This isn’t the story we thought we were in. We thought it went lockdown-easing-recovery. Then we found it was going lockdown-easing-confusion-economic peril-recovery. Now it’s not even that. It seems to be lockdown-easing-confusion-further lockdown. If significant parts of the country are already back under severe constraints, can London be far behind? Will all the careful arrangements St Martin’s have made for worship, trading, and preparing for Christmas be shelved for a period? Are we in a revolving door?
The Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye in his extraordinary 1958 book The Anatomy of Criticism talks about four kinds of stories. In a tragedy, you get on the wrong side of the gods, you’re doomed, the fates are against you, there’s nothing you can do. In a romance, there’s a series of challenges, but you find reserves of strength, and by extraordinary guile or power, you overcome each one. In a comedy, the problems you face turn out to be a misunderstanding, and once the right information has been found, all is resolved and happiness prevails. In a satire, nothing is what it seems, the powerful are exposed by the weak, the rejected element proves to be the crucial one, and all pretension is dismantled.
Frye’s categories apply helpfully to the pandemic. In a tragic account, our misuse of creation and hubristic globalisation make us vulnerable to the virus. In a romantic account, we can discover ways to outwit the virus and flourish regardless. In a comic account, simply find a vaccine and all will be fine. In a satire, blundering officials become ridiculous, regulations become contradictory, society is humiliated and the truth behind our commitments is exposed.
People tell the Christian story in all four ways. It’s not as simple as saying one is right, the other three are wrong. But I find myself drawn to irony and satire. The comics and romantics, who in April were already giving us five ways to build back stronger, are a bit quieter now. The tragic view can easily become so bleak it disempowers us all. I’d rather say, we don’t yet know what the story is; but we do know we’re embraced by God’s story, which, when fully disclosed, will surprise us in a thousand ways. The hard part is waiting for those happy surprises to be revealed.
Revd Dr Sam Wells