Witches can be right,
Giants can be good.
You decide what's right
you decide what's good
Friday night Julie and I went to see a high school production of Stephen Sondheim's musical "Into the Woods". I had heard of the musical before, and seen bits and pieces of it in a college music survey course, but I wasn't familiar with the story line. Basically it starts out as an amalgamation of several classic fairy tales (Cinderella, Jack & the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood among others), and while the first act wraps up with a "happily ever after", by the second act everything starts to go terribly wrong. A giant comes looking for revenge, the Narrator of the story is killed in an attempt to appease her wrath, parents die, the Prince Charmings are too busy pursuing new princesses to defend their families, and the main characters are left with the moral dilemma of how to decide how their tale should end without parents or storytellers to give shape to their lives.
On one level the play is all about coming of age issues and accepting responsibility for one's choices and wishes. On a deeper level this is the ultimate postmodern fairytale. It expresses the existentialist angst of our era through and through. While we all long for our lives to fit into a big story where the omniscient Narrator knows everything that is supposed to happen and where everything comes out right in the end, in reality we find that life is complex and confusing and that (so it seems) there is no Narrator guiding the whole story. In short, this is life after the death of God - when we have no choice but to face the giants in life as best we can without the help of a divine parent or anyone to tell us exactly what is right or wrong. All that was one certain is suddenly muddled - witches tell the truth and giants are justified in seeking revenge, and it's hard to figure out who's to blame for all the mess since everything is always so intertwined.
In good existentialist fashion then, the advice given is simply to decide for yourself what is right and good, realizing that you will make mistakes along the way and that even these should be honored. However, moving beyond the mere individualism of existentialism, the play also reminds us that "no one is alone". We don't make our choices in isolation. We live in connection with others, and the choices we make based on our own selfish interests have a way of affecting everyone around us. As the Baker and Cinderella sing:
No one is alone.Thus the ultimate message of the play is one of communal responsibility. We're all in this together. There may not be a Narrator to guide our stories anymore, but we are nonetheless not alone. We still have each other, our friends and our neighbors, and as long as we remember this, as Cinderella and the Baker sing: "Things will come out right now. We can make it so."
You move just a finger,
Say the slightest word,
Something's bound to linger
No one acts alone.
No one is alone.
People make mistakes,
Holding to their own,
Thinking their alone.
It seems like the perfect message for our postmodern times, and while one might think that as a Christian I would be threatened by such a theme, in truth I find that it has actually helped me clarify what I do and do not believe about the story that I think God really is telling in the world.
I think many Christians think that our lives are supposed to work out like a fairytale. We reason that if God exists then everything in our lives really ought to end up with a nice little "happily ever after". Our wishes ought to come true, the giants we face ought to be slain, and we will always feel like our lives are being guided by a benign parent/storyteller who will never let anything too bad happen to us. But of course life rarely works out this way. Wishes don't come true, things go wrong and don't always get fixed, and sometimes we do feel very, very alone.
So what are we to say? Is God really dead? Was there never really a storyteller in the first place and we were just immature and naive to think so. Or perhaps, just perhaps, the problem is really with our expectations about what kind of story God is actually telling. What if God isn't writing a fairytale? What if the story he's actually creating is something far more complex and difficult, but also far more beautiful in it's final telling. What if he is writing a story that contains both tragedy and comedy, both happy endings and heart-wrenching losses.
But more than that, what if we're not merely characters in his story. What if we are co-authors? A theme of "Into the Woods" is that children need to grow up and start taking responsibility for their own stories. What if this is true in God's story as well. What if he expects us to help him tell the story with him, giving us the freedom to make our own mistakes and muddle through things at times without him always manipulating things to a happy ending? If the only purpose for this life is that we would all live "happily ever after", then perhaps this seems cruel, but if this life is, in the words of Oswald Chambers "a vale of soul-making" - a place in which we are shaped into strong, mature and loving human beings - then perhaps it makes sense that God is telling not a children's fairytale, but a grown-up tale full of tears, laughter and danger.
Anyhow, these are just the things that I was pondering while watching this play the other night. Isn't it great how good art will make you think? :)