poetic description of Christ Jesus’ descent to earth/humanity found in Philippians 2:5-11. First off, there’s the surprise that the one who is ‘in very nature God’ takes the ‘very nature of a servant’, walking all the way to the brutal cross; “from heavenly heights God’s Son has descended to the depths”. Glen’s burning passion here is to wake us up to the truth that:
“…when Jesus died on the cross, he was not taking a holiday from being God. He didn’t leave all that ‘God stuff’ in heaven while he died the ‘cross stuff’ on earth. The ‘cross stuff’ was the purest expression of the ‘God stuff’. The cross is what it looks like when God shows up.”
If you’ve heard Scrivener before, you’ll know this is favoured territory of his, being convinced it’s so essential for us to understand. It’s a powerful and crystal-clear explanation of divine humility, and Scrivener’s gifting as a word-smith really comes through: “The Fountain is revealed in the outpouring. When we see his death, really we are seeing God’s life.” The evangelistic consequences of grasping this are hugely significant, for one is forced to ask: “why hasn’t anyone else shown up in our pit?” When you think about it, how can anything claim to be a rival god and yet not show such staggering, stooping splendour?
From here Glen seeks to persuade us that the death of Jesus doesn’t just show us something about God, but also something about ourselves: we’re being saved from danger. Why else would Jesus take on the cross?
“As we see what he endured – godforsaken death – we need to understand that this must be the plight that we should expect. The hell he takes on the cross is the hell that we would otherwise face.”
In other words, although “we live in God’s world,” our actions and thoughts testify to “a life lived in estrangement from God. And if we’re “alienated from God, the life-source, what else can we expect but godforsaken death?” Glen wants to show us this is self-inflicted: our sin comes out of us (rather than being circumstantial behaviour that ‘comes over us’), evidence of a “spiritual sickness” within that will ultimately “degenerate continually”. Again, “that’s hell in its fullness”. The imagery that Glen’s analysis of our plight brought to my mind was that of suicidal astronauts on a space-walk, determined to sever our own life-cord and thus cut ourselves off from our spaceship, flailing helplessly as we fall deeper into the abyss of space. In the following chapter Glen speaks of Jesus “entering the storms of judgment and death” and “experiencing the judgment of God more than anyone ever could,” but part of me wondered if introducing clearer punitive language earlier, as part of the chapter introducing sin, would have made more sense of Jesus “facing what we ought to face” (and perhaps would fill-out repentance later too).
Happily Ever After
Using the glorious illustration of Vasco Da Gama’s pioneering journey past the southern tip of Africa, Glen then gives us a resplendent vision of Jesus’ victorious resurrection as the ‘turning point’: “the cross-scarred Victor returns from the fight and declares his love… we are given a hope that we have not earned and a joy that we cannot repay.” More glorious still, Glen shows us that, as Philippians 2 says, there will also be a day when every knee bows and every tongue acknowledges that Jesus Christ is Lord:
“You’re not the bowing type, you think. But on this day you won’t be able to stop yourself falling on your face in awe … You won’t be able to do anything else, nor will the atheist next to you, nor the Buddhist next to her, nor the Muslim next to him. ‘Every knee’ will bow…”
Throughout, Glen is empathetic. He helps us feel the tragedy of the Tragedy: “everything that hurts so horrifically in this world hurts because it is not the way it’s supposed to be.” Thus, Jesus’ opening gambit is truly good news: ‘repent and believe’ in the one who can turn it all around. We may think God is an obstacle to us getting the happy endings we long for, but in actual fact this ‘good life’ is but a temporary high that will soon dissipate. Rather, we are the problem and God is the solution, the only one who can bring about cosmic hope. And so the challenge is clear:
“The plotline of history is a comedy. The only question is will we embrace reality the way that Jesus has defined it? He is Lord. His world will follow the divine comedy. There will be a happily ever after. But will we, personally, fall in line with ultimate reality? Or will we resist the comedy and persist in living in tragedy?”
This simple ‘comedy vs tragedy’ hook makes the book feel punchy and lucid. Illustrations and quotations are used delightfully, and potential questions over the historicity of the gospel accounts are dealt with concisely and in such a way as to help us see we have every reason to both want this story to be true and to find it to be true. I also appreciated how in the last few pages Glen ensures this isn’t some prosperity gospel of ‘health and wealth’ now. Following the apostle Paul’s flow in Philippians 2, he points out that following Jesus as Lord means following his way of self-giving love, pouring ourselves out for others, which is actually the way of real life.
Divine Comedy, Human Tragedy is a real gift for Easter outreach opportunities. Clocking-in at just 55 pocket-size pages, each of the seven chapters feels like you’re reading a punchy blog-post. Glen’s turn-of-phrase is second-to-none and for those enquirers that are prepared to give a book a go, I’d put good money on them finishing it. The writing feels fresh, and, God-willing it will excite believers and compel unbelievers.
And here’s the video version!
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, but I hope this is still a fair review.