25 December – On life as divine comedy
In a sentence:
God lays us in the manger of the world with a promise to bring us through all things, back to himself.
Every generation throws up its own questions about God. Over the last couple of months, I have found myself pondering one of the pressing theological questions of this age. Most simply, that question is, Does God have Netflix?
Of course, this question concerns not only Netflix but extends to the providers of any video streaming service. And we note that there are those who would insist that heaven is illuminated by the glory of God and not by the ghostly glow of LED flat screens and that, besides, surely God reads books rather than watches TV. But such objections need not be seriously entertained.
Now, while the question of a divine streaming subscription has continued to nag at me, part of the difficulty in answering it was that it wasn’t clear to me why the question mattered at all. However, I have begun to suspect that the problem to which this question points is that of divine omniscience: the theory that God knows all things. We have all had the experience of sitting down to a movie or a book, only to realise 30 minutes or a few chapters into the story that we have seen or read it before. This must surely be the experience of the all-knowing God – Every. Single. Time: “Oh, I think I’ve already seen this! ” So far as an omniscient God goes, what would be the point of watching or listening to a story if you know how it’s going to end?
Putting that question on hold for a moment, we can contrast this divine experience with our own. We would love to know the end of our own stories. To know our own end would not be simply to have information; it would be to know how to live here, in the middle of our story, anticipating that end. Our sense for the end colours our experience of the middle – our experience of life here and now.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that we generally anticipate our lives will turn out to be tragedies. – that, finally, things will not turn out well. Suspecting this, we gravitate towards comedy. The sense of comedy we mean here is not “funny” or “amusingly entertaining” but the narrative sense of comedy. A comedy is a story that starts high, moves through a deep low and then rises to finish at least as high again. (We spoke earlier in the year of “the comedy” of Job in this sense). In contrast, a tragedy starts high and ends low.
The prospect of tragedy is everywhere. Global warming is one such threat – lush forests reduced to dry dust; in a different way, the possibility of a very long tail to the COVID-19 pandemic is another looming tragedy – freedom and predictability gone. And, of course, no one gets out of this life alive.
The prospect of living a tragedy is scarcely bearable, so we seek comedic distractions and diversions from the dismal here and now. We turn away from the present, from our own story. In its worst manifestations, we descend into living through other people’s more uplifted lives. So-called “reality TV” is about someone else’s reality. If the glow of LED screens doesn’t illuminate heaven, it can serve as something of a secular “opiate of the masses” – a diversion from the dreary prospect that, for us at least, things might not get much better. There are, of course, more positive reasons for watching TV or reading books. But when the CEO of Netflix observes that the service’s principal competitor is the human need for sleep, we might suspect that escaping the world – to the point of denying our own biological needs – might have more than a little to do with the booming success of the streaming services.
The choice of a life lived in distraction reflects the experience or suspicion that our own story is finally tragic, without meaning. Our stories are not interesting enough that anyone would want to watch them. We seek, then, to be entertained – entertained, in the sense of amused rather than in the sense of being considered – as we might “entertain” a thought.
Now, while media consumption can be mere distraction, distraction is the purpose of reading Scripture. The Scriptures are there also to distract us from tragedy by telling us a comedic story – that of Israel and Jesus. There is, though, no LED opiate here to null the pain of the life. We are not to “borrow” the lives of those in the biblical story but to live them: to see our own lives as hidden in God, with Jesus. Live this life – the kind of life Jesus lived. Why? Because the life of Jesus is the defining comedy. It begins with all the promise of a babe-in-arms, descends to the crucifixion and ends with the resurrection. This last – the resurrection – is not a “reversal” of the crucifixion in the middle but signals that God’s love is the context of the whole of Jesus’ life: even the cross is not outside of this.
Faith in this God, then, is a conviction as to how our story ends. However, we hold this conviction only in the middle of the story, where we are buffeted from the comic to the tragic and back again, more than a little given to wonder how things will, in fact, end. Sometimes the best we hope for is a little comic relief. Christmas seems to have been cast as something like this in our culture: a gasp of air before we descend under the waters again.
But the central question of our lives is this: are we living a tragedy or a comedy? This question doesn’t ask about what it feels like here and now. It is a long-game question – not of experience but of conviction. And it matters because our conviction about the end of the story changes our experience of the story here and now. If our life is finally a comedy, then “Lift up your heads”. If our life is finally tragedy, then it is perfectly sensible to make the ride as easy as possible with whatever works: drugs, travel, sex, chocolate or distraction-by-media.
Our gospel reading today – as always on Christmas Day – has Jesus laid in a manger. Our focus here is often on the “outcast” Jesus, born at the margin, a manger in a stable being a sign that he had no real place among us.
But we are all born into a manger: the world in which we are placed. And to the extent that we think our lives are finally tragic, we are all cast to the margin, from which we watch someone else’s more comedic passage through life.
It is given – it is the “law”, we might say – that God has laid us in a manger. And we open our eyes and wonder what is going to happen, and our first breath becomes a crying out for fear of it all. But it is the gospel that this God has laid us in a manger. This is gospel because, with this God, all lives are finally comedies. They are comedies because God is watching. It is when God watches that we have life. For God is no mere voyeur seeking distraction, and neither does God watch to oppress, accuse or condemn – all tragic outcomes. Instead, God watches with an attentiveness that brings life and does not give it up.
And so God doesn’t need Netflix. God has us – a divine comedy in the making – and God watches with intense interest. For ours is a story the end of which God both knows and does not know. God doesn’t know the end because it is truly our story – yours, mine, ours. And it is not yet finished.
But God does know the end because God watches not for distraction but for traction: to pull us towards life. Or, to put it differently, God watches not merely to be entertained by us but to entertain us: to consider us. God watches as much for our sake as for God’s own.
Jesus laid in the manger is God entertaining us – not for our distraction but considering us. And God looks to us now to entertain Jesus: to contemplate him. Because in his story we see God entertaining us, considering us, and the gospel makes this attention the ground of our being: that God sees us. Faith is seeing that God sees us, and resting in that. Faith sees in Jesus God and us, together on the great rising arc of a divine comedy which begins wherever we do and takes us wherever we go but always ends in peace.
When God is watching, whatever is laid in a manger ends up in heaven – even us.
From the manger, then, lift up your eyes to meet the gaze of God, and choose a life the ending of which not even God knows except that it ends with life.