What Peyton Manning, ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ can teach us about Jesus and the unfolding of history.
Editor’s note: If you have not read/watched Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, this may not be the post you’re looking for. Lots of spoilers ahead.
Two years ago, Peyton Manning played in his first Super Bowl with the Broncos. He and his team arrived there by way of beating Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game. However, the result in the Super Bowl was, um, how should I put this? Not good? Catastrophic? Let’s go with catastrophic.
This year, Peyton Manning is playing in his second Super Bowl with the Broncos. He and his team arrived there by way of beating Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game. We’ll know the results in a few days. For fans of the Broncos and Manning, the hope is that the Sheriff can ride off into the sunset a winner.
These fans are waiting for history to stop repeating itself.
What we’re talking about here is history, and not in the arbitrary and inflated sense of professional football in America or Manning’s career win-loss record in the Super Bowl or the Broncos’ ability to not get shellacked in two consecutive Super Bowl appearances. We’re not talking about that history. We’re talking about history. History in the sense of the grand narrative of the universe. The story of all the big things and all the little things; the story of us; the story of you; the story of me; the story of why the story matters; the story about good and evil; the story about how it ends.
Remember that on Sunday. When you’re watching Super Bowl 50, remember that you’re not watching football. You’re watching a projection of your desire to see history stop repeating itself.
This would probably make more sense if I let Han Solo and J.R.R. Tolkien explain a few things.
In early January, I came across an article in Salon.com written by Gerry Canavan, author and assistant professor of English at Marquette University. Salon re-published a piece Mr. Canavan posted at his personal blog that delved into fascinating and profound aspects of The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and, by extension, the way the world works and the way we experience history.
Canavan opens with background on Tolkien’s ill-fated sequel to The Lord of the Rings, which was to be called The New Shadow. Shortly after Aragorn’s death, Gondor and the rest of Middle Earth kind of go back to forgetting about the Ring of Power and the war against Sauron, and other bad things happen, as well (satanic cult uprisings, moral decay and what not). It was so depressing that Tolkien ditched the project only 13 pages in. Writes Canavan:
I don’t know that I would call this material “sinister,” but I taught The Silmarillion this semester after having tried and failed to read it as a child, and I think it would certainly be fair to call it “depressing.” What looks, in The Lord of the Rings, like a fairy-tale about how good and decent folk are able to do the impossible and defeat evil (with just a little bit of help from the divine, here and there) becomes in The Silmarillion and The New Shadow and Tolkien’s pseudo-theological commentary only the briefest, most temporary respite from a nightmare history in which things always turn out wrong, millennia after millennia after millennia. In fact Arda, the planet on which the continent of Middle-earth rests, is a cursed and fallen place, infused with evil and wickedness at its material core, and the only thing to do is raze the place and start over, as Eru Ilúvatar will at long last at the very end of time. To study Tolkien beyond Lord of the Rings is to come to a keen understanding of how tragic this history actually is, how The Return of the King looks like a happy ending mostly because that’s where Tolkien (quite deliberately and self-consciously) decided to stop writing. But the Fourth Age was no better than the Third, and likely quite worse, and on and on through the degenerative millennia that bring us to the end of the Sixth Age and the beginning of the Seventh with the fall of the Third Reich and the development of the atom bomb.
Shorter Canavan: The “eucatastrophe” of The Return of the King turns out to be less than permanent before the dark tide of history rolls on again. Or, for the Broncos fans present, think 2014 AFC Championship game before this happened.
So! So far, so depressing. But wait! It gets better! Or, actually, it doesn’t. Not yet, anyway. Canavan continues but switches literary universes to focus on Star Wars and The Force Awakens:
The Force Awakens is The New Shadow, sinister and depressing, except they decided to go ahead and do it anyway. I joke that you can tell who read the Expanded Universe novels and who didn’t based on whether your reaction to The Force Awakens is sadness — but the events of The Force Awakens, as sad as they are, are really only the tip of the iceberg in terms of how horribly Luke, Leia, and Han are punished in the EU novels, over and over, as everything they attempt to build turns to ash and the galaxy repeatedly falls into chaos, war, and catastrophe. In the farthest reaches of the EU universe, the Star Wars Legacy comics, set around 140 years or so after the Battle of Yavin, Luke’s descendent Cade Skywalker wanders a Galaxy that is again in war, as it always is, with a resurgent Empire again ruled by Sith masters — and when one casts oneself into the mists of time in the other direction (in material like the “Knights of the Old Republic” games, set thousands of years before A New Hope) one finds more or less the same basic story of genocidal total war playing out there too. Star Wars has always been, in the EU at least, a universe more or less without hope, that only looked hopeful to casual fans because they were looking too closely at just a very slender part of it.
