Defined by Tragedy?

I was initially going to try and process my summer movie watching experience today, but given the date and what it is the anniversary of, that struck me as insensitive. So, given that it is the 11th of September, tied in with some thoughts from my still-unfinished Jesus movie watching for a book project I’m working on, my thoughts today are about tragedy and triumph.

Things changed on 9/11. Understandably so. It was a national tragedy of a different sort than we’d arguably ever experienced. That moment came to define us. People remember exactly where they were (or think they do, which in practice leads to more or less the same effect) when they heard the news. I was outside my elementary school lining up before going inside when a kid in my class, Steve Brown, came bouncing over and related what had happened, through the filter of a 10-11 year-old kid.

That moment brought our nation together in ways that I don’t think have been seen since. Tragedy not only came to define us, but united us. A lot of complicated and heated political decisions then took place that came to fracture some of that unity. I think being defined by tragedy alone, or primarily, is a dangerous move to make.

It strikes me that the persecution complex of my fellow Mormons (and other, primarily evangelical, Christians) stems in part from a self-definition of tragedy. Terrible things have happened and internalizing that can lead to believing that terrible things are still and always will be happening against you. I don’t believe that’s the case. At least not universally.

This sort of defined by tragedy mentality leads to defensiveness. If you believe that tragedy has struck and that you are a part of a tragic, victimized community, then you will naturally be defensive when others question some aspect of your community.

It seems to me that our conception of Christ is one that is defined by tragedy. The Christ that was rejected by those around him. The Christ that was crucified by the Pharisees. The Christ whose own disciples forgot him shortly after his death. The Christ whose people are still persecuted to this day. This appears to have been translated and interpreted as a somber, serious Christ. In the films I’ve seen Christ is kind, yes, but somber. Subdued. There are rarely, if ever, moments of enthusiasm and exuberance from Christ on screen. There may be films where this is the case (if you know of any, let me know), but in what I’ve seen so far, it seems not to be.

Now, I think there’s a power in these portrayals. I believe that the unity that comes from a self-definition of tragedy is powerful and admirable. The humility that this can bring is necessary. But I believe that we can fuse that with a definition of triumph for a fuller and healthier perspective on ourselves and our relation to the world.

Yes, Christ was tragically killed. But Christ conquered death. Christ rose from the grave. Christ lives! That’s a story of triumph. A story of joy. And we are that we might have joy.

What would an enthusiastic, incredibly passionate Christ look like? Imagine Jesus with a Bill Nye-esque enthusiasm for Isaiah. A Jesus that geeks-out with the disciples over how exactly that water turned to wine and what enables him to walk on water. A Jesus that loves me so much that when I start rambling, wide-eyed, with hands (or arms, more accurately) waving like a hyped up windmill about how incredible Buffy the Vampire Slayer is or the beautiful and so so witty rhymes in Hamilton he gets excited too. Then he leans over and asks in that excited-on-the-verge-of-babbling-pseudo-whisper what I think about Stranger Things and we dive into all sorts of 80s, Spielberg-y stuff. We start talking about whether he feels nostalgia or anemoia, and try to parse out time and infinity and it’s like the best late-night, post-film, drinking milkshakes conversation that you can imagine.

That’s the Jesus that I know. The one that can sit back while I freak-out and lets me work my way through things, not interrupting, even if he knows where I’m going and what I’ll get to. The one that when I ask a question eagerly, hungry for thoughts and new insight gladly shares, humbly, his life undeniably tinged by the tragedy that came, yet open and confident, trusting in the triumph that came later.

We are all tragic, yet triumphant, beings. Yes, we are mortal, imperfect, flawed, fallen creatures. But, we have divinity within us. We can become Gods and Goddesses. We are heirs to divinity. Let us embrace the humility and unity of tragedy, but not forget the confidence and joy of triumph.

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