Wesley Hill: The end with no pretty bow

What Chaim Potok’s “My Name is Asher Lev” teaches about telling the hard story.

It can be a dangerous business recommending your favorite novels to friends. What if you over-hype a book? What if your friend hates it? At my urging, one of my best friends recently read “My Name is Asher Lev,” by Chaim Potok. When he called me the next week, I could hear in his voice how reluctant he was to tell me he’d been disappointed by the ending.

“My Name is Asher Lev” chronicles the coming-of-age of a Hasidic boy in Brooklyn in the 1950s. It soon becomes apparent that he has a gift for art and an open, exploratory temperament to go with it -- much to the chagrin of his devout parents. When Asher finds himself compelled to paint a crucifixion scene, it pushes his tenuous relationship with his father to the breaking point. “What would prompt my son to want to paint the supreme symbol of anti-Jewish sentiment?” Asher’s father wonders. Not to spoil the end -- but no bow neatly ties up that tension. For those who love happily-ever-after endings, you’re better off finding another book to read.

As a follow-up to our phone conversation, my friend emailed me a few days later with further impressions:

“I should be clear, I thought the ending was believable and real and profoundly human in its tragedy. But like you, I was moving rapidly through those last 40 or so pages because as the plot-lines came together it was obvious that it was either going to be a sad ending (as it was) or a happy ending (his parents are amazed and impacted by his art and see its beauty, its necessity). These were both live options, I think, and, no surprise to you, I wanted the latter -- I wanted the reconciliation between father and son; I wanted resurrection and redemption.”

Writing back to my friend, I said this:

“I think you know me well enough to know I’m not opposed in principle to what Tolkien called the “eucatastrophe,” that joyous turn at the end of a story that foreshadows God’s ultimate making-right of all things. And yet I also think -- and I’m sure you’d agree -- that there is a place for stories that end mid-sentence, as it were. Mark chose to end his Gospel on a note of fear (16:8). The book of Ecclesiastes ends on a note of protest rather than peace. Psalm 88 articulates only despair, and I think the only hopefulness to be found in that psalm is the fact that it’s addressed to the Lord who alone can dispel its darkness.

So, I’d be prepared to make a theological case for unhappy endings. If unresolved discord can exist in real life, then it’s worth portraying that in a novel. If there is a moment of pain before the dawning of God’s new day, it’s worth having artists who force us to own up to the specificity of that painful moment and not rush unduly to the resolution. Bonhoeffer says somewhere that he thinks it’s un-Christian to want to get to the New Testament too quickly, and I know what he means. In order to feel the hope of the fulfillment, perhaps we need to linger in the moment of the unfulfilled promise.”

It seems to me that those of us charged with the task of leading churches and institutions need to be able to tell both kinds of stories. We’re called to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” -- both! Sometimes it’s easier to do one rather than the other, but both are necessary to keep pace with the rhythm of human experience. There are foretastes and glimpses of God’s redeeming grace that we can see and celebrate. And there are remnants of pain and death, in the face of which all we can do is cry and protest. The Christian story is big enough to enable us to exhibit both of those responses simultaneously.

It’s part of our craft as leaders to learn how.

Wesley Hill is a PhD student in the Department of Theology & Religion at Durham University in the U.K. You can follow him on Twitter at @wesleyhill.