When I first set out to write this, I was thinking in purely literary terms of the four genres of expression – comic, tragic, lyric, and epic. My friend texted me last week after I read the Waste Land, “What do you think the purpose of tragedy is?”
In light of this week’s nearly apocalyptic events, however, I think it apt to discuss, at least a little bit, the purpose of tragedy in literature and in our own lives.
I hadn’t really known the answer to that question before. I’d read Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear, Death of a Salesman, and related to them in a deep, basic way – I could feel the twisting of my gut as the inevitable suffering played out. And there’s a lot to be said of it – it reminds us of the inevitability of our own mortality, provides us with a cathartic pity and fear so we can better live our own lives. It shows us that there are forces at work far outside our own power.
All these are important – wildly so. But there is one more, very simple thing that I realized while reading through Eliot’s Waste Land for the thousandth time: tragedy shows us the brokenness in the world and in relationships, and, by our deep, instinctive reactions to the events, shows us that things were never meant to be like this.
We live in a gloriously constructed world, filled with great beauty and a great potential for love, experience, and happiness. At the same time, however, I think that we can forget its inherent brokenness – even as Christians, we tend to think that we are basically good, that this world can make us happy, and that we don’t really need anything else but ourselves.
Until, in a week of darkness, a city is bombed and riddled with bullets, a plant explodes and levels everything in its path, a sinkhole opens in the middle of a city, deadly letters are sent to world leaders, an earthquakes shakes miles of nations, and an already hurting country is bombed, its civilians murdered. Oof.
Seeing this is so, so hard. I’m not going to go into detail about the problem of pain here, about what God’s doing, or how He could possibly let these things happen. I don’t know. Thankfully, I’m not Him. That can be so hard, and so frustrating, and so painful to see families broken and people grieving and souls hurting so desperately. But I do know that He’s got a plan in all of this.
I do know that this world was once a beautiful thing, where relationships with God and people could be whole and lovely. And I know that we sinned, and we used that free will to break that relationship with God – and consequently, everything else fragmented as well.
This is the world that the Waste Land shows us so precisely, a fragmented, perverse, and lost world. Critics have labeled it as a generational issue with “the modern world”, but there’s a reason we’re still reading the poem. In our era of flickering images and sound bites and texts and tweets, we’re more fragmented than we’ve ever been before. Relationships were already cracked, but this constant “connectivity” has widened those cracks until they nearly splinter apart. We’re more isolated than we’ve been.
But here’s the great beauty of this revelation, this painful truth about our world: it’s where the gospel starts. We think to ourselves so often that we aren’t that bad and that we don’t really need God. This realization of the state of our world – more than that, the state of us – leads to either despair or resurrection.
We live in the Waste Land, and we can see that. But the Waste Land also lives in us, which should scare you. Eliot’s whole poem hovers on the edge of a knife, between death and resurrection. The bones of the Phoenician sailor are at the bottom of the ocean, the land is dry and cracked and broken. But, something begins to stir these dead bones, and the thunder cracks across the sky, waiting. We hover on a rebirth into eternity.
When we begin to see our own brokenness, we see that we need to be rescued, and that we can’t do it on our own. As mortals, we will fail, and die, and the tragedy will end with a poisoned sword or a watery suicide. But God saw this broken world and came down into it as one of us, and he died – and when he rose from the dead to new life, the healing began.
If we accept our brokenness, we can now accept the salvation that’s so freely offered to us. Eliot did, and was able to find new life in Christ five years after the hopelessness of this poem. We come to hopelessness so that we can understand hope when it is offered us. If we live in Christ, we live forever, and we live in hope of healed people and a healed world.
The dead bones of the drowned Phoenician sailor don’t die, “but doth suffer a sea-change, into something rich and strange”. So then do we. The rains fall upon the thirsty, dry ground, and we learn how to love each other again. It has to start here, on an individual level, where the Waste Land of your soul is inhabited by a loving, personal God who revives you and brings you back to life.
As hard as we try to instill goodness into people, this world will still be broken while Satan roams it. Does this mean we should stop fighting against the brokenness, accept the evil in the world, and give up? By no means! The devil has no power where God is concerned. He can only bend what is already good and try to break what God has already created. We can fight against him. And sometimes it’s awful. But we have the hope of an empty tomb with us, and that is more powerful than any desolate, hollow Waste Land.
My prayers for safety, justice, and deep healing are with Boston, West Texas, China, Iraq, Iran, and the rest of our world. May God bless and renew you.