What he’s saying is that our beloved characters never stood a chance and have never stood a chance against the total depravity of history. This is why Han Solo’s death at the hands of his son in The Force Awakens is such a visceral and soul-numbing gut punch. For the Cowboys fans here, think of this play — or really any other play over the last 20 years.
(It still hurts to watch that. Ugh.)
For Canavan, the moral of the story is this:
That Star Wars implies a world of sorrow belied by the spectacle of Jedi’s happy ending isn’t a surprise to me — I told you, I read the EU books — but I can see why it’s a surprise to someone whose last memory of these people is smiles, a fireworks display, hugs, and a picnic. “Return of the Jedi” never asked us what we thought would happen when those people woke up the next morning and the Empire still had 90 percent of its guns, ships, territory, generals, and soldiers, ready to descend into vicious, scorched-earth fanaticism as they slid into defeat; it just wasn’t that kind of story. The Force Awakens is that kind of story, and I find that interesting enough to be excited about 8 and 9, to see where they try to take this story now that it turns out fairy-tales aren’t real and that deeply entrenched totalitarian systems don’t have exhaust ports, trench runs, or single points of failure. So I think the emerging critical consensus that The Force Awakens infantilizes its audience by re-presenting us with the same images we all saw as children is actually deeply wrong: The Force Awakens condemns Luke, Leia, and Han to actually live inside history, rather than transcend it, and it condemns us too.
Take a moment to let the despair sink in, and then let’s ponder Canavan’s analysis. I think there are three things for us to consider, and once we have considered these, we can get back to Super Bowl 50.
First, that last quote from Canavan strikes a reluctant chord, doesn’t it? Think of your own narrative “universe.” You have sins or circumstances or trials that dominate the storyline. Sometimes there’s a euphoric and unexpected break in the hardship or a reprieve from a recurring sin in your life, but most of the time it’s just condemnation.
Secondly, we should be thankful for such textual deconstruction as Canavan’s. Nerdiness of this sort has amazing potential to help us understand the great stories and to understand our own story.
Thirdly, though, we cannot let Canavan’s assertion that “fairy-tales aren’t real” slide. In a piece about Tolkien and the apparent overestimation of what he called the “eucatastrophe” — the “sudden joyous turn” that characterizes all true fantasy stories — Canavan seems a little reluctant to linger on that tension. Was Frodo’s successful mission to Mount Doom not a eucatastrophe? Was Luke’s trench run not a eucatastrophe?
Was the birth of Christ not a eucatastrophe?
It is here that Christians must pause and deal honestly with history and our own tendencies to quote Tolkien when he wrote: “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.”
Jesus was born. Amazing! God became human. Jesus was raised from the dead. A miracle to end all miracles! The greatest thing that could ever happen in human history did happen, but history rolls on. Joy may bookend history, but death, war, disease, injustice, power-hungry politics, the sin of everyone against themselves, the sin of everyone against everyone else, your sin and my sin have all continued apace since (and before) Jesus walked out of the tomb.
So, we have two choices. We can believe that Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t, in fact, the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation. Or we can believe that it was and that we are caught in the “already, not yet” tension of living through the condemning forces of history.
I choose the latter — but without the condemnation part.
Already, Jesus is living even though he was dead. Already, all who have been saved by faith in Christ are new creations with an inheritance that should boggle our minds. Already, I am adopted into the Father’s family. But I have not triumphed over my flesh yet (Romans 8:13). The kingdom has not come yet (Luke 19:11).
For Christians, we can rejoice that history has been turned on its head and we can also look forward to the day when the depraved and sin-soaked history of our race will not repeat itself anymore. We do well to imitate the Psalmist who cries out, “How long, O Lord?” and waits hopefully in the truth that he will see the resurrected One in a new and glorious history (Psalm 17:15). Jesus promises, through his resurrection, that all the First Orders and all the New Shadows will one day be no more. The hope of the resurrection fuels the hope some of us have that Peyton can win one last ring, or that the tortured pasts of certain franchises can be reversed — that one day things like this won’t happen again.
Because we’ve seen it happen. We’ve seen history interrupted and we don’t have to be condemned by it. We, like Samwise Gamgee, can know that “everything sad” will “come untrue.”
Of course, when “reading” Super Bowl 50 and other cultural artifacts, we must not be silly and think that because the Carolina Panthers are over “there” and the Denver Broncos and “here” that “we” have the moral/spiritual/historical high ground. The Carolina Panthers are not “bad” because Cam Newton likes to dance in the endzone. The Denver Broncos are not “good” because Peyton Manning makes funny, self-aware commercials. All of that really doesn’t matter. The relative nature of sporting contests allows us to explore absolute dimensions of our existence, desires and hopes.
Remember that when you’re watching the game on Sunday.